74 days on a felucca: New adventure on the Nile
In 1939, U.S. writer Willard Price traveled to Aswan, Egypt’s southernmost city. He hired a felucca, Egypt’s traditional boat with a lateen sail, and embarked down the Nile.
Some 600 miles and two months later, a sandstorm flipped his felucca just south of Cairo and Price and his provisions ended up in the river.
An equally ambitious felucca adventure hadn't been attempted since.
The stretch of country between Cairo and Qena has been closed to foreign visitor since 1994, when tourist boats were banned from operating freely in Middle Egypt.
They needed no urging to stay away after 1997, when Islamist militants murdered 58 foreign tourists in the colonnaded mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut, in the worst of a string of attacks designed to cripple Egypt’s tourism industry.
Fighting the Islamist insurgency, the Mubarak regime kept tight control of the river.
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Following the dramatic downfall of longstanding Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, U.S.-based archaeologist Will Raynolds and I traveled to Aswan, to attempt what Willard Price had attempted.
After a week of high-spirited haggling, we bought a 22-foot felucca. We named our boat Jasmine, in honor of Tunisia’s revolution that ignited the Arab uprisings, and set sail to re-explore an old river in a new Egypt.
It was with great excitement and a strong wind that we embarked on the most heavily trafficked stretch of river between Aswan and Luxor.
It took four days of sailing to arrive at Luxor, the site of ancient Thebes and home to the highest concentration of antiquities in Egypt.
In order to proceed towards Cairo, we needed special permission from state security. After a three-day wait, we were given the go-ahead to be the first to sail the Nile through the new Egypt, and assigned a security detail of several khaki-clad soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs.
They followed Jasmine in two inflatable zodiacs to protect us from a threat we weren’t sure still existed since the militant groups operating in Middle Egypt had renounced violence in the late 1990s.
Leaving the cruise ships and other feluccas in our wake, we sailed to Qena, where the river bends west, and visited the Dendera temple complex.
What Cleopatra saw
Built in the first century BC, the Temple of Hathor is one of the best preserved temples in Egypt. Several months before our arrival, the Egyptian Ministry of State for Antiquities completed a major restoration campaign.
Soot was removed from the interior of the hypostyle hall to reveal the striking blue panels of an intricately decorated ceiling that has remained intact since the time of Cleopatra.
In the absence of steady winds, the flow of the north-moving current eventually carried us to Akhmim where we found the largest statue of a pharonic queen in the country -- Meritamen, the daughter of Ramses the Great and Nefertari.
When her mother died, Meritamen became the Great Royal Wife to her father Ramses. Carved from white limestone, the statue of the bare-breasted queen stands over 30 feet tall.
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As we had in Dendera, we toured Akhmim alone. We did not encounter a single other foreign tourist throughout the several weeks we spent in Middle Egypt.
But this might soon be changing.
Our security detail informed us that Egypt’s interim government had made the decision to reopen the Egyptian Nile to tourist traffic for the first time in 18 years.
When we arrived in El Minya, known locally as the “bride of the Nile,” it was clear that residents had ambitions to promote tourism. A Hollywood-inspired sign declaring “El Minya,” in large English letters, stood boldly on the eastern cliffs.
The unfinished Aten Museum, built in the shape of a pyramid and intended to house the relics of renegade pharaoh Akhenaten, could represent a much brighter future for tourism in Middle Egypt, if and when it is complete.
For now the cranes above it remain still.
We continued to Cairo, cautiously navigating the stretch of river where Price’s felucca adventure came to its abrupt end.
We witnessed the first free and fair presidential elections in Egypt’s history and spent time with activists in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the revolution.
More than 11 months after departing Aswan, we completed our 700-mile journey in Alexandria, where, after months of sporadic violence tied to the revolution, life, it seemed, was slowly returning to normal.
Egypt’s tourism industry is still recovering and companies are cautiously testing the water when it comes to Nile cruises. But two ships made the trip between Cairo and Aswan in 2012, covering the distance in 10 days.
In a felucca, it took us 74.
There are 10 cruises scheduled to travel through Middle Egypt in 2013.
With the rare opportunity to tour temples and tombs without the long lines, there has never been a better time to re-explore the banks of the recently reopened river that gave rise to the world’s oldest nation state.
Getting there: Flights to Cairo are easily booked from any world capital. Egypt Air operates domestic flights to Aswan and Luxor. For travelers with more time, there is also a night train with sleeping cars connecting Cairo and Aswan.
The Nile Cruise: The newly resumed 10-day Nile cruises through Middle Egypt are currently offered by Abercrombie & Kent.
Shorter and cheaper Nile tours are available between Luxor and Aswan. Owing to the downturn in tourism, there are currently bargain prices on last-minute multi-day cruises. These can be arranged through local tour operators.
Sailing: Feluccas offer the perfect opportunity to see the Nile on any budget. They can be hired in Cairo at an hourly rate. Captains generally charge around EGP 50 (US$7.80) per hour depending on your bargaining skills. In Luxor and Aswan, feluccas can be hired by the hour or for multi-day trips. Just walk to the corniche. The captains will find you.
When to go: Egypt’s peak season is from October-April, when the days are warm and the evenings cool.
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