Back in the early 20th century, a British visionary named Thomas Cook had been conducting English aristocracy to the archaeological sites of Upper Egypt for dozens of years, leading the way for modern travellers. Together with Egypt and Arabia, Sudan belongs to the fleet designed by Cook and Son (London) with the cutting-edge mechanics of the time and the century-long experience of the British nautical joinery. As soon as we get aboard, we listen to director Amir while sipping karkadé (hibiscus and lemon juice) in the boat’s large hall, among impeccable wood panelling and polished brass. We meet our fellow travellers and the Egyptologist, who immediately reveals the excursions he planned at each port in his academic Italian. The Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens; the Temple of Ramses III in Medinet Habu and the Temple of Edfu, both almost entirely preserved; the Temple of Kôm Ombo, unusually devoted to two gods, the falcon god Haroeris and the crocodile god Sobek; the Philae Temple, a tribute to goddess Isis, the supreme mother who dominates life, death and resurrection.
Early in the morning, on the main deck on the starboard side, we admire the profile of the western bank re-emerging from pastel-coloured clouds. A dull shifty pink prevails, a colour we saw in the desert, beyond the fields north-west of the city. Hot-air balloons go up in the sky, and some decked-out fishing boats alter the waves’ rhythm. In our experience, sunrise in Ancient Thebes has no equals, both in the East and in the West. After breakfast, we go to the sun deck. We observe the landscape colours becoming more intense while we proceed into the continent. It’s a green, blue and sandy world. Remote villages and deserted bays. Children diving into the water and waving to us euphorically. Tea is served every day at 5 p.m., along with honey sweets and dates.
Sailing by night towards Edfu, we reach the Esna lock. We are all at the stem, among the lights of a new harbour, watching the captain and the mooring staff who skilfully guide the boat beyond it. It is a special evening, dress code ‘Black tie’. In the main hall, we will watch ‘Death on the Nile’, written aboard by Agatha Christie. Going towards Aswan, the rural banks of the valley give way to dunes and to the marshes of Nubia, a land rich in precious wood and ivory.
In 2000 two managers of Voyageurs du Monde found Steam Ship Sudan in disuse and brought it back to its ancient splendour in six months. Words and pictures Meraviglia Paper.