Wanderlust editor-in-chief Lyn Hughes takes an alternative trip along the River Nile
Wouldn’t it be super to go round the world doing this for a job?” Angela exclaimed, dangling a used tampon from her litter picker. Well, cleaning up after other tourists wouldn’t be my idea of a dream occupation, but doing it as a holiday was absolutely fine, and there was no doubting the enthusiasm of my companions on an eight-day Friends of the Nile trip.
Cruising the Nile may conjure up visions of luxurious floating gin palaces, complete with lecturers, entertainment and air conditioning. However, there is a more traditional way to see the Nile. Feluccas, the original sailing boats of Egypt, have no engines and no mod-cons. You can hire them for an hour or two, or do a trip of several days, mooring at a different beach every night. It’s a great way to travel, but sadly, the beaches have become scarred by litter, including toilet paper. Not that the feluccas are the only culprits. Litter is also sometimes thrown overboard from the fancy cruise ships that ply the river.
Hence the idea of the Friends of the Nile trips. Explore Worldwide has been operating felucca trips for years and has a policy of taking away all rubbish, and erecting a toilet tent each night. Concerned at the growing litter problem, the company joined forces with local Nubian felucca owners and ran two trips this summer to clean the beaches along the Nile. Just £250 was charged per participant, and with only 24 places on each of trip, they were fully booked within a day, both with waiting lists of 250 people.
I joined the first one. We were a varied bunch; aged 18 to 65, some couples but most travelling alone. Professions ranged from taxi driver and cleaner to computer consultant and interior designer.
Not that it was to be all work and no fun. The tour started and ended in Luxor, and we spent the first day and a half in a sleep-deprived whirlwind, visiting the Valley of the Kings, shopping in the bazaar, taking a train to Aswan, spending the night in a Nubian village, and taking camels to the monastery of San Simeon. In the 36 hours since we’d arrived we’d already travelled by coach, taxi, train, horse-drawn caleche, donkey, camel and boat.
Now, on Aswan’s waterfront, our feluccas awaited. They looked small and it was hard to believe that we would be spending four nights on-board. We were to live and sleep in the open, out on deck, our luggage stored in the hold below us and a canopy to provide protection from the sun. It had been a summer scorcher of a day ashore, but once sailing a breeze on the river cooled us down.
It was already dusk when we pulled in at the beach that was to be home for the first night. Some of the group were conscripted into helping our leader, Susie, set up the toilet ‘tent’. They dug a hole in the ground, a metal seat was placed over, and chest-high canvas was staked around it.
In the morning we woke to find that we’d all been bitten by mosquitoes. In the dawn light the beach looked beautiful, but it was surrounded by pools of shallow, sometimes stagnant, water – prime breeding ground for mossies. But it was also a birdwatchers’ paradise with plovers, egrets, herons and kingfishers busy searching for food.
We donned thick rubber gloves and split into teams, taking a third of the beach each. Clive dived off behind the first clump of bushes, armed with a rake, and popped back out to admit “It’s rather revolting round there.” His energetic wife, Angela, refused to be put off: “We’re pioneers,” she declared, and despite unearthing sackfuls of toilet paper remained relentlessly enthusiastic.
I started with beer cans. There were hundreds of them, thrown into bushes or floating in pools of water. Within 15 minutes I’d filled two black bin liners. Then I moved on to empty plastic water bottles, dozens of them. Soon a pile of black plastic bags, sorted into glass, plastic and cans, sat at the water’s edge, waiting to be loaded onto a felucca barge accompanying us. Khaled, leader of the felucca crews, had built a fire and was burning anything flammable – mostly toilet paper but also cardboard boxes, cigarette butts and packets.
In just 45 minutes the beach was transformed and, satisfied, we boarded the feluccas and set sail for our second beach, Balooli. The narrow stretch of sand was surrounded by fields and a farmer panicked when he saw us fan out, fearing that we were going to damage his crops. We explained what we were doing and he admitted that he was fed up with feluccas dumping rubbish, and using his fields as a toilet. He invited us to clean one section, and then satisfied that we were doing no damage, pointed out other areas.
Some police had moored their boat at the beach and were intrigued at what we were doing, as were various workers on the land. They started to help us out, although it was noticeable that they were particularly keen to assist the woman who was wearing a bikini.
Although trying hard to respect the local’s crops and belongings, some mistakes were made. Marion tried to remove some strips of plastic from a tree, not appreciating that they were intended as a bird scarer, and someone else bagged a rag, not realising it was someone’s T-shirt.
But a total of 64 bin liners of rubbish had been collected at the two beaches, so we felt fully justified in lazing out back on board. Not that there was much time to relax, as we stopped off at Kom Ombo temple before sailing on to a beach where we were to moor for the night.
In the morning we woke to a hot wind, blowing in from the desert, and the water was full of whitecaps. We stepped ashore to start on the rubbish collecting. It didn’t look too bad, but it was spread out over a large area, and took an hour or so to collect 22 bags.
By now, the wind had got even stronger and other feluccas pulled into the beach, not wanting to risk rounding a large bend ahead. Susie was horrified to spot the crew from one felucca dumping a couple of boxes of rubbish on the now pristine beach. The felucca had been hired by a British overland tour company, but had no rubbish bags on-board. The passengers said that they had thought it wrong that rubbish was being dumped, but had kept quiet.
By 2.30 in the afternoon it was still too windy to sail, but the decision was taken to try drifting on the current. We did this for two hours, by which time the wind had dropped a little. The canopy was taken down, the sail went up and everything was cleared from the decks. For an exhilarating couple of hours the feluccas raced each other, tacking from bank to bank along the river, with spray coming over the sides.
The next morning the pretty beach of Bisau got a makeover. Although there was a fair amount of broken glass, it was toilet paper that was the particular problem here. Some farmers turned up and were delighted at what we were doing. One, Mustapha, announced, “It’s beautiful now.” By nine we’d finished and left, waved off by a small crowd of locals.
In the afternoon we reached Fauza, a tranquil island that was to be our last stop, and where the beach didn’t look too bad. It was debilitatingly hot when we arrived so we waited until five o’clock before setting out. We soon found that appearances are deceptive; this beach was a bitch.
Years of being used as a loo-stop had resulted in layers of toilet paper behind every bush, while a rake of the sand exposed broken glass, squashed beer cans and plastic bottles. It was still incredibly hot, and we dripped with sweat as we worked. After an hour or so, most of us staggered back to the feluccas for a refreshing cup of hibiscus tea. It was hard to move again, but most of us dragged ourselves back out. After two and a half hours, totally drained, we called it a day.
Drums were brought out and a selection of traditional and not so traditional music filled the air:“In the village, the Nubian village, the lion sleeps tonight.”
My back ached from the exertions so I retired to bed early, as had several of the others, watching shooting stars overhead. Illuminated cruise boats, several storeys high, passed the other side of the island, their wash causing the felucca to rock gently.
The next morning it was time to bid a sad farewell to our crew and disembark. After a super-quick visit to the impressive Temple of Horus at Edfu, it was time to return to Luxor, where we crammed in a visit to awesome Karnak, and a few of us took a hot-air balloon ride before we all got together for a last supper.
We felt triumphant. Not only had we had fun and made new friends, but we’d collected 123 bags of rubbish and burnt much more. We discussed ways of maintaining the situation, including the posting of signs on the beaches, the drawing up of a code of conduct amongst tour operators, and passing the word around felucca crews.
Susie returned to many of the beaches with the second Friends of the Nile group a week later. Depressingly, the group collected 18 bags of new litter at the first beach, Harbiab, which we had left spotless. At the other beaches there was plenty of fresh toilet paper.
Coverage in the British press after our return has already led the Egyptian Tourist Office to announce that the ministries for water resources, environmental issues and tourism are looking at introducing measures to regulate the disposal of waste and to fine boats that do not comply. In the meantime, farmers such as Mustapha will just have to rely on this strange British enthusiasm for rubbish holidays.
When to go: Egypt’s climate is hot and dry except in the short winter (Dec-Feb), when it is milder with some rain and the nights become cold. Dust storms are occasionally a problem between late March and mid-May. In Luxor the average winter temperature ranges from 10-20°C, in summer from 20-35°C.The author travelled with Explore Worldwide