Sailing along the Nile last week, I was shocked out of my indolent reverie by what I at first took to be a mirage. There, chugging gamely along ahead of us, was a long, black paddle steamer, smoke belching from her single, squat black funnel as her paddle wheels thrashed up the surface of the river.
She was a stunning sight. Two long, open promenade decks, reminiscent of the Mississippi paddle wheelers of old. ran from bow to stern. The paddles, situated amidships on either side, seemed to work at a frantic pace. As we slowly ghosted past her, the steam whistle on her funnel whistled a thin, reedy salute across to us. And then, still trailing smoke, she disappeared behind a bend in the river as we surged on towards Aswan.
Enchanted, I had to learn more about her…
Her name is Sudan, and she is the only survivor of a trio of sisters- the others were the Egypt and Arabia- built by the venerable Thomas Cook travel company between 1911 and 1922. Cook had pioneered the modern tourist travel experience, with expeditions to Egypt back in the 1860’s. The three new ships were built to make the trip from Cairo down to Aswan, in around twenty days.
This was at the time when the likes of Howard Carter and his patron, Lord Carnarvon, had made Egypt front page news with the discovery of the fabled tomb of Tutankhamen. The Nile was alive with a constant procession of archaeologists, diplomats and well heeled rubberneckers, sailing between the various stunning sights along the river. Until 1935, the Sudan prospered on the tourist trade.
One of these tourists was a young lady by the name of Agatha Christie. With her then husband, she embarked on an archaeological mission in 1933. Enraptured by the journey, her voyage on the Sudan inspired Christie to subsequently write the timeless, hugely popular novel, Death On The Nile. And, in a complete full circle, some of the scenes from the 1978 film of the same name were filmed on board the laid up Sudan.
The advent of war in 1939 saw the collapse of the Nile trade. The Sudan lay moldering at dock until 1991, when an Egyptian company attempted unsuccessfully to resuscitate the fabled steamer. In 2000, these joined forces with a French company, Voyageurs du Monde, and began a complete, six month stem to stern restoration of the Sudan. In 2006, the French took complete ownership of the vessel.
On the technical side, the 236 foot long, 32 foot wide Sudan displaces a sprightly six hundred tons. She is powered by a pair of triple expansion engines that generate some five hundred horsepower, allowing her twin paddle wheels to push her along at a stately 9.5 knots. But these are mere materialistic drum rolls.
Today, the gracefully restored Sudan chugs gamely along the scintillating expanse of the most amazing waterway on earth. Suffused with the aura of another age and style, the Sudan is an evocative brew of elegant woodwork and brightly polished copper. Billowing canvas awnings across the upper deck shield the modern wannabe Poirot from the heat of the mid day sun. On deck, cushioned wicker chairs and loungers sit framed by billowing, damask drapes. It all combines to give the Sudan a stance and ambiance quite unlike any other vessel plying the ancient waterway; the golden highway of the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt.
The Sudan offers some eighteen cabins and five suites. One of these is inevitably named for Agatha Christie, another for Hercule Poirot, and another- oddly- for Lady Duff Gordon, of Titanic infamy. All feature parquet floors, copper bed frames, and elegant period furnishings. The air conditioned rooms all come in soothing tones of orange, fuschia and absinthe.
Interested? Me too.
The Sudan is currently operating on five day, four night cruises from Luxor to Aswan, taking in such exotic sights along the way as Esna, Edfu, and Kom Ombo. And, for sheer, platinum chip nostalgia, imagine combining a voyage on this vintage time machine with a stay at the fabulous Old Cataract hotel, right on the banks of the Nile at Aswan? Lovely.