Taking a cruise down the Nile means absolutely everyone you speak to will make a joke about murder. You will inevitably join in with gusto. As a result, Poirot will form as much of a backdrop to the trip as the scarlet-sailed feluccas and mind-boggling hieroglyphics.
Unless you are a character from an Agatha Christie book, there is rarely a bad time to chug down Africa’s most storied river. Sipping a gin and tonic as you pass wonky palm trees, ancient tombs and stretches of buttermilk coloured sand – the occasional call to prayer drifting in through the hot air – is as wonderful now as it was a century ago.
Don’t wait too long, though. Tourism to Egypt was devastated by the Arab Spring and then Covid, while the numbers are steadily climbing once again, there are still half the visitors as there were in 2010. Throughout the pandemic, boats stopped sailing and the temples and tombs of Upper Egypt were all but deserted. Now there is renewed sense of optimism, thanks in part to the new Cairo Museum, which is set to open this November - the same month as the centenary of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun by the British archaeologist Howard Carter. Egyptian tourism is back, but thrillingly the scrum isn’t. Yet.
We set sail from Aswan, where the smell of wood-smoke and the sound of donkeys braying drift in from the town and onto the boat. Our floating home, the Sanctuary Nile Adventurer, was fresh from its make-over, with cabins that look like boutique hotel bedrooms, a comfortable sitting room and a particularly lovely upstairs deck with orange cushions to lounge on and a deep plunge pool.
Aswan, where the boat was docked and where we spent our first day, is overflowing with history. For Ancient Egyptians, it was the border that held back the barbarians. For modern Europeans like Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert, it was an electric insight into a different world.
You can see why. It is home to the magnificent Philae Temple, as well as a sunken obelisk and sky blue Nubian villages that cluster around the water. Although it was the felucca ride south of the city – past Elephantine Island, Lord Kitchener’s Botanical Gardens, and the bleak Agha Khan Mausoleum – that gave me the first skin-tingling moment of the trip. We drifted slowly towards Sudan in the hot air, colourful sails bulging above our heads as small boys on surfboards paddled up to the edge of the boat and sang to us in crystal clear, high voices.
The journey from Aswan to Luxor takes three hours by car and four days by boat. This is a slow trip – the boat docks at night and sails for about five hours a day, as the biblical landscape unfurls unhurriedly around you. After our first day on the water, we juddered to a halt outside the Temple of Kom Ombo, which looked ochre-coloured in the early evening sun. Our guide took us to the eerie room of crocodile mummies and explained the meaning behind the extraordinary, etched walls of the temple. A decade ago, up to 60 tourist boats would vie for space outside it, but other than a cluster of dusty children, we were alone.
On day two, we woke at dawn, as the sun turned the perfectly flat river Turner orange and horse-drawn carriages waited on the bank to take us to the Temple of Horus. This is one of the most beautifully-preserved monuments of Ancient Egypt – the hieroglyphics almost as clearly carved as they were 2000 years ago. I found it impossible not to reach out and touch these extraordinary walls – and then felt a stab of guilt, as if I had stroked the cheek of the Mona Lisa.
Back on board, we sailed on and spent the afternoon lying around the pool, the unread pages of our books flapping in the wind as Upper Egypt spread out around us. We passed towns filled with multi-coloured houses and mosques, which then gave way to the lush strip of emerald jungle that snakes alongside the river before the sand takes over.
Our final day was spent in Luxor – or Thebes as it was once known. This is always the blockbuster moment: the ridiculously photogenic few hours that are so stuffed with ancient wonders that it is difficult not to feel drunk and a little dazed by what you have seen. The Valley of the Queens and the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut were fascinating – and a bolster for early feminism – and in the Valley of the Kings, the long painted walkway that leads to Tutankhamun’s tomb lives up to the hype in a way that few mega-tourist attractions ever do. This year, Abercrombie & Kent clients will also be able to celebrate the centenary of the discovery of his tomb by visiting famed archaeologist Howard Carter’s home, exploring the Great Sphinx on a private visit and looking at the Temples of Luxor from the viewpoint of a hot air balloon as the sun slowly rises.
Luxor was extraordinary. Our trip finished at the vast Karnak Temple – the largest religious building ever constructed – and its looming statues of Rameses II made me realise that modern-era Putins and Trumps seem almost modest in comparison. That night, after a formal Egyptian dinner, the crew set up a screening of Death on the Nile. Of course they did. But it turns out that trawling through six millennia of captivating storytelling and colossal egos makes a couple murders look rather prosaic.
Melissa Twigg travelled with Abercrombie & Kent (abercrombiekent.co.uk; 01242 547 703). They offer a five-night cruise down the Nile on the Sanctuary Nile Adventurer from £2,020 pp based on two people sharing. Includes flights, accommodation and full-board while cruising in low season.