Cruising the Nile on a Dahabiya: slow travel in Egypt

Meroe Nour el Nil
Our dahabiya is under sail, propelled along the river by a soft breeze, in a rhythm unchanged for thousands of years. I have woken early and have the deck to myself on the first day of our Nile River cruise. The sun is still low in the sky glistening to the south as if pointing the way for our journey. We left Esna, an hour's drive from Luxor in Egypt, yesterday afternoon. Our five night dahabiya journey to Aswan will be not much longer than a Nile cruise on board one of the large diesel powered passenger ships also plying the route, but there are thousands of years between our experience and theirs.

What is a dahabiya?

A dahabiya is a two-masted sailing boat. It has no engines and relies on wind power to propel it forward - with occasional help from a tugboat when the wind fails to co-operate.   Much smaller than the usual Nile cruise ships, dahabiyas hold far fewer passengers.  

Our dahabiya - the Meroe

What are the cabins like on a dahabiya?

Our dahabiya, the Meroe operated by Nour el Nil, can accommodate twenty passengers in ten cabins. David and I have a Panorama Suite, one of two at the back of the boat. You can see our windows on the port side in the photo of the Meroe above. Panorama Suites are larger than the other eight cabins and have floor to ceiling windows which wrap around the corner of the room. We also have a small table and chair setting.

Each morning I open the curtains and take in the view - it varies, of course, but the gentle sound of the river lapping against the boat never changes.   Our cabin is so close to the water I can almost reach down and touch it.

The bathroom is the only disappointment, and try as I might I can't seem to get fresh towels. I keep reminding myself this is a sail boat and I can't expect the same level of pristine luxury I would get on a larger ship at this price level.

Meroe Panorama Suite
Our Panorama Suite on the Meroe

Meroe bathroom
A disappointing bathroom
Nile river
Morning view from our cabin

What is there to do on a dahabiya?

Our dahabiya has two passenger decks - the cabin deck and the upper deck. There is a small lounFge on the cabin deck which no-one uses. Our days are spent on the upper deck - reading, playing board games, listening to the stories of our fellow passengers, sharing our own stories, and generally doing absolutely nothing except watch the world slip by.  It is idyllic - slow travel at its most indulgent.

The laziness is punctuated only by meals and the occasional excursion ashore. Breakfast and lunch are always fun, a chance to say hello to other passengers in the mornings and to gather together from our various lounges and other private corners of the deck in the middle of the day.  The Egyptian food is varied and always delicious. It is sourced from markets in towns we pass and on one occasion caught line-fresh by the crew.

Dinner is something of an unnecessary trial. Although the crew roll down side-awnings on the coldest evenings, once the sun goes down the daytime breezes become bitter winds targeting us through gaps and openings in the canvas. Why didn't someone warn us how cold it could get on the Nile in December or that we would be eating in the open air? I dress in the warmest clothing I have and dream of the padded travel jacket hanging in my wardrobe at home. We abandon dinner as quickly as we can each evening to seek out the warmth of our cabin.

The upper deck - where we spend our days and eat our meals.
Breakfast anyone!

What are the shore excursions like on a dahabiya?

Excursions tend to be in the mornings straight after breakfast or in the late afternoon. Many are to temples, villages and tombs inaccessible to large river cruise ships. Our visits to the more popular attractions are timed to avoid the crowds.

The crew are locals and specialise in making us feel welcome. They lead us through simple villages, along time-worn tracks between fields and, on one excursion, through desert sands. They introduce us to villagers who welcome us with tea, delicacies and shisha. Unsurprisingly, all but one of us politely declines the shisha pipe.

A guide joins us on excursions to temples and tombs explaining the meaning of reliefs and carvings and immersing us in 4,000 years of history.  I am awed by his ability to decipher the mysteries of hieroglyphics, and I come away with a new respect for the term 'egyptologist'.

Edfu Temple
The Temple of Edfu in the late afternoon when the crowds have gone.

Nubian coffee shop
A Nubian coffee shop which we visit after a walk through the desert.

Note: If you want an in depth immersion in our excursions watch out for my next post which will be a day to day diary of our itinerary.

Who are our fellow passengers?

Although the dahabiya can accommodate twenty guests we begin our journey with ten and quickly dwindle to eight. Tom and Emily are a young couple in their thirties who have driven and backpacked through Africa from South Africa to Egypt. Tom is British and Emily is American. They live in U.S. The stories of their adventures keep us entertained for hours. If there was a prize for the most interesting fellow passengers they would lead the field. My favourite story is how they travelled straight through the town of Abu Simbel without ever knowing it has one of the world's great temples. They explain they were worn out with the effort of planning by then. It makes me feel so much better for having come to Egypt twice now and still not managed to see Abu Simbel. 

Chris and Rebecca are an American couple in their late thirties or early forties. They have two adopted Ethiopian daughters about seven and eleven. The prize for charming the crew and everyone else goes to their youngest daughter. 

Then there is a couple in their late forties or early fifties who are Australian born but now live in America.  The woman is struck down with an eye infection on our first evening. She spends a sleepless night in pain and fear, made worse by the suspicion that she may have picked up a parasite in her eye. They leave the boat early on the morning of our first full day to seek medical attention in Luxor, re-join us late in the afternoon and are forced to leave again the next day. This time they intend to fly to Paris to see a specialist recommended by Jean-Pierre, the cruise director. The 'yellow-vest' protests are in full swing and I can't help thinking that London might be a safer option. We never find out what happens to them.  

One thing which surprises me is that David and I, both in our early 60s, are several decades older than everyone else. I have this notion of cruises being populated by the aged and the infirm, spending their days negotiating rolling decks with walking sticks and zimmer frames. It quickly becomes apparent however that a certain degree of agility is required to move about on a dahabiya - nothing too strenuous but if you can't climb a set of steps to move between the cabin deck and top deck or negotiate a gang plank, occasionally without rails, to reach the shore then a dahabiya is not for you. 

dahabiya gangplank
Sometimes the crew put out gangplanks with rails, sometimes they don't.

What are the differences between a dahabiya Nile cruise and an ordinary Nile cruise?

In December 2006 David and I took our first Nile River cruise. The ship, the Oberoi Shehrazad, was a large diesel powered vessel with a capacity of 80 passengers. As it happened our cruise had only 17 passengers aboard. It was a quirk of the times in the days when the Esna Lock was closed twice a year for cleaning. No-one wanted to join the ship in Esna instead of Luxor, so while the first cruise after the lock re-opened was fully booked, our cruise, the last while the lock was closed, was empty. The route we took was identical to our present route - Esna to Luxor - and many of the stops and excursions were the same but, the experiences were a world apart.

  • The pattern of sailing - by far the biggest difference. On the Shehrazad we sailed much of the way during the night. It was disappointing to have so little time during the day when we could relax on the top deck and just watch the river banks go by.  On the dahabiya all our sailing is done during daylight hours.  
  • Length of the cruise - Nile passenger cruisers are much quicker so they do the trip in a couple of days. On a four night cruise we spent until the early afternoon of the second day moored at Esna and the last night in Aswan so we only had one and a half days' actual cruising. By contrast our dahabiya leaves Esna after lunch on the first day and arrives at Aswan late on our fifth day giving us four and a half full day's sailing.
  • Mooring - Our dahabiya anchors at night next to the river bank. The crew drive a stake into the ground at the bow and the stern and secure us with ropes. Nile cruisers need proper moorings. In 2006 we often saw ships moored six or seven deep. Although it was a bit of fun walking through all the other ships to reach the shore and watching them shuffle about when one wanted to leave, I much prefer being right next to the river bank. This allows us to go places the larger cruise ships cannot. It also gives us the tranquillity of silent evenings with only the sound of the river to keep us company. 
  • Excursions - Because we are able to stop in places inaccessible to large boats we see villages, temples and tombs which the average tourist misses. 
  • Facilities on board - Swimming pools, televisions, airconditioning, minibars, gymnasiums and other luxuries of modern life - our dahabiya has none of these. Instead we have peace, tranquillity and slow-paced travel.

We can moor almost anywhere

What are the disadvantages of cruising on a dahabiya?

  • Cost  - Dahabiya cruises do not come cheap. Our  Nour el Nil cruise is expensive - very expensive!  A five night cruise from Luxor to Aswan on the 'Assouan' (Nour el Nil's least expensive dahabiya) costs 1100 Euros (1750 AUD/1247 USD) per person  - plus a few little annoying extras like the credit card surcharge which you can't avoid.  Our Panoramic Suite on the 'Meroe' comes in at 2050 Euros (3262 AUD/2325 USD) per person for the same five nights. 
  • We don't actually sail most of the time - The sails are beautiful when the wind is kind to us. Much of the time however they remain furled away like understudy actors awaiting brief moments of fame. During windless hours we are pulled along by a tugboat - a constant and loyal companion. I grow to like it more than the fickle sails.

Meroe crew
Jean-Pierre, our cruise director, and two of the crew at the Nubian coffee shop.
Nile River
Me, on our last morning before we arrive in Aswan.

For a day by day itinerary of our Nile Cruise see my post on Cruising the Nile with Nour el Nil: 5 days of luxury in Egypt

Our other blog posts on Egypt


  1. Gosh what an amazing experience, this appeals to me much more than regular cruising. I love the idea of being able to get to smaller and less visited places more easily. Shame about the cold evenings but it would suit me better than really hot ones!

    1. The cold evenings wouldn't have been such as issue if we had been warned to bring a jacket. All I had was a light fleece.

  2. I so love your posts on Egypt - you share our love and fascination with the place. I am mesmerized by the Nile and felt like I was right there with you. A fantastic report!!

  3. After reading your post, I have to say this would not be a good choice for me and my husband. I like small ship cruising but this is a bit too basic for me, plus I wouldn't like the cold evenings! I would be interested to know how you selected this cruise option and thanks for being so honest in your evaluation of it.

    1. My husband, David, chose the cruise. He does almost all our holiday planning. I just tag along - lol. He says he got it from TripAdvisor. There are other companies which run dahabiyas. Except for the bathroom in our cabin, which just wasn't up to standard for the price, I would go with Nour el Nil again. It was lovely just floating down the Nile with nothing to do but watch the view - and the crew were exceptional.

    2. I'm glad that, overall, you were pleased with it. I am the one who does the travel planning in our household so my husband is the one who tags along. I have to often remind him of where we've been! LOL!

  4. I just discovered what it's like to cruise on a smaller ship (although not as small as your dahabiya). It sounds somewhere between our 700 passenger cruise ship and our old sloop which could sleep 3-4. It definitely sounds great with the excursions you had access to.

    1. Probably closer to the sloop I think - in terms of passenger numbers at any rate.

  5. I am the one who does the travel planning in our household so my husband is the one who tags along.

    1. I suspect you and your husband are more usual than David and I.