Cruising the Nile on the S.S. Sudan
The Nile, forever new and old,
Among the living and the dead,
Its mighty, mystic stream has rolled.
–Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Christus–The Golden Legend (pt. I)
What would it be like to cruise down Egypt’s Nile River, leisurely stopping at world famous sites such as Karnak and Luxor and The Valley of the Kings where King Tutankhamen’s tomb was discovered? What would it be like if your cruise ship provided 5-star luxury and service, while serving up meals fit for a king or queen? And what would it be like to bask in this incredible setting, quietly moving along the verdant shores of palm trees and papyrus, cruising the world’s longest river, on a vessel once graced by the presence of the world’s most widely published author of all time and in any language?
The Steam Ship Sudan, breathtakingly restored to its stunning, early 20th-century vintage, provides a unique experience to re-live history in a fantasy-like milieu.
Indeed, Dame Agatha Christie’s 1937 release of Death on the Nile was inspired by her 1933 voyage on this magnificent steamer. Later, after her book was successfully turned into a play, two movies were made as well. The director John Guillermin filmed some scenes of the 1978 film of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile aboard the S.S. Sudan and a later film in 2004 incorporated scenes from within the actual vessel as well.
Death on the Nile was written after coming back from a winter in Egypt. When I read it now I feel myself back again on the Steamer from Assuan to Wadi Haifa. There were quite a number of passengers on board, but the ones in this book traveled in my mind and became increasingly real to me—in the setting of a Nile steamer. ….I think, myself, that the book is one of the best of my ‘foreign travel’ ones, and if detective stories are ‘escape literature’ (and why shouldn’t they be!) the reader can escape to sunny skies and blue water was well as to crime in the confines of an armchair. [Agatha Christie, from the Author’s Foreward]
The cruise ship has a long and storied career which we intend to explore below. However, consider some of the amenities and ambience one will enjoy as a passenger on this incredible steamship. First, if you value historic verisimilitude and authenticity, then the S.S. Sudan is your kind of ship. In our forward suite, the aptly-named Agatha Christie Suite, huge wood-framed sliding windows opened up forward and starboard views. Two gilded, carved wood-framed beds sit upon 3-inch plank wood floors showing the signs of loving restoration of original construction. Oriental rugs cushioned the cabin deck while glass-framed historic photos hung on whitewashed paneled walls. Antique chairs, reading lamps, a writing desk and a wooden-box telephone completed the picture. Here there was no operational in-room telephone—wake-up “calls” for early-morning tours are simply a few raps on the wooden a cabin door. Here there is no modern mini-bar or television—no distractions for gazing out at the moving scenery or enjoying the daily tea time break on the sun deck at 5:00 p.m.—just as in the days of yesteryear. Now, as I write these words onboard, I can feel the gentle motion of the ship’s paddlewheels pushing the water beneath the vessel, echoing what must have been the sights, sounds, smells, and racing emotions of days gone by.
Today, all 23 cabins have private bathrooms, a welcome change from the time when Dame Christie was aboard. (In her day some of the passengers were required to use the public restrooms aboard the vessel.) At 6’3”, I could stand erect in the step-up bathroom, even though it was raised 6” above the cabin floor, but the again-elevated bath tub required stooping or sitting down. One must remember that all ships are forced to do all they can within the confines of limited space, and in this case certain compromises must be made. Once again, recall that it is authenticity and accuracy in restoration that is the goal on the S.S. Sudan, albeit with as many compromises toward an increase in passenger comfort level as can be made. The tile work and faucets are from the era of the 1930s, fitting reminders that, when in Egypt, history is pre-eminent. A pedestal white porcelain sink, marble baseboards, a marble shelf under the large vanity mirror, and brass knobs on whitewashed doors completed the stylishly renovated bathroom. And each cabin and suite has its own magnificent air-conditioning system that delivers wonderfully fresh, cold air!
Where service is paramount, the crew on many river cruise ships may approximate or even outnumber the total of passengers. On the S.S. Sudan, as many as 67 crewmembers are employed on board, but our crew of 52 was more than adequate for our trip of only 6 passengers plus a tour guide. Why so few passengers? One reason is, of course, the time of year. We boarded on the first of September, when the summer season is nearing its end. In Egypt, and particularly in Upper Egypt’s Luxor to Aswan regions, summer temperatures daily reach and may exceed 104 F. Tourism is far more popular in the fall and winter seasons. Secondly, since Egypt’s 2011 “Arab Spring” revolution, tourism has collapsed completely and, as of this date in 2015 show few signs of recovery. Consider that our own multi-lingual tour guide, provided by the S.S. Sudan, has exceptional credentials (he’s trained other Egyptologists in conducting Spanish-language tours), but has not worked in a year. Before the revolution, tourism in Egypt was so popular he seldom saw his family because work was plentiful. Now he must live on his savings. As some of the few Americans we have found in Egypt over a 3-week period, we have found our time here to be safe and worry-free. The staff aboard the S.S. Sudan has been consistently kind and attentive, smiling continually, running here and there to fetch something for each passenger, and eager to help, suggest, offer, or perform a task whenever asked. While this might be more or less “expected” by some on a premier luxury cruise ship like the S.S. Sudan, the attitude of most Egyptians we have met toward American travelers has been most agreeable. However, Americans have tended to “stay away in droves,” as the awkward expression goes. We have been told that Russians and Germans tend to head the lists of visitors, followed by other Europeans, such as French and Italians. Further down on the list of foreign tourists are Japanese, Chinese, and Americans. At one time, visitors from Spanish-speaking countries in South America came to Egypt, but, like so many tourists, have set their sights elsewhere.
If one is security-conscious (and these days, that seems to include everyone), it is good to know that tourism-oriented industries in countries like Egypt realize this is a concern and they are doing everything possible to increase security and minimize one’s exposure to potential danger. We were picked up by the ship at the airport and escorted from place to place throughout our stay. We never went anywhere without an English-speaking escort throughout our time in Egypt. To a person, Egyptians themselves are thoroughly disgusted with the ruin of their tourism industry (and a substantial part of their economy). In spite of efforts to increase safety and security, tourism remains at low tide. Nevertheless, the cruise ship S.S. Sudan continues to honor its commitments, booking a complete cruise between Aswan and Luxor with all the amenities, for even a single solitary passenger! There is a level of integrity, honor and hope being expressed here that is unknown to most commercial enterprises.
It flows through old hushed Egypt and its sands,
Like some grave mighty thought threading a dream.
Leigh Hunt—Sonnet. The Nile.
Here, now in the dark, wood-paneled lounge, one feels part of that Belle Époque age, as the caftan-clad bartender adjusts his tasseled red tarboosh (fez) and polishes a wine glass behind the bar. One imagines Christie’s eminent detective Hercule Poirot striding through the swinging doors, pausing for a moment to greet assembled travelers while taking mental notes of their peculiar idiosyncrasies. In many ways the same, the S.S. Sudan also has been structurally and esthetically improved throughout the years of its extensive restoration. The queen of suspense herself christened the ship The Karnak in her novel, though we know she was referring to the Steam Ship Sudan, upon which she traveled with her husband while on an archeological journey.
The Karnak was a smaller steamer than the Papyrus and the Lotus, the First Cataract steamers, which are too large to pass through the locks of the Assuan Dam. The passengers went on board and were shown their accommodation. Since the boat was not full, most of the passengers had accommodation on the promenade deck. The entire forward part of this deck was occupied by an observation saloon, all-glass enclosed, where the passengers could sit and watch the river unfold before them. On a deck below were the smoking-room and a small drawing room, and on the deck below that, the dining-saloon. [Agatha Christie, Death on the Nile]
Mr. Amir Attia, the Sudan’s exceptional Directeur, was onboard our journey to add life, energy, and provide historic background about the ship now owned by the French-held firm Voyageurs du Monde. Mr. Attia explained that the Sudan is the only original ship on the Nile still using steam to power its paddlewheels. It was conceived in 1885, the date construction began in the U.K. Although some say Queen Victoria offered the vessel to King Fouad as a gift, Mr. Attia believes Fouad had it built for his family, eventually to wind up as a ship for King Farouk, Fouad’s son and successor.
The question, “Why is this Egyptian ship named Sudan?” may be answered by the fact that the full title of Egypt’s King was “King of Egypt and Sudan.” Since there were five or six steamships in the fleet and one of these in the north was called SS Egypt, King Fouad wanted his southern based steamship to be called S.S. Sudan reflecting the second name of his title. Indeed, this ship would also travel into Sudan as far as Wadi Halfa, 500 km. south of Aswan. Operated for many years by Thomas Cook, who brought diplomats, archaeologists and businessmen to the Nile, the Passenger Steamer Sudan (P.S. Sudan) is also listed as S.S. Sudan (for steam ship), the latter designation preferred by the present ownership. Today, in addition to its steam engine, the vessel is also equipped with a diesel engine for additional power and reliability. Against the current (going southward) the ship cruises at 8-9 km/hr. while it travels at 10-11 km/hr. with the current. Normally, a crew of five handles typical diesel craft on the Nile, but the S.S. Sudan requires a crew of ten for its two types of engines.
Mr. Attia was on hand in December 2003 when a second movie of Agatha Christie’s famous novel was filmed. “I was with the film team for eighteen days,” said Mr. Attia, “here for the wake-up call at 4 a.m. and present until sunset each day.”
The ship has been through several restorations, the most recent in 2000 when present owners Voyageurs du Monde found the vessel in very poor condition. Their restoration took from 2000-2005 at substantial cost. Today every feature within Sudan’s length of 236 ft. (72 meters), its width of 48 ft. (14.5 meters), and height at 36 ft. (11 meters), has been lovingly restored or completely renovated. As one wanders down the broad, wood-planked passageways, there is a sense of returning to the magical days when this lovely ship graced the Nile’s banks. The bar in the lounge, the elegant period furnishings, the stained glass, and wood-paneled walls displaying vintage black and white photographs of personalities from days of yore, all provide today’s passenger with delicious details that warm and captivate.
And with Caesar to take in his hand the army, the empire, and Cleopatra, and say, “All these will I relinquish if you will show me the fountain of the Nile.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
If one were merely taking the cruise ship for transportation alone, to enjoy the excellent Edwardian period-accommodations and the fabulous gourmet meals, these would be reasons enough to book passage on the Sudan. However, most of its passengers want to take advantage of the historic sites along the Luxor to Aswan portion of the Nile, and the Sudan has prepared for its guests in advance with excellent tour guides. Our guide, Ali, a trained Egyptologist, took us through no less than nine sites between and including the terminus points of our cruise. Not only did we visit Karnak, Luxor, the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Nobles, Edfu, Kom Ombo, and Philae in Aswan, we were taken to other sites as well.
Service is clearly the specialty of the Sudan, and as Mr. Amir Attia told us, the family-like crew, many of whom have been with the ship for as long as 10 years, thoroughly enjoy providing excellent service for every passenger. Daily, after our excursions off the ship to visit world-class monuments and archeological sites, the crew met us as we re-boarded, to hand each of us a warm cloth towel and a cool beverage, usually of karkade (hibiscus punch, said to be the preferred drink of the pharaohs), or occasionally a spot of refreshing mint tea. In the restaurant, a bottle of cold water is provided for lunch and dinner. We ordered cappuccino each morning at breakfast. Bottled water is replenished daily in the rooms and a bottle of cold water is given to each passenger before leaving the vessel for daily tours. On other cruise ships, beverages such as these would cost extra (we know from experience), but these beverages are freely served to all Sudan passengers.
Every meal aboard the Sudan was a delight. Breads, vegetables, fruits, and pastries were all fresh and tasty. On some days the meals followed a theme, such as English or Egyptian specialties. Throughout our entire three weeks spent in Egypt, we can truthfully say that the meals served onboard the S.S. Sudan during our four-night cruise were the best meals we were served overall. White tablecloths bedecked with candles, sparkling glassware, and gleaming silverware adorned our restaurant table for each meal as we sat gazing out picture windows at the shimmering Nile and the shoreline we silently were gliding past.
Egypt is a destination no world-traveler should miss in his or her lifetime. And it is simply not enough to make the journey all the way to Egypt, only to visit the pyramids and the Sphinx, but to leave out the stunning historical temples and monuments along Upper Egypt’s Nile River Valley. The very best way to take in what many would consider the best part of Egypt is to book a Nile River cruise. Americans, Europeans and travelers from around the world might be amazed to find that traveling in this part of Egypt is a thoroughly safe and visibly uncrowded experience. Our journey aboard the S.S. Sudan left us feeling totally refreshed and reinvigorated. While there were ample opportunities for sight-seeing, the lazy pace of travel on the Nile, the sumptuous meals, and the relaxed, friendly atmosphere aboard ship meant that this sort of holiday experience provided the best of both worlds: An opportunity to visit world-famous historical sites at a restful, easy-going pace—aboard a luxury vessel fit for a king!
A trip aboard the S.S. Sudan clearly hits the Nile on the head!
Voyageurs du Monde
Please see Voyageurs du Monde website:
Contact: Céline Camus
Direction des achats
28, rue Mably – 33000 Bordeaux
Tél. : +33 5 57 14 01 45
Other contact information:
To contact via website with your request, see: http://www.steam-ship-sudan.com/acheter-une-croisiere-sur-le-nil/