The Kia ora coo-ee : the magazine for the ANZACS in the Middle East, 1918
The Cruise of the "Pelican"
As a preliminary canter, we ran down to Shelal by rail, saw Philas, and returned to Assouan by river. Our small boat took the Cataract in great style, dodging whirlpools and menacing rocks, skimming over shallows with centre-plate up, and coasting at last on an even keel along Elephantine Island. Then we slanted across to Goubat el Hawa, landed, and climbed through clinging sand to the tomb of Ka-Gemu, "Chief of all the priests of Elephantine", who flourished in the time of the XVIIIth. Dynasty. He was a man after my own heart, a lover of nature, for the ceiling of his tomb is decorated with figures of birds, wild ducks and pigeons, in charming colours. Before the sun was high, the "Pelican" spread her one great wing, gathered way, and glided from the landing-place without a cheer from the motley crowd of Greeks and Arabs and Nubians gathered there. They merely gazed and wondered for a moment, then turned again to their day's employ or strolled off to the cafes. Nor did they burden our memory long. With Elephantine abeam and a shining reach of the river before us, we had started on the voyage of our dreams. The "Pelican", her sail bellying aslant, moved swiftly to the music of plashing water at the prow. She had "youth at the helm", and who could doubt that her voyage would be prosperous? Old Reis Mohamed, who told us he had been with Kitchener Pasha in the Soudan, had brought his little nephew, not, like the skipper of the "Hesperus", to keep him company, but to lend a hand belike. Hanifi, a waled of six years or so, handled the tiller and sheet as skilfully almost as his veteran uncle. The Nubians are river sailors; but I wouldn't mind trusting a bunch of them with a twenty-footer in the Australian Bight. Memories of yachting days in Port Phillip awoke, and my hands itched to grasp the tiller; but I didn't know the river's ways. Besides, it was pleasant to lounge under an awning, smoking the pipe of perfect peace, and watching the passing show of the banks or the lovely curves of the "Pelican's" sail sweeping along the sky. Beyond the shadows it was sweltering. Sunlight silvered the sail and made a mirror of the Nile. Lotus eating, if you like, this river voyaging, with a reis and a cook and a brace of boys to do all the work—but leave isn't meant to be wasted in strenuous living.
Arafa, most excellent of chefs, performed miracles in a cramped space with only a jibbing Primus and a few odd pots and pans as material aids. He served up five-course meals thrice daily.: soups of divers kinds, roast chicken or pigeon, pancakes, fritters, and a dozen other dainty dishes. "Arafa is a very good man", quoth Abdou Mohamed, our guide and master of ceremonies.
The quiet beauty of an island near Luxor lured us ashore; and there we had our only hint of adventure. Wandering on the outskirts of a village embowered in palms and surrounded by fields of dhurra and sugar-cane, with here and there a melon plot, we encountered a mighty man of valour. Tall and fat, he was naked save for a whisp of loin-cloth; and as he came stalking towards us, grim-faced as a gargoyle, his brown body gleamed in the sunlight as if it were polished metal. We were not trespassing, but the fellah made an alarming demonstration, beating his hairy chest with clenched fists, as an angry gorilla does in African wilds. An issue fag failed to pacify him. Then my pal had a brain wave. He tossed a piastre to the "wild" man, and the grim face melted into a broad smile; the chest tattoo ended, and our islander became friendly. He motioned his wish to explain the irrigation system of his demesne; and waved his hands expansively at the mud flats flushed with green, as who should say: "Behold my prosperity!" Rather strange, though, that he had made such a pother toget baksheesh. Another islander gave us water melons for our piastres.
Never a day passed without some little incident worthy of record in the "Pelican's" log-book. But I find that it is overloaded with impressions of nature. And yet, that is half the pleasure of sailing on the Nile, gathering impressions. In the starlit night, when the palms were black against sombre blue, as we passed a village or town the dull throbbing of torn toms floated over the water. Or we heard the creaking whine of sakiehs, which hare no rest, and perchance the song of a cheerful shaduf worker. In lonely, barren places, where the desert sands reach the river, jackals fretted the silence. Save for these sounds that were mellowed by distance, the nights were serene, and deliciously cool. We lay yarning and smoking till sleep took us unawares. Dawn found us waking, fresh from the night and eager for the day—and with sharp appetites for the meal that could not come too soon.
The colours of dawn and of sunset on the Nile are not to be captured in a web of words. They are elusive, wonderful: amber and gold and crimson, orange, pale lilac and blue and silver-grey, all mingling and changing at the will of the light. The hills, too, the walls of the Valley, guarding its fertility against the Desert, are enchanting. You must see them at Luxor, looming over the Theban plain, in the twilight hour when herons and wild geese are trailing home from those wide, watered lands where the Colossi keep eternal vigil.