If you slip out of Cairo to the south, past the banks of Maadi, tower blocks sweating dust in the evening haze, and under the choking, snarling traffic of the Salah Salem interchange, the dual-carriageways eventually thin out, the cars begin to melt away, and finally — smog-streaked and exhausted — you’ll reach Helwan.
Built on a giant mound that kept it safe from the Nile’s annual floods, the town sits opposite the ruins of Memphis. Helwan used to be a tranquil respite for the well-heeled from the pulsing bedlam of Cairo 25km away.
Gazing gently over the start of the old agricultural road, which threads its way down through the Nile’s banks for another 1000 km into Africa, Helwan — at least on paper — seems like the perfect place from which to launch a lazy self-drive adventure down the length of Egypt.
The only hitch is that the air is laden with cement dust, the streets are roaring with the din of grinding steel works, and inhospitable policemen keep swarming over the car every time we stop to spread out the map.
The river’s contradictions have always enraged as much as enchanted; the 10th century Baghdad-born adventurer Ebn Haukal grumbled over its elusive source, whilst in 1737 Frederick Norden, a Danish Captain sent by his king to investigate Egypt, observed that it was hard to appreciate the glories of the Nile whilst being constantly harassed by boatmen — a sentiment no doubt shared today by those trying to follow in Norden’s footsteps.
Add to that the reputation of Egypt’s creaking road network, with its randomly-scattered gaping potholes, high-speed lorries, crop-carrying donkey carts and legions of drivers for whom headlights are viewed as an unnecessary waste of energy.
All said and done...
Because it’s here on the banks of the Nile Valley, where life hums within a narrow band of lush greenery on either side of the river, before petering out starkly into barren desert — touching towns such as Minya — that Egypt showcases both the full breadth of its distant past and the ongoing struggles to shape its future. Granted, there are low points — the manufacturing smokestack of modern Helwan (mutated from its spa-origins during the Nasser era) being one of them.
But there’re also sprinkled gems, and unlike in Cairo, where the blinding energy of the city can leave the subtler nooks and crannies bleached out to the passing eye, or in Luxor, where the touts and hawkers smother everything of interest in a blanket of plastic trinkets, Egypt’s Nile Valley serves up a manageable space and pace for tourists to navigate the country’s perdurable relationship with the river.
Return flights from Abu Dhabi to Cairo on Etihad Airways cost from US $348 (Rs 15,710), including taxes. International car hire firms operating in Cairo include Avis ( www.avisegypt.com ) and Hertz ( www.hertzegypt.com ).
Where to stay
El-Minya: Single cabins at El-Dahabiyya Houseboat (0020 86236 5596) costs US $14 (Rs 632) including taxes and breakfast.
Sohag: Double rooms at Nile Hotel (0020 934606253) costs $36 (Rs 1,625) including taxes and breakfast.
Qena: Double rooms at Basma Hotel (00 20 100446646) costs $46 (Rs 2,076) including taxes and breakfast.