In Egypt, history is ever present. Credit: Shutterstock/Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey

Nile cruising on the ship that inspired Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile

Author: Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey

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Nile cruise holidays have long been a popular option for those keen to explore multiple Egypt hotspots. With the new Death on the Nile film now out, what's a Nile river cruise like?

For years I had been wanting to cruise down the Nile. Not with hundreds of other passengers on a glass-encased, modern ship, but in style and with as few fellow passengers as possible.

It was reading an interview with celebrity interior designer Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen, who cruised down the Nile with his wife for their 30th wedding anniversary, that showed me the way. I finally had the name of a ship that might just tick all the right boxes: the SS Sudan.

Researching the SS Sudan further revived memories of the book Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie, the subsequent 1978 film version with Peter Ustinov as detective Hercule Poirot, and the 2004 TV version with David Suchet, all of which I loved.

A new film version of Death on the Nile has hit the cinema screens this month starring Kenneth Branagh as Poirot, catering to a hungry audience who love a bit of sleuthing with a setting that is exotic as well as stylish.

The books and three films have one thing in common: the Steamship Sudan. This is the ship on which Agatha Christie sailed in 1933 and started on her book, while the three movies were filmed onboard the SS Sudan, called SS Karnak in the book, and even if the films took a few directorial liberties, it is easily recognisable.

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Today, the ship still encompasses the glamour of travel in the 1930s, with wood-panelled cabins opening onto a wide teak veranda, fluttering white canvas shades, gleaming brass instruments, comfortable wicker chairs, and a ratio of 63 crew to roughly 45 passengers.

The SS Sudan is one of two steamships that Thomas Cook used to ferry rich travellers between Luxor and Aswan in the early 1900s, when archaeologists making spectacular discoveries of ancient Egyptian treasures along the Nile, drew wealthy tourists to Egypt on the so-called Grand Tour, which was en vogue then.

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With the Old Winter Palace Hotel in Luxor and the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan and the SS Sudan in between, luxury could be assured at every step, forgoing most of the climatic and logistic hardships that tourists potentially faced in Egypt in those days.

After a few gentle restorations and modernisations over the years, the SS Sudan remains the only true and original paddle steamer on the Nile and keeps up the old-world glamour of travel along its trips up and down the Nile.

Embarking on the SS Sudan, now owned by a French travel company, I caught a first glimpse of my fellow passengers. I was joined by passengers from France, Switzerland, the UK and Spain.

Nile cruise: SS Sudan remains the only true and original paddle steamer on the Nile. Credit: Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey

There were few enough guests to allow the feeling of exclusivity, but enough to make the journey interesting. A six-day, five-night trip lay ahead, with scheduled excursions, meals on board, even a screening of the Death on the Nile movie on the itinerary, in the very bar used as a murder scene in the film.

The five suites and 18 cabins on the ship are all on one level, above the restaurant and bar, and below the sundeck, with the superior suites at the bow and stern. The cabins are comfortable, with either double or twin beds, armchairs, a minibar, wardrobes, and ensuite bathrooms.

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Outside of each cabin there are a table and wicker chairs, but the best views are had from the sundeck, where wide armchairs and sun loungers invite you to relax and just watch the life on the banks of the Nile go by.

Each day offers an excursion, ranging from Qena, a little downriver from Luxor and home to the temples of Abydos and Dendera, to a return to Luxor for the night and a visit to the Valley of the Kings, Queens, Nobles, and Artisans the next morning.

Further stops upriver are Edfu and the temple of Kom Ombo, and Aswan, with a visit to the fantastic island temple of Philae. And while each day offers an excursion, so does each day bring a few hours of daylight sailing, allowing passengers to not only enjoy time on the ship and the views along the river but also see the spectacular sunsets on the west bank of the Nile.

Nile cruise: Each day offers an excursion to highlights such as the Valley of the Kings. Credit: Shutterstock

The excursions to the ancient Egyptian temples are simply awesome, in the literal sense: Stunning, historic, larger-than-life reminders of a mighty civilisation. And, with a guide catering to each of the small groups brought together by their preferred language staying on board throughout the journey and leading all the visits with your group, you learn an incredible amount.

But, despite the wonders of ancient Egypt’s being the reason for all of us being onboard, at times I felt quite ‘templed out’, to coin a phrase. Those peaceful hours of sailing offered a much-needed respite from an onslaught of mind-boggling information and breath-taking sights every day.

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It was the SS Sudan itself with its working steam chimney and the ever-turning paddle wheel, the attention of the staff, the wonderful meals on board, and the afternoon tea with freshly baked sweet delights that made sitting on the decks during sailing such a treat.

The books I had brought along, which I had envisaged myself reading sitting on the wicker chair outside my cabin, remained unopened, instead, I drank in the sights along the Nile and the life going on alongside it.

I lost count how many children I waved to, how many donkeys and water buffalos I saw, how many egrets floated past standing on tiny swimming grass islands, and how many times I simply did not bother taking the camera down, but just kept on clicking.

Nile cruise: The bar onboard SS Sudan used as a murder scene in the film Death on the Nile. Credit: Steam Ship Sudan

We passed other cruise ships, with people splashing in the onboard pool, or even dancing in the onboard club. The SS Sudan did not have any of these amenities, and yet, dare I say it? I felt sorry for those passengers on the glass-encased, character-less ships.

Being on the SS Sudan was a little like being in a time-warp, having been transported back to the grand old days of travel, with comfort, style and an unobtrusive luxury that made me prefer sitting on the sundeck with a gin and tonic in hand, watching the green banks dotted with fishermen and playing children, houses with women hanging the washing on the line, small farms and some larger communities go by, and feeling utterly at ease.

The Wi-Fi onboard was too patchy to be of any use, keeping me in a cocoon away from the world outside. Which, after a twitchy few hours initially, eventually added to the appeal.

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One night, we all were invited into the bar and watched David Suchet’s Poirot solve the devilish murders that Agatha Christie had conceived on this very ship, probably on this very stretch of the Nile.

The ship’s manager proudly told us he had been given a cameo role in the new 2022 Kenneth Branagh version when they filmed on board, and I simply cannot wait to see the film and relive my cruise on the Nile.

They say time travel is not possible, but sailing on the last steamship on the Nile, surrounded by history that is quite overwhelming at times, watching a day-to-day life barely changed for hundreds of years taking place alongside an ancient river, I dare say it is absolutely possible. Even if just for six days.

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