PETER FROST found a British built 1917 paddle steamer is still taking passengers up and down the Nile in some luxury.
The SS Karim is the oldest, slowest, and smallest of the fleet of over three hundred passenger cruise ships that take tourists up and down the River Nile between Luxor and Aswan. She is also the most elegant, most fascinating and certainly the most fun.
Built in 1917 the Karim has a proud history, she has been a royal yacht for the kings and presidents of Egypt and with more crew than passengers she still offers a royal line in luxury cruising.
For most of us the image of a Nile cruise was set by the classic 1978 film of Agatha Christie’s atmospheric mystery ‘Death on the Nile’. Today the film is all too regular holiday repeat viewing on TV.
With an all-star cast which included Peter Ustinov, David Niven and Bette Davis it recreated a leisurely turn-of-the-century sailing on a Nile paddle steamer.
Take a week’s trip yourself on the paddle steamer SS Karim and you too can get a taste of that elegant life style. On our cruise we had just 21 passengers making it more like an Edwardian boating party than a package holiday. If all 15 cabins are fully occupied the passenger list reaches just 30.
To look after you the Karim has a crew of thirty-five and although a good number of them are there to tend the mighty steam engines there is always a crew member around to respond to your every whim.
The food was excellent and each meal offered a good choice of both Egyptian and international food. If the menu wasn’t exactly to your liking a friendly chef could usually rustle up personal requests.
The decks, saloon and bar all offered comfortably places for a drink. The lower sun terrace provides a shaded area with wicker tables and chairs whilst the upper deck has sun loungers and a Jacuzzi pool.
Wherever you were on board the attentive waiting staff was always on hand to bring a refreshing home made lemonade or indeed something stronger.
Once you had your drink you could get down to the serious business of Nile cruising – watching the boats and the banks go by.
Both upper and lower decks provided a comfortable place to watch the Nile shipping and the fascinating and exotic life on the bank.
The Nile proved a lively river. There is plenty of shipping, mostly the many other passenger ships hurrying to their next temple or monument.
There was also a fair sprinkling of cargo barges, some, amazingly, still powered by huge lateen sails. They carried sugar-cane, al-alfa and many other agricultural cargoes we couldn’t identify.
At every riverside town we found a swarm of lateen sailed feluccas and motor boats acting as everything from water-taxis to wheelbarrows. This is still a land where water transport is king.
The Nile waters a narrow strip of green countryside along its banks and here agriculture is intense and verdant. The small towns and villages are reflected in the still waters and women come down to the river’s edge to do their washing on flat stones.
Electric pumps have not yet totally replaced the primitive shaduf or animal driven water wheel in lifting Nile water for irrigation. Sometimes we would see women bringing water in huge pots balanced on their heads. Strangely we gathered this is a skill no Egyptian man has ever mastered.
In less populated areas wildlife would come to drink. Most evenings we saw a desert fox or two. Greyer, more angular and less sleek than his cousin Reynard we were more used to watching beside the Oxford Canal.
All this riverbourne and riverside life would be enough for any holiday but we haven’t got to the main interest of this particular Nile cruise.
Every day featured an excursion to one of the amazing temples that the Egyptian pharaohs built to ensure a successful journey to heaven, and to guarantee their, sometimes brief, reigns would be remembered forever.
The Pharaoh’s plans worked. Thousands still visit the tombs today and marvel at these memorials and remember those incredible kings who lived beside the magical rivers of the Nile centuries ago.
Most of our temple visits took place early in the morning before the temperature had climbed to unbearable levels. Our knowledgeable guide would steer us around the sites explaining the subtleties of this amazing civilization.
Usually by lunchtime we were back on the Karim for a light buffet lunch and the afternoon saw us comfortably installed on a shady deck with the light breeze from the ships movement making life perfect as we watched the world go by.
Evening entertainment was relaxed but fun. We were usually moored by dark and that’s when the shops and markets come alive. Any shore side walk has its challenges here in Egypt.
Wherever we went peddlers and traders would surround us with all kinds of goods. It was pretty much impossible to convince them we didn’t want their goods – however cheap the price.
However we never felt threatened. Everywhere we went there were armed officers from the Tourism and Antiquities police. We never got a whiff of crime or trouble. Traders, although persistent and annoying, were always good natured.
On one evening, an after dinner show on board brought alive echoes of the days when the Karim entertained the King and his guests. We watched as a whirling dervish made us feel dizzy with his long and remarkably fast spinning.
A genuine and shapely belly dancer gyrated as an amazing band of musicians played music as old as the pyramids. The dancer was an incredible contrast to the mostly heavily shrouded local women we saw on the bank.
Another evening saw us all dressed in traditional costume for a Gala Egyptian night with special local food, music and dancing. I found myself a Fez and the long cotton Jelabi robe for just a few pounds in the Arab market.
One highlight of the trip also occurred in the evening. Passengers from the SS Karim were invited to a champagne reception at the marvelous Luxor temples after dark.
The floodlit stones and live music made the centuries fall away and we felt ourselves back with the chorus of builders singing as they created this masterpiece that has lasted for centuries.
Many of the ancient sites offer sound and light shows in the evening and we found them a really evocative way to understand the ancient culture as well as being much more comfortable than climbing over roasting stones in the heat of the day.
On our last night we made our own entertainment. What else but our own re-enactment of ‘Death on the Nile’? – a murder mystery evening – it was beautifully scripted, but that’s what happens if you let slip you are a journalist.
Whatever we had done by day or night we always went to bed tired. The Karim’s cabins aren’t big but they retain a cozy Edwardian feel with brass and mahogany fittings. That coziness and the gentle movement of the ship meant we always slept well.
One or two cabins have a balcony, all have en-suite bathroom and showers, as well as minibar and satellite TV. Most important all are air-conditioned. All cabins offer large windows so we always woke to a great Nile dawn.
It was often my favourite part of the day. There across the river in the shimmering mist a fisherman in a tiny boat would cast his net in search of breakfast while a colourful heron would show him how it was really done.
The start of another perfect day on the river. What more could anyone want?
The SS Karim
Both the owners of the SS Karim and the brochure of their British agents Voyages Jules Verne will tell you that the paddle steamer was built in 1917 to the order of the Sultan of Egypt Faud, who became King Faud in 1922.
In fact the real story, though clouded in ninety years of steam, is far more interesting and convoluted than that.
Think about it. By 1917 World War One had been raging for three years. British shipping was being devastated by that ‘most un-gentlemanly weapon’ the German U-boat.
No British shipbuilder, even those dedicated to inland and river craft, would have capacity or materials to build an Egyptian Royal Yacht, they were all far to busy with the war effort.
Yet today the SS Karim still bears a builders plate declaring her to have been built as vessel No 4 by the Lytham Shipbuilding and Engineering Company in Lancashire. So what really happened some ninety years ago?
In fact at her launching in 1917 our little ship was fitted out as a troop carrier and hospital ship. She had been built to the order of the newly formed Inland Water Transport Department of the War Office.
The ship had been designed with unusual quarter paddles for the narrow and twisting River Tigris in Mesopotamia. Four similar sister ships were built. At this time most shallow draft river craft would have had side paddles or a single stern wheel.
The unusual quarter paddles were each driven by its own separate steam engine and this made for easy manoeuvring in tight situations. This benefit is still noticeable today when the Karim is docking at busy and crowded Nile jetties.
One of the new paddle steamers left Lytham and sailed to Basra under her own power but the trip was so hazardous that the others were dismantled and delivered by a cargo ship to be re-assembled at their final destination.
The various histories of the individual ships are hard to unravel. One is believed to have served with the Irrawady Flotilla Company under the name Canmoresk. Little is known of the fate of the other sister ships.
We do know that sometime after the end of the war one of these pretty little quarter wheeled paddle steamers was converted to became the Royal Yacht on the Nile. The SS Karim had arrived.
King Faud certainly used it on the waters it still steams today. In 1936 the Karim became a popular diversion for the well known playboy King Farouk.
The revolution of 1952 founded the Arab Republic of Egypt and the SS Karim became the presidential yacht for President Nasser and later President Sadat.
There are still many pictures of various kings, presidents and their entourages hanging in the staterooms of the SS Karim today.
In the late 1980’s the government sold the Karim to a private consortium and she was converted to a luxury river cruise ship but keeping her atmospheric Edwardian character and, most important still, keeping her real steam engines and paddle drive intact.
Ninety years on from her launch in Lytham in 1917 she still offers comfortable and elegant steaming today.
The Karim’s engine room
Towards the end of our cruise we were taken on a guided tour of the ship’s engine rooms and boilers. The Karim was steaming at the time.
I dread to think what British Health and Safety ‘experts’ would have made of our proximity to all that hot and moving machinery but as you would expect nobody got scalded or mangled.
Each of the quarter paddle wheels has its own twin cylinder compound double acting horizontal engine. The low pressure cylinder is 28 inches in diameter the high pressure cylinder has a bore of 13 inches. Stroke for both is 54 inches.
Maximum throttle sees the engines turning over at just 18 revolutions per minute. In still water this will drive the ship at about 10 mph. against a strong Nile current this can be reduced to less than 3 mph!
Two oil fired boilers produce steam at about 130 psi. Boiler maker’s plates suggest the boilers have been modernised, perhaps when they were converted to oil firing.
These automatically controlled boilers also provide steam for a wonderfully raucous steam foghorn and a powerful anchor winch on the foredeck as well as heating water for the cabins and the kitchens.
A steam powered ship such as the Karim burns about three times as much fuel as a conventional diesel engined screw driven vessel for the same journey. The crew needs to be larger too, but at present there are plenty of passengers prepared to pay the little extra that will keep the SS Karim happily steaming for another decade up to her centenary in 2017. Let’s hope so.
The River Nile.
From the source of the White Nile in Lake Victoria, Uganda and the Blue Nile source in Lake Tana, Ethiopia the river runs 4,184 miles (6695 Kilometres) till it pours 300 million cubic metres of fresh water into the delta every day.
That four thousand plus miles takes Africa’s mightiest river through nine countries, The White Nile flows through Uganda, Sudan and Egypt. The Blue Nile flows through Zaire, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi.
Almost all of the major cities along the Nile are in Egypt. Two of the biggest, Luxor and Aswan, are in fact the two ends of the SS Kirim’s normal cruising grounds and are about 130 miles (210 Kilometres) apart.
Thank you Rudyard
As the Karim steamed along the Nile her paddle wheels set up a soft but hypnotic rhythm.
I scribbled in my notebook looking for a suitable word or words to describe the magical sound. Nothing would come that even began to do it justice.
Then I remembered my Kipling.
Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay;
Can’t you ‘ear them paddles clunkin’
from Rangoon to Mandalay?
So thank you Rudyard Kipling.
While we are on the subject of Kipling.
(Do you like Kipling? I don’t know I’ve never Kippled.)
Did you know another of Kipling’s waterway connections. Kipling’s parents gave him his unusual first name from Lake Rudyard near Leek in Staffordshire where he was conceived in a punt!