May 15, 2012

An Engineer at the Cataract, 1859 | Walking Through Egypt

An Engineer at the Cataract, 1859
Isambard Kingdom Brunei

Philae Temple

Philae, February 13, 1859
I now write to you from a charming place; but Asowan, which 1 left to come here, is also beautiful, and I will speak of that first. It is strange that so little is said in the guide books of the picturesque beauty of these places. Approaching

Assouan, you glide through a reef of rocks, large boulders of granite polished by the action of the water charged with sand. You arrive at a charming bay or lake of perfectly still water and studded with those singular jet-black or red-rock islands. In the distance you see a continuation of the river, with distant islands shut in by mountains, of beautiful colours, some a lilac sandstone, some of the bright yellow of the sands of the desert. Above the promontories the water excursions are delicious. You enter at once among the islands of the Cataracts, fantastic forms of granite heaps of boulders split and worn into singular shapes.

After spending a week at Assouan, with a trip by land to Philae, I was so charmed with the appearance of the Cataracts as seen from the shore, and with the deliciously quiet repose of Philae, that I determined to get a boat, and sleep a few nights there. We succeeded in hiring a country boat laden with dates, and emptied her, and fitted up her three cabins. [Mr. Brunei’s Nile boat, being of iron, could not safely go up the Cataract.] We put our cook and dragoman and provisions etc on board, and some men, and went up the Cataract.

It was a most amusing affair, and most beautiful and curious scenery all the way. It is a long rapid of three miles, and perhaps one mile wide, full of rocky islands and isolated rocks. A bird’s eye view hardly shows a free passage, and some of the more rapid falls are between rocks not forty feet wide in appearance not twenty. Although they do not drag the boats up perpendicular falls, of three or four feet, as the travellers’ books tell you, they really do drag the boats up rushes of water which, until I had seen it, and had then calculated the power required, I should imprudently have said could not be effected. We were dragged up at one place a gush of water, what might fairly be called a fall of about three feet, the water rushing past very formidably, and between rocks seemingly not more than wide enough to let our boat pass, and this only by some thirty-five men at three or four ropes, the men standing in the water and on the rocks in all directions, shouting, plunging into the water, swimming across the top or bottom of the fall, just as they wanted, then getting under the boat to push it off rocks, all with an immense expenditure of noise and apparent confusion and want of plan, yet on the whole properly and successfully.

We were probably twenty or thirty minutes getting up this one, sometimes bumping hard on one rock, sometimes on another, and jammed hard first on one side and then on the other, the boat all the time on the fall with ropes all strained, sometimes going up a foot or two, sometimes losing it, til at least we crept to the top, and sailed quiedy on in a perfectly smooth lake. These efforts up the different falls had been going on for nearly eight hours and the relief from noise was delicious. We selected a quiet spot under the temples of Philae. . . .

The Rush of the Cataract, 1836 
Lord Lindsay
.... the cry arose that we were going down the stream again! I sprung out, the vessel was edging away from the rock I leapt and caught by my hands, my feet in the water; the Arabs pulled me up, and I was safe, thank God! Twice did the boat nearly escape us, the current was so violent; at last we got her safely lashed to the rock with all the ropes we had, and for an hour, or more, the men were occupied in landing everything portable: first our things, then the oars, planks, etc, of the boat, lastly their own stores of dates and biscuits, which they could not touch (honest fellows!) till ours were safe. We expected every minute to see the ropes break and the boat topple over, lying sideways as she did, the deck half under water.

Here we were then, and a most extraordinary scene it was to be in! Wild and picturesque at all times, doubly so now, dark purple clouds lowering around us, rain pouring (a wonder of itself in Upper Egypt), lightning flashing, and thunder outroaring the rapids that were dashing past on either side of our islet, covered as it was with boxes, books, pipes, guns, crockery, pigeons, fowls, lambs, goats, and last but not least, two chameleons, poor things!

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