Seeing The Desert From The Lake

Kinda makes sense, as Minnesotans, to experience the world’s largest desert by boat, on a lake.  Our state is dotted with lakes.  And the Sahara Desert, locally known as the Nubian Desert, is accessible, since the 1960’s, by an immense artificial lake.

We’d never thought about it before, but our Egyptian friend Hanan told us we really need to spend some serious time sailing the Nile.  And big cruise ships aren’t our style.  But Lynnell found African Anglers, founded by a guy from Kenya and staffed by Nubian folks based in Aswan, home of two gigantic dams in Upper Egypt.   The newer one, the Aswan High Dam, was completed in the early 1960’s and created Lake Nasser.  Here is a satellite view of Lake Nasser.


The white horizontal line is the Sudan/Egypt border.

Our boat, Karibu, had a crew of three including guide Hani (below) and us two passengers.


Hani showed us fifteen bird species including pelicans, Egyptian ducks, plovers, kites, vultures, cormorants, kingfishers, and a couple kinds of heron.  He showed us a half-dozen temples saved from the rising waters of Lake Nasser.  He got us free fish from fishermen and cleaned them himself.  He dove under the boat with a knife to cut a net from the propellor.  He led prayers five times a day with a quiet singing voice.  He took us on walks and told us the medicinal value of plants we found along the shore.  There were no signs of plant life in the desert beyond maybe 50 yards from the lake.

Here’s a flock of pelicans we followed for awhile:

pelicans fleeing us

Every night we slept on deck, and neither of us has ever seen so many stars.  I kept wanting to text my colleague Chelen Johnson, the astronomer at Breck, and ask her questions, but we never really had any kind of phone signal, so we just had to keep saying “wow.”  I saw four shooting stars in five nights.  It was cold, being in the middle of the Sahara, but we had three big blankets and fleece hats.

Sunrise on deck, day 4

The Karibu was piloted by Hassam (below), who comes from a family of diesel mechanics and boatmen.  He took us on a couple of crocodile searches in the dinghy.  He also taught us two Nubian words, both declarations of happiness and contentment, Ishta! and Majj!

Hassam, the pilot

Egypt was one of the earliest human civilizations, with cities strung out along the length of the Nile back to the first set of cataracts, or rapids, at Aswan.  The Nile made Egypt a perfect place for permanent settlements, irrigated farms, stone quarries for giant buildings, as well as surplus food for all the non-productive types like priests, soldiers, and nobles.   As we all learned in grade school, the Nile flooded every year, bringing fertile silt with it.  With farmland under water for a month or two, farmers worked on annual infrastructure projects including the Pyramids.  I wrongly have taught that they were built by slaves.

We took a morning walk up a steep dune on the second day to see Lake Nasser (local folks prefer to call it Lake Nubia, in honor of the hundreds of villages that were drowned).


Every day, as we motored south, we stopped at a Temple or burial site, all but one of which had been rescued from the rising waters.  The meticulous cutting into blocks, stabilizing, storing, moving, and reassembling work took years, and in the case of Abu Simbel, inspired my six-year old sisterHenry, John, and Terri – Version 2 (shown with me and our dad) to her first act of philanthropy: a donation, maybe to UNESCO, to save Rameses II and his family from the waves. It was like investing in Noah’s Ark.

JB selfie with Abu Simbel Statues

Egypt is still proud of its antiquities, despite its “recent” domination by foreigners,

  • 650 till now, Islam (from Saudi Arabia),
  • 500 years before that, Christianity (from Greece and the Near East), and
  • 300 years before that, Graeco-Roman “pagan” civilization,

and we’ve been delighted to find that our guides often have degrees in Egyptology.  The columns, walls, doors, and even ceilings of the temples we saw were all covered by pictures and writing.

Habu Temple, Luxor West Bank

Three times a day, Mr. Said, a retired hotel chef, made us and the crew delicious meals, often including Tilapia snagged just hours earlier in the nets of some of the 5,000 fishermen on Lake Nasser.  Here is Said, respectfully known to his mates as “Hajj,” because he’s made the pilgrimage to Mecca:

Said washes the cauliflower

And here’s Hani showing us the fresh catch getting iced and covered before it’s driven north to the fish market in Aswan.

Putting fish on ice at shoreline of Lake Nasser

Though we weren’t taking on a great spiritual quest like the hermits who once lived on the island below, finding silence and a reflective attitude is so much easier in the desert.  We read history and novels and wrote in journals.  We couldn’t swim (crocodiles), but applied a lot of sunscreen and wore shorts.  We went to bed early and talked about the stars.

The split island below,  Qasr Ibrim, was once a military outpost for the Pharaohs and later the Romans.  A Coptic Cathedral and monks’ cells from the late 700’s lies in ruins today, which we explored.  Muslims didn’t take over until the 1500’s, one of the last Nubian places to hold out against the Ottomans.  Bosnian soldiers quartered there for some time after that, marrying into Nubian families and building their own mosque on the ruins.  Fortunately, Qasr Ibrim was built on a very tall hill, and the Lake did not swallow it, though it cut the island in half.

Docked at Kasr Ibrim

We end this post with prayers of gratitude for our new Nubian friends:

  • Hani, Hasam, and al-Hajji Said, our three crew, and Yusef and Tim at African Angler (who ran our desert safari),
  • the people of  Eskaleh Nubian Ecolodge, especially Fiskry & Hasan Khachif and his family (where we spent a wonderful night and day in Abu Simbel)
  • and Bet el-Kerem Guesthouse especially Abdul and his sisters Nura and Inis (our hotel owner and tour-organizer in Aswan).

They all helped us find our way into and around the Sahara.

dune, lake, stick

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I am the Upper School Chaplain at Breck School in Golden Valley, Minnesota, USA., an Episcopal priest, and the author of the world religions text "Tree of World Religions," available on I've also done two lessons for TED-Ed.

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