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The poet William Wordsworth once said that the best way to view the hills of the English Lake District was from a boat on one of the lakes. I’d agree with that; when I was a kid, my holiday job was working on those boats on Lake Windermere.
A lot of time has passed since then, and I’ve amassed many more over the years. Cruises on lakes, river cruises, trips around the harbour, ferry crossings - the only thing I excluded from my list was ocean cruises.
River cruises fall into two categories. There’s the short day trip on the river, and there’s a multi-day cruise. The scariest was probably the trip out to the reef in Mombasa, Kenya, in a vessel that had me surreptitiously counting the lifebelts, and comparing the count with the number of souls on board. The most exciting was the RIB (rigid inflatable boat) ride right to the foot of the Iguaçú Falls' Brazilian side (where they’re not quite so intense), and the skipper was able to pilot us into some of the lesser cataracts. The quirkiest a cruise up Australia’s River Murray in the Murray Princess, a replica of a sternwheel paddle steamer from the Mark Twain era.
It’s not really a steamer, though. It has diesel engines. But, that’s a misnomer I’ll happily forgive, for I remember Windermere’s old Tern. I remember it fussing busily down the lake, usually trailing black smoke from its funnel. Most passengers blessed the day in 1956 when she was finally re-engined with diesels.
One place where river cruising really caught on is the River Nile in Egypt. Many cruise boats ply the river, usually between Luxor and Aswan. The Aswan dams are an impenetrable bar to further progress southward, but it is possible to transfer to another boat, which will take you down Lake Nasser to the famous temple at Abu Simbel.
The boats are usually shallow draught vessels driven by internal paddle wheels. The Royal Navy’s China River gunboats worked on the same principle and were reputed to be able to sail on a heavy dew. The biggest surprise was the captain - or more correctly the pilot - dressed in kaftan and turban. Briefly introduced on the first night, he then bustled off to his duties, never to be seen again.
In contrast, most other captains were highly visible, and looked like ship’s captains rather than one of the Forty Thieves. In fact, on Murray Princess we were on its first cruise of the season, and sat at the captain’s table every night. And on the Edward Elgar, one of the few, if not the only ship to cruise British rivers, the captain helped to serve our meals!
Fond boat memories...
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