Cairo’s central Ramses station, a huge, heady Victorian-era terminus, is thronging at seven o’clock on a Wednesday evening as the night train to Luxor pulls into Platform Three. We gather our luggage and our four small children, and make our way to the compact compartment fitted with two seats and a washbasin that will be our bedroom, dining car and playroom for the next ten-or-so hours as our train pushes south through the night towards Luxor.
The overnight rail link from Egypt’s capital city to its southern cultural treasure-troves of Luxor and Aswan was long famed for its exemplary Orient Express-style service. Though in recent decades the final traces of the grand old days of mahogany dining cars and dinner-jacketed waiters serving up turtle soup have vanished, the line still makes for an adventure worthy of any Grand Tour, particularly with your own diminutive passengers in tow. Be sure to purchase your tickets for your ‘deluxe two-berth sleeper’ several days in advance of travel (drop in to the office at the station itself, pay in local currency and make clear that you’ll be sharing the berth with your offspring), a bargain at £34 (UK) one-way, inclusive of dinner and breakfast. Children aged four to nine, meanwhile, travel for half-price and the under-threes ride for free.
A whistle hoots. A final scurry animates the platform. The train departs. Pulling out of the station past the back yards of a multitude of Cairene families, our children watch in wonder as local kids play football beside the tracks, bathe in muddy rivulets, fly kites from the roofs of their homes and wave at the passing train. An inspector appears to snip our tickets and grins at the huddle of blonde children, all rapt at the window watching the city slowly recede. He is replaced some moments later by a carriage attendant armed with cups of mint tea and the information that dinner will be served at ten. We sip our tea and produce an early supper for our brood who, after the initial excitement of departure has died down, are too tired and ravenous to wait. They tuck with aplomb into a street-food supper of kushari (a local snack-food staple of pasta, lentils, tomato sauce and fried onions), bought in steaming ladlefuls from a little stall in the capital’s old city.
Appetites sated, the children snooze and peruse their bedtime reading, as their parents’ meal – served up airline-style – arrives and is consumed, washed down nicely with a couple of bottles of Sakara beer. Then, as soon as plastic trays and silver foil have been spirited off to kitchen quarters unknown, our attendant transforms our chairs into two neat – if narrow – bunks, fitted with crisp white sheets and jaunty tartan blankets. We squeeze two children into each bunk, dim the compartment lights, and watch each fall asleep as villages outside, their streetside strings of naked bulbs silhouetting palm trees and mud cottages, ebb and fade away.
The next morning starts early, ushered in at 5am by a hot cup of Nescafe and a breakfast of bread with jam that tastes suspiciously like boiled sweets. Though the parents are a little worse for wear after a night spent clinging to the edges of a gently swaying bunk, the children are bright eyed, bushy tailed and content to lick their jam packets clean whilst watching the south Egyptian world go by. Indeed, this is one of the only times that the question, ‘Are we nearly there?’ is posed with regret.
Once in Luxor, there are plenty of wonders for children to explore. We wander, wide-eyed amid Karnak’s painted columns. We take a slow pony ride along the calm western banks of the Nile. We buy handmade trinkets from local children at the Colossi of Memnon, and trek out to the boy-king Tutankhamen’s final resting place in the hot, hidden Valley of the Kings. But despite the enticing swimming pool at the Winter Palace Hotel, the thrilling felucca ride on a windy Nile afternoon with sails billowing, and the bountiful dinners of hummus and salads all the more delightful for being actively encouraged to eat with one’s hands, one pressing question remains.
“Mummy,” I am asked at least half a dozen times a day, “when can we go on the night train all the way back again?”