Journeys down the world's longest rivers

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Do you want to feel the pulse of ancient civilisations? Travelling the world’s longest rivers is an exhilarating way to experience the lifeblood of Egypt, Brazil, China and many more, gliding past many of their most imposing sights. These three inspiring voyages, featured in Lonely Planet’s Great Journeys, allow travellers to connect the past and present on the world’s longest rivers.

The Nile

Boarding a vessel on the Nile is to peel back millennia and slow down to river speed as ancient temples, oxcarts and palm trees – unaltered since Pharaohs ruled the roost – pass by.

The Nile is more than the lifeblood of Egypt. It is Egypt. Without its generous overspill, this parched nation could not exist, and though accounting for just 4% of Egypt’s surface area, the Nile Valley is home to 95% of its population.

A sail on the section from Aswan to Luxor is the easiest, and best, introduction to life on the world’s longest river, passing eternal desert scenes as well as superstars in stone: the temple of Kom Ombo, well-preserved Edfu, Karnak’s mighty Hypostyle Hall.

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The Egyptian government no longer allows tourists to sail further north than Abydos. In the south you can continue from Aswan by ferry across Lake Nasser into Sudan; once docked you’ll transfer to train or bus. From Khartoum, it’s a juddery drive into Ethiopia, where you can trace the Blue Nile to Lake Tana. Alternatively, fly down to Kampala to ride the wild White Nile in Uganda.

Sadly there’s no easy way to string together a long, continuous river run. No matter, though. The bits of accessible Nile offer much, from leafy islands (Egypt’s Temple of Isis on Agilkia Island) to noisy churn (Rusomo Falls, a distant headwater between Tanzania and Rwanda). And if, one day, boats do sail from source to sea, the timeless Nile will still be there.

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Take the overnight sleeper train from Cairo to Aswan, and sail the temple-laden stretch from Aswan to Luxor - a journey of around three to six days. Sailing northwards is quicker as you’re going with the current - especially important if travelling by wind-powered felucca.

Distance: 6680km
Ideal time commitment: 3 weeks
Best time of year: March to April, September to November
Essential tip: Don’t drink the tap water.

The Amazon

The Amazon is over 6200km long, containing a fifth of the world’s fresh water. If you count its numerous tributaries, the Amazon crosses seven countries from its inconspicuous source in the Peruvian highlands to its mouth near Belém in Brazil.

Yet often travellers’ expectations outweigh the reality. Many arrive for an Amazon cruise expecting to hop off on to the riverbanks for casual, Discovery Channel-like encounters with jaguars, anaconda and spear-toting Indians. The Amazon’s quintessential experiences are more sublime than that. The river is massive and unrelenting, as much a life form as the plants and animals that depend on it. Wildlife is hard to spot amid this intricate, organic superstructure, but is all the more special when it makes itself known. Indigenous tribes are very withdrawn, but the Caboclo (mixed Indian and European) populating the riverbanks buck the trend to some extent.

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The beauty of an Amazon trip is that it can be as long or as short as you make it. Most people do the journey between Brazilian cities Belém and Manaus in four to six days, although the cruise can be extended easily to six weeks, including stopovers, detours and multiple countries.

Distance: 1300km
Ideal time commitment: 1 week
Best time of year: May to September
Essential tip: Don’t book an overpriced, stuffy riverboat cabin. Sleep in your hammock instead.

The Yangtze

A cruise down the Yangtze, the world’s third-longest river, is one of the most memorable water-borne journeys on earth. When the river threads through the superlative Three Gorges, it’s nothing less than magical. The Three Gorges are among China’s most magnificent scenic wonders: few river panoramas are as awe-inspiring as these vast chasms of rock, sculpted over the ages by the Yangtze’s ceaseless flow. Commencing just east of Fèngjié in Chóngqìng and levelling out west of Yichang in Hubei province, they cover an incredible 200km and cruising them by riverboat is all the more memorable.

The 6300km river begins its reign as melting snow in southwestern Qinghai. It then spills from Tibet, before swelling through seven Chinese provinces. It surges past some of China’s greatest cities: Chóngqìng, Wuhan and Nanjing.

The journey today has the attendant, noisy hype of a marketing machine operating at fever pitch, but no one with a pulse can fail to be moved by the gorgeous panorama unfolding in real time. The Three Gorges also host China’s biggest engineering project since the construction of the Great Wall: the controversial Three Gorges Dam.

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The fastest route through the gorges, hydrofoil journeys take around 11 hours: three hours for the bus trip from Chóngqìng to Wanzhou, seven hours for the hydrofoil journey from Wanzhou to Yichang and an hour by bus from the Yichang hydrofoil terminal into town. Remember: hydrofoils are passenger vessels so there’s no outside seating. Stand by the door for the best views.

Distance: 6300km
Ideal time commitment: 3 nights and 4 days
Best time of year: In the off-season, away from the crowds, when the trip is serene and you’re able to observe life on the river from a relaxed perspective
Essential tip: Bring a good pair of binoculars.