I am a writer with a passion for travel, and the places I have visited and lived in are rich sources of inspiration for me when I put pen to paper. Often, my stories begin as vivid landscapes in my mind: Burning Embers, for example, grew out of the beautiful wildness I encountered in Kenya, and the spark for The Echoes of Love was ignited in the Piazza St Marco, Venice, where I first encountered the two sides of the city: that which the tourists flock to admire, and the other, darker side.
These are places in which I situate my stories, but there are so many other places from my travels that you won’t find on the pages of my novels so far, but nonetheless are very important to me: they make me the writer I am. Today, I am taking you to Aswan, Egypt, to share with you one of my favourite spots in the world which never fails to make me dream.
The Old Cataract Hotel stands grandly on a granite promontory in the Nubian Desert on the banks of the river Nile. Its construction – in the Belle Époque style – dates all the way back to 1899, and since that time it has welcomed all manner of travellers, including Tsar Nicholas II, Winston Churchill, Howard Carter, Margaret Thatcher, and Princess Diana. The writer Agatha Christie was so inspired when she stayed there that she wrote Death on the Nile, setting parts of the novel at the hotel.
The hotel is so beautiful, it is little wonder it attracts visitors from all over the world. They come to step back in time, to old world glamour and splendour.
For me, the highlight of a stay is to sit on the marble terrace overlooking the Nile and, beyond, the lush gardens of the historic Elephantine Island, home of the temple for one of the earliest Egyptian deities, the ram-headed Khnum, god of creation and the waters. There, on the terrace, I have a front-row seat to watch the drama of nature unfold at different times of the day.
In the early misty morning, the dominant impression is one of deep-abiding peace. Your view is that of feluccas, the romantic wooden gull-winged lateen sail boats used since antiquity, moored on the shores of the Nile; of endless fields stretching afar, peppered with tiny villages with their mud walls and winding ways fringed with palms.
At noon, under the high, scorching sun, the scenery is painted in vivid colours. You might see a barefoot woman in her flowing gown filling water jars at the edge of the river, a smiling man dangling his legs and oscillating on the back of a small donkey, a string of stately camels ambulating on a straight road bordered by cool and shady date groves. Each is a picture postcard depicting peace-abiding people living today as they had lived a thousand years ago.
And then, at the end of the day, the sunset: the hour when the countryside is wrapped in a glory of colour! One moment the scenery is a dazzling silvery blue, ochre, brilliant green and dappled shadows; the next, without warning, it is flushed to a wild crimson. In Egypt night comes quickly; the sun sets dramatically – bang – just like that below the rim of the desert. Feluccas draw in against the bank with a rattle of chains and the creaking of windlasses and the whine of great sails. The fields are empty and the smoke of little fires rises in the still air from the mud-houses.
Now, darkness has fallen and the air is hushed and breathless. The sky is a purple canopy, low hung, and the blazing stars are so close that you can almost pluck them from the sky. The shadowed paths, the flowers in the hotel’s garden and the slender masts of sailing ships loom motionless, ghostly white in the silver moonlight: the desert night delivers infinity, eternity, beauty – all those grand emotions that inspire romance.