Mr. Mohamed Arabi
The "Bird Man" of Aswan
by Dr. Susan Wilson
"Birders," nature lovers, and people looking for a unique photo op, take note.I found an absolute "must do" in Aswan. No matter how you get to Aswan, the ethereal the Nile hypnotizes even the most ardent skeptic. Its a given! In Aswan, white felucca sails dot the rushing emerald depths of the Nile as it rolls perpetually northward to the Mediterranean against a backdrop of azure blue skies and tall, golden sand cliffs of the Sahara desert. The eternal Nile soothes even the most skeptical soul. Such was how I found myself as I disembarked from our cruise in Aswan, mesmerized by the Niles charms.As we prepared to head into the heart of the tourist district along the Corniche, I found myself searching for a way to get back on the Nile. Feluccas dotted the river as happy tourists smiled and danced to the beat of Nubian music blaring from the boats jam-boxes. By good fortune, we were invited to join a river ride with a couple on a quick tour of the small islands that dot the Nile in this region. Happily, we accepted expecting nothing more than a quiet ride through the small channels of the river in late afternoon. We joined up with Mr. Mohamed Arabi, an old friend and tour guide in the area, and headed across the Nile in relative silence enjoying the cooling effects of the breeze drifting up from the water. The awaiting surprise astounded even a seasoned Egypt traveler.
As we pulled away from the dock and headed up-river towards the Agha Khans Mausoleum, we motored towards the dock at the Botanical Gardens. Framed with flame trees with masses of scarlet red flowers, palms heavily laden with dates, and flowering bougainvilleas and oleanders, we saw hundreds of white puff-balls in the trees. As we neared the river banks, the white puff-balls took on definition hundreds of egrets roosted among the trees overhanging the Western banks of the Nile. Among the adult birds were numerous baby egrets covered in down, anxiously awaiting a tidbit from their mother. It was at this moment that I learned that this was to be no usual tour along the riverbank.
Out of nowhere, Arabi jumped to the front of the boat, pointing excitedly. "Look, egrets!" Quickly, he began explaining many of the characteristics of the egrets, the different types of egrets that live in this part of Egypt, and how to distinguish one from the other. Suddenly, he cried out, "See, three babies just there in the tree!" With my mouth still open in amazement, I learned that this was definitely not going to be a quiet motor along the river!
Frantically, I began pulling my camera out of its bag afraid I would miss the opportunity. I tried desperately to focus with the movement of the boat and birds. Never fear, camera bugs, Arabi slowed the boat, the birds stayed still, and I got my pictures. As we proceeded by the botanical gardens, Arabi pointed out various plants all blooming in radiant color. Hibiscus, lantana, bougainvillea, poinciana, acacia trees and mimosa. He pulled over to the bank so we could stroke the leaves of the mimosa and watch them curl at our touch. The smell of the fresh leaves was intoxicating! Whereas, the casual observer just sees green and abundant colorful flowers, we found that Arabis animated discussions gave this tropical paradise new meaning.
With my feet dangling over the side of the boat, I couldnt resist dragging my toes through the cold presence of the Nile. Slowly, we began meandering through the myriad of small islands in the Nature Reserve dodging boulders jutting from the rivers rush. As we slowly motored through the narrow channels of reed and bamboo lined shores, the sound of hundreds of parakeets broke the quiet solitude of the Nature Reserve.. Did you know that in the wild, parakeets actually screech their name? "Parakeet! Parakeet!" The closer we got to the First Cataract, the more excited Arabi became. Spry as a cat and as at home on the boat as ashore, he jumped from one side of the boat to the other each time pointing out a new species of birds or plants. He knew exactly where to go to find which bird. Facts are, I am not a "Birder" by any stretch of the imagination, but Arabis excitement was contagious. Our companions on the boat were real "Birders." Armed with books, camera, and binoculars, one of the things they wanted most on their trip to Egypt was to add new species of birds to their sighting list. Around every crook and bend, they frantically flipped through their bird identification book and added a new bird to their growing list. King Fishers, Malachite King Fishers, Striated Herons, Little Bitten Herons, Night Herons, Little Green Bee Eaters, and Nile Valley Sunbirds are just a few of the birds we sighted. The list grew and grew.
In case you are thinking this adventure is only for bird lovers, let me be the first to assure you that any nature lover can find something to spark the imagination. We not only got to see numerous new bird species, but also plants not native to our respective homelands. Around one bend the river, we approached a stand of greenery different from the rest along shore. Arabi showed us bulrushes, "like the ones where the baby Moses was found."
As we snaked around the next bend, we came upon a man sitting on the riverbank dressed in the typical mens clothing of the area, a galabiya. Excited talk ensued and the man got into his small rowboat and we followed him to a small cove. There he pulled up a net filled with fish that he and Arabi proceeded to divide. Still alive and flopping, Arabi put about 40 fish in a small bag to take home for dinner. All the while, he explained the different types of fish in the Nile -- when they jump and where they live. You might be thinking that this was surely enough for one afternoon, but, alas, the fun was not over yet.
Next we pulled up to a small farm on one of the islands, hopped out of the boat, and proceeded to get a tour of a banana and mango farm. I had no idea there were so many different types of mangoes! Amid the twisted paths of the farm, we came upon water buffalo chewing fresh clover. A red-tailed, elegant rooster strutted through the clearing keeping his hens in line. Dogs barked and friendly, warm farmers welcomed us to their home.
As the sun began to fade over the golden cliffs of the Western Desert, we finally turned back for town. On the way back to our launch site amid shouts of "Look, Nile Valley Sunbird!" and "Look! There! On the rocks! Striated Heron," I managed to ask Arabi how he learned so much about all the birds, fish, and plants of the region. An educated man who speaks several languages, he told of how he grew up in the area and was taught much from his father. The rest he learned from books and observation. Full of perpetual energy, Arabi can give you the common names, Latin names, and Egyptian names of every plant, bird, and fish in the region. He has been written up in foreign journals for his understanding of Nile ecology and hopes to have a book published soon on birds of the area.
We said goodbye at the dock, saddened that the afternoon with Arabi was over, but excited with the thrill of knowing we got to see a special part of Egypt off the "ordinary" tourist path. If you would like to have this special adventure, just ask any local travel agent to call Arabi and arrange a special Nature Reserve trip or call him on his mobile phone at 012-324-0132. Dont forget to bring your bird book, camera, and lots of film. And tell him I said "Hi!" and thanks for a most memorable journey.