Sail into history on Suez Canal
Life on Brilliance of the Seas' deck. Supplied picture

There is something awe inspiring about standing on the deck of a 90,000 tonne cruise ship as it slowly moves through endless sand dunes.

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The Suez Canal may have been completed 143 years ago, but it has lost none of its wow factor.

If anything, it has become more impressive with age.

It is still just as surprising today to see the funnels and superstructure of huge ships in a "passing lane" on the other side of a sand dune as it was when Lawrence of Arabia came thundering across the desert early last century.

As cruise ship Brilliance of the Seas leads a convoy of 21 freighters and tankers through the canal it is easy to understand why this 193km stretch of water is still such a politically strategic and vital transport route. It cuts through Egypt from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, linking Europe to Asia - the road to India.

It has been the centre of so many skirmishes that several people were surprised that we were intending to cruise through the Suez, many assuming it was closed.

There were schemes to connect the Red and Mediterranean seas in Roman times, joining the Nile and a series of lakes. In the early 19th century Napoleon was keen to establish the route but it wasn't until Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps got the necessary approvals in the 1850s that the canal became reality.

Digging started at the future Port Said, the northern entry point, on April 25, 1859. It took 10 years to complete using forced Egyptian labour and cost $US100 million. Thousands died and it has been estimated 1.5 million people worked on the project.

Initially jointly funded by Egypt, Britain and France, the Suez was nationalised in 1956 by Egypt's President Gamal Nasser when Britain and the US withdrew their financial support for the Aswan dam project on the Nile. Nasser promptly closed the canal for five months by sinking 40 ships, sparking the Suez Crisis and forcing fuel rationing in Europe.

The canal is still controlled by Egypt's Suez Canal Authority, which was set up in the 1950s.

Such is the success of the canal it is Egypt's second biggest revenue earner. Ships are charged by the tonne to use the Suez. It cost Brilliance of the Seas around $US150,000 for the eight-hour journey. In addition, the authority stipulates that each ship must be accompanied by two tugs - and take on board a canal pilot - taking the total cost to around $230,000.

Brilliance of the Seas Capt. Henrik Sorensen estimated the journey would cost a private yacht about $2000 to $3000.

The canal was originally 164km long and 8m deep. It is now 193km, 24m deep and 205m wide at its narrowest, allowing some of the world's biggest freighters to use it.

The only permanent traffic bridge across the canal - The Egyptian Japanese Friendship Bridge linking Africa and Asia opened in 2001. There are also barges and a swing bridge, plus a tunnel. Supplied picture
It has no locks and it is spanned by one significant bridge, the Egyptian-Japanese Friendship Bridge which links Africa and Asia. The bridge, 3.9km long and 70m high over the canal, was jointly funded by the Japanese and Egyptian governments and opened in 2001.

By far the most significant disruption to the Suez was after the Six Day War in 1967, when Egypt closed the canal for eight years.

Fifteen ships were caught in the crossfire between the Egyptian and Israeli armies, stranded in the Great Bitter Lake - an area where ships can pass. They became known as the Yellow Fleet because they were covered in yellow desert sand.

When the canal reopened in 1975 only two ships were able to steam out. The rest were hulks.

Just reaching the southern entrance of the Suez is an adventure steaming through the Gulf of Aden.

The region is notorious for armed Somali pirates who have raked in an estimated $US150 million over the last three years by holding ships' crews and cargos for ransom.

Although there is a multinational force escorting ships through the gulf, including Australian navy vessels, on Brilliance of the Seas Operation Safe Haven swung into action.

All passengers were ordered to take part in a "security drill" in which we had to move away from the sides to areas in the centre of the ship.

For two nights the curtains in all cabins had to be closed, all outside lighting on the ship was turned off and there was no access to the outside decks at night. Extra security staff came on board and patrolled the decks with binoculars.

The 15-night so called "repositioning" Royal Caribbean cruise from Dubai to Rome on Brilliance of the Seas was an ideal way to see a couple of ancient and new wonders of the world - the Great Pyramid of Giza and Petra in Jordan - as well as the site of the ancient wonder, the Lighthouse of Alexandria. Perhaps the Suez Canal should be in there somewhere too.

Chris Olney travelled on Brilliance of the Seas courtesy of Bicton Travel.

The West Australian

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