20 women writing about the outdoors

14 of 21

Down the Nile (Cover image via Back Bay Books)

8. Rosemary Mahoney

Little escapes Rosemary Mahoney. She is a keen observer of practically everything, from human foibles to the forces of nature. She’s written about China, Irish women and about the brief moment in where she worked for the aging dramatist Lillian Hellman.

Mahoney has some serious academic cred, too. She was a student at St. Paul’s School, a prestigious prep school in Concord, New Hampshire, where she earned good grades. She eventually went on to attend both Harvard College and Johns Hopkins University. If that weren’t enough, Mahoney also earned a series of awards for her writing. These include a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Down the Nile

But, as interesting as her fiction and memoir work is, we’re here to talk about one particular book by Mahoney. Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff follows her 1998 solo rowing trip down Egypt’s Nile river. Mahoney first had to navigate the social world of Egypt, in which men were reluctant to sell an unaccompanied woman a rowboat. Foreign tourists typically chartered a boat or simply booked passage on a cruise ship. However, these large boats kept passengers far away from the natural life of the Nile. Mahoney wanted to get a closer glimpse, one that was best afforded by a seven-foot rowboat.

Wouldn’t she prefer to have a man row for her? Or at least have a police officer for security? What would she do if a “bad person” were to catch her unawares? And could she, a woman, even take on the arduous task of rowing down a long stretch of the Nile?

Mahoney, who had navigated the congested waters of Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, felt that she was up to the task. After the Aswan High Dam finished construction in 1973, the Nile became a far more tame beast than it had been in the past. Gone were the seasonal floods and treacherous rapids. With little bad weather along the way, Mahoney found that the Nile was far easier to navigate than some North American waters. She later said that the rural areas along the river were “surpassingly beautiful.”