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Travelling the world’s rivers is an exhilarating way to experience the lifeblood of a country, gliding past many of their most imposing sights and feeling the pulse of ancient civilisations. Connect the past with the present on three inspiring voyages down 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 pass by, unaltered since Pharaohs ruled the roost. 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 (at 6,650km long), passing eternal desert scenes as well as superstars in stone: the temple of Kom Ombo, well-preserved Edfu, and Karnak’s mighty Hypostyle Hall.

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 will transfer to train or bus. From Khartoum, it is a bumpy 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 is 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).

The Amazon
The Amazon is more than 6,200km long, and contains one 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 often outweigh the reality. Many arrive for an Amazon cruise expecting to hop onto the riverbanks for encounters with jaguars, anacondas and spear-toting Indians. The Amazon’s quintessential experiences are more sublime than that. The river is massive and unrelenting, as much of 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 Indigenous tribes are very withdrawn, but the Caboclo tribe (mixed Indian and European) that populates the riverbanks buck the trend to some extent.

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 is 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 6,300km river begins its reign as melting snow in southwestern Qinghai. It then spills from Tibet, before swelling through seven Chinese provinces. It surges past Chóngqìng, Wuhan and Nanjing, some of China’s greatest cities.

The journey today has the 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 play host to China’s biggest engineering project since the construction of the Great Wall: the controversial Three Gorges Dam.

© 2011 Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘Journey down the world’s longest rivers’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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