THE NILE TRIBUTARIES OF ABYSSINIA AND THE SWORD HUNTERS OF THE HAMRAN ARABS
BY SIR SAMUEL W. BAKER, M.A., F.R.G.S.
I DEDICATE THIS BOOK, WITH SPECIAL PERMISSION, TO HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS ALBERT EDWARD, PRINCE OF WALES, AS THE FIRST OF ENGLAND'S ROYAL RACE WHO HAS SAILED UPON THE WATERS OF THE NILE; THE LAKE SOURCES OF WHICH MIGHTY RIVER ARE HONOURED BY THE NAMES OF HIS AUGUST PARENTS.
THE work entitled "The Albert N'yanza Great Basin of the Nile," published in 1866, has given an account of the equatorial lake system from which the Egyptian river derives its source. It has been determined by the joint explorations of Speke, Grant, and myself, that the rainfall of the equatorial districts supplies two vast lakes, the Victoria and the Albert, of sufficient volume to support the Nile throughout its entire course of thirty degrees of latitude. Thus the parent stream, fed by never-failing reservoirs, supplied by the ten months' rainfall of the equator, rolls steadily on its way through arid sands and burning deserts until it reaches the Delta of Lower Egypt.
It would at first sight appear that the discovery of the lake sources of the Nile had completely solved the mystery of ages, and that the fertility of Egypt depended upon the rainfall of the equator concentrated in the lakes Victoria and Albert; but the exploration of the Nile tributaries of Abyssinia divides the Nile system into two proportions, and unravels the entire mystery of the river, by assigning to each its due share in ministering to the prosperity of Egypt.
The lake sources of Central Africa support the life of Egypt, by supplying a stream, throughout all seasons, that has sufficient volume to support the exhaustion of evaporation and absorption; but this stream, if unaided, could never overflow its banks, and Egypt, thus deprived of the annual inundation, would simply exist, and cultivation would be confined to the close vicinity of the river.
The inundation, which by its annual deposit of mud has actually created the Delta of Lower Egypt, upon the overflow of which the fertility of Egypt depends, has an origin entirely separate from the lake-sources of Central Africa, and the supply of water is derived exclusively from Abyssinia.
The two grand affluents of Abyssinia are, the Blue Nile and the Atbara, which join the main stream respectively in N. lat. 15 degrees 30 minutes and 17 degrees 37 minutes. These rivers, although streams of extreme grandeur during the period of the Abyssinian rains, from the middle of June until September, are reduced during the dry months to utter insignificance; the Blue Nile becoming so shallow as to be unnavigable, and the Atbara perfectly dry. At that time the water supply of Abyssinia having ceased, Egypt depends solely upon the equatorial lakes and the affluents of the White Nile, until the rainy season shall again have flooded the two great Abyssinian arteries. That flood occurs suddenly about the 20th of June, and the grand rush of water pouring down the Blue Nile and the Atbara into the parent channel, inundates Lower Egypt, and is the cause of its extreme fertility.
Not only is the inundation the effect of the Abyssinian rains, but the deposit of mud that has formed the Delta, and which is annually precipitated by the rising waters, is also due to the Abyssinian streams, more especially to the river Atbara, which, known as the Bahr el Aswat (Black River), carries a larger proportion of soil than any other tributary of the Nile; therefore, to the Atbara, above all other rivers, must the wealth and fertility of Egypt be attributed.
It may thus be stated: The equatorial lakes FEED Egypt; but the Abyssinian rivers CAUSE THE INUNDATION.
This being a concise summary of the Nile system, I shall describe twelve months' exploration, during which I examined every individual river that is tributary to the Nile from Abyssinia, including the Atbara, Settite, Royan, Salaam, Angrab, Rahad, Dinder, and the Blue Nile. The interest attached to these portions of Africa differs entirely from that of the White Nile regions, as the whole of Upper Egypt and Abyssinia is capable of development, and is inhabited by races either Mohammedan or Christian; while Central Africa is peopled by a hopeless race of savages, for whom there is no prospect of civilization.
The exploration of the Nile tributaries of Abyssinia occupied the first twelve months of my journey towards the Nile sources. During this time, I had the opportunity of learning Arabic and of studying the character of the people; both necessary acquirements, which led to my ultimate success in reaching the "Albert N'yanza." As the readers of the work of that title are aware, I was accompanied throughout the entire journey by my wife, who, with extraordinary hardihood and devotion, shared every difficulty with which African travel is beset.
ABOVE THE CATARACT.
Sterility—Arrival at Korosko—Twenty-six Days from Cairo—The Nubian Desert—Nature's Pyramids—Volcanic Bombs—The Stony Sea— The Camel's Grave—The Crows of Moorahd—A delicious Draught—Rocks of the Desert—The perished Regiment—Arrival at the Nile—Distance from Korosko—Gazelles of the Desert—Dryness of the Atmosphere—Arrival at Berber—Halleem Effendi's Garden—Halleem gives Advice—The Nile rising—Visit of the Ladies—The Pillars of Sand—The Governor's Friendship—Save me from my Friends.
The Cairo Dragoman Mahomet—Mahomet forsakes his Pistols—The Route to the Atbara—The Dry Bed of the River—The Dome Palm—Preparation of the Fruit—Pools of the Atbara—Collection of Birds—Charms of the Desert—Suffering of Men and Beasts—Collodabad—Hippopotamus kills the Arab—Daring Feat of the Fish-Eagle—Hippopotamus-shooting—Hippopotami bagged—Delight of the Arabs—Fishing—Catch a Tartar—Lose my Turtle Soup—Gazelle-shooting—The Speed of the Gazelle— Preparation of Water-skins—Tanning the Hides—Shoot a Crocodile—The River comes down—The mighty Stream of the Atbara—Change in the Season.
WILD ASSES OF THE DESERT.
My First and Last—Appetite for raw Meat—The Bishareen Arabs— Gozerajup—The First Rain—Limits of the Desert—The Hadendowa Arabs—The Wells of Soojalup—Antelopes—Antelope Stalking—Arab Migrations—The Arab's Prayer—The Barren Women—Difficulty in fording the River Gash—Arrive at Cassala—Hospitality of the Greek Merchant.
ROUTE FROM CASSALA TO SOUAKIM.
Facilities of the Port of Souakim—Fortifications of Cassala—Conquest of Nubia—Cruel Taxation—Extreme Cheapness of Corn—Cultivation of Cereals—Arab Bread—Military Position of Cassala—The Base—Prepare to start from Cassala—Mahomet's Family Tree—Mahomet meets Relations—We cross the Gash—Stalking the Ariel—Bagged the Game—Descent of Vultures—Change of Scenery—The Source of the Delta—The Parent of Egypt.
Cotton Farm of Malem Georgis—Ferocious Crocodiles—Shoot a Monster—The Public Enemy—Resistance of a Crocodile's Scales—Discover Gold—Heavy Action of the Camel—El Baggar selects a Hygeen—The Easy-goer, suitable for a Lady—Hooked Thorns of the Mimosa—We charge a Kittar Bush—The Scorpion's Sting—Sudden Deluge—A Regiment of Scorpions—Valley of the Atbara—The Migration of Camels—A Milk Diet—The Arab Exodus—The Desert Patriarch.
SHEIK ACHMET ABOU SINN.
The Arab Welcome—Abou Sinn's Advice—Arab Tribes of Nubia—A Hint to Octogenarians—The Arab Pomade—The Arab Lady's Perfumery—The fatal Mixture—The Coiffure of the World—The Arab Woman's Head-dress—"The Dust became Lice through all Egypt"—The Arab Charms—The Rahat or Arab Kilt—Arab Weddings—No Divorce Court—Anointing with Oil—Nomadic Habits of the Arabs—Unchanging Customs of the Arabs—The Hand of God—Religion of the Arabs.
First-class Hygeens—Travelling Arrangements—The Evening Bivouac—The Junction of the Settite River—Sheik Atalan Wat Said—Abyssinian Frontier—Ismael Pasha burnt alive—Mek Nimmur—The Enemy of Egypt—Arrival at Sofi—The Reception—Position of Sofi—Florian, the German Settler—The Cattle Fly—Peculiarities of the Seasons—The New Camp—I become a Householder—Arrangement of our Establishment—My "Baby"—An African Elysium—No Pipe!—The Elements at Work.
THE PLAGUES OF EGYPT.
Go into Half Mourning—"Child of the Fever"—The Arab M.D.—Arab Fondness for Relics—The Pest Spots of the World—The Dangers of Holy Shrines—Arrival of the Holy Body—The Faky's Grave—Arab Doctoring—Delights of Arab Surgery—The Pig and the Koran—Sword Hunters of the Hamran Arabs—The Arab Shields—Hints for carrying the Sword—Keenness of the Edge—Arab Swordsmanship—The Aggageers—Elephant-hunting with the Sword—Arab disabled by his own Sword—Maria Theresa—Great Failure—The Baboons and the Crocodile—The drowned Elephant—Game on the East Bank—Capabilities of the Soil—Tanning of Leather—Native Baskets and Matting—Bacheet is too attentive—"Oh Bacheet! you Ignoramus!"—Ferocity of the Seroot Fly—Cross the Atbara—The Impromptu Raft—Stalking Giraffes—Within Range—The First Rush of the Herd—The Retreat of the Giraffes—Death of the Giraffes—Passage of the River— The Giraffe Sentry—A difficult Stalk—The Seroot Fly takes possession—Giraffe Steaks—A Hunt for the Tetel—Floating Meat across a River—Buoy for Men and Cargo—Scare the Crocodiles—The Lions devour the Giraffe—Arab Music—Arrange to cross the River.
FORM A RAFT WITH THE SPONGING BATH.
The Impromptu Ferry—Achmet is tempted by Satan—Mahomet's Relative absconds—End of the Rainy Season—The Seroot Fly disappears—The "Till"—Preparations for Fishing—"That was a Monster!"—The "Bayard"—Masara the Slave—Cross the Peninsula to Settite—Jungle Cooking—A miserable Night—Shoot badly—Fishing in the Atbara—A good Run—Another Monster—Bacheet lands him—The Baboons visit us—The Coor—Wild Vegetables—Death of Atalan Wat Said—Catch a Baggar—Fish-salting—The Arbour.
A FEW NOTES AT EHETILLA.
Fire the Valley—Arrival of Birds—Seized by a Crocodile—Audacity of the Buzzard—The Abomination of Thorns—Boa Constrictor—The Baboons hunt for Berries—Masses of small Birds—Cunning of the Crocodile—Method of seizing its Prey—Horse-dealing—Arab Saddles and Bits—Arrive at Sherif el Ibrahim—Arrival at the Settite—Recall of Mahomet—Sheik Achmet Wat el Negur—Mansfield Parkyns—Advantages of a "Sweet Name"— Elephants destroy the Crops—An Invitation to shoot—The Hippo challenges Bacheet—A good Shot—A Rush at the Carcase—Elephants at Night—Kill an Elephant.
Girls carried away by the Rapids—An amphibious Arab Girl—Search for the drowned Girl—The Corpse recovered—The Sheik lays down the Law—"The Fact is simply impossible"—The Sheik's Idea of Matrimony—The Duties of his Four Wives—The Maimed, the Halt, and the Blind—The Arab Fakeers or Priests—"All the Same with a little Difference"—The Cure for Frendeet—Arrival at Katariff—The Market Day—Scenes at the Fair—Custom of scarifying the Cheeks—The Galla Slave—Purchase her Freedom —Singular Misunderstanding—Mahomet's Explanation—Mek Nimmur invades the Frontier—Mek Nimmur's Tactics—Insecurity of the Country—Mek Nimmur sends me his Compliments—Roder Sheriff's withered Arm—The Aggageers—Mixture for Bullets—We make Arrowroot—Florian's Hunter—Arrive at Geera—Follow a Herd of Elephants—Track up the Elephants—A tremendous Crash—A critical Position—The Forehead Shot—The Half-pound Explosive Shell—Recover my old wounded Elephant—Fraternize with the Sword Hunters.
OLD NEPTUNE JOINS THE PARTY.
The Arab Centaurs—Wild Arab Horsemanship—Discipline of the Gun-bearers—Off goes the Gun, and its Master!—Ombrega (Mother of the Thorn)—Leopard Springs into the Camp—The Dog carried off—The Bull Elephant—The Forehead Shot fails—The Mountain Chain of Abyssinia—A Hunt after a Herd of Baboons—The Prisoners—A Course after a Tetel—The Cry of Buffaloes—We hunt and capture—The Baboons take leave—The Valley of the Settite—The Bull Buffalo—The Island Camp—Mahomet hears the Lions—Tales of the Base.
THE LIONS FIND THE BUFFALO.
We seek an Introduction—The Start of the Sword Hunters—The Bull Elephant—The "Baby" screams at him—The Fight, Sword in Hand—Abou Do's Blade tastes Blood—We find the Herd—Jali leads the Party—The Forehead Shot fairly proved—The Charge of the Phalanx—My "Baby" kicks viciously—Abou Do slashes the Sinew—The Boar wounds Richarn—Old Moosa, the Sorcerer—Neptune and his Trident—The Beauty of the Settite—Borders of the River—The Hippopotamus Hunter—The Hippo is harpooned—A Cheer for Old Neptune—Death of the Hippopotamus—Character of Hippopotami—Habits of the Hippopotamus—Its Activity.
A FOREBODING OF EVIL.
Jali's Thigh is broken—Abou Do saves Jali—Extraordinary Dexterity—Jungle Surgery—We lose our best Man—My Tokrooris determine to desert—A little Diplomacy is required—The Sick are dosed—"Embrace him!" cried old Moosa—We become staunch Friends—Abou Do's Weaknesses—The Baobab—The Crop of Gum Arabic—The Rhinoceros—Now for a "Tally Ho!"—The Hunt—Close to their Tails—"A Horse! a Horse! my Kingdom for a Horse!"—The last Moment—Difficulty of Hunting—Power of Scent—Horns of the Rhinoceros—Peculiarity of the Rhinoceros—Rhinoceros Snare— Barrake poisons herself—Attractive Food for Elephants—Florian killed by a Lion—Gloomy Prediction.
ANTELOPES ON THE SETTITE.
The Camp at Delladila—Trionis Nilotica—Fish linked to Reptiles—Scenes on the River's Margin—The Nellut (A. Strepsiceros)—Swimming Rivers with a Horse—The Lion—The Lion Hunt—The Escape—The Bull Buffalo—Death of the Bull—The Arabs' Tit-bit—The Arab Plan for making Fire—The Mehedehet Antelope—Sauve qui peut!—Nearly caught—Fire clears the Country—Discretion the better Part of Valour—The Camp in Danger—Nearly burnt out—Crocodile harpooning—The ugly little Statue—Harpooning the Hippopotamus—The Harpoon fixed—The Hippo determines to fight—The Lances are blunted—Hor Mehetape—Geological Features—Unpleasant Report of the Spies.
ABOU DO IS GREEDY.
Departure of the Aggageers—Game returning from the River—A Bull Rhinoceros—We stalk the Rhinoceros—The Death—The Aggageers poach upon my Manor—Their Prize dies—Taher Noor faces the Lion—We start fresh Game—A curious Shot—Bait for the Lions—Highly exciting—My Tokrooris don't like the Lion—The dying Lioness—Brought into Camp—Difficulty in tracking the Lions—The Lion visits our Camp—Vis a vis with a Lion—A Surprise—Tetel faces the wounded Lion—Wonderful Courage of the Horse—Lions' Claws worn as a Charm—We commence Soap-boiling— Savon a la Bete feroce—We bury poor Barrake.
WE REACH THE ROYAN.
Hor Mai Gubba—The Francolin Partridge—We watch for Game—Out with the Aggageers—The Banks of the Royan—We find a Bull Elephant—Helter- skelter—The Elephant at Bay—Roder with the withered Arm—The Sword wins the Day—The nimble Base dine cheaply—The great Whirlpool—The Royan Junction with the Settite—A Bull Rhinoceros—Bacheet has to run—Visit to Mek Nimmur—Our Arabs decline to proceed—Obliged to threaten the Camels—The Troop on a Foray—Narrow Escape—The Rifle bursts—We march from the Settite—Interesting Route—Mineral Wealth of Abyssinia—Present to Mek Nimmur—The Abyssinian Minstrel—Richard Coeur de Lion—I part with my dear Maria Theresa—The Ghost of the departed Fiddler—The "Lay of the Last Minstrel"—My Introduction to Mek Nimmur—The Reception—The poisonous Stream—Unfortunate Contretemps—Nimmur behaves like a Gentleman—Pharaoh's lean Kine.
A CAMEL FALLS, AND DIES.
Arabs consume the Raw Flesh—Arrival at the Bahr Salaam—Character of the Torrents—The Junction of the Angrab—Good Sport—Four lucky Hits—A Fall over a Cliff—We save the Camel—Narrow Escape—The Hyaena enters the Tent—Hippotragus Bakerii—The Base of the Abyssinian Alps— Delightful Country—Follow a Herd of Elephants—Aggahr takes the Lead—Fall at the Feet of Elephants—Benighted on our Return to Camp—"All's well that ends well".
SEND A PARTY TO RECONNOITRE.
Ahead of the Camels—The Maarif—View from the Peak—The Rhinoceros attacks the Horse—The Bullet saves him—Arrival of the Horses—The Rhinoceros Hunt—Ridden to bay—Arrival of Birds of Prey—Habits of Vultures—The Marabou Stork—Sight, not Scent, directs the Vulture—Abou Seen—"Last but not least"—Route to Nahoot Guddabi—Arrive at the Atbara—Last View of the Atbara—The Atbara Exploration completed.
ARRIVAL AT METEMMA, OR GALLABAT.
Poisonous Water—The Trade of Abyssinia—We encounter Missionaries—The theological Blacksmith—The Missionaries' Medicine-Chest—Jemma, Sheik of the Tokrooris—The Egyptians' attack upon Gallabat—Settlement of the Tokrooris—Industry of the Tokrooris—Weapons, Type, and Character—The Colonization by Tokrooris—Honey Wine of Abyssinia—All drunk last Night—Distance from an Act of Parliament—We leave Gallabat—A Row with the Tokrooris—I settle the Tokroori Champion—A real flat-nosed African Nigger—Death of Aggahr and Gazelle—Forced March to the Rahad—The River Rahad.
FERTILITY OF THE COUNTRY ON THE BANKS OF THE RAHAD.
Journey along the Rahad—Rich Country—We cross over to the Dinder—Ferocity of Crocodiles in that River—Character of the Dinder—Activity of the African Elephant—Distinction of Species—Peculiarity of Form—African and Indian Elephants—Destruction of Forests—Elephant's Foot a Luxury—Preservation of Flesh and Fat for the March—Preparation of Bread for a Journey—The Bos Caffer—The most formidable Animals—Rifles for wild Countries—Sundry Hints—Bullets for large Game—Antelopes of Central Africa and Abyssinia.
WE LEAVE THE DINDER.
Curious Hunting Party—Character of Abyssinian Rivers—Borassus AEthiopicus—Rufaar and the Arab Sheik—The Blue Nile—The very gentlemanly Faky—Regularly "sold"—Arrival at Khartoum—The British Lion—The Zoological Collection—The Ostriches invite themselves to Tea—I intercede for Mek Nimmur—King Theodore's Ultimatum—Climate of the Soudan—The Sageer or Water-wheel—Uncontrolled Action of the Nile—Suggestions for the Irrigation of Egypt—Why should not Science create a Delta?—A Series of Weirs upon the Nile—The Benefits to Egypt and to Civilization—Ancient Works of Irrigation in Ceylon—Industrious Population of Egypt—Capabilities for producing Cotton—The Great Sahara—The Race of Life—Prepare to discover the White Nile Source.
THE NILE TRIBUTARIES OF ABYSSINIA, AND THE SWORD HUNTERS OF THE HAMRAN ARABS.
ABOVE THE CATARACT.
WITHOUT troubling the public with a description of that portion of the Nile to the north of the first cataract, or with a detailed account of the Egyptian ruins, that have been visited by a thousand tourists, I will commence by a few extracts from my journal, written at the close of the boat voyage from Cairo :—
"May 8, 1861.—No air. The thermometer 104 degrees Fahr.; a stifling heat. Becalmed, we have been lying the entire day below the ruins of Philae. These are the most imposing monuments of the Nile, owing to their peculiar situation upon a rocky island that commands the passage of the river above the cataract. The banks of the stream are here hemmed in by ranges of hills from 100 to 250 feet high; these are entirely destitute of soil, being composed of enormous masses of red granite, piled block upon block, the rude masonry of Nature that has walled in the river. The hollows between the hills are choked with a yellow sand, which, drifted by the wind, has, in many instances, completely filled the narrow valleys. Upon either side of the Nile are vestiges of ancient forts. The land appears as though it bore the curse of Heaven; misery, barrenness, and the heat of a furnace are its features. The glowing rocks, devoid of a trace of vegetation, reflect the sun with an intensity that must be felt to be understood. The miserable people who dwell in villages upon the river's banks snatch every sandbank from the retiring stream, and immediately plant their scanty garden with melons, gourds, lentils, &c. this being their only resource for cultivation. Not an inch of available soil is lost; but day by day, as the river decreases, fresh rows of vegetables are sown upon the newly-acquired land. At Assouan, the sandbanks are purely sand brought down by the cataracts, therefore soil must be added to enable the people to cultivate. They dig earth from the ruins of the ancient town; this they boat across the river and spread upon the sandbank, by which excessive labour they secure sufficient mould to support their crops.
In the vicinity of Philae the very barrenness of the scenery possesses a charm. The iron-like sterility of the granite rocks, naked except in spots where the wind has sheeted them with sand; the groves of palms springing unexpectedly into view in this desert wilderness, as a sudden bend of the river discovers a village; the ever blue and never clouded sky above, and, the only blessing of this blighted land, the Nile, silently flowing between its stern walls of rocks towards the distant land of Lower Egypt, form a total that produces a scene to be met with nowhere but upon the Nile. In this miserable spot the unfortunate inhabitants are taxed equally with those of the richer districts—about fivepence annually for each date palm.
"May 9.—A good breeze, but tremendous heat. Although the floor and the curtains of the cabin are continually wetted, and the Venetian blinds are closed, the thermometer, at 4 P.M., stood at 105 degrees in the shade; and upon deck, 137 degrees in the sun. This day we passed the ruins of several small temples. The country is generally rocky, with intervals of ten or twelve miles of desert plains.
"May 10.—Fine breeze, the boat sailing well. Passed several small temples. The henna grows in considerable quantities on the left bank of the river. The leaf resembles that of the myrtle; the blossom has a powerful fragrance; it grows like a feather, about eighteen inches long, forming a cluster of small yellow flowers. The day pleasantly cool; thermometer, 95 degrees.
"May 11.—At 5 A.M. we arrived at Korosko; lat. 22 degrees 50 minutes N.; the halting-place for all vessels from Lower Egypt with merchandise for the Soudan."
At this wretched spot the Nile is dreary beyond description, as a vast desert, unenlivened by cultivation, forms its borders, through which the melancholy river rolls towards Lower Egypt in the cloudless glare of a tropical sun. From whence came this extraordinary stream that could flow through these burning sandy deserts, unaided by tributary channels? That was the mysterious question as we stepped upon the shore now, to commence our land journey in search of the distant sources. We climbed the steep sandy bank, and sat down beneath a solitary sycamore.
We had been twenty-six days sailing from Cairo to this point. The boat returned, and left us on the east bank of the Nile, with the great Nubian desert before us.
Korosko is not rich in supplies. A few miserable Arab huts, with the usual fringe of dusty date palms, compose the village; the muddy river is the frontier on the west, the burning desert on the east. Thus hemmed in, Korosko is a narrow strip of a few yards' width on the margin of the Nile, with only one redeeming feature in its wretchedness—the green shade of the old sycamore beneath which we sat.
I had a firman from the Viceroy, a cook, and a dragoman. Thus my impedimenta were not numerous. The firman was an order to all Egyptian officials for assistance; the cook was dirty and incapable; and the interpreter was nearly ignorant of English, although a professed polyglot. With this small beginning, Africa was before me, and thus I commenced the search for the Nile sources. Absurd as this may appear, it was a correct commencement. Ignorant of Arabic, I could not have commanded a large party, who would have been at the mercy of the interpreter or dragoman; thus, the first qualification necessary to success was a knowledge of the language.
After a delay of some days, I obtained sixteen camels from the sheik. I had taken the precaution to provide water-barrels, in addition to the usual goat-skins; and, with a trustworthy guide, we quitted Korosko on the 16th May, 1861, and launched into the desert.
The route from Korosko across the Nubian desert cuts off the chord of an arc made by the great westerly bend of the Nile. This chord is about 230 miles in length. Throughout this barren desert there is no water, except at the half-way station, Moorahd (from moorra, bitter); this, although salt and bitter, is relished by camels. During the hot season in which we unfortunately travelled, the heat was intense, the thermometer ranging from 106 degrees to 114 degrees Fahr. in the shade. The parching blast of the simoom was of such exhausting power, that the water rapidly evaporated from the closed water-skins. It was, therefore, necessary to save the supply by a forced march of seven days, in which period we were to accomplish the distance, and to reach Abou Hammed, on the southern bend of the welcome Nile.
During the cool months, from November until February, the desert journey is not disagreeable; but the vast area of glowing sand exposed to the scorching sun of summer, in addition to the withering breath of the simoom, renders the forced march of 230 miles in seven days, at two and a half miles per hour, the most fatiguing journey that can be endured.
Farewell to the Nile! We turned our backs upon the life-giving river, and our caravan commenced the silent desert march.
A few hours from Korosko the misery of the scene surpassed description. Glowing like a furnace, the vast extent of yellow sand stretched to the horizon. Rows of broken hills, all of volcanic origin, broke the flat plain. Conical tumuli of volcanic slag here and there rose to the height of several hundred feet, and in the far distance resembled the Pyramids of Lower Egypt—doubtless they were the models for that ancient and everlasting architecture; hills of black basalt jutted out from the barren base of sand, and the molten air quivered on the overheated surface of the fearful desert. 114 degrees Fahr. in the shade under the water-skins; 137 degrees in the sun. Noiselessly the spongy tread of the camels crept along the sand—the only sound was the rattle of some loosely secured baggage of their packs. The Arab camel-drivers followed silently at intervals, and hour by hour we struck deeper into the solitude of the Nubian desert.
We entered a dead level plain of orange-coloured sand, surrounded by pyramidical hills: the surface was strewn with objects resembling cannon shot and grape of all sizes from a 32-pounder downwards—the spot looked like the old battle-field of some infernal region; rocks glowing with heat—not a vestige of vegetation—barren, withering desolation.—The slow rocking step of the camels was most irksome, and despite the heat, I dismounted to examine the Satanic bombs and cannon shot. Many of them were as perfectly round as though cast in a mould, others were egg-shaped, and all were hollow. With some difficulty I broke them, and found them to contain a bright red sand: they were, in fact, volcanic bombs that had been formed by the ejection of molten lava to a great height from active volcanoes; these had become globular in falling, and, having cooled before they reached the earth, they retained their forms as hard spherical bodies, precisely resembling cannon shot. The exterior was brown, and appeared to be rich in iron. The smaller specimens were the more perfect spheres, as they cooled quickly, but many of the heavier masses had evidently reached the earth when only half solidified, and had collapsed upon falling. The sandy plain was covered with such vestiges of volcanic action, and the infernal bombs lay as imperishable relics of a hail-storm such as may have destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.
Passing through this wretched solitude we entered upon a scene of surpassing desolation. Far as the eye could reach were waves like a stormy sea, grey, cold-looking waves in the burning heat; but no drop of water: it appeared as though a sudden curse had turned a raging sea to stone. The simoom blew over this horrible wilderness, and drifted the hot sand into the crevices of the rocks, and the camels drooped their heads before the suffocating wind; but still the caravan noiselessly crept along over the rocky undulations, until the stormy sea was passed: once more we were upon a boundless plain of sand and pebbles.
Here every now and then we discovered withered melons (Cucumis colocynthis); the leaves had long since disappeared, and the shrivelled stalks were brittle as glass. They proved that even the desert had a season of life, however short; but the desert fruits were bitter. So intensely bitter was the dry white interior of these melons, that it exactly resembled quinine in taste; when rubbed between the fingers, it became a fine white powder. The Arabs use this medicinally; a small piece placed in a cup of milk, and allowed to stand for a few hours, renders the draught a strong aperient. The sun—that relentless persecutor of the desert traveller—sank behind the western hills, and the long wished for night arrived; cool, delicious night! the thermometer 78 degrees Fahr. a difference of 36 degrees between the shade of day.
The guide commanded the caravan,—he was the desert pilot, and no one dared question his directions; he ordered a halt for TWO HOURS' rest. This was the usual stage and halting-place by the side of a perpendicular rock, the base of which was strewn thick with camel's dung; this excellent fuel soon produced a blazing fire, the coffee began to boil, and fowls were roasting for a hasty dinner. A short snatch of sleep upon the sand, and the voice of the guide again disturbed us. The camels had not been unloaded, but had lain down to rest with their packs, and had thus eaten their feed of dhurra (Sorghum vulgare) from a mat. In a few minutes we started, once more the silent and monotonous desert march.
In the cool night I preferred walking to the uneasy motion of the camel; the air was most invigorating after the intense heat of the day and the prostration caused by the simoom. The desert had a charm by night, as the horizon of its nakedness was limited; the rocks assumed fantastic shapes in the bright moonlight, and the profound stillness produced an effect of the supernatural in that wild and mysterious solitude; the Arab belief in the genii and afreet, and all the demon enemies of man, was a natural consequence of a wandering life in this desert wilderness, where nature is hostile to all living beings.
In forty-six hours and forty-five minutes' actual marching from Korosko we reached Moorahd, "the bitter well."
This is a mournful spot, well known to the tired and thirsty camel, the hope of reaching which has urged him fainting on his weary way to drink one draught before he dies: this is the camel's grave. Situated half way between Korosko and Abou Hammed, the well of Moorahd is in an extinct crater, surrounded upon all sides but one by precipitous cliffs about 300 feet high. The bottom is a dead flat, and forms a valley of sand about 250 yards wide. In this bosom of a crater, salt and bitter water is found at a depth of only six feet from the surface. To this our tired camels frantically rushed upon being unloaded.
The valley was a "valley of dry bones." Innumerable skeletons of camels lay in all directions; the ships of the desert thus stranded on their voyage. Withered heaps of parched skin and bone lay here and there, in the distinct forms in which the camels had gasped their last; the dry desert air had converted the hide into a coffin. There were no flies here, thus there were no worms to devour the carcases; but the usual sextons were the crows, although sometimes too few to perform their office. These were perched upon the overhanging cliffs; but no sooner had our overworked camels taken their long draught and lain down exhausted on the sand, than by common consent they descended from their high places, and walked round and round each tired beast.
As many wretched animals simply crawl to this spot to die, the crows, from long experience and constant practice, can form a pretty correct diagnosis upon the case of a sick camel; they had evidently paid a professional visit to my caravan, and were especially attentive in studying the case of one particular camel that was in a very weakly condition and had stretched itself full length upon the sand; nor would they leave it until it was driven forward.
The heat of Moorahd was terrific; there was no shade of any kind, and the narrow valley surrounded by glowing rocks formed a natural oven. The intense dryness of the overheated atmosphere was such, that many of our water-skins that appeared full were nearly empty; the precious supply had evaporated through the porous leather, and the skins were simply distended by the expanded air within. Fortunately I had taken about 108 gallons from Korosko, and I possessed a grand reserve in my two barrels which could not waste; these were invaluable as a resource when the supply in the skins should be exhausted. My Arab camel-men were supposed to be provided with their own private supply; but, as they had calculated upon stealing from my stock, in which they were disappointed, they were on exceedingly short allowance, and were suffering much from thirst. During our forced march of three days and a half it had been impossible to perform the usual toilette, therefore, as water was life, washing had been out of the question. Moorahd had been looked forward to as the spot of six hours' rest, where we could indulge in the luxury of a bath on a limited scale after the heat and fatigue of the journey. Accordingly, about two quarts of water were measured into a large Turkish copper basin; the tent, although the heat was unendurable, was the only dressing-room, and the two quarts of water, with a due proportion of soap, having washed two people, was about to be thrown away, when the Arab guide, who had been waiting his opportunity, snatched the basin from the servant, and in the agony of thirst drank nearly the whole of its contents, handing the residue to a brother Arab, with the hearty ejaculation, "El hambd el Illah!" (Thank God!)
My wife was seriously ill from the fatigue and intense heat, but there can be no halt in the desert; dead or alive, with the caravan you must travel, as the party depends upon the supply of water. A few extracts verbatim from my journal will describe the journey:—
"May 2O.—Started at 12.30 P.M. and halted at 6.30. Off again at 7.30 P.M. till 2.45 A.M. About four miles from Moorahd, grey granite takes the place of the volcanic slag and schist that formed the rocks to that point. The desert is now a vast plain, bounded by a range of rugged hills on the south. On the north side of Moorahd, at a distance of above eight miles, slate is met with; this continues for about three miles of the route, but it is of impure quality, with the exception of one vein, of a beautiful blue colour. A few miserable stunted thorny mimosas are here to be seen scattered irregularly, as though lost in this horrible desert."
Many years ago, when the Egyptian troops first conquered Nubia, a regiment was destroyed by thirst in crossing this desert. The men, being upon a limited allowance of water, suffered from extreme thirst, and deceived by the appearance of a mirage that exactly resembled a beautiful lake, they insisted on being taken to its banks by the Arab guide. It was in vain that the guide assured them that the lake was unreal, and he refused to lose the precious time by wandering from his course. Words led to blows, and he was killed by the soldiers, whose lives depended upon his guidance. The whole regiment turned from the track and rushed towards the welcome waters. Thirsty and faint, over the burning sands they hurried; heavier and heavier their footsteps became—hotter and hotter their breath, as deeper they pushed into the desert—farther and farther from the lost track where the pilot lay in his blood; and still the mocking spirits of the desert, the afreets of the mirage, led them on, and the lake glistening in the sunshine tempted them to bathe in its cool waters, close to their eyes, but never at their lips. At length the delusion vanished—the fatal lake had turned to burning sand! Raging thirst and horrible despair! the pathless desert and the murdered guide! lost! lost! all lost! Not a man ever left the desert, but they were subsequently discovered, parched and withered corpses, by the Arabs sent upon the search.
"May 21.—Started at 5.45 A.M. till 8.45; again, at 1.45 P.M. till 7 P.M.; again, at 9.30 P.M. till 4 A.M. Saw two gazelles, the first living creatures, except the crows at Moorahd, that we have seen since we left Korosko; there must be a supply of water in the mountains known only to these animals. Thermometer, 111 degrees Fahr. in the shade; at night, 78 degrees. The water in the leather bottle that I repaired is deliciously cool. N.B.—In sewing leather bottles or skins for holding water, no thread should be used, but a leathern thong, which should be dry; it will then swell when wetted, and the seam will be watertight.
"May 22.—Started at 5.30 A.M. till 9.30; again, at 2.15 P.M. till 7.15 P.M. Rested to dine, and started again at 8.30 P.M. till 4.25 A.M.; reaching Abou Hammed, thank heaven!
"Yesterday evening we passed through a second chain of rugged hills of grey granite, about 600 feet high, and descended through a pass to an extensive plain, in which rose abruptly, like huge pyramids, four granite hills, at great distances apart. So exactly do they resemble artificial pyramids at a distance, that it is difficult to believe they are natural objects. I feel persuaded that the ancient Egyptians took their designs for monuments and buildings from the hills themselves, and raised in the plains of Lower Egypt artificial pyramids in imitation of the granite hills of this form. Their temples were in form like many of the granite ranges, and were thoroughly encased with stone. The extraordinary massiveness of these works suggests that Nature assisted the design; the stone columns are imitations of the date palms, and the buildings are copies of the rocky hills—the two common features of Egyptian scenery.
"Throughout the route from Korosko, the skeletons of camels number about eight per mile, with the exception of the last march on either side of the watering-place Moorahd, on which there are double that number, as the animals have become exhausted as they approach the well. In the steep pass through the hills, where the heat is intense, and the sand deep, the mortality is dreadful; in some places I counted six and eight in a heap; and this difficult portion of the route is a mass of bones, as every weak animal gives in at the trying place.
"So dreadful a desert is this between Korosko and Abou Hammed, that Said Pasha ordered the route to be closed; but it was re-opened upon the application of foreign consuls, as the most direct road to the Soudan. Our Bishareen Arabs are first-rate walkers, as they have performed the entire journey on foot. Their water and provisions were all exhausted yesterday, but fortunately I had guarded the key of my two water-casks; thus I had a supply when every water-skin was empty, and on the last day I divided my sacred stock amongst the men, and the still more thirsty camels. In the hot months, a camel cannot march longer than three days without drinking, unless at the cost of great suffering.
"Having arrived here (Abou Hammed) at 4.25 this morning, 23d May, I had the luxury of a bath. The very sight of the Nile was delightful, after the parched desolation of the last seven days. The small village is utterly destitute of everything, and the sterile desert extends to the very margin of the Nile. The journey having occupied ninety-two hours of actual marching across the desert, gives 230 miles as the distance from Korosko, at the loaded-camel rate of two and a half miles per hour. The average duration of daily march has been upwards of thirteen hours, including a day's halt at Moorahd. My camels have arrived in tolerable condition, as their loads did not exceed 400 lbs. each; the usual load is 500 lbs.
"May 24.—Rested both men and beasts. A caravan of about thirty camels arrived, having lost three during the route.
"May 25.—Started at 5 A.M. The route is along the margin of the Nile, to which the desert extends. A fringe of stunted bushes, and groves of the coarse and inelegant dome palm, mark the banks of the river by a thicket of about half a mile in width. I saw many gazelles, and succeeded in stalking a fine buck, and killing him with a rifle.
"May 26.—Marched ten hours. Saw gazelles, but so wild that it was impossible to shoot. Thermometer 110 degrees Fahr.
"May 27.—Marched four hours and forty-five minutes, when we were obliged to halt, as F. is very ill. In the evening I shot two gazelles, which kept the party in meat.
"May 28.—Marched fifteen hours, to make up for the delay of yesterday. Shot a buck on the route.
"May 29.—The march of yesterday cut off an angle of the river, and we made a straight course through the desert, avoiding a bend of the stream. At 7.30 this morning we met the Nile again; the same character of country as before, the river full of rocks, and forming a succession of rapids the entire distance from Abou Hammed. Navigation at this season is impossible, and is most dangerous even at flood-time. The simoom is fearful, and the heat is so intense that it was impossible to draw the gun-cases out of their leather covers, which it was necessary to cut open. All woodwork is warped; ivory knife-handles are split; paper breaks when crunched in the hand, and the very marrow seems to be dried out of the bones by this horrible simoom. One of our camels fell down to die. Shot two buck gazelles; I saw many, but they are very wild.
"May 3O.—The extreme dryness of the air induces an extraordinary amount of electricity in the hair, and in all woollen materials. A Scotch plaid laid upon a blanket for a few hours adheres to it, and upon being roughly withdrawn at night a sheet of flame is produced, accompanied by tolerably loud reports.
"May 31.—After an early march of three hours and twenty minutes, we arrived at the town of Berber, on the Nile, at 9.35 A.M. We have been fifty-seven hours and five minutes actually marching from Abou Hammed, which, at two and a half miles per hour, equals 143 miles. We have thus marched 373 miles from Korosko to Berber in fifteen days; the entire route is the monotonous Nubian desert. Our camels have averaged twenty-five miles per day, with loads of 400 lbs. at a cost of ninety piastres (about 19s.) each, for the whole distance. This rate, with the addition of the guide's expenses, equals about 5s. 6d. per 100 lbs. for carriage throughout 373 miles of burning desert. Although this frightful country appears to be cut off from all communication with the world, the extremely low rate of transport charges affords great facility for commerce."*
* Since that date, 31st May, 1861, the epidemic or cattle plague carried off an immense number of camels, and the charges of transport rose in 1864 and 1865 to a rate that completely paralysed the trade of Upper Egypt.
Berber is a large town, and in appearance is similar to the Nile towns of Lower Egypt, consisting of the usual dusty, unpaved streets, and flat-roofed houses of sun-baked bricks. It is the seat of a Governor, or Mudir, and is generally the quarters for about 1,500 troops. We were very kindly received by Halleem Effendi, the ex-Governor, who at once gave us permission to pitch the tents in his garden, close to the Nile, on the southern outskirt of the town. After fifteen days of desert marching, the sight of a well-cultivated garden was an Eden in our eyes. About eight acres of land, on the margin of the river, were thickly planted with lofty date groves, and shady citron and lemon trees, beneath which we revelled in luxury on our Persian rugs, and enjoyed complete rest after the fatigue of our long journey. Countless birds were chirping and singing in the trees above us; innumerable ring-doves were cooing in the shady palms; and the sudden change from the dead sterility of the desert to the scene of verdure and of life, produced an extraordinary effect upon the spirits. What caused this curious transition? Why should this charming oasis, teeming with vegetation and with life, be found in the yellow, sandy desert? . . . Water had worked this change; the spirit of the Nile, more potent than any genii of the Arabian fables, had transformed the desert into a fruitful garden. Halleem Effendi, the former Governor, had, many years ago, planted this garden, irrigated by numerous water-wheels; and we now enjoyed the fruits, and thanked Heaven for its greatest blessings in that burning land, shade and cool water.
The tents were soon arranged, the camels were paid for and discharged, and in the cool of the evening we were visited by the Governor and suite.
The firman having been officially presented by the dragoman upon our arrival in the morning, the Governor had called with much civility to inquire into our projects and to offer assistance. We were shortly seated on carpets outside the tent, and after pipes and coffee, and the usual preliminary compliments, my dragoman explained, that the main object of our journey was to search for the sources of the Nile, or, as he described it, "the head of the river."
Both the Governor and Halleem Effendi, with many officers who had accompanied them, were Turks; but, in spite of the gravity and solidity for which the Turk is renowned, their faces relaxed into a variety of expressions at this (to them) absurd announcement. "The head of the Nile!" they exclaimed, "impossible!" "Do they know where it is?" inquired the Governor, of the dragoman; and upon an explanation being given, that, as we did not know where it was, we had proposed to discover it, the Turks merely shook their heads, sipped their coffee, and took extra whiffs at their long pipes, until at length the white- haired old Halleem Effendi spoke. He gave good and parental advice, as follows:—
"Don't go upon so absurd an errand; nobody knows anything about the Nile, neither will any one discover its source. We do not even know the source of the Atbara; how should we know the source of the great Nile. A great portion of the Atbara flows through the Pasha of Egypt's dominions; the firman in your possession with his signature, will insure you respect, so long as you remain within his territory; but if you cross his frontier, you will be in the hands of savages. The White Nile is the country of the negroes; wild, ferocious races who have neither knowledge of God nor respect for the Pasha, and you must travel with a powerful armed force; the climate is deadly; how could you penetrate such a region to search for what is useless even should you attain it? But how would it be possible for a lady, young and delicate, to endure what would kill the strongest man? Travel along the Atbara river into the Taka country, there is much to be seen that is unexplored; but give up the mad scheme of the Nile source."
There was some sense in old Halleem Effendi's advice; it was the cool and cautious wisdom of old age, but as I was not so elderly, I took it "cum grano salis." He was a charming old gentleman, the perfect beau ideal of the true old style of Turk, but few specimens of which remain; all that he had said was spoken in sincerity, and I resolved to collect as much information as possible from the grey-headed authorities before I should commence the expedition. I was deeply impressed with one fact, that until I could dispense with an interpreter it would be impossible to succeed, therefore I determined to learn Arabic as speedily as possible.
A week's rest in the garden of Halleem Effendi prepared us for the journey. I resolved to explore the Atbara river and the Abyssinian affluents, prior to commencing the White Nile voyage. The Governor promised me two Turkish soldiers as attendants, and I arranged to send my heavy baggage by boat to Khartoum, and secure the advantage of travelling light; a comfort that no one can appreciate who has not felt the daily delay in loading a long string of camels. Both my wife and I had suffered from a short attack of fever brought on by the prostrating effect of the simoom, which at this season (June) was at its height. The Nile was slowly rising, although it was still low; occasionally it fell about eighteen inches in one night, but again rose; this proved that, although the rains had commenced, they were not constant, as the steady and rapid increase of the river had not taken place. The authorities assured me that the Blue Nile was now rising at Khartoum, which accounted for the increase of the river at Berber.
The garden of Halleem Effendi was attended by a number of fine powerful slaves from the White Nile, whose stout frames and glossy skins were undeniable witnesses of their master's care. A charmingly pretty slave girl paid us daily visits, with presents of fruit from her kind master and numerous mistresses, who, with the usual Turkish compliments as a preliminary message, requested permission to visit the English lady.
In the cool hour of evening a bevy of ladies approached through the dark groves of citron trees, so gaily dressed in silks of the brightest dyes of yellow, blue, and scarlet, that no bouquet of flowers could have been more gaudy. They were attended by numerous slaves, and the head servant politely requested me to withdraw during the interview. Thus turned out of my tent, I was compelled to patience and solitude beneath a neighbouring date palm.
The result of the interview with my wife was most satisfactory; the usual womanish questions had been replied to, and hosts of compliments exchanged. We were then rich in all kinds of European trifles that excited their curiosity, and a few little presents established so great an amount of confidence that they gave the individual history of each member of the family from childhood, that would have filled a column of the Times with births, deaths, and marriages.
Some of these ladies were very young and pretty, and of course exercised a certain influence over their husbands; thus, on the following morning, we were inundated with visitors, as the male members of the family came to thank us for the manner in which their ladies had been received; and fruit, flowers, and the general produce of the garden were presented to us in profusion. However pleasant, there were drawbacks to our garden of Eden; there was dust in our Paradise; not the dust that we see in Europe upon unwatered roads, that simply fills the eyes, but sudden clouds raised by whirlwinds in the desert which fairly choked the ears and nostrils when thus attacked. June is the season when these phenomena are most prevalent. At that time the rains have commenced in the south, and are extending towards the north; the cold and heavy air of the southern rain-clouds sweeps down upon the overheated atmosphere of the desert, and produces sudden violent squalls and whirlwinds when least expected, as at that time the sky is cloudless.
The effect of these desert whirlwinds is most curious, as their force is sufficient to raise dense columns of sand and dust several thousand feet high; these are not the evanescent creations of a changing wind, but they frequently exist for many hours, and travel forward, or more usually in circles, resembling in the distance solid pillars of sand. The Arab superstition invests these appearances with the supernatural, and the mysterious sand-column of the desert wandering in its burning solitude, is an evil spirit, a "Gin" ("genii" plural, of the Arabian Nights). I have frequently seen many such columns at the same time in the boundless desert, all travelling or waltzing in various directions at the wilful choice of each whirlwind: this vagrancy of character is an undoubted proof to the Arab mind of their independent and diabolical origin.
The Abyssinian traveller, Bruce, appears to have entertained a peculiar dread of the dangers of such sand columns, but on this point his fear was exaggerated. Cases may have occurred where caravans have been suffocated by whirlwinds of sand, but these are rare exceptions, and the usual effects of the dust storm are the unroofing of thatched huts, the destruction of a few date palms, and the disagreeable amount of sand that not only half chokes both man and beast, but buries all objects that may be lying on the ground some inches deep in dust.
The wind at this season (June) was changeable, and strong blasts from the south were the harbingers of the approaching rainy season. We had no time to lose, and we accordingly arranged to start. I discharged my dirty cook, and engaged a man who was brought by a coffee-house keeper, by whom he was highly recommended; but, as a precaution against deception, I led him before the Mudir, or Governor, to be registered before our departure. To my astonishment, and to his infinite disgust, he was immediately recognised as an old offender, who had formerly been imprisoned for theft! The Governor, to prove his friendship, and his interest in my welfare, immediately sent the police to capture the coffee-house keeper who had recommended the cook. No sooner was the unlucky surety brought to the Divan than he was condemned to receive 200 lashes for having given a false character. The sentence was literally carried out, in spite of my remonstrance, and the police were ordered to make the case public to prevent a recurrence. The Governor assured me, that as I held a firman from the Viceroy he could not do otherwise, and that I must believe him to be my truest friend. "Save me from my friends," was an adage quickly proved. I could not procure a cook, neither any other attendants, as every one was afraid to guarantee a character, lest he might come in for his share of the 200 lashes!
The Governor came to my rescue, and sent immediately the promised Turkish soldiers, who were to act in the double capacity of escort and servants. They were men of totally opposite characters. Hadji Achmet was a hardy, powerful, dare-devil-looking Turk, while Hadji Velli was the perfection of politeness, and as gentle as a lamb. My new allies procured me three donkeys in addition to the necessary baggage camels, and we started from the pleasant garden of Halleem Effendi on the evening of the 10th of June for the junction of the Atbara river with the Nile.
"'Mongst them were several Englishmen of pith, Sixteen named Thompson, and nineteen named Smith." DON JUAN.
MAHOMET, Achmet, and Ali are equivalent to Smith, Brown, and Thompson. Accordingly, of my few attendants, my dragoman was Mahomet, and my principal guide was Achmet; and subsequently I had a number of Alis. Mahomet was a regular Cairo dragoman, a native of Dongola, almost black, but exceedingly tenacious regarding his shade of colour, which he declared to be light brown. He spoke very bad English, was excessively conceited, and irascible to a degree. No pasha was so bumptious or overbearing to his inferiors, but to me and to his mistress while in Cairo he had the gentleness of the dove, and I had engaged him at 5l. per month to accompany me to the White Nile. Men change with circumstances; climate affects the health and temper; the sleek and well-fed dog is amiable, but he would be vicious when thin and hungry; the man in luxury and the man in need are not equally angelic. Now Mahomet was one of those dragomen who are accustomed to the civilized expeditions of the British tourist to the first or second cataract, in a Nile boat replete with conveniences and luxuries, upon which the dragoman is monarch supreme, a whale among the minnows, who rules the vessel, purchases daily a host of unnecessary supplies, upon which he clears his profit, until he returns to Cairo with his pockets filled sufficiently to support him until the following Nile season. The short three months' harvest, from November until February, fills his granary for the year. Under such circumstances the temper should be angelic. But times had changed: the luxurious Mahomet had left the comfortable Nile boat at Korosko, and he had crossed the burning desert upon a jolting camel; he had left the well-known route where the dragoman was supreme, and he found himself among people who treated him in the light of a common servant. "A change came o'er the spirit of his dream;" Mahomet was no longer a great man, and his temper changed with circumstances; in fact, Mahomet became unbearable, and still he was absolutely necessary, as he was the tongue of the expedition until we should accomplish Arabic. To him the very idea of exploration was an absurdity; he had never believed in it from the first, and he now became impressed with the fact that he was positively committed to an undertaking that would end most likely in his death, if not in terrible difficulties; he determined, under the circumstances, to make himself as disagreeable as possible to all parties. With this amiable resolution Mahomet adopted a physical infirmity in the shape of deafness; in reality, no one was more acute in hearing, but as there are no bells where there are no houses, he of course could not answer such a summons, and he was compelled to attend to the call of his own name—"Mahomet! Mahomet!" No reply, although the individual was sitting within a few feet, apparently absorbed in the contemplation of his own boots. "Mahomet!" with an additional emphasis upon the second syllable. Again no response. "Mahomet, you rascal, why don't you answer?" This energetic address would effect a change in his position; the mild and lamb-like dragoman of Cairo would suddenly start from the ground, tear his own hair from his head in handfuls, and shout, "Mahomet! Mahomet! Mahomet! always Mahomet! D—n Mahomet! I wish he were dead, or back in Cairo, this brute Mahomet!" The irascible dragoman would then beat his own head unmercifully with his fists, in a paroxysm of rage.
To comfort him I could only exclaim, "Well done, Mahomet! thrash him; pommel him well; punch his head; you know him best; he deserves it; don't spare him!" This advice, acting upon the natural perversity of his disposition, generally soothed him, and he ceased punching his head. This man was entirely out of his place, if not out of his mind, at certain moments, and having upon one occasion smashed a basin by throwing it in the face of the cook, and upon another occasion narrowly escaped homicide, by throwing an axe at a man's head, which missed by an inch, he became a notorious character in the little expedition.
We left Berber in the evening at sunset; we were mounted upon donkeys, while our Turkish attendants rode upon excellent dromedaries that belonged to their regiment of irregular cavalry. As usual, when ready to start, Mahomet was the last; he had piled a huge mass of bags and various luggage upon his donkey, that almost obscured the animal, and he sat mounted upon this pinnacle dressed in gorgeous clothes, with a brace of handsome pistols in his belt, and his gun slung across his shoulders. Upon my remonstrating with him upon the cruelty of thus overloading the donkey, he flew into a fit of rage, and dismounting immediately, he drew his pistols from his belt and dashed them upon the ground; his gun shared the same fate, and heaving his weapons upon the sand, he sullenly walked behind his donkey, which he drove forward with the caravan.
We pushed forward at the usual rapid amble of the donkeys; and, accompanied by Hadji Achmet upon his dromedary, with the coffee-pot, &c. and a large Persian rug slung behind the saddle, we quickly distanced the slower caravan under the charge of Hadji Velli and the sullen Mahomet.
There was no difficulty in the route, as the sterile desert of sand and pebbles was bounded by a fringe of bush amid mimosa that marked the course of the Nile, to which our way lay parallel. There was no object to attract particular attention, and no sound but that of the bleating goats driven homeward by the Arab boys, and the sharp cry of the desert sand grouse as they arrived in flocks to drink in the welcome river. The flight of these birds is extremely rapid, and is more like that of the pigeon than the grouse; they inhabit the desert, but they travel great distances both night and morning to water, as they invariably drink twice a day. As they approach the river they utter the cry "Chuckow, chuckow," in a loud clear note, and immediately after drinking they return upon their long flight to the desert. There are several varieties of the sand grouse. I have met with three, but they are dry, tough, and worthless as game.
We slept in the desert about five miles from Berber, and on the following day, after a scorching march of about twenty miles, we arrived at the junction of the Atbara river with the Nile. Throughout the route the barren sand stretched to the horizon on the left, while on the right, within a mile of the Nile, the soil was sufficiently rich to support a certain amount of vegetation—chiefly dwarf mimosas and the Asclepias gigantea. The latter I had frequently seen in Ceylon, where it is used medicinally by the native doctors; but here it was ignored, except for the produce of a beautiful silky down which is used for stuffing cushions and pillows. This vegetable silk is contained in a soft pod or bladder about the size of an orange. Both the leaves and the stem of this plant emit a highly poisonous milk, that exudes from the bark when cut or bruised; the least drop of this will cause total blindness, if in contact with the eye. I have seen several instances of acute ophthalmia that have terminated in loss of sight from the accidental rubbing of the eye with the hand when engaged in cutting firewood from the asclepias. The wood is extremely light, and is frequently tied into fagots and used by the Arabs as a support while swimming, in lieu of cork. Although the poisonous qualities of the plant cause it to be shunned by all other animals, it is nevertheless greedily devoured by goats, who eat it unharmed.
It was about two hours after sunset when we arrived at the steep bank of the Atbara river. Pushing through the fringe of young dome palms that formed a thick covert upon the margin, we cautiously descended the bank for about twenty-five feet, as the bright glare of the river's bed deceived me by the resemblance to water. We found a broad surface of white sand, which at that season formed the dry bed of the river. Crossing this arid bottom of about 400 yards in width, we unsaddled on the opposite side, by a bed of water melons planted near a small pool of water. A few of these we chopped in pieces for our tired donkeys, and we shared in the cool and welcome luxury ourselves that was most refreshing after the fatigue of the day's journey. Long before our camels arrived, we had drunk our coffee and were sound asleep upon the sandy bed of the Atbara.
At daybreak on the following morning, while the camels were being loaded, I strolled to a small pool in the sand, tempted by a couple of wild geese; these were sufficiently unsophisticated as to allow me to approach within shot, and I bagged them both, and secured our breakfast; they were the common Egyptian geese, which are not very delicate eating. The donkeys being saddled, we at once started with our attendant, Hadji Achmet, at about five miles per hour, in advance of our slower caravan. The route was upon the river's margin, due east, through a sandy copse of thorny mimosas which fringed the river's course for about a quarter of a mile on either side; beyond this all was desert.
The Atbara had a curious appearance; in no part was it less than 400 yards in width, while in many places this breadth was much exceeded. The banks were from twenty-five to thirty feet deep: these had evidently been over-flowed during floods, bnt at the present time the river was dead; not only partially dry, but so glaring was the sandy bed, that the reflection of the sun was almost unbearable.
Great numbers of the dome palm (Hyphoene Thebaica, Mart.) grew upon the banks; these trees are of great service to the Arab tribes, who at this season of drought forsake the deserts and flock upon the margin of the Atbara. The leaves of the dome supply them with excellent material for mats and ropes, while the fruit is used both for man and beast. The dome palm resembles the palmyra in the form and texture of its fan-shaped leaves, but there is a distinguishing peculiarity in the growth: instead of the straight single stem of the palmyra, the dome palm spreads into branches, each of which invariably represents the letter Y. The fruit grows in dense clusters, numbering several hundred, of the size of a small orange, but of an irregular oval shape; these are of a rich brown colour, and bear a natural polish as though varnished. So hard is the fruit and uninviting to the teeth, that a deal board would be equally practicable for mastication; the Arabs pound them between stones, by which rough process they detach the edible portion in the form of a resinous powder. The rind of the nut which produces this powder is about a quarter of an inch thick; this coating covers a strong shell which contains a nut of vegetable ivory, a little larger than a full-sized walnut. When the resinous powder is detached, it is either eaten raw, or it is boiled into a delicious porridge, with milk; this has a strong flavour of gingerbread.
The vegetable ivory nuts are then soaked in water for about twenty-four hours, after which they are heaped in large piles upon a fire until nearly dry, and thoroughly steamed; this process renders them sufficiently tractable to be reduced by pounding in a heavy mortar. Thus, broken into small pieces they somewhat resemble half-roasted chestnuts, and in this state they form excellent food for cattle. The useful dome palm is the chief support of the desert Arabs when in times of drought and scarcity the supply of corn has failed. At this season (June) there was not a blade of even the withered grass of the desert oases. Our donkeys lived exclusively upon the dhurra (Sorghum Egyptiaca) that we carried with us, and the camels required a daily supply of corn in addition to the dry twigs and bushes that formed their dusty food. The margin of the river was miserable and uninviting; the trees and bushes were entirely leafless from the intense heat, as are the trees in England during winter. The only shade was afforded by the evergreen dome palms; nevertheless, the Arabs occupied the banks at intervals of three or four miles, wherever a pool of water in some deep bend of the dried river's bed offered an attraction; in such places were Arab villages or camps, of the usual mat tents formed of the dome palm leaves.
Many pools were of considerable size and of great depth. In flood-time a tremendous torrent sweeps down the course of the Atbara, and the sudden bends of the river are hollowed out by the force of the stream to a depth of twenty or thirty feet below the level of the bed. Accordingly these holes become reservoirs of water when the river is otherwise exhausted. In such asylums all the usual inhabitants of this large river are crowded together in a comparatively narrow space. Although these pools vary in size, from only a few hundred yards to a mile in length, they are positively full of life; huge fish, crocodiles of immense size, turtles, and occasionally hippopotami, consort together in close and unwished-for proximity.
The animals of the desert—gazelles, hyaenas, and wild asses—are compelled to resort to these crowded drinking-places, occupied by the flocks of the Arabs equally with the timid beasts of the chase. The birds that during the cooler months would wander free throughout the country, are now collected in vast numbers along the margin of the exhausted river; innumerable doves, varying in species, throng the trees and seek the shade of the dome palms; thousands of desert grouse arrive morning and evening to drink and to depart; while birds in multitudes, of lovely plumage, escape from the burning desert, and colonize the poor but welcome bushes that fringe the Atbara river.
The heat was intense. As we travelled along the margin of the Atbara, and felt with the suffering animals the exhaustion of the clinmate, I acknowledged the grandeur of the Nile that could overcome the absorption of such thirsty sands, and the evaporation caused by the burning atmosphere of Nubia. For nearly 1,200 miles from the junction of the Atbara with the parent stream to the Mediterranean, not one streamlet joined the mysterious river, neither one drop of rain ruffled its waters, unless a rare thunder-shower, as a curious phenomenon, startled the Arabs as they travelled along the desert. Nevertheless the Nile overcame its enemies, while the Atbara shrank to a skeleton, bare and exhausted, reduced to a few pools that lay like blotches along the broad surface of glowing sand.
Notwithstanding the overpowering sun, there were certain advantages to the traveller at this season; it was unnecessary to carry a large supply of water, as it could be obtained at intervals of a few miles. There was an indescribable delight in the cool night, when, in the perfect certainty of fine weather, we could rest in the open air with the clear bright starlit sky above us. There were no mosquitoes, neither were there any of the insect plagues of the tropics; the air was too dry for the gnat tribe, and the moment of sunset was the signal for perfect enjoyment, free from the usual drawbacks of African travel. As the river pools were the only drinking-places for birds and game, the gun supplied not only my own party, but I had much to give away to the Arabs in exchange for goat's milk, the meal of the dome nuts, &c. Gazelles were exceedingly numerous, but shy, and so difficult to approach that they required most careful stalking. At this season of intense heat they drank twice a day—at about an hour after sunrise, and half an hour before sunset.
The great comfort of travelling along the bank of the river in a desert country is the perfect freedom, as a continual supply of water enables the explorer to rest at his leisure in any attractive spot where game is plentiful, or where the natural features of the country invite investigation. We accordingly halted, after some days' journey, at a spot named Collodabad, where an angle of the river had left a deep pool of about a mile in length: this was the largest sheet of water that we had seen throughout the course of the Atbara. A number of Arabs had congregated at this spot with their flocks and herds; the total absence of verdure had reduced the animals to extreme leanness, as the goats gathered their scanty sustenance from the seed-pods of the mimosas, which were shaken down to the expectant flocks by the Arab boys, with long hooked poles. These seeds were extremely oily, and resembled linseed, but the rank flavour was disagreeable and acrid.
This spot was seven days' march from the Nile junction, or about 160 miles. The journey had been extremely monotonous, as there had been no change in the scenery; it was the interminable desert, with the solitary streak of vegetation in the belt of mimosas and dome palms, about a mile and a half in width, that marked the course of the river. I had daily shot gazelles, geese, pigeons, desert grouse, &c. but no larger game. I was informed that at this spot, Collodabad, I should be introduced for the first time to the hippopotamus.
Owing to the total absence of nourishing food, the cattle produced a scanty supply of milk; thus the Arabs, who depended chiefly upon their flocks for their subsistence, were in great distress, and men and beasts mutually suffered extreme hardship. The Arabs that occupy the desert north of the Atbara are the Bishareens; it was among a large concourse of these people that we pitched our tents on the banks of the river at Collodabad.
This being the principal watering-place along the deserted bed of the Atbara, the neighbourhood literally swarmed with doves, sand grouse, and other birds, in addition to many geese and pelicans.
Early in the morning I procured an Arab guide to search for the reported hippopotami. My tents were among a grove of dome palms on the margin of the river; thus I had a clear view of the bed for a distance of about half a mile on either side. This portion of the Atbara was about 500 yards in width, the banks were about thirty feet perpendicular depth; and the bend of the river had caused the formation of the deep hollow on the opposite side which now formed the pool, while every other part was dry. This pool occupied about one-third the breadth of the river, bounded by the sand upon one side, and by a perpendicular cliff upon the other, upon which grew a fringe of green bushes similar to willows. These were the only succulent leaves that I had seen since I left Berber.
We descended the steep sandy bank in a spot that the Arabs had broken down to reach the water, and after trudging across about 400 yards of deep sand, we reached the extreme and narrowest end of the pool; here for the first time I saw the peculiar four-toed print of the hippopotamus's foot. A bed of melons had been planted here by the Arabs in the moist sand near the water, but the fruit had been entirely robbed by the hippopotami. A melon is exactly adapted for the mouth of this animal, as he could crunch the largest at one squeeze, and revel in the juice. Not contented with the simple fruits of the garden, a large bull hippopotamus had recently killed the proprietor. The Arab wished to drive it from his plantation, but was immediately attacked by the hippo, who caught him in its mouth and killed him by one crunch. This little incident had rendered the hippo exceedingly daring, and it had upon several occasions charged out of the water, when the people had driven their goats to drink; therefore it would be the more satisfactory to obtain a shot, and to supply the hungry Arabs with meat at the expense of their enemy.
At this early hour, 6 A.M., no one had descended to the pool, thus all the tracks upon the margin were fresh and undisturbed: there were the huge marks of crocodiles that had recently returned to the water, while many of great size were still lying upon the sand in the distance: these slowly crept into the pool as we approached. The Arabs had dug small holes in the sand within a few yards of the water: these were the artificial drinking-places for their goats and sheep, that would have been snapped up by the crocodiles had they ventured to drink in the pool of crowded monsters. I walked for about a mile and a half along the sand without seeing a sign of hippopotami, except their numerous tracks upon the margin. There was no wind, and the surface of the water was unruffled; thus I could see every creature that rose in the pool either to breathe or to bask in the morning sunshine. The number and size of the fish, turtles, and crocodiles were extraordinary; many beautiful gazelles approached from all sides for their morning draught: wild geese, generally in pairs, disturbed the wary crocodiles by their cry of alarm as we drew near, and the desert grouse in flocks of many thousands had gathered together, and were circling in a rapid flight above the water, wishing, but afraid, to descend and drink. Having a shot gun with me, I fired and killed six at one discharge, but one of the wounded birds having fallen into the water at a distance of about 120 yards, it was immediately seized by a white-throated fish-eagle, which perched upon a tree, swooped down upon the bird, utterly disregarding the report of the gun. The Bishareen Arabs have no fire-arms, thus the sound of a gun was unknown to the game of the desert.
I had killed several wild geese for breakfast in the absence of the hippopotami, when I suddenly heard the peculiar loud snorting neigh of these animals in my rear; we had passed them unperceived, as they had been beneath the surface. After a quick walk of about half a mile, during which time the cry of the hippos had been several times repeated, I observed six of these curious animals standing in the water about shoulder-deep. There was no cover, therefore I could only advance upon the sand without a chance of stalking them; this caused them to retreat to deeper water, but upon my arrival within about eighty yards, they raised their heads well up, and snorted an impudent challenge. I had my old Ceylon No. 10 double rifle, and, taking a steady aim at the temple of one that appeared to be the largest, the ball cracked loudly upon the skull. Never had there been such a commotion in the pool as now! At the report of the rifle, five heads sank and disappeared like stones, but the sixth hippo leaped half out of the water, and, falling backwards, commenced a series of violent struggles: now upon his back; then upon one side, with all four legs frantically paddling, and raising a cloud of spray and foam; then waltzing round and round with its huge jaws wide open, raising a swell in the hitherto calm surface of the water. A quick shot with the left-hand barrel produced no effect, as the movements of the animal were too rapid to allow a steady aim at the forehead; I accordingly took my trmisty little Fletcher* double rifle No. 24, and, running knee-deep into the water to obtain a close shot, I fired exactly between the eyes, near the crown of the head. At the report of the little Fletcher the hippo disappeared; the tiny waves raised by the commotion broke upon the sand, but the game was gone.
* This excellent and handy rifle was made by Thomas Fletcher, of Gloucester, and accompanied me like a faithful dog throughout my journey of nearly five years to the Albert N'yanza, and returned with me to England as good as new.
This being my first vis-a-vis with a hippo, I was not certain whether I could claim the victory; he was gone, but where? However, while I was speculating upon the case, I heard a tremendous rush of water, and I saw five hippopotami tearing along in full trot through a portion of the pool that was not deep enough to cover them above the shoulder: this was the affair of about half a minute, as they quickly reached deep water, and disappeared at about a hundred and fifty yards' distance.
The fact of five hippos in retreat after I had counted six in the onset was conclusive that my waltzing friend was either dead or disabled; I accordingly lost no time in following the direction of the herd. Hardly had I arrived at the spot where they had disappeared, when first one and then another head popped up and again sank, until one more hardy than the rest ventured to appear within fifty yards, and to bellow as before. Once more the No. 10 crashed through his head, and again the waltzing and struggling commenced like the paddling of a steamer: this time, however, the stunned hippo in its convulsive efforts came so close to the shore that I killed it directly in shallow water, by a forehead shot with the little Fletcher. I concluded from this result that my first hippo must also be lying dead in deep water.
The Arabs, having heard the shots fired, had begun to gather towards the spot, and, upon my men shouting that a hippo was killed, crowds came running to the place with their knives and ropes, while others returned to their encampment to fetch camels and mat bags to convey the flesh. In half an hour at least three hundred Arabs were on the spot; the hippo had been hauled to shore by ropes, and, by the united efforts of the crowd, the heavy carcase had been rolled to the edge of the water. Here the attack commenced; no pack of hungry hyaenas could have been more savage. I gave them permission to take the flesh, and in an instant a hundred knives were at work: they fought over the spoil like wolves. No sooner was the carcase flayed than the struggle commenced for the meat; the people were a mass of blood, as some stood thigh-deep in the reeking intestines wrestling for the fat, while many hacked at each other's hands for coveted portions that were striven for as a bonne bouche. I left the savage crowd in their ferocious enjoyment of flesh and blood, and I returned to camp for breakfast, my Turk, Hadji Achmet, carrying some hippopotamus steaks.
That morning my wife and I breakfasted upon our first hippo, an animal that was destined to be our general food throughout our journey among the Abyssinian tributaries of the Nile. After breakfast we strolled down to the pool to search for the hippopotamus No. 1. This we at once found, dead, as it had risen to the surface, and was floating like the back of a turtle a few inches above the water. The Arabs had been so intent upon the division of their spoil that they had not observed their new prize; accordingly, upon the signal being given, a general rush took place, and in half an hour a similar scene was enacted to that of hippo No. 2.
The entire Arab camp was in commotion and full of joy at this unlooked-for arrival of flesh. Camels laden with meat and hide toiled along the sandy bed of the river; the women raised their long and shrill cry of delight; and we were looked upon as general benefactors for having brought them a supply of good food in this season of distress. In the afternoon I arranged my tackle, and strolled down to the pool to fish. There was a difficulty in procuring bait; a worm was never heard of in the burning deserts of Nubia, neither had I a net to catch small fish; I was therefore obliged to bait with pieces of hippopotamnus. Fishing in such a pool as that of the Atbara was sufficiently exciting, as it was impossible to speculate upon what creature might accept the invitation; but the Arabs who accompanied me were particular in guarding me against the position I had taken under a willow-bush close to the water, as they explained, that most probably a crocodile would take me instead of the bait; they declared that accidents had frequently happened when people had sat upon the bank either to drink with their hands, or even while watching their goats. I accordingly fished at a few feet distant from the margin, and presently I had a bite; I landed a species of perch about two pounds' weight; this was the "boulti," one of the best Nile fish mentioned by the traveller Bruce. In a short time I had caught a respectable dish of fish, but hitherto no monster had paid me the slightest attention; accordingly I changed my bait, and upon a powerful hook, fitted upon treble-twisted wire, I fastened an enticing strip of a boulti. The bait was about four ounces, and glistened like silver; the water was tolerably clear, but not too bright, and with such an attraction I expected something heavy. My float was a large-sized pike-float for live bait, and this civilized sign had been only a few minutes in the wild waters of the Atbara, when, bob! and away it went! I had a very large reel, with nearly three hundred yards of line that had been specially made for monsters; down went the top of my rod, as though a grindstone was suspended on it, and, as I recovered its position, away went the line, and the reel revolved, not with the sudden dash of a spirited fish, but with the steady determined pull of a trotting horse. What on earth have I got hold of? In a few minutes about a hundred yards of line were out, and as the creature was steadily but slowly travelling down the centre of the channel, I determined to cry "halt!" if possible, as my tackle was extremely strong, and my rod was a single bamboo. Accordingly, I put on a powerful strain, which was replied to by a sullen tug, a shake, and again my rod was pulled suddenly down to the water's edge. At length, after the roughest handling, I began to reel in slack line, as my unknown friend had doubled in upon me; and upon once more putting severe pressure upon him or her, as it might be, I perceived a great swirl in the water, about twenty yards from the rod. The tackle would bear anything, and I strained so heavily upon my adversary, that I soon reduced our distance; but the water was exceedingly deep, the bank precipitous, and he was still invisible. At length, after much tugging and counter-tugging, he began to show; eagerly I gazed into the water to examine my new acquaintance, when I made out something below, in shape between a coach-wheel and a sponging-bath; in a few moments more I brought to the surface an enormous turtle, well hooked. I felt like the old lady who won an elephant in a lottery: that I had him was certain, but what was I to do with my prize? It was at the least a hundred pounds' weight, and the bank was steep and covered with bushes; thus it was impossible to land the monster, that now tugged and dived with the determination of the grindstone that his first pull had suggested. Once I attempted the gaff but the trusty weapon that had landed many a fish in Scotland broke in the hard shell of the turtle, and I was helpless. My Arab now came to my assistance, and at once terminated the struggle. Seizing the line with both hands, utterly regardless of all remonstrance (which, being in English, he did not understand), he quickly hauled our turtle to the surface, and held it, struggling and gnashing its jaws, close to the steep bank. In a few moments the line slackened, and the turtle disappeared. The fight was over! The sharp horny jaws had bitten through treble-twisted brass wire as clean as though cut by shears. My visions of turtle soup had faded.