In the Heart of Africa

Contents:
Author: Samuel White Baker

Chapter I.

The Nubian desert—The bitter well—Change of plans—An irascible dragoman—Pools of the Atbara—One secret of the Nile—At Cassala.

In March, 1861, I commenced an expedition to discover the sources of the Nile, with the hope of meeting the East African expedition of Captains Speke and Grant, that had been sent by the English Government from the South via Zanzibar, for the same object. I had not the presumption to publish my intention, as the sources of the Nile had hitherto defied all explorers, but I had inwardly determined to accomplish this difficult task or to die in the attempt. From my youth I had been inured to hardships and endurance in wild sports in tropical climates, and when I gazed upon the map of Africa I had a wild hope, mingled with humility, that, even as the insignificant worm bores through the hardest oak, I might by perseverance reach the heart of Africa.

I could not conceive that anything in this world has power to resist a determined will, so long as health and life remain. The failure of every former attempt to reach the Nile source did not astonish me, as the expeditions had consisted of parties, which, when difficulties occur, generally end in difference of opinion and in retreat; I therefore determined to proceed alone, trusting in the guidance of a Divine Providence and the good fortune that sometimes attends a tenacity of purpose. I weighed carefully the chances of the undertaking. Before me, untrodden Africa; against me, the obstacles that had defeated the world since its creation; on my side, a somewhat tough constitution, perfect independence, a long experience in savage life, and both time and means, which I intended to devote to the object without limit.

England had never sent an expedition to the Nile sources previous to that under the command of Speke and Grant. Bruce, ninety years before, had succeeded in tracing the source of the Blue or Lesser Nile; thus the honor of that discovery belonged to Great Britain. Speke was on his road from the South, and I felt confident that my gallant friend would leave his bones upon the path rather than submit to failure. I trusted that England would not be beaten, and although I hardly dared to hope that I could succeed where others greater than I had failed, I determined to sacrifice all in the attempt.

Had I been alone, it would have been no hard lot to die upon the untrodden path before me; but there was one who, although my greatest comfort, was also my greatest care, one whose life yet dawned at so early an age that womanhood was still a future. I shuddered at the prospect for her, should she be left alone in savage lands at my death; and gladly would I have left her in the luxuries of home instead of exposing her to the miseries of Africa. It was in vain that I implored her to remain, and that I painted the difficulties and perils still blacker than I supposed they really would be. She was resolved, with woman’s constancy and devotion, to share all dangers and to follow me through each rough footstep of the wild life before me. "And Ruth said, Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest I will go, and where thou lodgest I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God; where thou diest will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me."

Thus accompanied by my wife, on the 15th of April, 1861, I sailed up the Nile from Cairo. The wind blew fair and strong from the north, and we flew toward the south against the stream, watching those mysterious waters with a firm resolve to track them to their distant fountain.

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 sources of the Nile.

On arrival at Korosko, twenty-six days from Cairo, we started across the Nubian Desert. 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 two hundred and thirty miles in seven days, at two and a half miles per hour, one of the most fatiguing journeys that can he endured.

We entered a dead level plain of orange-colored sand, surrounded by pyramidical hills. The surface was strewn with objects resembling cannon shot and grape of all sizes from a 32-pounder downward, and 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 hailstorm 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, gray, coldlooking 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.

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 three hundred feet high. The bottom is a dead flat, and forms a valley of sand about two hundred and fifty 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 carcasses ; 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.

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 toward 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 hike 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.

During our march the simoom was fearful, and the heat so intense that it was impossible to draw the guncases out of their leather covers, which it was necessary to cut open. All woodwork was warped; ivory knife-handles were split; paper broke when crunched in the hand, and the very marrow seemed to he dried out of the bones. The extreme dryness of the air induced an extraordinary amount of electricity in the hair and in all woollen materials. A Scotch plaid laid upon a blanket for a few hours adhered to it, and upon being withdrawn at night a sheet of flame was produced, accompanied by tolerably loud reports.

We reached Berber on May 31st, and spent a week in resting after our formidable desert march of fifteen days. From the slight experience I had gained in the journey, I felt convinced that success in my Nile expedition would be impossible without a knowledge of Arabic. My dragoman had me completely in his power, and I resolved to become independent of all interpreters as soon as possible. I therefore arranged a plan of exploration for the first year, to embrace the affluents to the Nile from the Abyssinian range of mountains, intending to follow up the Atbara River from its junction with the Nile in latitude 17 deg. 37 min. (twenty miles south of Berber), and to examine all the Nile tributaries from the southeast as far as the Blue Nile, which river I hoped ultimately to descend to Khartoum. I imagined that twelve months would be sufficient to complete such an exploration, by which time I should have gained a sufficient knowledge of the Arabic to render me able to converse fairly well.

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 coffeehouse 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 recognized 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 two hundred 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 nor any other attendant, as every one was afraid to guarantee a character, lest he might come in for his share of the two hundred 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 Berber on the evening of the 10th of June for the junction of the Atbara River With the Nile.

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 color, which he declared to be light brown. He spoke very bad English, was excessively conceited, and irascible to a degree. He was one of those dragomans 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. To Mahomet the very idea of exploration was an absurdity. He had never believed in it front 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 he 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 were 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, and about two hours after sunset of the following day reached the junction of the Nile and Atbara. The latter presented a curious appearance. In no place was it less than four hundred yards in width, and in many places much wider. The banks were from twenty-five to thirty feet deep, and had evidently been overflowed during floods; but now the river bed was dry sand, so glaring that the sun’s reflection was almost intolerable. 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 domepalm 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, hyenas, 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.

After several days’ journey along the bank of the Atbara we halted at a spot called Collodabad, about one hundred and sixty miles from the Nile junction. A sharp bend of the river had left a deep pool about a mile in length, and here a number of Arabs were congregated, with their flocks and herds.

On the evening of June 23d I was lying half asleep upon my bed by the margin of the river, when I fancied that I heard a rumbling like distant thunder. I had not heard such a sound for months, but a low, uninterrupted roll appeared to increase in volume, although far distant. Hardly had I raised my head to listen more attentively when a confusion of voices arose from the Arabs’ camp, with a sound of many feet, and in a few minutes they rushed into my camp, shouting to my men in the darkness, "El Bahr! El Bahr!" (the river! the river!)

We were up in an instant, and my interpreter, Mahomet, in a state of intense confusion, explained that the river was coming down, and that the supposed distant thunder was the roar of approaching water.

Many of the people were asleep on the clean sand on the river’s bed; these were quickly awakened by the Arabs, who rushed down the steep bank to save the skulls of two hippopotami that were exposed to dry. Hardly had they descended when the sound of the river in the darkness beneath told us that the water had arrived, and the men, dripping with wet, had just sufficient time to drag their heavy burdens up the bank.

All was darkness and confusion, everybody talking and no one listening; but the great event had occurred; the river had arrived "like a thief in the night". On the morning of the 24th of June, I stood on the banks of the noble Atbara River at the break of day. The wonder of the desert! Yesterday there was a barren sheet of glaring sand, with a fringe of withered bushes and trees upon its borders, that cut the yellow expanse of desert. For days we had journeyed along the exhausted bed; all Nature, even in Nature’s poverty, was most poor: no bush could boast a leaf, no tree could throw a shade, crisp gums crackled upon the stems of the mimosas, the sap dried upon the burst bark, sprung with the withering heat of the simoom. In one night there was a mysterious change. Wonders of the mighty Nile! An army of water was hastening to the wasted river. There was no drop of rain, no thunder-cloud on the horizon to give hope. All had been dry and sultry, dust and desolation yesterday; to-day a magnificent stream, some five hundred yards in width and from fifteen to twenty feet in depth, flowed through the dreary desert! Bamboos and reeds, with trash of all kinds, were hurried along the muddy waters. Where were all the crowded inhabitants of the pool? The prison doors were broken, the prisoners were released, and rejoiced in the mighty stream of the Atbara.

The 24th of June, 1861, was a memorable day. Although this was actually the beginning of my work, I felt that by the experience of this night I had obtained a clew to one portion of the Nile mystery, and that, as "coming events cast their shadows before," this sudden creation of a river was but the shadow of the great cause. The rains were pouring in Abyssinia! THESE WERE SOURCES OF THE NILE!

The journey along the margin of the Atbara was similar to the route from Berber, through a vast desert, with a narrow band of trees that marked the course of the river. The only change was the magical growth of the leaves, which burst hourly from the swollen buds of the mimosas. This could be accounted for by the sudden arrival of the river, as the water percolated rapidly through the sand and nourished the famishing roots.

At Gozerajup, two hundred and forty-six miles from Berber, our route was changed. We had hitherto followed the course of the Atbara, but we were now to leave that river on our right, while we travelled about ninety miles south-east to Cassala, the capital of the Taka country, on the confines of Abyssinia, and the great depot for Egyptian troops.

The entire country from Gozerajup to Cassala is a dead flat, upon which there is not one tree sufficiently large to shade a full-sized tent. There is no real timber in the country; but the vast level extent of soil is a series of open plains and low bush of thorny mimosa. There is no drainage upon this perfect level; thus, during the rainy season, the soakage actually melts the soil, and forms deep holes throughout the country, which then becomes an impenetrable slough, bearing grass and jungle. No sooner had we arrived in the flooded country than my wife was seized with a sudden and severe fever, which necessitated a halt upon the march, as she could no longer sit upon her camel. In the evening several hundreds of Arabs arrived and encamped around our fire. It was shortly after sunset, and it was interesting to watch the extreme rapidity with which these swarthy sons of the desert pitched their camp. A hundred fires were quickly blazing; the women prepared the food, and children sat in clusters around the blaze, as all were wet from paddling through the puddled ground from which they were retreating.

No sooner was the bustle of arrangement completed than a gray old man stepped forward, and, responding to his call, every man of the hundreds present formed in line, three or four deep. At once there was total silence, disturbed only by the crackling of the fires or by the cry of a child; and with faces turned to the east, in attitudes of profound devotion, the wild but fervent followers of Mahomet repeated their evening prayer. The flickering red light of the fires illumined the bronze faces of the congregation, and as I stood before the front line of devotees, I tools off my cap in respect for their faith, and at the close of their prayer made my salaam to their venerable Faky (priest); he returned the salutation with the cold dignity of an Arab.

On the next day my wife’s fever was renewed, but she was placed on a dromedary and we reached Cassala about sunset. The place is rich in hyenas, and the night was passed in the discordant howling of these disgusting but useful animals. They are the scavengers of the country, devouring every species of filth and clearing all carrion from the earth. Without the hyenas and vultures the neighborhood of a Nubian village would be unbearable. It is the idle custom of the people to leave unburied all animals that die; thus, among the numerous flocks and herds, the casualties would create a pestilence were it not for the birds and beasts of prey.

On the following morning the fever had yielded to quinine, and we were enabled to receive a round of visits —the governor and suite, Elias Bey, the doctor and a friend, and, lastly, Malem Georgis, an elderly Greek merchant, who, with great hospitality, insisted upon our quitting the sultry tent and sharing his own roof. We therefore became his guests in a most comfortable house for some days. Here we discharged our camels, as our Turk, Hadji Achmet’s, service ended at this point, and proceeded to start afresh for the Nile tributaries of Abyssinia.

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Chicago: Samuel White Baker, "Chapter I.," In the Heart of Africa in In the Heart of Africa Original Sources, accessed December 6, 2021, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=91ANPY9WDCSU2GD.

MLA: Baker, Samuel White. "Chapter I." In the Heart of Africa, in In the Heart of Africa, Original Sources. 6 Dec. 2021. originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=91ANPY9WDCSU2GD.

Harvard: Baker, SW, 'Chapter I.' in In the Heart of Africa. cited in , In the Heart of Africa. Original Sources, retrieved 6 December 2021, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=91ANPY9WDCSU2GD.