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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesGreat African Travellers, From Mungo Park To Livingstone And Stanley - Chapter 23. Travels Of Sir Samuel And Lady Baker
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Great African Travellers, From Mungo Park To Livingstone And Stanley - Chapter 23. Travels Of Sir Samuel And Lady Baker Post by :eLogo Category :Long Stories Author :William H. G. Kingston Date :May 2012 Read :3425

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Great African Travellers, From Mungo Park To Livingstone And Stanley - Chapter 23. Travels Of Sir Samuel And Lady Baker



Sir Samuel, then Mr Baker, was already an experienced traveller and a practised sportsman, when in March, 1861, having resolved to devote his energies to the discovery of one of the sources of the Nile, he set forth from England to proceed up the mysterious river from its mouth, inwardly determined to accomplish the difficult task or to die in the attempt. He had, however, shortly before married a young wife. She, with a devoted love and heroism seldom surpassed, notwithstanding the dangers and difficulties she knew she must encounter, entreated to accompany her husband, in a way not to be denied.

Leaving Cairo on the 15th of April, they sailed up the Nile to Korosko, whence they crossed the Nubian Desert on camels, with the simoon in full force and the heat intense to Berber. Here Mr Baker, finding his want of Arabic a great drawback, resolved to devote a year to the study of that language, and to spend the time in the comparatively known regions to the north of Abyssinia, while he explored the various confluences of the Blue Nile.

They were kindly received at Berber by Halleem Effendi, the ex-governor, who gave them permission to pitch their tents in his gardens close to the Nile. It was a lovely spot, thickly planted with lofty date-groves and shady citron and lemon-trees, in which countless birds were singing and chirruping, and innumerable ring-doves cooing in the shady palms. The once sandy spot, irrigated by numerous water-wheels, had been thus transformed into a fruitful garden.

Here they received visits from their host and the governor, as well as from other officers, who expressed their astonishment when they announced their intention of proceeding to the head of the Nile.

"Do not go on such an absurd errand," exclaimed Halleem Effendi. "Nobody knows anything about the Nile. We do not even know the source of the Atbara. While you remain within the territory of the Pacha of Egypt you will be safe; but the moment you cross the frontier you will be in the hands of savages."

Mr Baker, though receiving the advice _cum grano salis_, profited by it.

Their host sent them daily presents of fruit by a charmingly pretty slave girl, whose numerous mistresses requested permission to pay the travellers a visit. In the 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, the head of whom requested Mr Baker to withdraw while the ladies paid his wife a visit.

Many of them she described as young and pretty. By distributing a number of small presents among them, she completely won their confidence.

After a week spent at this pleasant spot, they commenced their journey on the evening of the 10th of June, attended by a guard of Turkish soldiers, who were to act in the double capacity of escort and servants.

Their dragoman was called Mahomet, and the principal guide Achmet. The former, though almost black, declared that his colour was of a light brown. He spoke very bad English, was excessively conceited, and irascible to a degree. Accustomed to the easy-going expeditions on the Nile, he had _no taste for the rough sort of work his new master had undertaken.

The journey across the desert tract was performed on donkeys, the luggage being carried on camels or dromedaries.

In two days they reached the junction of the Atbara river with the Nile. Here, crossing a broad surface of white sand, which at that season formed the dry bed of the river, they encamped near a plantation of water-melons, with which they refreshed themselves and their tired donkeys. The river was here never less than four hundred yards in width, with banks nearly thirty feet deep. Not only was it partially dry, but so clear was the sand-bed that the reflection of the sun was almost unbearable.

They travelled along the banks of the river for some days, stopping by the side of the pools which still remained. Many of these pools were full of crocodiles and hippopotami. One of these river-horses had lately killed the proprietor of a melon-garden, who had attempted to drive the creature from his plantation. Mr Baker had the satisfaction of killing one of the monsters in shallow water. It was quickly surrounded by Arabs, who hauled it on shore, and, on receiving his permission to take the meat, in an instant a hundred knives were at work, the men fighting to obtain the most delicate morsels. He and his wife breakfasted that morning on hippopotamus flesh, which was destined to be their general food during their journey among the Abyssinian tributaries of the Nile.

Game abounded, and he shot gazelles and hippopotami sufficient to keep the whole camp well supplied with meat.

On the 23rd of June they were nearly suffocated by a whirlwind that buried everything in the tents several inches in dust.

The heat was intense; the night, however, was cool and pleasant. About half-past eight, as Mr Baker lay asleep, he fancied that he heard a rumbling like distant thunder. The low uninterrupted roll increasing in volume, presently a confusion of voices arose from the Arabs' camp, his men shouting as they rushed through the darkness: "The river! the river!"

Mahomet exclaimed that the river was coming down, and that the supposed distant roar was the approach of water. Many of the people, who had been sleeping on the clean sand of the river's bed, were quickly awakened by the Arabs, who rushed down the steep bank to save the skulls of two hippopotami which were exposed to dry.

The sound of the torrent, as it rushed by amid the darkness, and the men, dripping with wet, dragging their heavy burdens up the bank, told that the great event had occurred. The river had arrived like a thief in the night.

The next morning, instead of the barren sheet of clear white sand with a fringe of withered bush and trees upon its borders, cutting the yellow expanse of desert, a magnificent stream, the noble Atbara river flowed by, some five hundred yards in width, and from fifteen to twenty feet in depth. Not a drop of rain, however, had fallen; but the current gave the traveller a clue to one portion of the Nile mystery. The rains were pouring down in Abyssinia--these were the sources of the Nile.

The rainy season, however, at length began, during which it was impossible to travel.

The Arabs during that period migrate to the drier regions in the north.

On their way they arrived in the neighbourhood of the camp of the great Sheikh Achmet Abou Sinn, to whom Mr Baker had a letter of introduction. Having sent it forward by Mahomet, in a short time the sheikh appeared, attended by several of his principal people. He was mounted on a beautiful snow-white _hygeen_, his appearance being remarkably dignified and venerable. Although upwards of eighty years old, he was as erect as a lance, and of herculean stature; a remarkably arched nose, eyes like an eagle's, beneath large, shaggy, but perfectly white eyebrows, while a snow-white beard of great thickness descended below the middle of his breast. He wore a large white turban, and a white cashmere robe reaching from the throat to the ankles. He was indeed the perfect picture of a desert patriarch. He insisted on the travellers accompanying him to his camp, and would hear of no excuses. Ordering Mahomet to have their baggage repacked, he requested them to mount two superb _hygeens with saddle-cloths of blue and purple sheep-skins, and they set out with their venerable host, followed by his wild and splendidly-mounted attendants.

As they approached the camp they were suddenly met by a crowd of mounted men, armed with swords and shields, some on horses, others on _hygeens_. These were Abou Sinn's people, who had assembled to do honour to their chief's guests. Having formed in lines parallel with the approach of their guests, they galloped singly at full speed across the line of march, flourishing their swords over their heads, and reining in their horses so as to bring them on their haunches by the sudden halt. This performance being concluded, they fell into line behind the party.

Declining the sheikh's invitation to spend two or three months at his camp, Mr and Mrs Baker travelled on to the village of Sofi, where they proposed remaining during the rainy season.

It was situated near the banks of the Atbara, on a plateau of about twenty acres, bordered on either side by two deep ravines, while below the steep cliff in front of the village flowed the river Atbara.

Their tents were pitched on a level piece of ground just outside the village, where the grass, closely nibbled by the goats, formed a natural lawn.

Here huts were built and some weeks were pleasantly spent. Mr Baker found an abundance of sport, sometimes catching enormous fish, at others shooting birds to supply his larder, but more frequently hunting elephants, rhinoceros, giraffes, and other large game.

He here found a German named Florian, a stone-mason by trade, who had come out attached to the Austrian mission at Khartoum, but preferring a freer life than that city afforded, had become a great hunter. Mr Baker, thinking that he would prove useful, engaged him as a hunter, and he afterwards took into his service Florian's black servant Richarn, who became his faithful attendant. A former companion of Florian's, Johann Schmidt, soon afterwards arrived, and was also engaged by Mr Baker to act as his lieutenant in his proposed White Nile expedition. Poor Florian, however, was killed by a lion, and Schmidt and Richarn alone accompanied him.

Mr Baker's skill as a sportsman was frequently called into play by the natives, to drive off the elephants and hippopotami which infested their plantations. One afternoon he was requested to shoot a savage old bull hippopotamus which had given chase to several people. Accompanied by Mrs Baker he rode to the spot, about two miles off, where the hippopotamus lived in a deep and broad portion of the river. The old hippopotamus was at home.

"The river, about two hundred and fifty yards wide, had formed by an acute bend a deep hole. In the centre of this was a sandbank just below the surface. Upon this shallow bed the hippopotamus was reposing. On perceiving the party he began to snort and behave himself in a most absurd manner, by shaking his head and leaping half way out of the water. Mr Baker had given Bacheet, one of his attendants, a pistol, and had ordered him to follow on the opposite bank. He now directed him to fire several shots at the hippopotamus, in order if possible to drive the animal towards him. The hippo, a wicked, solitary, old bull, returned the insult by charging towards Bacheet with a tremendous snorting, which sent him scrambling up the steep bank in a panic. This gave the brute confidence; and the sportsman, who had hitherto remained concealed, called out according to Arabic custom: '_Hasinth! hasinth_!' the Arabic for hippopotamus. The brute, thinking no doubt that he might as well drive the intruder away, gave a loud snort, sank, and quickly reappeared about a hundred yards from him. On this Mr Baker ordered Bacheet to shoot to attract the animal's attention. As the hippopotamus turned his head, Mr Baker took a steady shot, aiming behind the ear, and immediately the saucy old hippo turned upon his back and rolled about, lashing the still pool into waves, until at length he disappeared."

His intention of engaging a party of the Hamran Arabs, celebrated as hunters, to accompany him in his explorations of the Abyssinian rivers having become known, several of these men made their appearance at Son. They are distinguished from the other tribes of Arabs by an extra length of hair, worn parted down the centre and arranged in long curls. They are armed with swords and shields, the former having long, straight, two-edged blades, with a small cross for the handle, similar to the long, straight, cross-handled blades of the crusaders. Their shields, formed of rhinoceros, giraffe, or elephant-hide, are either round or oval. Their swords, which they prize highly, are kept as sharp as razors. The length of the blade is about three feet, and the handle six inches long. It is secured to the wrist by a leathern strap, so that the hunter cannot by any accident be disarmed.

These men go in chase of all wild animals of the desert; some are noted as expert hippopotamus slayers, but the most celebrated are the Aggageers, or elephant hunters. The latter attack the huge animal either on horseback, or on foot when they cannot afford to purchase steeds. In the latter case, two men alone hunt together. They follow the tracks of an elephant which they contrive to overtake about noon, when the animal is either asleep or extremely listless and easy to approach. Should the elephant be asleep, one of the hunters will creep towards its head, and with a single blow sever the trunk stretched on the ground, the result being its death within an hour from bleeding. Should the animal be awake, they will creep up from behind, and give a tremendous cut at the back sinew of the hind leg, immediately disabling the monster. It is followed up by a second cut on the remaining leg, when the creature becomes their easy prey.

When hunting on horseback, generally four men form a party, and they often follow the tracks of a herd from their drinking-place for upwards of twenty miles.

Mr Baker accompanied them on numerous hunting expeditions, and witnessed the wonderful courage and dexterity they displayed.

After spending three months at Son, he set out for the Settite River, he and his wife crossing the Atbara River on a raft formed of his large circular sponging bath supported by eight inflated skins secured to his bedstead.

A party of the Aggageers now joined him. Among them was Abou Do, a celebrated old hippopotamus hunter, who, with his spear of trident shape in hand, might have served as a representative of Neptune. The old Arab was equally great at elephant hunting, and had on the previous day exhibited his skill, having assisted to kill several elephants. He now divested himself of all his clothing, and set out, taking his harpoon in hand, in search of hippopotami.

This weapon consisted of a steel blade about eleven inches long and three-quarters of an inch in width, with a single barb. To it was attached a strong rope twenty feet long, with a float as large as a child's head at the extremity. Into the harpoon was fixed a piece of bamboo ten feet long, around which the the rope was twisted, while the buoy was carried on the hunter's left hand.

After proceeding a couple of miles, a herd of hippopotami were seen in a pool below a rapid surrounded by rocks. He, however, remarking that they were too wide-awake to be attacked, continued his course down the stream till a smaller pool was reached. Here the immense head of a hippopotamus was seen, close to a perpendicular rock that formed a wall to the river. The old hunter, motioning the travellers to remain quiet, immediately plunged into the stream and crossed to the opposite bank, whence, keeping himself under shelter, he made his way directly towards the spot beneath which the hippopotamus was lying. "Stealthily he approached, his long thin arm raised, with the harpoon ready to strike. The hippopotamus, however, had vanished, but far from exhibiting surprise, the veteran hunter remaining standing on the sharp ledge, unchanged in attitude. No figure of bronze could be more rigid than that of the old river king, as he thus stood, his left foot advanced, his right-hand grasping the harpoon above his head, and his left the loose coil of rope attached to the buoy."

"Three minutes thus passed, when suddenly the right arm of the statue descended like lightening, and the harpoon shot perpendicularly into the pool with the speed of an arrow. In an instant an enormous pair of open jaws appeared, followed by the ungainly head and form of a furious hippopotamus, who, springing half out of the water, lashed the river into foam as he charged straight up the violent rapids. With extraordinary power he breasted the descending stream, gaining a footing in the rapids where they were about five feet deep, thus making his way, till, landing from the river, he started at full gallop along the shingly bed, and disappeared in the thorny jungle. No one would have supposed that so unwieldy an animal could have exhibited such speed, and it was fortunate for old Neptune that he was secure on the high ledge of rock, for had he been on the path of the infuriated beast, there would have been an end of Abou Do."

The old man rejoined his companions, when Mr Baker proposed going in search of the animal. The hunter, however, explained that the hippopotamus would certainly return after a short time to the water. In a few minutes the animal emerged from the jungle and descended at full trot into the pool where the other hippopotami had been seen, about half a mile off. Upon reaching it, the party were immediately greeted by the hippopotamus, who snorted and roared and quickly dived, and the float was seen running along the surface, showing his course as the cork of a trimmer does that of a pike when hooked. Several times the hippo appeared, but invariably faced them, and, as Mr Baker could not obtain a favourable shot, he sent the old hunter across the stream to attract the animal's attention. The hippo, turning towards the hunter, afforded Mr Baker a good chance, and he fired a steady shot behind the ear. The crack of the ball, in the absence of any splash from the bullet, showed him that the hippopotamus was hit, while the float remained stationary upon the surface, marking the spot where the grand old bull lay dead beneath. The hunter obtaining assistance from the camp, the hippopotamus, as well as another which had been shot, were hauled on shore. The old bull measured fourteen feet two inches, and the head was three feet one inch from the front of the ear to the edge of the lip, in a straight line.

Though hippopotami are generally harmless, solitary old bulls are sometimes extremely vicious, and frequently attack canoes without provocation.

Many of the elephant hunts in which Mr Baker engaged were exciting in the highest degree, and fraught with no small amount of danger.

Among the Aggageers was a hunter, Rodur Sherrif, who, though his arm had been withered in consequence of an accident, was as daring as any of his companions.

The banks of the Royan had been reached, where, a camp having been formed, Mr Baker and his companions set out in search of elephants. A large bull elephant was discovered drinking. The country around was partly woody, and the ground strewed with fragments of rocks, ill adapted for riding. The elephant had made a desperate charge, scattering the hunters in all directions, and very nearly overtaking Mr Baker. He then retreated into a stronghold composed of rocks and uneven ground, with a few small leafless trees growing in it. The scene must be described in the traveller's own words. "Here the elephant stood facing the party like a statue, not moving a muscle beyond the quick and restless action of the eyes, which were watching on all sides. Two of the Aggageers getting into its rear by a wide circuit, two others, one of whom was the renowned Rodur Sherrif, mounted on a thoroughly-trained bay mare, rode slowly towards the animal. Coolly the mare advanced towards her wary antagonist until within about nine yards of its head. The elephant never moved. Not a word was spoken. The perfect stillness was at length broken by a snort from the mare, who gazed intently at the elephant, as though watching for the moment of attack. Rodur coolly sat with his eyes fixed upon those of the elephant.

"With a shrill scream the enormous creature then suddenly dashed on him like an avalanche. Round went the mare as though upon a pivot, away over rocks and stones, flying like a gazelle, with the monkey-like form of Rodur Sherrif leaning forward and looking over his left shoulder as the elephant rushed after him. For a moment it appeared as if the mare must be caught. Had she stumbled, all would have been lost, but she gained in the race after a few quick bounding strides, and Rodur, still looking behind him, kept his distance, so close, however, to the creature, that its outstretched trunk was within a few feet of the mare's tail.

"The two Aggageers who had kept in the rear now dashed forward close to the hind quarters of the furious elephant, who, maddened with the excitement, heeded nothing but Rodur and his mare. When close to the tail of the elephant, the sword of one of the Aggageers flashed from its sheath as, grasping his trusty blade, he leaped nimbly to the ground, while his companion caught the reins of his horse. Two or three bounds on foot, with the sword clutched in both hands, and he was close behind the elephant. A bright glance shone like lightning as the sun struck on the descending steel. This was followed by a dull crack, the sword cutting through skin and sinew, and sinking deep into the bone about twelve inches above the foot. At the next stride the elephant halted dead short in the midst of his tremendous charge. The Aggageer who had struck the blow vaulted into the saddle with his naked sword in hand. At the same moment Rodur turned sharp round and, again facing the elephant, stooped quickly from the saddle to pick up from the ground a handful of dirt, which he threw into the face of the vicious animal, that once more attempted to rush upon him. It was impossible: the foot was dislocated and turned up in front like an old shoe. In an instant the other Aggageer leaped to the ground, and again the sharp sword slashed the remaining leg."

Nothing could be more perfect than the way in which these daring hunters attack their prey. "It is difficult to decide which to admire most-- whether the coolness and courage of him who led the elephant, or the extraordinary skill and activity of the Aggageer who dealt the fatal blow."

Thus, hunting and exploring, Mr Baker, accompanied by his heroic wife, visited the numerous river-beds which carry the rains of the mountainous regions of Abyssinia into the Blue Nile, and are the cause of the periodical overflowing of the mighty stream, while its ordinary current is fed from other far-distant sources, towards one of which the traveller now prepared to direct his steps.

Speke and Grant were at this time making their way from Zanzibar, across untrodden ground, towards Gondokoro.

An expedition under Petherick, the ivory-trader, sent to assist them, had met with misfortune and been greatly delayed, and Mr Baker therefore hoped to reach the equator, and perhaps to meet the Zanzibar explorers somewhere about the sources of the Nile.

Proceeding along the banks of the Blue Nile, Mr and Mrs Baker reached Khartoum on the 11th of June, 1862. A beautiful view met their sight as they gazed across the waters of the Nile. "The morning sun was shining on this capital of the Soudan provinces; the dark green foliage of the groves of date-trees contrasted exquisitely with the numerous buildings of many colours which lined the margin of the river, while long lines of vessels with tapering spars gave light to the scene. But alas! this beauty soon vanished, both the sight and smell being outraged grievously as they entered the filthy and miserable town."

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