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.