CHAPTER XXI. The cradle of the Nile - Arrival at Magungo - The blind leading the blind - Murchison Falls.

The beach was perfectly clean sand, upon which the waves rolled like those of the sea, throwing up weeds precisely as seaweed may be seen upon the English shore. It was a grand sight to look upon this vast reservoir of the mighty Nile and to watch the heavy swell tumbling upon the beach, while far to the south-west the eye searched as vainly for a bound as though upon the Atlantic. It was with extreme emotion that I enjoyed this glorious scene. My wife, who had followed me so devotedly, stood by my side pale and exhausted - a wreck upon the shores of the great Albert Lake that we had so long striven to reach. No European foot had ever trod upon its sand, nor had the eyes of a white man ever scanned its vast expanse of water. We were the first; and this was the key to the great secret that even Julius Caesar yearned to unravel, but in vain. Here was the great basin of the Nile that received EVERY DROP OF WATER, even from the passing shower to the roaring mountain torrent that drained from Central Africa toward the north. This was the great reservoir of the Nile!

The first coup d'oeil from the summit of the cliff 1500 feet above the level had suggested what a closer examination confirmed. The lake was a vast depression far below the general level of the country, surrounded by precipitous cliffs, and bounded on the west and south-west by great ranges of mountains from five to seven thousand feet above the level of its waters - thus it was the one great reservoir into which everything MUST drain; and from this vast rocky cistern the Nile made its exit, a giant in its birth. It was a grand arrangement of nature for the birth of so mighty and important a stream as the river Nile. The Victoria N'yanza of Speke formed a reservoir at a high altitude, receiving a drainage from the west by the Kitangule River; and Speke had seen the M'fumbiro Mountain at a great distance as a peak among other mountains from which the streams descended, which by uniting formed the main river Kitangule, the principal feeder of the Victoria Lake from the west, in about 2 degrees S. latitude. Thus the same chain of mountains that fed the Victoria on the east must have a watershed to the west and north that would flow into the Albert Lake. The general drainage of the Nile basin tending from south to north, and the Albert Lake extending much farther north than the Victoria, it receives the river from the latter lake, and thus monopolizes the entire head-waters of the Nile. The Albert is the grand reservoir, while the Victoria is the eastern source. The parent streams that form these lakes are from the same origin, and the Kitangule sheds its waters to the Victoria to be received EVENTUALLY by the Albert, precisely as the highlands of M'fumbiro and the Blue Mountains pour their northern drainage DIRECTLY into the Albert Lake.

That many considerable affluents flow into the Albert Lake there is no doubt. The two waterfalls seen by telescope upon the western shore descending from the Blue Mountains must be most important streams, or they could not have been distinguished at so great a distance as fifty or sixty miles. The natives assured me that very many streams, varying in size, descended the mountains upon all sides into the general reservoir.

It was most important that we should hurry forward on our journey, as our return to England depended entirely upon the possibility of reaching Gondokoro before the end of April, otherwise the boats would have departed. I started off Rabonga, to Magungo, where he was to meet us with riding oxen.

We were encamped at a small village on the shore of the lake, called Vacovia. On the following morning not one of our party could rise from the ground. Thirteen men, the boy Saat, four women, besides my wife and me, were all down with fever. The natives assured us that all strangers suffered in a like manner. The delay in supplying boats was most annoying, as every hour was precious. The lying natives deceived us in every possible manner, delaying us purposely in hope of extorting beads.

The latitude of Vacovia was 1"degree" 15' N.; longitude 30 "degrees" 50' E. My farthest southern point on the road from M'rooli was latitude 1 "degree" 13'. We were now to turn our faces toward the north, and every day's journey would bring us nearer home. But where was home? As I looked at the map of the world, and at the little red spot that represented old England far, far away, and then gazed on the wasted form and haggard face of my wife and at my own attenuated frame, I hardly dared hope for home again. We had now been three years ever toiling onward, and having completed the exploration of all the Abyssinian affluents of the Nile, in itself an arduous undertaking, we were now actually at the Nile head. We had neither health nor supplies, and the great journey lay all before us.

Eight days were passed at Vacovia before we could obtain boats, which, when they did come, proved to be mere trees neatly hollowed out in the shape of canoes. At last we were under way, and day after day we journeyed along the shore of the lake, stopping occasionally at small villages, and being delayed now and then by deserting boatmen.

The discomforts of this lake voyage were great; in the day we were cramped in our small cabin like two tortoises in one shell, and at night it almost invariably rained. We were accustomed to the wet, but no acclimatization can render the European body mosquito-proof; thus we had little rest. It was hard work for me; but for my unfortunate wife, who had hardly recovered from her attack of coup de soleil, such hardships were most distressing.

On the thirteenth day from Vacovia we found ourselves at the end of our lake voyage. The lake at this point was between fifteen and twenty miles across, and the appearance of the country to the north was that of a delta. The shores upon either side were choked with vast banks of reeds, and as the canoe skirted the edge of that upon the east coast we could find no bottom with a bamboo of twenty-five feet in length, although the floating mass appeared like terra firma. We were in a perfect wilderness of vegetation. On the west were mountains about 4000 feet above the lake level, a continuation of the chain that formed the western shore from the south. These mountains decreased in height toward the north, in which direction the lake terminated in a broad valley of reeds.

We were informed that we had arrived at Magungo, and after skirting the floating reeds for about a mile we entered a broad channel, which we were told was the embouchure of the Somerset River from Victoria N'yanza. In a short time we landed at Magungo, where we were welcomed by the chief and by our guide Rabonga, who had been sent in advance to procure oxen.

The exit of the Nile from the lake was plain enough, and if the broad channel of dead water were indeed the entrance of the Victoria Nile (Somerset), the information obtained by Speke would be remarkably confirmed. But although the chief of Magungo and all the natives assured me that the broad channel of dead water at my feet was positively the brawling river that I had crossed below the Karuma Falls, I could not understand how so fine a body of water as that had appeared could possibly enter the Albert Lake as dead water. The guide and natives laughed at my unbelief, and declared that it was dead water for a considerable distance from the junction with the lake, but that a great waterfall rushed down from a mountain, and that beyond that fall the river was merely a succession of cataracts throughout the entire distance of about six days' march to Karuma Falls. My real wish was to descend the Nile in canoes from its exit from the lake with my own men as boatmen, and thus in a short time to reach the cataracts in the Madi country; there to forsake the canoes and all my baggage, and to march direct to Gondokoro with only our guns and ammunition. I knew from native report that the Nile was navigable as far as the Madi country to about Miani's tree, which Speke had laid down by astronomical observation in lat. 3 "degrees" 34'. This would be only seven days' march from Gondokoro, and by such a direct course I should be sure to arrive in time for the boats to Khartoum.

I had promised Speke that I would explore most thoroughly the doubtful portion of the river that he had been forced to neglect from Karuma Falls to the lake. I was myself confused at the dead-water junction; and although I knew that the natives must be right - as it was their own river, and they had no inducement to mislead me - I was determined to sacrifice every other wish in order to fulfil my promise, and thus to settle the Nile question most absolutely. That the Nile flowed out of the lake I had heard, and I had also confirmed by actual inspection; from Magungo I looked upon the two countries, Koshi and Madi, through which it flowed, and these countries I must actually pass through and again meet the Nile before I could reach Gondokoro. Thus the only point necessary to settle was the river between the lake and the Karuma Falls.

The boats being ready, we took leave of the chief of Magungo, leaving him an acceptable present of beads, and descended the hill to the river, thankful at having so far successfully terminated the expedition as to have traced the lake to that important point, Magungo, which had been our clew to the discovery even so far away in time and place as the distant country of Latooka. We were both very weak and ill, and my knees trembled beneath me as we walked down the easy descent. I, in my enervated state, endeavoring to assist my wife, we were the "blind leading the blind;" but had life closed on that day we could have died most happily, for the hard fight through sickness and misery had ended in victory; and although I looked to home as a paradise never to be regained, I could have lain down to sleep in contentment on this spot, with the consolation that, if the body had been vanquished, we died with the prize in our grasp.

On arrival at the canoes we found everything in readiness, and the boatmen already in their places. Once in the broad channel of dead water we steered due east, and made rapid way until the evening. The river as it now appeared, although devoid of current, was on an average about 500 yards in width. Before we halted for the night I was subjected to a most severe attack of fever, and upon the boat reaching a certain spot I was carried on a litter, perfectly unconscious, to a village, attended carefully by my poor sick wife, who, herself half dead, followed me on foot through the marches in pitch darkness, and watched over me until the morning. At daybreak I was too weak to stand, and we were both carried down to the canoes, and crawling helplessly within our grass awning we lay down like logs while the canoes continued their voyage. Many of our men were also suffering from fever. The malaria of the dense masses of floating vegetation was most poisonous, and upon looking back to the canoe that followed in our wake I observed all my men sitting crouched together sick and dispirited, looking like departed spirits being ferried across the melancholy Styx.

The woman Bacheeta knew the country, as she had formerly been to Magungo when in the service of Sali, who had been subsequently murdered by Kamrasi. She informed me on the second day that we should terminate our canoe voyage on that day, as we should arrive at the great waterfall of which she had often spoken. As we proceeded the river gradually narrowed to about 180 yards, and when the paddles ceased working we could distinctly hear the roar of water. I had heard this on waking in the morning, but at the time I had imagined it to proceed from distant thunder. By ten o'clock the current had so increased as we proceeded that it was distinctly perceptible, although weak. The roar of the waterfall was extremely loud, and after sharp pulling for a couple of hours, during which time the stream increased, we arrived at a few deserted fishing-huts, at a point where the river made a slight turn. I never saw such an extraordinary show of crocodiles as were exposed on every sandbank on the sides of the river. They lay like logs of timber close together, and upon one bank we counted twenty-seven of large size. Every basking place was crowded in a similar manner. From the time we had fairly entered the river it had been confined by heights somewhat precipitous on either side, rising to about 180 feet. At this point the cliffs were still higher and exceedingly abrupt. From the roar of the water I was sure that the fall would be in sight if we turned the corner at the bend of the river; accordingly I ordered the boatmen to row as far as they could. To this they at first objected, as they wished to stop at the deserted fishing village, which they explained was to be the limit of the journey, further progress being impossible.

However, I explained that I merely wished to see the falls, and they rowed immediately up the stream, which was now strong against us. Upon rounding the corner a magnificent sight burst suddenly upon us. On either side the river were beautifully wooded cliffs rising abruptly to a height of about 300 feet; rocks were jutting out from the intensely green foliage; and rushing through a gap that cleft the rock exactly before us, the river, contracted from a grand stream, was pent up in a narrow gorge of scarcely fifty yards in width. Roaring furiously through the rock-bound pass, it plunged in one leap of about 120 feet perpendicular into a dark abyss below.

The fall of water was snow-white, which had a superb effect as it contrasted with the dark cliffs that walled the river, while the graceful palms of the tropics and wild plantains perfected the beauty of the view. This was the greatest waterfall of the Nile, and in honor of the distinguished President of the Royal Geographical Society I named it the Murchison Falls, as the most important object throughout the entire course of the river.

At this point we had ordered our oxen to he sent, as we could go no farther in the canoes. We found the oxen ready for us; but if we looked wretched, the animals were a match. They had been bitten by the flies, thousands of which were at this spot. Their coats were staring, ears drooping, noses running, and heads hanging down - all the symptoms of fly-bite, together with extreme looseness of the bowels. I saw that it was all up with our animals. Weak as I was myself, I was obliged to walk, as my ox could not carry me up the steep inclination. I toiled languidly to the summit of the cliff, and we were soon above the falls, and arrived at a small village a little before evening.

On the following morning we started, the route as before being parallel to the river, and so close that the roar of the rapids was extremely loud. The river flowed in a deep ravine upon our left. We continued for a day's march along the Somerset, crossing many ravines and torrents, until we turned suddenly down to the left, and arriving at the bank we were to be transported to an island called Patooan, that was the residence of a chief. It was about an hour after sunset, and, being dark, my riding ox, which was being driven as too weak to carry me, fell into an elephant pitfall. After much hallooing, a canoe was brought from the island, which was not more than fifty yards from the mainland, and we were ferried across. We were both very ill with a sudden attack of fever; and my wife, not being able to stand, was, on arrival at the island, carried on a litter I knew not whither, escorted by some of my men, while I lay down on the wet ground quite exhausted with the annihilating disease. At length the rest of my men crossed over, and those who had carried my wife to the village returning with firebrands, I managed to creep after them with the aid of a long stick, upon which I rested with both hands. After a walk through a forest of high trees for about a quarter of a mile, I arrived at a village where I was shown a wretched hut, the stars being visible through the roof. In this my wife lay dreadfully ill upon her angarep, and I fell down upon some straw. About an hour later a violent thunderstorm broke over us, and our hut was perfectly flooded. Being far too ill and helpless to move from our positions, we remained dripping wet and shivering with fever until the morning. Our servants and people had, like all native, made themselves much more comfortable than their employers; nor did they attempt to interfere with our misery in any way until summoned to appear at sunrise.

The island of Patooan was about half a mile long by 150 yards wide, and was one of the numerous masses of rocks that choke the river between Karuma Falls and the great Murchison cataract. My headman now informed me that war was raging between Kamrasi and his rivals, Fowooka and Rionga, and it would be impossible to proceed along the bank of the river to Karuma. My exploration was finished, however, as it was by no means necessary to continue the route from Patooan to Karuma.