CHAPTER V. EXPLORATION OF THE OLD WHITE NILE.
I had long since determined to explore the sudd, or obstructions of the main Nile, in the hope of discovering some new passage which the stream might have forced through the vegetation. A Shillook, named Abdullah, closely connected with Quat Kare, had promised to accompany me, and to supply the necessary guides. The river was full - thus I started on 11th August, 1870.
The engines of the No. 10 steamer had been thoroughly repaired during our stay at Tewfikeeyah. I had loaded her to the maximum with well-cut "Soont" (Acacia Arabicce), which is the best fuel; and knowing, by the experience of former years, that a scarcity of wood existed near the Bahr Gazal, I had loaded one of the largest vessels (about seventy tons) with a supply, to accompany us as a tender. I had also filled my diahbeeah with selected fuel.
We steamed thirteen hours from Tewfikeeyah, with the tender and diahbeeah in tow, and reached the old sudd about twelve miles beyond the Bahr Giraffe junction. The water below the sudd was quite clear from floating vegetation, as it had been filtered through this extraordinary obstruction.
I will not fatigue the reader by a description of this voyage. We were as usual in a chaos of marshes. We found a small channel, which took us to the Bahr Gazal. This swampy and stagnant lacustine river was much changed since I had last seen it in 1865. It was now a succession of lakes, through which we steamed for several hours, but without discovering any exit, except the main passage coming from the west, which is the actual Bahr Gazal.
This was the third time that I had visited this river. Upon the former occasions I had remarked the total absence of current; this was even still more remarkable at the present time, as the river was not only full, but the surface, formerly clogged and choked with dense rafts of vegetation, was now clear. I sounded the depth of the lakes and main channel, which gave a remarkable mean of seven feet throughout, showing that the bottom was remarkably flat, and had not been subjected to the action of any stream that would have caused inequalities in the surface of the ground.
When the vessels lay at anchor, the filth of the ships remained alongside, thus proving the total absence of stream. It has always appeared to me that some western outlet concealed by the marsh grass must exist, which carries away the water brought down by the Djour, and other streams, into the lacustrine regions of the Bahr Gazal. There is no doubt that the evaporation, and also the absorption of water by the immense area of spongy vegetation, is a great drain upon the volume subscribed by the affluents from the south-west; nevertheless, I should have expected some stream, however slight, at the junction with the Nile. My experience of the Bahr Gazal assures me that little or no water is given to the White Nile by the extraordinary series of lakes and swamps, which change the appearance of the surface from year to year, like the shifting phases of a dream.
Our lamented traveller, Livingstone, was completely in error when he conjectured that the large river Lualaba that he had discovered south-west of the Tanganyika lake was an affluent of the Bahr Gazal. The Lualaba is far to the west of the Nile Basin, and may possibly flow to the Congo. I have shown in former works, in describing the system of the Nile, that the great affluents of that river invariably flow from the south-east - vide, the Atbara, Blue Nile, Sobat; and the Asua, which is very inferior so the three great rivers named.
We have lastly the Victoria Nile of the Victoria N'yanza, following the same principle, and flowing from the south-east to the Albert N'yanza. This proves that the direct drainage of the Nile Basin is from the south-east to the north-west; it is therefore probable that, as the inclination of the country is towards the west, there may be some escape from the lake marshes of the Bahr Gazal in the same direction.
On 21st August, having been absent ten days, during which we had been very hard at work, exploring in the unhealthy marshes of the Bahr Gaza], we returned hopelessly to Tewfikeeyah.
The great river Nile was entirely lost, and had become a swamp, similar to the condition of the Bahr Giraffe. It was impossible to guess the extent of the obstruction; but I was confident that it would be simply a question of time and labour to clear the original channel by working from below the stream. The great power of the current would assist the work, and with proper management this formerly beautiful river might be restored to its original condition. It would be impossible to clear the Bahr Giraffe permanently, as there was not sufficient breadth of channel to permit the escape of huge rafts of vegetation occupying the surface of perhaps an acre; but the great width of the Nile, if once opened, together with the immense power of the stream, would, with a little annual inspection, assure the permanency of the work.
I came to the conclusion that a special expedition must be sent from Khartoum to take this important work in hand, as it would be quite useless to annex and attempt to civilize Central Africa, unless a free communication existed with the outer world by which a commercial channel could be opened. My exploration, in which I had been ably assisted by Lieutenant Baker and Mr. Higginbotham, had proved that for the present it was impossible to penetrate south by the main river, therefore I must make all preparations for an advance by the Bahr Giraffe, where I hoped that our past labour might have in some degree improved the channel.