From Massowah to Kassala - The Start - The Habab - Adventures of M. Marcopoli - The Beni Amer - Arrival at Kassala - The Nubian Mutiny - Attempt of De Bisson to found a Colony in the Soudan...
On the afternoon of the 15th October, all our preparations being apparently complete, the mission, composed of Mr. H. Rassam, Lieut. W.F. Prideaux, of her Majesty's Bombay Staff Corps, and myself, started on its dangerous enterprise. We were accompanied by a nephew of the Naib of Arkiko; and an escort of Turkish Irregulars had been graciously sent by the Pasha to protect our sixty camels, laden with our personal luggage, stores, and presents for the Ethiopian monarch. We also took with us several Portuguese and other Indian servants, and a few natives of Massowah as muleteers.
On a first march something is always found wanting. On this occasion many of the cameleers were unprovided with ropes: boxes, portmanteau-bags, were strewed all over the road, and night was far advanced before the last camel reached Moncullou. A halt was in consequence absolutely necessary, so that the actual start was only made on the afternoon of the 16th.
From Moncullou our route lay N.W. across the desert of Chab, a dreary wilderness of sand, intersected by two winter torrents, generally dry: but by digging in their sandy beds it is possible at all seasons to obtain some muddy water. The rapidity with which these torrents fill up is most astonishing.
During the summer of 1865, we had made a trip to Af-Abed, in the Hababs' country. On our return, whilst crossing the desert, we experienced a very severe storm. We had just reached our encamping-ground on the Southern bank of one of these water-courses, and half the camels had already crossed the dry bed of the river, when, on a sudden, a tremendous roar was heard, shortly afterwards followed by a fearful rush of water. In the former empty bed of the torrent now dashed a mighty stream, tearing down trees and rocks, so that no human being could possibly cross. Our luggage and servants were still on the opposite bank, and although we were only a stone's throw from the party so suddenly cut off from us, we had to spend the night on the bare ground, with no other covering than our clothing.
In the very centre of the desert of Chab, arises, Amba Goneb, a conical basaltic rock several hundred feet high, an advanced sentry detached from the now approaching mountains. On the evening of the 18th, we reached Ain, and from the glaring and dreary desert passed into a lovely valley, watered by a small winding stream, cool and limpid, shaded by mimosas and tamarinds, and glowing with the freshness and luxuriance of topical vegetation. [Footnote: The distance from Massowah to Ain is about forty-five miles.]
We were fortunate enough to leave the cholera behind us. Apart from a few cases of diarrhoea, easily checked, the whole party was in excellent health; every one in high spirits at the prospect of visiting almost unknown regions, and above all at having at last bid adieu to Massowah, where we had spent in anxious expectation long and dreary months.
From Ain to Mahaber [Footnote: From Ain to Mahaber (direction E. by N.) about twenty miles.] the road is most picturesque; always following the winding of the small river Ain, here and there compressed to only a few yards by perpendicular walls of trachyte, or basalt; further on expanding into miniature green plateaus, bordered by conical hills, covered to the very summit by mimosas and huge cactuses, alive with large hordes of antelopes (the agazin), which, bounding from rock to rock, scared by their frolics the countless host of huge baboons. The valley itself, graced by the presence of gaudy-feathered and sweet-singing birds, echoed to the shrill cry of the numerous guinea-fowls, so tame, that the repeated reports of our fire-arms did not disturb them in the least.
At Mahaber we were obliged to remain several days awaiting fresh camels. The Hababs, who had now to supply us, frightened by the presence of the hairy nephew of the Nab and the Bashi-hazouks, made themselves scarce, and it was only after much parley and the repeated assurance that every one would be paid, that the camels at last made their appearance. The Hababs are a large pastoral tribe, inhabiting the Ad Temariam, a hilly and well-watered district, about fifty miles north-west of Massowah, included between longitude 38.39 and latitude 16 to 16.30. They represent the finest type of the roving Bedouins; of middle height, muscular, well made, they claim an Abyssinian origin. With the exception of a darker hue of the skin, certainly in other respects they do not differ from the inhabitants of the table-land, and have but few characteristics of the aboriginal African races. Some fifty years ago they were a Christian tribe - nominally, at least - but were converted to Mohammedanism by an old Sheik, still alive, who resides near Moncullou, and is an object of great veneration all over the Samhar. Once their doubts removed, their suspicions lulled, the Hababs proved themselves friendly, willing, and obliging.
Gratitude is no common virtue in Africa, at least as far as my own experience goes. Its rarity brings back to my memory a fact that I will here record. On our previous trip to the Ad Temariam, I had seen several patients, amongst them a young man, suffering from remittent fever, and I gave him some medicine. Hearing of our arrival at Mahaber, he came to thank me, bringing as an offering a small skin of milk. He apologized for the absence of his aged father, who also, he said, wished to kiss my feet, but the distance (about eight miles) was too much for the old man's strength.