CHAPTER III. WILD ASSES OF THE DESERT.

THE journey along the margin of the Atbara was similar to the entire route from Berber, a vast desert, with the narrow band of trees that marked the course of the river; the only change was the magical growth of the leaves, which burst hourly from the swollen buds of the mimosas: this could be accounted for by the sudden arrival of the river, as the water percolated rapidly through the sand and nourished the famishing roots.

The tracks of wild asses had been frequent, but hitherto I had not seen the animals, as their drinking-hour was at night, after which they travelled far into the desert: however, on the morning of the 29th June, shortly after the start at about 6 A.M., we perceived three of these beautiful creatures on our left - an ass, a female, and a foal. They were about half a mile distant when first observed, and upon our approach to within half that distance they halted and faced about; they were evidently on their return to the desert from the river. Those who have seen donkeys in their civilized state have no conception of the beauty of the wild and original animal. Far from the passive and subdued appearance of the English ass, the animal in its native desert is the perfection of activity and courage; there is a high-bred tone in the deportment, a high-actioned step when it trots freely over the rocks and sand, with the speed of a horse when it gallops over the boundless desert. No animal is more difficult of approach; and, although they are frequently captured by the Arabs, those taken are invariably the foals, which are ridden down by fast dromedaries, while the mothers escape. The colour of the wild ass is a reddish cream tinged with the shade most prevalent of the ground that it inhabits; thus it much resembles the sand of the desert. I wished to obtain a specimen, and accordingly I exerted my utmost knowledge of stalking to obtain a shot at the male. After at least an hour and a half I succeeded in obtaining a long shot with a single rifle, which passed through the shoulder, and I secured my first and last donkey. It was with extreme regret that I saw my beautiful prize in the last gasp, and I resolved never to fire another shot at one of its race. This fine specimen was in excellent condition, although the miserable pasturage of the desert is confined to the wiry herbage already mentioned; of this the stomach was full, chewed into morsels like chopped reeds. The height of this male ass was about 13.3 or 14 hands; the shoulder was far more sloping than that of the domestic ass, the hoofs were remarkable for their size; they were wide, firm, and as broad as those of a horse of 15 hands. I skinned this animal carefully, and the Arabs divided the flesh among them, while Hadji Achmet selected a choice piece for our own dinner. At the close of our march that evening, the morsel of wild ass was cooked in the form of "rissoles:" the flavour resembled beef but it was extremely tough.

On the following day, 30th June, we reached Gozerajup, a large permanent village on the south bank of the river. By dead reckoning we had marched 246 miles from Berber. This spot was therefore about 220 miles from the junction of the Atbara with the Nile. Here we remained for a few days to rest the donkeys and to engage fresh camels. An extract from my journal will give a general idea of this miserable country: -

"July 3. - I went out early to get something for breakfast, and shot a hare and seven pigeons. On my return to camp, an Arab immediately skinned the hare, and pulling out the liver, lungs, and kidneys, he ate them raw and bloody. The Arabs invariably eat the lungs, liver, kidneys, and the thorax of sheep, gazelles, &c. while they are engaged in skinning the beasts, after which they crack the leg bones between stones, and suck out the raw marrow."

A Bishareen Arab wears his hair in hundreds of minute plaits which hang down to his shoulders, surmounted by a circular bushy topknot upon the crown, about the size of a large breakfast-cup, from the base of which the plaits descend. When in full dress, the plaits are carefully combed out with an ivory skewer about eighteen inches in length; after this operation, the head appears like a huge black mop surmounted by a fellow mop of a small size. Through this mass of hair he carries his skewer, which is generally ornamented, and which answers the double purpose of comb and general scratcher.

The men have remarkably fine features, but the women are not generally pretty. The Bishareen is the largest Arab tribe of Nubia. Like all the Arabs of Upper Egypt, they pay taxes to the Viceroy; these are gathered by parties of soldiers, who take the opportunity of visiting them during the drought, at which time they can be certainly found near the river; but at any other season it would be as easy to collect tribute from the gazelles of the desert as from the wandering Bishareens. The appearance of Turkish soldiers is anything but agreeable to the Arabs; therefore my escort of Turks was generally received with the "cold shoulder" upon our arrival at an Arab camp, and no supplies were forthcoming in the shape of milk, &c. until the long coorbatch (hippopotamus whip) of Hadji Achmet had cracked several times across the shoulders of the village headman. At first this appeared to me extremely brutal, but I was given to understand that I was utterly ignorant of the Arab character, and that he knew best. I found by experience that Hadji Achmet was correct; even where milk was abundant, the Arabs invariably declared that they had not a drop, that the goats were dry, or had strayed away; and some paltry excuses were offered until the temper of the Turk became exhausted, and the coorbatch assisted in the argument. A magician's rod could not have produced a greater miracle than the hippopotamus whip. The goats were no longer dry, and in a few minutes large gourds of milk were brought, and liberally paid for, while I was ridiculed by the Turk, Hadji Achmet, for so foolishly throwing away money to the "Arab dogs."

Our route was to change. We had hitherto followed the course of the Atbara, but we were now to leave that river on our right, while we should travel S.E. about ninety miles to Cassala, the capital of the Taka country, on the confines of Abyssinia, the great depot upon that frontier for Egyptian troops, military stores, &c.

Having procured fresh camels, we started on 5th July. This portion of the desert was rich in agates and numerous specimens of bloodstone. Exactly opposite the village of Gozerajup are curious natural landmarks, - four pyramidical hills of granite that can be seen for many miles' distance in this perfectly level country. One of these hills is about 500 feet high, and is composed entirely of flaked blocks of grey granite piled one upon the other; some of these stand perpendicularly in single masses from 30 to 50 feet high, and from a distance might be taken for giants climbing the hill-side. The pinnacle has a peculiar conical cap, which appears to have been placed there by design, but upon closer inspection it is found to be natural, as no stone of such immense size could have been placed in such a position.

For the first two hours' march from this landmark, the country was covered with scrubby bush abounding in gazelles and guinea-fowl. Here, for the first time, I saw the secretary bird, known to the Arabs as the "Devil's horse." A pair of these magnificent birds were actively employed in their useful avocation of hunting reptiles, which they chased with wonderful speed. Great numbers of wild asses passed us during the march towards evening; they were on their way from the desert to the Atbara river, some miles distant upon the west. Veritable thunder we now heard for the first time in Africa, and a cloud rose with great rapidity from the horizon. A cloud was a wonder that we had not enjoyed for months, but as this increased both in size and density, accompanied by a gust of cool wind, we were led to expect a still greater wonder - RAIN! Hardly had we halted for the night, when down it came in torrents, accompanied by a heavy thunderstorm. On the following morning, we experienced the disadvantage of rain; the ground was so slippery that the camels could not march, and we were obliged to defer our start until the sun had dried the surface.

We had now arrived at the most interesting point to an explorer. From Cairo to within a few miles south of Gozerajup stretched the unbroken desert through which we had toiled from Korosko, and which had so firmly impressed its dreariness upon the mind that nothing but desert had been expected: we had learned to be content in a world of hot sand, rocks, and pebbles; but we had arrived upon the limit; the curious landmark of Gozerajup was an everlasting beacon that marked the frontier of the Nubian desert; it was a giant warder, that seemed to guard the living south from the dreadful skeleton of nature on the north; the desert had ceased!

It was a curious and happy coincidence that onr arrival upon the limits of the desert should have been celebrated by the first shower of rain: we no longer travelled upon sand and stones, but we stood upon a fertile loam, rendered soapy and adhesive by the recent shower. The country was utterly barren at that season, as the extreme heat of the sun and simoom destroys all vegetation so thoroughly that it becomes as crisp as glass; the dried grass breaks in the wind, and is carried away in dust, leaving the earth so utterly naked and bare that it is rendered a complete desert.

In the rainy season, the whole of this country, from the south to Gozerajup, is covered with excellent pasturage, and, far from resembling a desert, it becomes a mass of bright green herbage. The Arabs and their flocks are driven from the south by the flies and by the heavy rains, and Gozerajup offers a paradise to both men and beasts; thousands of camels with their young, hundreds of thousands of goats, sheep, and cattle, are accompanied by the Arabs and their families, who encamp on the happy pastures during the season of plenty.

We had now passed the hunts occupied by the Bishareens, and we had entered upon the country of the Hadendowa Arabs. These are an exceedingly bad tribe, and, together with their neighbours, the Hallonga Arabs, they fought determinedly against the Egyptians, until finally conquered during the reign of the famous Mehemet Ala Pasha, when the provinces of Nubia submitted unconditionally, and became a portion of Upper Egypt.

Upon arrival at Soojalup we came upon the principal encampment of the Hadendowa during the dry season. Within a few miles of this spot the scene had changed: instead of the bare earth denuded of vegetation, the country was covered with jungle, already nearly green, while the vast plains of grass, enlivened by beautiful herds of antelopes, proved not only the fertility of the soil, but the presence of moisture. Although there was no stream, nor any appearance of a river's bed, Soojalup was well supplied with water throughout the hottest season by numerous wells. This spot is about forty miles distant from Gozerajup, and is the first watering-place upon the route to Cassala. As we approached the wells, we passed several large villages surrounded by fenced gardens of cotton, and tobacco, both of which throve exceedingly. Every village possessed a series of wells, with a simple contrivance for watering their cattle: - Adjoining the mouth of each well was a basin formed of clay, raised sufficiently high above the level of the ground to prevent the animals from treading it while drinking. With a rope and a leathern bag distended by pieces of stick, the water was raised from the wells and emptied into the clay basins; the latter were circular, about nine feet in diameter, and two feet deep. I measured the depth of some of the wells, and found a uniformity of forty feet. We halted at Soojalup for the night: here for the first time I saw the beautiful antelope known by the Arabs as the Ariel (Gazelle Dama). This is a species of gazelle, being similar in form and in shape of the horns, but as large as a fallow deer: the colour also nearly resembles that of the gazelle, with the exception of the rump, which is milk-white.

These animals had no water nearer than the Atbara river, unless they could obtain a stealthy supply from the cattle basins of the Arabs during the night; they were so wild, from being constantly disturbed and hunted by the Arab dogs, that I found it impossible to stalk them upon the evening of our arrival. The jungles literally swarmed with guinea-fowl - I shot nine in a few minutes, and returned to camp with dinner for my whole party. The only species of guinea-fowl that I have seen in Africa is that with the blue comb and wattles. These birds are a blessing to the traveller, as not only are they generally to be met with from the desert frontier throughout the fertile portions of the south, but they are extremely good eating, and far superior to the domestic guinea-fowl of Europe. In this spot, Soojalup, I could have killed any number, had I wished to expend my shot: but this most necessary ammunition required much nursing during a long exploration. I had a good supply, four hundredweight of the most useful sizes, No. 6 for general shooting, and B B. for geese, &c.; also a bag of No. 10, for firing into dense flocks of small birds. On the following morning we left Soojalup; for several miles on our route were Arab camps and wells, with immense herds of goats, sheep, and cattle. Antelopes were very numerous, and it was exceedingly interesting to observe the new varieties as we increased our distance from the north. I shot two from my camel (G. Dorcas); they were about the size of a fine roebuck; - the horns were like those of the gazelle, but the animals were larger and darker in colour, with a distinguishing mark in a jet black stripe longitudinally dividing the white of the belly from the reddish colour of the flank. These antelopes were exceedingly wild, and without the aid of a camel it would have been impossible to approach them. I had exchanged my donkey for Hadji Achmet's dromedary; thus mounted, I could generally succeed in stalking to within ninety or a hundred yards, by allowing the animal to feed upon the various bushes, as though I had mounted it for the purpose of leading it to graze. This deceived the antelopes, and by carefully ascertaining the correct wind, I obtained several shots, some of which failed, owing to the unsteadiness of my steed, which had a strong objection to the rifle.

The entire country from Gozerajup to Cassala is a dead flat, upon which there is not one tree sufficiently large to shade a full-sized tent: there is no real timber in the country, but the vast level extent of soil is a series of open plains and low bush of thorny mimosa: there is no drainage upon this perfect level; thus, during the rainy season, the soakage actually melts the soil, and forms deep holes throughout the country, which then becomes an impracticable slough, bearing grass and jungle. Upon this fertile tract of land, cotton might be cultivated to a large extent, and sent to Berber, via Atbara, from Gozerajup, during the season of flood. At the present time, the growth is restricted to the supply required by the Arabs for the manufacture of their cloths. These are woven by themselves, the weaver sitting in a hole excavated in the ground before his rude loom, shaded by a rough thatch about ten feet square, supported upon poles. There is a uniformity in dress throughout all the Nubian tribes of Arabs, the simple toga of the Romans this is worn in many ways, as occasion may suggest, very similar to the Scotch plaid. The quality of cotton produced is the same as that of Lower Egypt, and the cloths manufactured by the Arabs, although coarse, are remarkably soft. The toga or tope is generally ornamented with a few red stripes at either extremity, and is terminated by a fringe.

As we approached within about twenty-five miles o Cassala, I remarked that the country on our left was in many places flooded; the Arabs, who had hitherto been encamped in this neighbourhood during the dry season, were migrating to other localities in the neighbourhood of Soojalup and Gozerajup, with their vast herds of camels and goats. As rain had not fallen in sufficient quantity to account for the flood, I was informed that it was due to the river Gash, or Mareb, which, flowing from Abyssinia, passed beneath the walls of Cassala, and then divided into innumerable ramifications; it was eventually lost, and disappeared in the porous soil, after having flooded a large extent of country. This cause accounted for the never-failing wells of Soojalup - doubtless a substratum of clay prevented the total escape of the water, which remained at a depth of forty feet from the surface. The large tract of country thus annually flooded by the river Gash is rendered extremely fruitful, and is the resort of both the Hadendowa and the Hallonga Arabs during the dry season, who cultivate large quantities of dhurra, and other grain. Unfortunately, in these climates, fertility of soil is generally combined with unhealthiness, and the commencement of the rainy season is the signal for fevers and other maladies. No sooner had we arrived in the flooded country than my wife was seized with a sudden and severe attack, which necessitated a halt upon the march, as she could no longer sit upon her camel. In the evening, several hundreds of Arabs arrived, and encamped around our fire. It was shortly after sunset, and it was interesting to watch the extreme rapidity with which these swarthy sons of the desert pitched their camp - a hundred fires were quickly blazing; the women prepared the food, children sat in clusters round the blaze, as all were wet from paddling through the puddled ground, from which they were retreating.

No sooner was the bustle of arrangement completed, than a grey old man stepped forward, and, responding to his call, every man of the hundreds present formed in line, three or four deep. At once there was total silence, disturbed only by the crackling of the fires, or by the cry of a child; and with faces turned to the east, in attitudes of profound devotion, the wild but fervent followers of Mahomet repeated their evening prayer.

The flickering red light of the fires illumined the bronze faces of the congregation, and as I stood before the front line of devotees, I took off my cap in respect for their faith, and at the close of their prayer I made my salaam to their venerable Faky (priest); he returned the salutation with the cold dignity of an Arab. In this part the coorbatch of the Turk was unnecessary, and we shortly obtained supplies of milk. I ordered the dragoman Mahomet to inform the Faky that I was a doctor, and that I had the best medicines at the service of the sick, with advice gratis. In a short time I had many applicants, to whom I served out a quantity of Holloway's pills. These are most useful to an explorer, as, possessing unmistakeable purgative properties, they create an undeniable effect upon the patient, which satisfies him of their value. They are also extremely convenient, as they may be carried by the pound in a tin box, and served out in infinitesimal doses from one to ten at a time, according to the age of the patients. I had a large medicine chest, with all necessary drugs, but I was sorely troubled by the Arab women, many of whom were barren, who insisted upon my supplying them with some medicine that would remove this stigma and render them fruitful. It was in vain to deny them; I therefore gave them usually a small dose of ipecacuanha, with the comforting word to an Arab, "Inshallah," "if it please God." At the same time I explained that the medicine was of little value.

On the following morning, during the march, my wife had a renewal of fever. We had already passed a large village named Abre, and the country was a forest of small trees, which, being in leaf, threw a delicious shade. Under a tree, upon a comfortable bed of dry sand, we wer obliged to lay her for several hours, until the paroxysm passed, and she could remount her dromedary. This she did with extreme difficulty, and we hurried toward Cassala, from which town we were only a few miles distant.

For the last fifty or sixty miles we had seen the Cassala mountain - at first a blue speck above the horizon. It now rose in all the beauty of a smooth and bare block of granite, about 3,500 feet above the level of the country with the town of Cassala at the base, and the roaring torrent Gash flowing at our feet. When we reached the end of the day's march, it was between 5 and 6 P.M. The walled town was almost washed by the river, which was at least 500 yards wide. However, our guides assured us that it was fordable, although dangerous on account of the strength of the current. Camels are most stupid and nervous animals in water; that ridden by my wife was fortunately better than the generality. I sent two Arabs with poles, ahead of my camel, and carefully led the way. After considerable difficulty, we forded the river safely; the water was nowhere above four feet deep, and, in most places, it did not exceed three; but the great rapidity of the stream would have rendered it impossible for the me to cross without the assistance of poles. One of our camels lost its footing, and was carried helplessly down the river for some hundred yards, until it stranded upon a bank.

The sun had sunk when we entered Cassala. It is a walled town, surrounded by a ditch and flanking towers, and containing about 8,000 inhabitants, exclusive of troops. The houses and walls were of unburnt brick, smeared with clay and cow-dung. As we rode through the dusty streets, I sent off Mahomet with my firman to the Mudir; and, not finding a suitable place inside the town, I returned outside the walls, where I ordered the tents to be pitched in a convenient spot among some wild fig-trees. Hardly were the tents pitched than Mahomet returned, accompanied by an officer and ten soldiers as a guard, with a polite message from the Mudir or governor, who had, as usual, kissed the potent firman, and raised it to his forehead, with the declaration that he was "my servant, and that all that I required should be immediately attended to." Shortly after, we were called upon by several Greeks, one of whom was the army doctor, Signor Georgis, who, with great kindness, offered to supply all our wants. My wife was dreadfully weak and exhausted, therefore an undisturbed night's rest was all that was required, with the independence of our own tent.

Cassala is rich in hyaenas, and the night was passed in the discordant howling of these disgusting but useful animals: they are the scavengers of the country, devouring every species of filth, and clearing all carrion from the earth. Without the hyaenas and vultures, the neighbourhood of a Nubian village would be unbearable; it is the idle custom of the people to leave unburied all animals that die. Thus, among the numerous flocks and herds, the casualties would create a pestilence were it not for the birds and beasts of prey.

On the following morning the fever had yielded to quinine, and we were enabled to receive a round of visits - the governor and suite, Elias Bey, the doctor and a friend, and, lastly, Malem Georgis, an elderly Greek merchant, who, with great hospitality, insisted upon our quitting the sultry tent and sharing his own roof. We therefore became his guests in a most comfortable house for some days. Our Turk, Hadji Achmet, returned on his way to Berber; we discharged our camels, and prepared - to start afresh from this point for the Nile tributaries of Abyssinia.