CHAPTER XIX. SEND A PARTY TO RECONNOITRE.

I HAD thoroughly explored the beautiful country of the Salaam and Angrab; it was the 11th of April, and I intended to push on to Gallabat, the frontier market-town of Abyssinia. We had no guide, as the fellow that had been supplied by Mek Nimmur had absconded the day after our arrival at the Salaam, but during the march he had pointed out a blue outline of a distant mountain in the south, that was called Nahoot Guddabi, or the Saddle of Guddabi. This was an unmistakeable landmark, as it exactly resembled an Arab saddle; at the foot of this mountain was the Tokroori village of Guddabi, the first habitation, at a distance of about fifty miles from the Bahr Salaam. Although, from the experience I had had in this neighbourhood, I had little doubt of the supply of water on the road, I sent three of my Tokrooris upon as many camels with water-skins, to reconnoitre before I should move the camp.

On the second day they returned, and reported the existence of several small streams, all of which produced excellent water.

We started on the following afternoon, and, with Hassan as our guide, and Taher Noor upon a camel, my wife and I cantered ahead of the main body, over a high ridge of stony, and accordingly firm ground. Upon arrival at the summit, we had a lovely view of the surrounding country, and we commenced a gentle descent into a vast plain sparsely covered with small trees. In the extensive prospect before us, the dark green veins of foliage in the otherwise yellow surface of withered grass marked out distinctly the course of small rivulets. We hurried on, sometimes over blackened ashes, where the fire had swept all before it, at other times through withered grass, that had been saved from destruction through the intervention of some ravine. At 7.30 P.M. we arrived at an excellent halting place, by a beautiful but small stream of water, shaded by a fringe of dome palms; this was by dead reckoning seventeen miles from our last camp. It had been pleasant travelling, as the moon was full; we had ridden fast, therefore it was useless to expect the camels for some hours; we accordingly spread the carpet on the ground, and lay down to sleep, with the stocks of the rifles for pillows, as we had frequently done on former occasions.

On the following morning I sent a couple of men on camels to reconnoitre the country in advance, towards Guddabi, and to return with the report of the supply of water. This country abounded with large game, especially with the beautiful antelope already described, the maarif; they were as usual extremely wild, but I succeeded in breaking the hip of a fine bull at a long range; and, separating him from the herd, I ran the wounded antelope until I was thoroughly exhausted in the intense heat of the sun, but I lost it in the thick bush not far from our camp. That night we heard a lion roaring close to us, and, upon searching at daybreak I found the remains of a maarif, which I imagine must have been my wounded bull.

I mounted my horse Tetel, and, with Taher Noor and two of my Tokrooris, Hadji Ali and Hassan, I rode towards a pyramidical hill about three miles distant, which I intended to ascend in order to obtain a panoramic view of the country. This hill was about three hundred feet high, and, as the fire had swept away a portion of the grass for several miles around, I should obtain a clear view of all living animals that might be in the neighbourhood. Upon arrival at the base of the hill I dismounted, and led my horse up the steep inclination of broken basalt that had fallen from the summit. From the top of the peak I had a superb panorama of the country, the mountain Nahoot Guddabi bearing S.W. about thirty miles distant. I had a complete bird's-eye view of great extent, and I immediately distinguished, in various positions, giraffes, buffaloes, tetel, and boars. At this season the trees were leafless, thus any animal upon the low ground would be at once discovered from this elevated point. I extract from my journal the account of this day's hunt, as it was written immediately upon my return to camp.

"I had been observing the country for some time from my high station, when I suddenly perceived two rhinoceros emerge from a ravine; they walked slowly through a patch of high grass, and skirted the base of the hill upon which we were standing: presently they winded something, and they trotted back and stood concealed in the patch of grass. Although I had a good view of them from my present position, I knew that I should not be able to see them in their covert, if on the same level; I therefore determined to send to the tent for my other horses, and to ride them down, if I could not shoot them on foot; accordingly, I sent a man off, directing him to lead Tetel from the peak, and to secure him to a tree at the foot of the hill, as I was afraid the rhinoceros might observe the horse upon the sky line. This he did, and we saw him tie the horse by the bridle to the branch of a tree below us, while he ran quickly towards the camp. In the mean time I watched the rhinoceros; both animals lay down in the yellow grass, resembling masses of stone. They had not been long in this position, before we noticed two pigs wandering through the grass directly to windward, towards the sleeping rhinoceros; in an instant these animals winded the intruders, and starting up, they looked in all directions, but could not see them, as they were concealed by the high grass. Having been thus disturbed, the rhinoceros moved their quarters, and walked slowly forward, occasionally halting, and listening; one was about a hundred yards in advance of the other. They were taking a direction at the base of the hill that would lead them directly upon the spot where Tetel was tied to the tree. I observed this to Taher Noor, as I feared they would kill the horse. 'Oh, no,' he replied, 'they will lie down and sleep beneath the first tree, as they are seeking for shade - the sun is like fire.' However, they still continued their advance, and, upon reaching some rising ground, the leading rhinoceros halted, and I felt sure that he had a clear view of the horse, that was now about five hundred yards distant, tied to the tree. A ridge descended from the hill, parallel with the course the animals were taking; upon this, I ran as quickly as the stony slope permitted, keeping my eye fixed upon the leading rhinoceros, who, with his head raised, was advancing directly towards the horse. I now felt convinced that he intended to attack it. Tetel did not observe the rhinoceros, but was quietly standing beneath the tree. I ran as fast as I was able, and reached the bottom of the hill just as the wilful brute was within fifty yards of the horse, which now for the first time saw the approaching danger; the rhinoceros had been advancing steadily at a walk, but he now lowered his head, and charged at the horse at full speed.

"I was about two hundred yards distant, and for the moment I was afraid of shooting the horse, but I fired one of the Reilly No. 10 rifles; the bullet, missing the rhinoceros, dashed the sand and stones into his face, as it struck the ground exactly before his nose, when he appeared to be just into the unfortunate Tetel. The horse in the same instant reared, and, breaking the bridle, it dashed away in the direction of the camp, while the rhinoceros, astonished at the shot, and most likely half blinded by the sand and splinters of rock, threw up his head, turned round, and trotted back upon the track by which he had arrived. He passed me at about a hundred yards distance, as I had run forward to a bush, by which he trotted with his head raised, seeking for the cause of his discomfiture. Crack! went a bullet against his hide, as I fired my remaining barrel at his shoulder; he cocked his tail, and for a few yards he charged towards the shot; but he suddenly changed his course, and ran round several times in a small circle; he then halted, and reeling to and fro, he retreated very slowly, and lay down about a hundred yards off. Well done, Reilly! I knew that he had his quietus, but I was determined to bag his companion, who in alarm had now joined him, and stood looking in all quarters for the source of danger; but we were well concealed behind the bush. Presently, the wounded rhinoceros stood up, and walking very slowly, followed by his comrade, he crossed a portion of rising ground at the base of the hill, and both animals disappeared. I at once started off Hassan, who could run like an antelope, in search of Tetel, while I despatched another man to the summit of the peak to see if the rhinoceros were in view; if not, I knew they must be among the small trees and bushes at the foot of the hill. I thus waited for a long time, until at length the two greys, Aggahr and Gazelle, arrived with my messenger from the camp. I tightened the girths of the Arab saddle upon Aggahr, and I had just mounted, cursing all Arab stirrups, that are only made for the naked big toe, when my eyes were gladdened by the sight of Hassan cantering towards me upon Tetel, but from the exact direction the rhinoceros had taken. 'Quick! quick!' he cried, 'come along! One rhinoceros is lying dead close by, and the other is standing beneath a tree not far off.'

"I immediately jumped on Tetel, and, taking the little Fletcher rifle, as lighter and handier than the heavy No. 10, I ordered Taher Noor and Hassan to mount the other horses, and to follow me with spare rifles. I found the rhinoceros lying dead about two hundred yards from the spot where he had received the shot, and I immediately perceived the companion, that was standing beneath a small tree. The ground was firm and stony, all the grass had been burnt off, except in a few small patches; the trees were not so thick together as to form a regular jungle.

"The rhinoceros saw us directly, and he valiantly stood and faced me as I rode up within fifty yards of him. Tetel is worth his weight in gold as a shooting horse: he stands like a rock, and would face the devil. I was unable to take a shot in this position, therefore I ordered the men to ride round a half-circle, as I knew the rhinoceros would turn towards the white horses, and thus expose his flank; this he did immediately, aud firing well, exactly at the shoulder, I dropped him as though stone dead. Taher Noor shouted, 'Samme durrupto!' (well shot); the rhinoceros lay kicking upon the ground, and I thought he was bagged. Not a bit of it! the No. 24 bullet had not force to break the massive shoulder bone, but had merely paralysed it for the moment; up he jumped and started off in full gallop. Now for a hunt! up the hill he started, then obliquely he chose a regular rhinoceros path, and scudded away, Tetel answering to the spur and closing with him; through the trees; now down the hill over the loose rocks, where he gained considerably upon the horse. 'Easy down the hill, gently over the stones, Tetel,' and I took a pull at the reins until I reached the level ground beneath, which was firm and first-rate. I saw the rhinoceros pelting away about a hundred and twenty yards ahead, and spurring hard, I shot up to him at full speed until within twenty yards, when round he came with astonishing quickness and charged straight at the horse. I was prepared for this, as was my horse also; we avoided him by a quick turn, and again renewed the chase, and regained our position within a few yards of the game. Thus the hunt continued for about a mile and a half, the rhinoceros occasionally charging, but always cleverly avoided by the horse. Tetel seemed to enjoy the fun, and hunted like a greyhound. Nevertheless I had not been able to pass the rhinoceros, who had thundered along at a tremendous pace whenever I had attempted to close; however, the pace began to tell upon his wounded shoulder; he evidently went lame, and, as I observed at some distance before us the commencement of the dark-coloured rotten ground I felt sure that it would shortly be a case of 'stand still.' In this I was correct, and, upon reaching the deep and crumbling soil, he turned sharp round, made a clumsy charge that I easily avoided, and he stood panting at bay. Taher Noor was riding Gazelle; this was a very timid horse and was utterly useless as a hunter, but, as it reared and plunged upon seeing the rhinoceros, that animal immediately turned towards it with the intention of charging. Riding Tetel close to his flank, I fired both barrels of the little Fletcher into the shoulder; he fell to the shots, and, stretching out his legs convulsively, he died immediately."

This was a capital termination to the hunt; as I had expected the death of my good horse Tetel, when the first rhinoceros had so nearly horned him. The sun was like a furnace, therefore I rode straight to camp, and sent men and camels for the hides and flesh. As I passed the body of the first rhinoceros, I found a regiment of vultures already collected around it, while fresh arrivals took place every minute, as they gathered from all quarters; they had already torn out the eyes, and dragged a portion of flesh from the bullet-wound in the shoulder; but the tough hide of the rhinoceros was proof against their greedy beaks. A number of Marabou storks had also arrived, and were standing proudly among the crowd of vultures, preparing to perform the duty of sextons, when the skin should become sufficiently decomposed. Throughout all the countries that I had traversed, these birds were in enormous numbers. The question has been frequently discussed whether the vulture is directed to his prey by the sense of smell, or by keenness of vision; I have paid much attention to their habits, and, although there can be no question that their power of scent is great, I feel convinced that all birds of prey are attracted to their food principally by their acuteness of sight. If a vulture were blind, it would starve; but were the nostrils plugged up with some foreign substance to destroy its power of smell, it would not materially interfere with its usual mode of hunting. Scent is always stronger near the surface of the ground; thus hyaenas, lions, and other beasts of prey will scent a carcase from a great distance, provided they are to leeward; but the same animals would be unaware of the presence of the body if they were but a short distance to windward.

If birds of prey trusted to their nostrils, they would keep as near the ground as possible, like the carrion crow, which I believe is the exception that proves the rule. It is an astonishing sight to witness the sudden arrival of vultures at the death of an animal, when a few moments before not a bird has been in sight in the cloudless sky. I have frequently laid down beneath a bush after having shot an animal, to watch the arrival of the various species of birds in regular succession; they invariably appear in the following order: -

No. 1, the black and white crow: this knowing individual is most industrious in seeking for his food, and is generally to be seen either perched upon rocks or upon trees; I believe he trusts much to his sense of smell, as he is never far from the ground, at the same time he keeps a vigilant look-out with a very sharp pair of eyes.

No. 2 is the common buzzard: this bird, so well known for its extreme daring, is omnipresent, and trusts generally to sight, as it will stoop at a piece of red cloth in mistake for flesh; thus proving that it depends more upon vision than smell.

No. 3 is the red-faced small vulture.

No. 4 is the large bare-throated vulture.

No. 5, the Marabou stork, sometimes accompanied by the adjutant.

When employed in watching the habits of these birds, it is interesting to make the experiment of concealing a dead animal beneath a dense bush. This I have frequently done; in which case the vultures never find it unless they have witnessed its death; if so, they will already have pounced in their descent while you have been engaged in concealing the body: they will then upon near approach discover it by the smell. But, if an animal is killed in thick grass, eight or ten feet high, the vultures will seldom discover it. I have frequently known the bodies of large animals, such as elephants and buffaloes, to lie for days beneath the shade of the dense nabbuk bushes, unattended by a single vulture; whereas, if visible, they would have been visited by these birds in thousands.

Vultures and the Marabou stork fly at enormous altitudes. I believe that every species keeps to its own particular elevation, and that the atmosphere contains regular strata of birds of prey, who, invisible to the human eye at their enormous height, are constantly resting upon their wide-spread wings, and soaring in circles, watching with telescopic sight the world beneath. At that great elevation they are in an exceedingly cool temperature, therefore they require no water; but some birds that make long flights over arid deserts, such as the Marabou stork, and the buzzard, are provided with water-sacks; the former in an external bag a little below the throat, the latter in an internal sack, both of which carry a large supply. As the birds of prey that I have enumerated, invariably appear at a carcase in their regular succession, I can only suggest that they travel from different distances or altitudes. Thus, the Marabou stork would be farthest from the earth; the large bare-necked vulture would be the next below him, followed by the red-faced vulture, the buzzard, and the crow that is generally about the surface. From their immense elevation, the birds of prey possess an extraordinary field of vision; and, although they are invisible from the earth, there can be no doubt that they are perpetually hunting in circles within sight of each other. Thus, should one bird discover some object upon the surface of the earth below, his sudden pounce would be at once observed and imitated by every vulture in succession. Should one vulture nearest the earth perceive a body, or even should he notice the buzzards collecting at a given point, he would at once become aware of a prey; his rush towards the spot would act like a telegraphic signal to others, that would be rapidly communicated to every vulture at successive airy stations.

If any animal be skinned, the red surface will attract the vultures in an instant; this proves that their sight, and not their scent, has been attracted by an object that suggests blood. I have frequently watched them when I have shot an animal, and my people have commenced the process of skinning. At first, not a bird has been in sight, as I have lain on my back and gazed into the spotless blue sky; but hardly has the skin been half withdrawn, than specks have appeared in the heavens, rapidly increasing. "Caw, caw," has been heard several times from the neighbouring bushes; the buzzards have swept down close to my people, and have snatched a morsel of clotted blood from the ground. The specks have increased to winged creatures, at the great height resembling flies, when presently a rushing sound behind me, like a whirlwind, has been followed by the pounce of a red-faced vulture, that has fallen from the heavens in haste with closed wings to the bloody feast, followed quickly by many of his brethren. The sky has become alive with black specks in the far-distant blue, with wings hurrying from all quarters. At length a coronet of steady, soaring vultures, forms a wide circle far above, as they hesitate to descend, but continue to revolve around the object of attraction. The great bare-necked vulture suddenly appears. The animal has been skinned, and the required flesh secured by the men; we withdraw a hundred paces from the scene. A general rush and descent takes place; hundreds of hungry beaks are tearing at the offal. The great bare-necked vulture claims respect among the crowd; but another form has appeared in the blue sky, and rapidly descends. A pair of long, ungainly legs, hanging down beneath the enormous wings, now touch the ground, and Abou Seen (father of the teeth or beak, the Arab name for the Marabou) has arrived, and he stalks proudly towards the crowds, pecking his way with his long bill through the struggling vultures, and swallowing the lion's share of the repast. Abou Seen, last but not least, had arrived from the highest region, while others had the advantage of the start. This bird is very numerous through the Nile tributaries of Abyssinia, and may generally be seen perched upon the rocks of the water-side, watching for small fish, or any reptile that may chance to come within his reach. The well-known feathers are situated in a plume beneath the tail.

On 14th April we left our camp in the afternoon, and, after marching nine miles, during which we passed two small streams, flowing, like all others, from this point, west to the Atbara, we slept by a large pool in a third stream of considerable size. A waterfall flowed over a row of perpendicular basalt columns that surrounded a deep basin, resembling piles of ebony artificially arranged. On the following morning we started before sunrise, and rode over the usual pathless burnt prairies, until we reached the base of Nahoot Guddabi, the mountain for which we had been steering. Eight miles farther, we arrived at Metemma, a Tokroori village, in the heart of the mountains, twenty-seven miles from our last resting-place, and fifty-one miles from our camp on the Salaam river. From this point to the river Salaam, the entire country slopes perceptibly to the west - the drainage being carried to the Atbara by numerous streams. The country that we had now entered, was inhabited exclusively by Tokrooris, although belonging to Abyssinia. They came out to meet us upon our arrival at the village, and immediately fraternised with those of our people that belonged to their tribe, from whom they quickly learnt all about us. They brought us a he-goat, together with milk and honey. The latter we had revelled in for some months past, as the countries through which we travelled abounded with a supply in the rocks and hollow trees; but the milk was a luxury, as our goats were nearly dry. The he-goat was a regular old patriarch of the flock, and, for those who are fond of savoury food, it might have been a temptation, but as it exhaled a perfume that rendered its presence unbearable, we were obliged to hand it over as a present to our Tokrooris - even they turned up their noses at the offer. A crowd of natives surrounded us, and the account of our travels was related with the usual excitement, amidst the ejaculations of the hearers, when they heard that we had been in the country of the Base, and had trusted ourselves in the power of Mek Nimmur.

On the following morning we were off before sunrise, and marched rapidly over a good path through low forest, at the foot of a range of hills; and after a journey of twenty miles, during which we had passed several small villages, and many brooks that flowed from the mountains, we arrived at our old friend, the Atbara river, at the sharp angle as it issues from the mountains. At this place it was in its infancy. The noble Atbara whose course we had tracked for hundreds of weary miles, and whose tributaries we had so carefully examined, was a second-class mountam torrent, about equal to the Royan, and not to be named in comparison with the Salaam or Angrab. The power of the Atbara depended entirely upon the western drainage of the Abyssinian Alps: of itself it was insignificant, until aided by the great arteries of the mountain chain. The junction of the Salaam at once changed its character; and the Settite or Taccazzy completed its importance as the great river of Abyssinia, that has washed down the fertile soil of those regions to create the Delta of Lower Egypt; and to perpetuate that Delta by annual deposits, that ARE NOW FORMING A NEW EGYPT BENEATH THE WATERS OF THE MEDITERRANEAN. We had seen the Atbara a bed of glaring sand - a mere continuation of the burning desert that surrounded its course, fringed by a belt of withered trees, like a monument sacred to the memory of a dead river. We had seen the sudden rush of waters when, in the still night, the mysterious stream had invaded the dry bed, and swept all before it like an awakened giant; we knew at that moment "the rains were falling in Abyssinia," although the sky above us was without a cloud. We had subsequently witnessed that tremendous rainfall, and seen the Atbara at its grandest flood. We had traced each river, and crossed each tiny stream, that fed the mighty Atbara from the mountain chain, and we now, after our long journey, forded the Atlara in its infancy, hardly knee deep, over its rocky bed of about sixty yards width, and camped in the little village of Toganai, on the rising ground upon the opposite side. It was evening, and we sat upon an angarep among the lovely hills that surrounded us, and looked down upon the Atbara for the last time, as the sun sank behind the rugged mountain of Ras el Feel (the elephant's head). Once more I thought of that wonderful river Nile, that could flow for ever through the exhausting deserts of sand, while the Atbara, during the summer months, shrank to a dry skeleton, although the powerful affluents, the Salaam and the Settite, never ceased to flow, every drop of their waters was evaporated by the air and absorbed by the desert sand in the bed of the Atbara, two hundred miles above its junction with the Nile!

The Atbara exploration was completed; and I looked forward to the fresh enterprise of new rivers and lower latitudes, that should unravel the mystery of the Nile!