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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 53/June 1898/Aspects of Nature in the African Sahara: A Summer Journey II


MORE than one traveler has remarked that the most important lesson that traveling teaches is to unlearn that which has been learned before. No matter how seemingly truthful a picture may be, how carefully worded a description is, somehow or other the actual fact rebels against the conception which has been brought to the mind. The great African desert repeated the lesson that was taught to me a few years before by the icy wilderness of the far North, and still earlier by the primeval fastnesses of the tropics. Is it that the description of a new country is so difficult a task, or that the narrator intentionally beguiles himself into an excess of imagination, which makes the telling or the conveying of the simple truth so seemingly impossible? The late Professor Drummond, in his work on Tropical Africa, ventured to lift the veil from the picture that had generally been drawn of the dark continent, and assumed to disenchant the reader of preconceived notions regarding vast and impenetrable primeval forests, of gayly plumaged birds, of monkeys swinging from trapezes in shaded bowers, etc. But for this mendacious effort to destroy an old picture and to reconstruct a new one he was sharply taken to task by Mr. Stanley, who averred that the true picture of Africa as drawn by Professor Drummond bore "no more resemblance to tropical Africa than the tors of Devon, or the moors of Yorkshire, or the downs of Dover represent the smiling scenes of England, of leafy Warwickshire, the gardens of Kent, and the glorious vales of the isle." In short, Nyassaland, the region traversed by the talented divine, is represented to be not Africa, but itself. And yet in another part of great Africa a more recent traveler, Mr. James Johnston, the author of a remarkable work entitled Reality versus Romance in South Central Africa, assures his readers that he "traveled four thousand five hundred miles, mostly on foot, and alone so far as a white companion is concerned, passing through numerous hostile and savage tribes, traversing areas hitherto reported too pestilential for exploration, surmounting natural objects which have been represented as insurmountable, and penetrating regions where no white man had ever gone before," and during this performance he never once found

PSM V53 D189 A caravan on its march.jpg
A Caravan on its March.

himself prompted to fire a shot in anger, nor was he compelled to do so in self-defense against a human enemy.

With a feeling that my words will carry little weight with those who think otherwise, I venture to suggest that the Sahara is not exactly what it is commonly assumed to be; and yet in many ways it is not very different. Its first sands, when approached from the side of El-Kantara, are giant rocks, burned brown and red under the glow of the southern sun, standing out in wild pinnacles from the gently undulating surface. This is not the desert that is ordinarily pictured by the mind—that flat, endless expanse which fades off unmoved and unbroken to the limits of vision—but it is the desert, nevertheless, just as much as the mountain snows of the far North are a part of the great arctic "sea of ice" Beyond, however, is the great plain itself, its swelling undulations hardly relieving to the eye the appearance of absolute flatness which the picture offers. The truth is, the Sahara presents itself in a double aspect: that of the flat and sandy plain and that of the rocky ridge or mountain, the Hammada. It is the Hammada that is more particularly dreaded by the caravans, for among their wind-swept crags there are few oases, and only the blowing sands and a relentless sun are the companions of the foot-sore pilgrim. In many parts of the flat desert traveling is moderately easy, for over long distances the surface has become coated into a hard, slimy crust—a solid basement rock, one may call it. Along our route of travel there were no sand dunes of any magnitude, the highest perhaps scarcely exceeding fifteen or twenty feet, but I was informed by the distinguished French explorer M. Foureaud, who was then stopping at Biskra, that beyond Tuggurt they rise to the prodigious height of from twelve hundred to fourteen hundred feet. This speaks even more eloquently for the power of the winds than do the high-tossed sands of coral islands.

It has become customary of late with certain text-books to state that the Sahara is not so flat as it is commonly assumed to be, and that it is almost everywhere torn into ridges and rents. This is, however, an imperfect statement of the truth. The flat desert is almost interminably flat for days or even weeks of travel, with hardly a rise of a few feet for mile after mile of perspective. In vain the eye searches after some special object to give it relief; it does not find it, unless it be the far-off tufts of an approaching oasis. Often has the desert been compared with the sea, but probably to most persons such a comparison, except where it stands for magnitude, will be considered extreme. It is true that where the surface is illumined by the weird light of the mirage it may depict the presence of water with startling naturalness, but the deception belongs rather to the atmosphere carried by the desert than to the desert itself. I am not sure that these endless sands are truly imposing; wearisome they certainly are, but at times they present most exquisite pictures in the varying lights of the morning and evening sun. It is then that they seem to constitute a world of their own, speaking in color that belongs to them alone. We were not to any extent troubled by their presence, either as an impediment to travel or as freely floating discomforts in the atmosphere.

The journey which I had projected took the course of the great caravan route to Lake Tchad, passing by the deep depression which is occupied by the largest chotts of the desert, the possible reclamation of which by the Mediterranean has been the subject of much study on the part of French engineers—the dream and hope of M. Koudaire. The road—for such the tread of the caravans may properly be called in this part—follows out the full north-and-south extent of Biskra, and almost immediately after leaving the last palm of the oasis enters upon that vast expanse of sand which, with the little green that belongs to it, constitutes the southern panorama. Being limited in time, we did not avail ourselves of the facilities of travel which the caravans afford—nor, in fact, did we feel disposed in a first effort to submit to the disarticulating motion of the dromedary—but arranged for a small cabriolet and two teams of horses, to carry us so far as this improved form of conveyance would permit. To insure a speedy journey, I had ordered one trio of horses to proceed in advance to Chegga, some thirty miles distant, there to await our coming on the following day. The morrow, however, was not to be as we had planned, and here again we took in a new lesson in physical geography. At the evening meal at Biskra information came to us that the relay of horses which had been ordered to our advance post had returned, not having been able to make the passage of the Djedi, the main waterway of southern Algeria. The course of this stream, when it exists at all, is directed southeastward into the depression of the Chott Melghigh, where its waters add still further to the accumulation of salt, which now lies some fifty to sixty feet below the surface of the Mediterranean. Ordinarily it offers no impediment to a passage, but now—and in the dry season—it had suddenly expanded to the dimensions of a lake, burying the surrounding country for miles beyond its legitimate banks. This was strange news, for who would have suspected a journey into the Sahara to be interfered with by an obstacle of this kind at this season of the year? The overflow of the Djedi was the result of a mountain storm which had preceded by three or four days, and only now had the waters expanded to their full volume. The Arabs had vainly attempted to force our horses across, and what they can not accomplish in this direction might safely be left untried; but we were informed that there would be a great abaissement of the waters in the next twenty-four hours, and that the relay would successfully pass in that time. Complacently, even though regretfully, we acceded to this forced delay, but we remained not a little suspicious as to the promised lowering of the waters. Pending the making of new arrangements occasional flashes of lightning broke through the western sky, and the raindrops pattered heavily on the great palm tufts that reared their heads over the garden court of our hotel. It was showering, and pleasant interludes were given over to sprinkling of hail. At another time, as students of geographical text-books and of special guides, we should have been surprised by the conditions as they presented themselves to us, but we had already been inducted into the mysteries of contradiction by the heavy rain which, on the day following our arrival (August 28th), had washed out the streets of Algiers, and by the storm which a few days later broke upon us in our crossing of the Djurjura Mountains. The fact is, as our charming hostess informed us, heavy showers are in this region by no means a rare occurrence, even at this season of the year.

Promptly on the morning of September 7th, when the oasis had yet hardly awakened to the call of dawn, we found our cabriolet waiting for us, its three sorry-looking horses bowed down to the work that had been prepared for them. A stalwart semi-Arab, uniformed in the white garb which is thought best to ward off the heat of the desert sun, stood for our driver, and it was fortunate for us that his linguistic attainments covered the French language as well as his native tongue. Like many of his tribe, he had accepted the language of his conquerors; but, again, like others, although without any good reason that he had to give, he was not disposed to look placidly upon the continuous march of civilization which the French had inaugurated. Being young in years, the good old times were merely a tradition with him—a tradition not in itself sufficient to warm enthusiasm within his breast, nor to eradicate that germ of laziness which had taken possession of his body. Ben-Sali was at times excruciatingly lazy, although at the start he served us and himself about equally well; later in the day, when the monotony of his work began to assert itself, and when the desert heat had almost continuously forced from his brow huge beads of perspiration, he withdrew to silent meditation and to the enjoyment of a lone pipe—at intervals goading on his horses to better work, at other times roundly berating them for their shortcomings. Poor animals! they had a hard work before them and accomplished it well, but they received no consideration from their driver.

The early start, giving us the better part of four hours before the sun succeeded in dissipating the banks of clouds which veiled the eastern sky, made the first part of our journey truly delightful. There was no desert heat to be distinguished from any other form of heat, and if anything, the morning could l)e more nearly called cool than warm—at least, so the outdoor air appeared compared with the confined atmosphere of our hotel rooms. Driving into the Sahara may appear strange to those whose only conception of the desert is based upon the old notion that it is an almost endless expanse of soft and shifting sand and nothing else. But drive in one readily can, and even behind a trio of horses whose vigor and strength were less marked than they were in our own animals. The roadway was fairly marked out for most of its course, appearing at times as the solid basement rock of the region, while elsewhere it was constructed of a firm setting of gravel and sand; only at rare intervals did it bury itself beneath an extensive sand covering, and even then it emerged, as clearly marked as before, to continue farther into the interior. The caravans have trod the line firmly, and their trail is a broad, open road; but the French have given stronger contour to its outlines by planting one hundred and seventy miles of telegraph poles, and to-day the service is being conducted still farther, to beyond Ouargla. The Arab chief, except in so far as he may be the leader of a caravan, has virtually disappeared from this section of the route; but at two or three days' journey the Tuaregs and other wandering tribes, to whom tribute is paid at the point of the spear, hold almost undisputed possession of the desert. It was along this route, considerably beyond Ouargla, that the scientific corps of General Flatters, sent out with a view of examining into the possibilities of railroad construction into the far Sahara, was virtually annihilated; and it is for this same route that the indomitable M. Rolland seems finally to have secured the practical co-operation of his Government toward building the road which has been so long outlined.

Not knowing the exact nature of the country, and least of all the conditions of security which govern traveling in a region so near to that in which unpleasant tragedies had recently been enacted, I applied for a military pass before leaving Algiers, and through a fortunate access to the good-will, in the absence of the governor-general himself, of his representative, Captain Lasson, obtained the following order:

"The French Republic, General Government of Algeria:

We, the Governor-General of Algeria, beg the civil and military authorities to give aid and protection in case of necessity to

Messrs. . . . . . . and . . . . . . traveling to Fort National, Biskra, and Tuggurt.

By command of the Governor-General, the Captain, Chief of Internal Affairs and of the Military Service. Algiers, August 29, 1896."

While this paper was naturally a very pleasant addition to the "documentaries" with which we had already provided ourselves, as so often proves the case with papers of its kind, there was no occasion to bring it into use—at least, not for the purpose for which it was prepared. We nowhere met with hostile tribes, and at the wayside caravansary—the Borj, Burg, or fort—received only hospitality and that simple attention which distinguishes the Arab. Humble refreshment, except coffee, is hardly to be obtained here, but the refreshing shade of the large stone building is at the service of the traveler, and it is not often that he is tempted to pass without availing himself of its expansive comfort. His animals are destined to fare less pleasantly, inasmuch as they are generally left to dry their bodies in the open sun, with a temperature beating over their heads of possibly not less than 130° to 140° F. This habit of denying to the animals what little comfort was to be had was a trait painfully apparent in our driver, but it could be said in his behalf that he differed in this respect little from other members of his tribe. What special object he had in allowing his jaded horses to wilt under a burning sun, when a few feet approach would have brought them a generous temperature thirty degrees lower, could not be ascertained.

Saada, whose position on a bank slightly elevated above the Djedi saved it from the recent overflows, is one, sufficiently typical

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Our Wagon Plowing through Sahara Mud.

in itself, of a series of caravansaries which are scattered at intervals through the northern Sahara. A large quadrangular space, intended to accommodate a goodly assemblage of men and animals, is surrounded by a stoutly built wall of masonry, the inner side of which is variously subdivided into rooms and stalls, yielding clean shelter joined to a refreshing shade. Entrance is by a single gate, closure of which means the guarantee of safety to those in the interior. The whole is under the military administration of a handful of leisure-loving Arabs, who look to the wants of the traveling caravans, and presumably as much to their safety as to their comfort. Long before reaching Saada the effects of the late storm had made themselves disagreeably apparent. The road, or what there was to represent it, was washed into gullies by the recent overflow, and our wheels sank deep into the mire. The mud of the bottom valleys of our Western rivers would have been considered a feeble circumstance compared with this mud of the presumably dry Sahara. Side backwaters added still further to our difficulties, and for a time it looked as though we should hardly pull through; but with enough of "ee-yups" and "ees" joined to the cracking of the great whip, we finally reached the actual bank of the stream and were there helped across by an Arab who had come down from the caravansary to guide the horses. The river was running fast, turbid with yellow sediment, but it had contracted itself to its legitimate channel. We pulled up to the great portal of the Borj for our first halt, and immediately received the hospitality of the place—which meant stools to sit upon, in place of the gravelly earth, and the supporting back wall, of which the Arabs make such good use. We had hardly hoped to obtain refreshments here, as Ben-Sali had informed us that such would not be dispensed to travelers, but I ventured to ask for coffee, and in a short time we were served with the delicious beverage, prepared with that same consummate skill which is the art of native coffee-making in the north of Africa, and with the daintiest of foreign china. What changes in the civilization of the world are in progress!

Beyond Saada the road changes much for the better, and we kept the animals going at a lively pace. On either side was the gently undulating and hummocky sand, crowned by terebinth bushes and salsolaceous scrub, high enough to conceal the straying goats that were in places browsing upon them for their scant vegetation, and everywhere sufficiently dreary elements in the landscape. Two forlorn trees or treelets, seemingly olives, were left by the roadside, and the undulating plain, with its closely oppressed horizon, kept on for mile upon mile in its monotonous sweep. Despite its dreary and forlorn aspect, it had for us its attractions; its peculiar sterility-—one can hardly say absolute barrenness—and uniformity were, if nothing more, inviting to study, and my mind frequently wandered forth in an almost wild contemplation of the scene. Our cabriolet was well suited to the special purposes of our explorations, as we could easily dismount for the examination of specimens, and even with a high temperature there was no special inconvenience in this. There was, however, little need to leave our seats, as, conformably with the landscape and the general character of the country, there was a marked uniformity in the geological and botanical features as well; a study of one section meant practically a study of the rest.

So far as the heat of the desert is concerned, it is an unquestionable reality; and yet, perhaps, in the month of our travel, the hottest of the North African months, it was not so dreadful as we had anticipated. It is true that the mercury, whether by night or by day, felt little disposed to leave the region of the ninety-eights, unless it was in the direction of an upward journey. During the hours of midday it stubbornly clung to the division line of 110°, passing even beyond it slightly (although, perhaps, not in the most perfect shade); at Biskra, during our brief absence, it stood at 116°. While traveling we were subjected to even a much higher temperature, as at rapidly recurring intervals the heated reflections from the burning sands were blown bodily into us. This temperature was probably not less than 120°, and it was then that we remarked, "This is like an oven." And, in truth, it was very much so. The excessive dryness of the atmosphere doubtless conduced to render it bearable; at least it had the effect of checking excessive perspiration. On the other hand, its extreme quality brings to many a partly suffocating feeling—a feeling as though it were lacking in the proper amount or quality of oxygen. The parched palate asks for a moistener, and for repeated lotions in decreasing periods of time. Still, the whole is both bearable and supportable, and the foreigners who have located at Biskra seem to have acclimated themselves in a comparatively short space of time. What surprised me somewhat was the rather slight difference between the temperature of the open and that of the shade, probably not more than twenty degrees; the highest reading that we found was 132° F. The temperature of the sunny sands was at its highest 123°.

By the time we reached the relay at Chegga our horses had become well tired out; the thirty miles had told hard upon them, but, considering the quality of the road and the excessively high temperature, all of it the temperature of the open sun, we did far better than we had reason to hope for. At almost precisely noon we drew up beside the town walls, where the trio of fresh horses was waiting to meet us. An almost hopelessly dismal lunch, to which the distinctive flavor was given by bottled lemonade heated in the sun, prepared us for the further journey, and at one o'clock we were again en route. The surface of the desert now becomes more undulating, and the telegraph poles, marking the elevations and depressions, rise and fall in rapidly recurring intervals. Without these landmarks thrown against the sky it would have been difficult to detect the inequalities of the desert floor, which to many eyes would have appeared to roll off a flat expanse to the horizon. A feature which by its novelty repeatedly impressed itself upon our minds was the vegetation. A moderately green Sahara is certainly not the ordinary conception of the great desert, but thus far, except for very limited stretches, we had not yet passed the limit of vegetable growth, or even nearly approached it. It is true that the vegetation consists of scattered clumps of bushes, lowly in height and not over-luxuriant in foliage, but their presence is such as to relieve the landscape of the imputation of being a treeless waste. Along almost the entire line of our journey a generous supply of terebinth bushes, one, two, or three feet in height, covered the sand elevations, and with them was a sickly green salsolaceous plant, the exact nature of which I was unable to discover. And if we can fully receive war illustrations recently gathered from the pencil of a staff correspondent, the same feature must be a characteristic of the Sahara about Timbuctoo as well. There are, indeed, a number of spots where the vegetation is even more luxuriant—if a scattering of plants can in any way be called luxuriant—comprising a number of dry herbs, such as the rose of Jericho, which hardly rises a few inches above the surface; on the other hand, there are areas where the vegetation has been completely stamped out, or where it has been buried deep beneath its canopy of sand.

At about four o'clock we entered the depression that is occupied by the great Chott Melghigh. When we first beheld this salt pan from a distance of a few miles it broke upon the landscape with dazzling whiteness. The salt was upon the surface, and the eye failed to distinguish the presence of water. It was like a vast field of immaculate ice thrown into the sands, over which hung the images that were thrust into the sky by the rarely failing mirage. We did not see overturned buildings and trees, or even sheets of water, in these sky pictures; simple blocks of color, glowing in an intense pink illumination, were the expression of the light aberration, and yet they might readily have been taken to represent sections of fortification walls. The reflected images were very much like those which I had watched for hours among the ice of Melville Bay, the same quadrangular blocks cast up to no very great height above the horizon, and seemingly holding no definite relation to any object which was within the field of vision. At one spot only, and that, singularly enough, in the mountainous or broken part of the Sahara, did we see a mirage reflection simulating a body of water, and so true was the deception in this instance that nothing beyond an appeal to the known geography of the region could rid the mind of the false conception that was presented to it. The Chott Melghigh is the largest salt pan of the Sahara, and it occupies a position fifty feet or more below the sea level. It is here that the gifted Koudaire had hoped to bring the waters of the Mediterranean, and to give back to the sea that which once belonged to it. It was while passing this chott that we first experienced the hardship of pulling through the sands. The hollow had accumulated deeply of the desert, the shifting wind-blown sands, uniting with the sediment discharges of periodically flowing streams, finding here secure and lasting anchorage. Our wagon stuck and our horses stuck, and no ill use of the lash would for a time induce them to budge. Mr. Le Boutillier and I dismounted and applied ourselves to the wheels, but to little purpose. Coaxing, worrying, and pushing, we succeeded in making a few yards at a time, and then dropped to a condition of seemingly hopeless immobility. It really looked for a time as though we should be obliged to remain where we were until

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The Prayer in the Desert.

assistance picked us up, just when, or of what kind of assistance that was to be, we knew not. The sun had dropped very nearly to the horizon, its long horizontal rays illumining the desert with that wonderful glow of red which nothing but an artist's brush can picture. The whole landscape was suffused with mellow light, to the pure harmony of which was added the quiet of an almost absolute silence. No bark or howl of a lurking animal, no sound of bird, whether in twitter or song, broke upon the stillness of the evening hour; we alone were the offenders—not, however, with any intent to disturb Nature's slumbers, but merely to extricate ourselves from our uncomfortable position. Between coaxing, pulling, and straining, and a generous trudge through the sand, we succeeded in covering the few miles that lay between us and the next oasis, Mreir. This oasis counts about twenty thousand palms, and, like all others that we had seen, is divided up by garden walls into distinct properties, between which meanders the trodden way of the caravan. Shortly before eight o'clock the great portal of the Borj was opened to receive us, and our first day's journey into that far-off land of the Sahara was brought to a close. We had covered sixty-three miles, more than is ordinarily accomplished in a good day's coaching on American highways.

To sum up a first day's impressions of the African desert is by no means an easy task. The multitude and variety of the scenes that present themselves do not admit of immediate appreciation; nor, perhaps, do they fasten upon the imagination with that intensity which is left by the pictures of other lands. Yet this ruddy Orient is in itself a picture of intensest moods, a lasting conception from which is carried to every mind that is brought in contact with it. The weather-beaten crags, the shifting sands, the sands of unmoving and monotonous silence, the slowly wandering caravans, the long and weirdlike shadows which stalk over the surface in the horizontal light of the rising or setting sun, are all pictures that impress by their individuality; and to these are added others which are hardly less interesting or picturesque in their local color. It is, however, the oasis that is the redeeming pearl of the desert. No poetic temperament is needed to prepare one for the enjoyment of its coming. From miles of distance the eye fastens itself upon the tree tops; the dark green is a break in the landscape, and like the black shadow of clouds it seems to go and come, the gentle undulations of the desert throwing it now and again out of sight. We had penetrated but a moderate distance into the desert, but the coming of the oasis was a relief that can hardly be described—those dense groves of date palms and the circulating streams of water. What must, indeed, the oasis be to those who have wearily plodded its sands for weeks at a time! When we entered Mreir the sun had just set behind the palm forest, illuminating the sky with that soft African yellow which is the special privilege of the brush of Edouard Frère. The tall tree trunks rose against this in specter shadows of brown, silent monoliths as if rising from a silent grave. A more entrancing scene could hardly be imagined, and yet how different was the picture from that which is ordinarily constructed on the guide line of books and narratives!

With a constant departure from the views of old that one has held, a doubt begins to steal over the accuracy of almost every supposed fact in our treasury of knowledge. Was there not some reason to question the existence of those skeletons—the weary relics of departed life—which have from time immemorial figured as one of the dominant features of the Sahara? We hardly dared entertain a doubt on this point, but yet felt somewhat uneasy in our minds. Our skepticism was of short duration. Its skeletons were there, bleached to whiteness under the burning sun, and in great part still (tarrying the dried-up cartilage and muscle which had not yet fully left their support. Here, perhaps, a leg, there a skull, elsewhere the full skeleton—each sadly reading the same history—the

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At the "Springs" of the Desert.

attempted passage of the Sahara and the fall by the roadside. In the course of the day we came upon the parts of probably not less than fifty animals, most of them camels; the remains of a few mules and donkeys were added to these, but their scarcity plainly showed the resisting power of these beasts. Doubtless, many of the remains were ancient, for with the dry climate the decomposition of bone is a slow process; and there are no, or but few, hyenas to do away with the skeletons. The many parts lying about, therefore, hardly give a true value of the casualties of the travelers, inasmuch as they represent an accumulation of disaster reaching probably far back in years. But, such as they are, they are a grim and ghastly spectacle, and one not tending to give cheerful reflections to a leader of a caravan or to his hosts.