The Empire and the century/The Nile as I saw it

2518360The Empire and the century — The Nile as I saw itEwart S. Grogan



The chill breath of Karissimbi's morning snows fanned my cheek; I turned in my steaming bed of bamboo Ct, shook the moisture from my clothes, pulled on my boots, and climbed to a rocky spur on the old volcano's flank.

Six thousand feet below the last of Africa's great secrets lay sleeping beneath the mist-counterpane of night

Never shall I forget that dawn.

Alone, perched like some silly fly far up on the weather-scarred face of one of those vast volcanoes by the mighty travail of whose birth all the stupendous form of the African continent has been distorted, climatic conditions readjusted, and the comings and goings of men from the dim pre-Pharaoh days to the million generations of men as yet unborn moulded anew—alone I sat and saw the sun slide from behind the Ankoli hills and gradually bring into fierce relief the ten million features of the last great stretch of Africa's unknown.

South, the mists writhed in the seventy-mile caldron of the Kivu Lake, drew into long wisps, and were sucked heavenwards by the fast-warming air. The black cliffs of Kwijwi Island started from the placid bosom of the lake. Headlands galore, purple and forbidding, scored the shell-tinted waste of water. And the Titanic walls of this, the greatest of all rifts, towered east and west above the billowy sea of minor hills till they merged in the perspective of a hundred miles, where the Rusisi River plunges in its rocky gorge and starts on its long journey viâ Tanganyika and the Congo to the sea.

West loomed the giant pile of Kirunga's forest-draped slopes, banking up the great crater, which smoked sullenly, and from time to time hurled a fire-bomb into the aching sky.

And to the north, beyond the long course of the Rutchuru River, the Albert Edward Lake, first resting-place of Father Nile, was already fading in the reaccumulating mists of day.

Here, where I sat, was the parting of the ways.

The moisture dripping from the vegetation either fed the Atlantic through the Congo or the Mediterranean through the Nile at the dictate of the morning breeze, for even as the destinies of nations are moulded by the play of the infinitesimally small, so is the form of Africa carved by the breezelets from Karissimbi's snows.

The moss bank upon which I rested is the true source of the Albert Nile, and I watched in wonder the little drops babble away on their marvellous 8,000-mile journey to the blue waters of the Mediterranean.

Shade of Ulysses, what an 'odyssey'!

Waving my hand to them in farewell as they trickle over the rock's face and are gone, I see phase by phase the wonderful panorama that those drops will see.

I see a rocky gorge, fern-draped and cellar-cool, wherein a snowstorm of butterflies heave and sink upon the glistening sands, followed in their giddy maze by the brown eyes of a gorilla, which coughs its sweet content, while a mighty bull-elephant—Njojo Mkubwa of the Batwa—rubs his creaking hide against the rocks and idly fans his ears.

Mile upon mile of reeking forest, where the pungent sweat of hypertortured life drifts in a maze of liana-strangled trees, where death gives fresh impetus to life, where orchids blaze, where great moths flash fierce colours at the strayed sunbeam, and the tireless music of the insect life peals like an organ night and day.

An open glade, warm with the diffused light that trickles through the overhanging lacework of the trees. A small fire is crackling against the trunk of a mighty podocarpus, and the thin column of smoke creeps upward and hangs like a summer cloud in the stagnant air. In the middle of the glade a framework of sticks supports long strips of drying meat, and the unctuous odour of roasting elephant flesh tickles the nostrils of a group of vultures which are fidgeting and craning their snakelike necks on the lightning-bleached top of a towering juniper. To and fro, here and there, flit little gnome-like figures, stunted, gnarled, hairy of limb, veritable retrospects into the vague world of childhood's dreams, the homeless, ever-wandering, all-knowing children of the Dawn of Man.

I see a long, slimy pool of putrefying reeds, where foul fish foregather and great pythons writhe and gorge themselves on hideous toads and slither, long, gleaming bands of gold, through labyrinths of fœtid green and purple spume, where fireflies dance, great butterflies flash, dragon-flies glint, and the suck-suck of swamp, the roar of huge-bellied frogs, the cicada's scream, merge in a sad minor key, where, in the ceaseless struggle between fruition and decay, death wins.

Then follow babbling shallows, clusters of busy villages, mile upon mile of banana-groves, of fields green with maize, millet, beans, and peas, groups of laughing women balancing pitchers on their heads, lowing herds of cattle, a huge rock-torn gorge, black with forest, and the Nile, fast growing, has swept out into its long, tortuous, course which meanders through the vast alluvium of the Rutchuru plains.

The Kirunga volcanoes are dim forms looming purple in the south; herds of cobus and topi are scattered about the plains, and at night the 'boom' of the hunting lion makes the wretched native cower in his stockade of thorns.

North, south, east, and west the sea of grass rolls to the round horizon, broken only where a herd of elephants, ears a-flap, heads a-nodding, are swinging away to the cool reed-beds of the Albert Edward Lake.

The smell of sulphur fills the air, fumaroles spit, and tall geysers play, iridescent in the sun. Far and near the humph-humph of dozing hippos breaks the quiet which hangs over Lake Albert Edward's broad expanse.

Weird cacti cast their gaunt shadows over miles of snowy salt, and the wretched Wanyabinga fisher-folk cringe in terror as they watch the vultures hover over scenes of nameless cannibal orgies in the far-off Balegga Hills.

Strange canoes of fibre-sewn planks drift idly on the still surface of the lake, or bustle to and fro in the deep shadows of the Katwe cliffs, which stand sheer and brisk against the stupendous mass of cloud that for ever screens the huge mysteries of the Mountains of the Moon.

Then, roaring in gorge and tumbling in cascade, the Nile is again the Nile, threading the neck, and hurrying to the flat bottoms of the Semliki valley.

Anon the forest creeps upon the river's silent reaches—great, dim, mysterious aisles of trees where giant bananas battle for a peep of sky; mop-headed palms leap clear above the mass of green, and raphias with long, graceful fronds sweep and caress the passing tide. Here do great crocodiles lurk, and the shy okapi picks his nervous way along the beds of forest streams; ape-men haunt the glades—curious survivals of an infinite past—low-browed, hairy of limb, pathetic-faced as any dog; pigmies seek honey, or fret the testy elephant with tiny poisoned arrows; black-and-white colobus monkeys dash jabbering along the rubber vines; great apes cough and grunt; the air is heavy with mind-wasting scents; and, above all, beneath all, all-permeating, thrills the tireless anthem of the insect world, the suck-suck of decaying swamp, and the warm, sensuous feel of straining, redundant life.

And above loom forty miles of forest-stained slopes—the vast buttresses, torn by ten thousand ravines, which hold up the great waste of shimmering snow and blue serac, above which leap, 20,000 feet on nigh, the gleaming tips of the Mountains of the Moon.

Then the muddy tide, swollen with the wastage of Ruwenzori's snows, crawls into the wide-flung swamps of the Albert Lake.

It is a weird, uncanny world of its own, with its endless bands of yellow weed, its pearl-tinted waters, its islands of papyrus, whereon the poor hunted Wanyabinga hide their primitive huts, fleeing from the myrmidons of the Brussels rubber mart. Flocks of pelicans splash and gabble in the silent pools. Far and wide rings the plomp-plomp of rising fish. Elephants stand sphinx-like, belly-deep in weed, hippos galumph and bellow in their play. White clouds of ibis drift across the weed. Geese scream to the whistle of the flighting teal. Silently poling their way down the lanes of water are the scarce-moving forms of natives in canoes. And interwoven with it all, mystifying and enchanting, are the long woofs of mist and the kaleidoscopic dance of noon's mirage.

Here again are white strips of sand, green bands of bananas, yellow clumps of huts, and above, the towering purple hills, gorges inky black or all aglow with flowers, groups of chattering apes, a leopard snarling on a rock, the plaintive-screaming fish-eagle, frail canoes dancing on billowy seas, precipices plunging into limpid bays, fierce Balegga with their faces hidden in long, greasy plaits of hair, basking crocodiles and wallowing hippos. The ninety miles of the Albert Lake are left behind, and the Albert Nile and Victoria Nile, twin children of the Kivu Hills, have merged and slid into the broad stream which for a moment lingers under Wadelai.

A tiny lake, scarce five miles wide, smothered with weed, two insignificant hills, over one of which the Union Jack flutters on a crooked pole, some gravitation-defying huts, a sad-eyed Englishman, such is Wadelai, and the Nile swishes round the bend, and has left this outpost of Empire in the purple haze.

I see a hundred miles of mere—great wastes of weed through which the Nile rushes down narrow lanes between wide, placid pools, where the heavy thud of a leaping 7-foot fish and the sad cries of water-birds alone break the silence of the evening—a mere set in a long trough of sun-shorn hills, where trees burst like guns and the brown grass shrivels and drifts, ash-like, on the breeze; where heat is heat, and aged rhinos wander unceasingly through dry belts of thorn; where Shulis and Lures—curious Nilotic men—sit meditating in the sun—a sun round, red, and glowing like a furnace door; an awful sun, a sun that shaves the earth and blisters the very rocks. Here, nightly, fearful storms brew, and the sun-tortured hills are riven and seared by lightning, till the whole district wears an aged look quite in keeping with the rhinoceros, who is its chief denizen.

Then, plunging through eighty miles of rapid and cascade, the Nile eddies beneath Bedden. Here are the outposts of the Belgian King, and blue-uniformed cannibals practise the goose-step to the accompaniment of interminable bugle blasts. Here all living things have crowded to the English bank, and cringe in fear of the teeth of the 'Billygee.' Sardine-tins glisten on the banks, and absinthe-bottles drift upon the pools, and hell is loose, and Ostendwards a king draws cent per cent.

Creeping past the mushroom rock of Redjaf, the hills of Lado and Gondokoro, a land still vaguely reminiscent of the 'Forty Thieves,' where Baker Pasha beat his great English heart into the trust of negrodom; where Emin lived and dreamed; where Speke passed and Gordon strove before the long hiatus when Mahdism came—a land of great English memories tossed by a Foreign Minister to the howitzers and cannibal hordes of the Congo State—the now mighty flood pours through a thousand channels into the world of swamp.

A world of swamp indeed!

Thirty thousand miles of water, weed, mud and papyrus—a Titan sponge which sucks in a score of rivers, and leaves but one to make the long journey to Egypt's cotton-fields.

Here are great reaches of still water, where thousands of hippos lie in long purple bands throughout the day, waiting for the night, when they emerge and scatter through the reed-beds, and their drumming fills the air like summer thunder.

There are huge banks of bottomless mud upon which ducks cluster in solid acres, pelicans squat, geese scream, and golden-crested cranes roost in such countless swarms that their night cries sound like gunfire in the distance—birds by the ten million.

On every side, to the horizon and a hundred miles beyond, lies the endless sea of dark green papyrus.

The great orb of day is sinking lurid in the west; the pools are all aglow; the purple shades of night are already lurking behind the drifting mist-wreaths; the hippos throw their heads on high, and with wide-open mouths bellow welcome to the night; herd upon herd of elephants is plunging eastward to the far-away dom-palms of the Sobat plains; spank-spank sounds the plunge of Nile salmon on the feed; a hundred curling wreaths of smoke show where long, ash-smeared Dinkas are milking cattle; now and again a Nuer drifts past in his canoe, spear poised on high to strike the feeding fish; duck, teal, and geese are flighting overhead in hosts unthinkable, and the air screams with the whistle of a billion wings. Then of a sudden the scene shivers and is gray: the sun has gone, and the writhing mists are paramount; a faint humming seems to permeate the world; it swells to a moan, gathers strength, intensifies, drowns even the great sound of the flighting duck, grows ever louder till the whole marsh seems to roar with sound. King mosquito rules the great Nile swamp. Dinkas are buried deep in cowdung ash; cattle stand motionless in clouds of pungent smoke; the birds have flown and left the marsh to thick-skinned hippos, four-legged fish, and the coming of the dawn.

Again the banks stand high and well defined, giraffes browse on the flat-topped acacias, and here and there a Shilluk village is perched above flood-water mark.

The 400-mile long swamp is left behind, and the Nile, limpid and free from silt, slides, a broad oily sheet, past Fashoda's mud-bank, by the encampments of Baggara Arabs, near Dejebel Ain, a long 600 miles to where Khartoum broods over the Blue Nile.

And so a thousand miles through pink deserts backed by violet hills, past date-palms and the Arabs' yard-wide strip of green, beneath changeless temples, tombs, cities, and the awesome relics of the infinitely old, the Nile flows; as a last after-thought begets Egypt's wealth, and Karissimbi's snows have joined the sea.

Such was the Nile when I, first of all men, saw the source issue, drop by drop, from Karissimbi's moss.

Now at Assouan the Nile is tamed. A palace, college, hotels, and bungalows have usurped the mud-heaps of Khartoum; the sudd has yielded to the white man's will, and steamers pant fortnightly past the Lado Fort; bullock-waggons astonish the rhinoceroses of Wadelai; prospectors are chipping rocks on Ruwenzori's flanks; and the German scientist is hunting bugs on Karissimbi's slopes.

The shroud of a million years is rent.

The Britisher is abroad.

Old Father Nile! Tush! 'tis a coming highroad of the world.