Here to return to
PHILÆ TO KOROSKO.
SAILING gently southward – the river opening wide before us, Philæ dwindling in the rear – we feel that we are now fairly over the border; and that if Egypt was strange and far from home, Nubia is stranger and farther still. The Nile here flows deep and broad. The rocky heights that hem it in so close on either side are still black on the one hand, golden on the other. The banks are narrower than ever. The space in some places is little wider than a towing-path. In others, there is barely room for a belt of date-palms and a slip of alluvial soil, every foot of which produces its precious growth of durra or barley. The steep verge below is green with lentils to the water’s edge. As the river recedes, it leaves each day a margin of fresh, wet soil, in which the careful husbandman hastens to scratch a new furrow and sow another line of seeds. He cannot afford to let so much as an inch of that kindly mud lie idle.
Gliding along with half-filled sail, we observe how entirely the population seems to be regulated by the extent of arable soil. Where the inundation has room to spread, villages come thicker; more dusky figures are seen moving to and fro in the shade of the palms; more children race along the banks, shrieking for bakhshîsh. When the shelf of soil is narrowed, on the contrary, to a mere fringe of luminous green dividing the rock from the river, there is a startling absence of everything like life. Mile after mile drags its slow length along, uncheered by any sign of human habitation. When now and then a solitary native, armed with gun or spear, is seen striding along the edge of the desert, he only seems to make the general solitude more apparent.
Meanwhile, it is not only men and women whom we miss – men labouring by the river-side; women with babies astride on their shoulders, or water-jars balanced on their heads – but birds, beasts, boats; everything that we have been used to see along the river. The buffaloes dozing at midday in the shallows, the camels stalking home in single file towards sunset, the water-fowl haunting the sandbanks, seem suddenly to have vanished. Even donkeys are now rare; and as for horses, I do not remember to have seen one during the seven weeks we spent in Nubia. All night, too, instead of the usual chorus of dogs barking furiously from village to village, we hear only the long-drawn wail of an occasional jackal. It is not wonderful, however, that animal life should be scarce in a district where the scant soil yields barely food enough for those who till it. To realise how very scant it is, one only needs to remember that about Derr, where it is at its widest, the annual deposit nowhere exceeds half-a-mile in breadth; while for the most part of the way between Philæ and Wady Halfeh – a distance of 210 miles – it averages from six to sixty yards.
Here, then, more than ever, one seems to see how entirely these lands which we call Egypt and Nubia are nothing but the banks of one solitary river in the midst of a world of desert. In Egypt, the valley is often so wide that one forgets the stony waste beyond the corn-lands. But in Nubia, the desert is ever present. We cannot forget it, if we would. The barren mountains press upon our path, showering down avalanches of granite on the one side and torrents of yellow sand on the other. We know that those stones are always falling; that those sands are always drifting; that the river has hard work to hold its own; and that the desert is silently encroaching day by day.
These golden sand-streams are the newest and most beautiful feature in the landscape. They pour down from the high level of the Libyan desert just as the snows of Switzerland pour down from the upper plateaux of the Alps. Through every ravine and gap they find a channel – here trickling in tiny rivulets; flowing yonder in broad torrents that widen to the river.
Becalmed a few miles above Philæ, we found ourselves at the foot of one of these largest drifts. The M. B.’s challenged us to climb the slope, and see the sunset from the desert. It was about six o’clock, and the thermometer was standing at 80° in the coolest corner of the large saloon. We ventured to suggest that the top was a long way up; but the M. B.’s would take no refusal. So away we went; panting, breathless, bewailing our hard fate. L.----- and the Writer had done some difficult walking in their time, over ice and snow, on lava cold and hot, up cinder-slopes and beds of mountain torrents; but this innocent-looking sand-drift proved quite as hard to climb as any of them. The sand lies wonderfully loose and light, and is as hot as if it had been baked in an oven. Into this the foot plunges ankle-deep, slipping back at every step, and leaving a huge hole into which the sand pours down again like water. Looking back, you trace your course by a succession of funnel-shaped pits, each larger than a wash-hand basin. Though your slipper be as small as Cinderella’s, the next comer shall not be able to tell whether it was a lady who went up last, or a camel. It is toilsome work, too; for the foot finds neither rest nor resistance, and the strain upon the muscles is unremitting.
But the beauty of the sand more than repays the fatigue of climbing it. Smooth, sheeny, satiny; fine as diamond-dust; supple, undulating luminous, it lies in the most exquisite curves and wreaths like a snow-drift turned to gold. Remodelled by every breath that blows, its ever-varying surface presents an endless play of delicate lights and shadows. There lives not the sculptor who could render those curves; and I doubt whether Turner himself, in his tenderest and subtlest mood, could have done justice to those complex greys and ambers.
Having paused to rest upon an out-cropping ledge of rock about half-way up, we came at length to the top of the last slope and found ourselves on the level of the desert. Here, faithful to the course of the river, the first objects to meet our eyes were the old familiar telegraph-posts and wires. Beyond them, to north and south, a crowd of peaks closed in the view; but westward, a rolling waste of hillock and hollow opened away to where the sun, a crimson globe, had already half-vanished below the rim of the world.
One could not resist going a few steps farther, just to touch the nearest of those telegraph posts. It was like reaching out a hand towards home.
When the sun dropped, we turned back. The valley below was already steeped in dusk. The Nile, glimmering like a coiled snake in the shade, reflected the evening sky in three separate reaches. On the Arabian side, a far-off mountain-chain stood out, purple and jagged against the eastern horizon.
To come down was easy. Driving our heels well into the sand, we half ran, half glissaded, and soon reached the bottom. Here we were met by an old Nubian woman, who had trudged up in all haste from the nearest village to question our sailors about one Yûsef, her son, of whom she had heard nothing for nearly a year. She was a very poor old woman – a widow – and this Yûsef was her only son. Hoping to better himself, he had worked his passage to Cairo in a cargo-boat some eighteen months ago. Twice since then he had sent her messages and money; but now eleven months had gone by in silence, and she feared he must be dead. Meanwhile her date-palm, taxed to the full value of its produce, had this year yielded not a piastre of profit. Her mud-hut had fallen in, and there was no Yûsef to repair it. Old and sick, she now could only beg; and her neighbours, by whose charity she subsisted, were but a shade less poor than herself.
Our men knew nothing of the missing Yûsef. Reïs Hassan promised when he went back to make inquiries among the boatmen of Boulak: “But then,” he added, “there are so many Yûsefs in Cairo!”
It made one’s heart ache to see the tremulous eagerness with which the poor soul put her questions, and the crushed look in her face when she turned away.
And now, being fortunate in respect of the wind, which for the most part blows steadily from the north between sunrise and sunset, we make good progress, and for the next ten days live pretty much on board our dahabeeyah. The main features of the landscape go on repeating themselves with but little variation from day to day. The mountains wear their habitual livery of black and gold. The river, now widening, now narrowing, flows between banks blossoming with lentils and lupins. With these, and yellow acacia-tufts, and blue castor-oil berries, and the weird coloquintida, with its downy leaf and milky juice and puff-bladder fruit, like a green peach tinged with purple, we make our daily bouquet for the dinner table. All other flowers have vanished, and even these are hard to get in a land where every green blade is precious to the grower.
Now, too, the climate becomes sensibly warmer. The heat of the sun is so great at midday that, even with the north breeze blowing, we can no longer sit on deck between twelve and three. Towards sundown, when the wind drops, it turns so sultry that to take a walk on shore comes to be regarded as a duty rather than as a pleasure. Thanks, however, to that indomitable Painter who is always ready for an afternoon excursion, we do sometimes walk for an hour before dinner; striking off generally into the desert; looking for onyxes and carnelians among the pebbles that here and there strew the surface of the sand, and watching in vain for jackals and desert-hares.
Sometimes we follow the banks instead of the desert, coming now and then to a creaking Sakkieh turned by a melancholy buffalo; or to a native village hidden behind dwarf-palms. Here each hut has its tiny forecourt, in the midst of which stand the mud-oven and mud-cupboard of the family – two dumpy cones of smooth grey clay, like big chimney-pots – the one capped with a lid, the other fitted with a little wooden door and wooden bolt. Some of the houses have a barbaric ornament palmed off, so to say, upon the walls; the pattern being simply the impression of a human hand dipped in red or yellow ochre, and applied while the surface is moist.
The amount of “bazaar” that takes place whenever we enter one of these villages, is quite alarming. The dogs first give notice of our approach; and presently we are surrounded by all the women and girls of the place, offering live pigeons, eggs, vegetable marrows, necklaces, nose-rings and silver bracelets for sale. The boys pester us to buy wretched half-dead chameleons. The men stand aloof, and leave the bargaining to the women.
And the women not only know how to bargain, but how to assess the relative value of every coin that passes current on the Nile. Rupees, roubles, reyals, dollars and shillings are as intelligible to them as paras or piastres. Sovereigns are not too heavy nor napoleons too light for them. The times are changed since Belzoni’s Nubian, after staring contemptuously at the first piece of money he had ever seen, asked “Who would give anything for that small piece of metal?”
The necklaces consist of onyx, carnelian, bone, silver, and coloured glass beads, with now and then a stray scarab or amulet in the ancient blue porcelain. The arrangement of colour is often very subtle. The brow-pendants in gold repoussée, and the massive old silver bracelets, rough with knobs and bosses, are most interesting in design, and perpetuate patterns of undoubted antiquity. The M. B.’s picked up one really beautiful collarette of silver and coral, which might have been worn three thousand years ago by Pharaoh’s daughter.
When on board, we begin now to keep a sharp look-out for crocodiles. We hear of them constantly – see their tracks upon the sand-banks in the river – go through agonies of expectation over every black speck in the distance; yet are perpetually disappointed. The farther south we go, the more impatient we become. The E.’s, whose dahabeeyah, homeward-bound, drifts slowly past one calm morning, report “eleven beauties,” seen all together yesterday upon a sand island, some ten miles higher up. Mr. C. B.’s boat, garlanded with crocodiles from stem to stern, fills us with envy. We would give our ears (almost) to see one of these engaging reptiles dangling from either our own mainmast, or that of the faithful Bagstones. Alfred, who has set his heart on bagging at least half-a-dozen, says nothing, but grows gloomier day by day. At night, when the moon is up and less misanthropic folk are in bed and asleep, he rambles moodily into the desert, after jackals.
Meanwhile, on we go, starting at sunrise; mooring at sunset; sailing, tracking, punting; never stopping for an hour by day, if we can help it; and pushing straight for Abou Simbel with as little delay as possible. Thus we pass the pylons of Dabôd with their background of desert; Gertássee, a miniature Sunium, seen towards evening against the glowing sunset; Tafah, rich in palms, with white columns gleaming through green foliage by the water-side; the cliffs, islands, and rapids of Kalabsheh, and the huge Temple which rises like a fortress in their midst; Dendûr, a tiny chapel with a single pylon; and Gerf Hossayn, which from this distance might be taken for the mouth of a rock-cut tomb in the face of the precipice.
About half way between Kalabsheh and Dendûr, we enter the Tropic of Cancer. From this day till the day when we repass that invisible boundary, there is a marked change in the atmospheric conditions under which we live. The days get gradually hotter, especially at noon, when the sun is almost vertical; but the freshness of night and the chill of early morning are no more. Unless when a strong wind blows from the north, we no longer know what it is to need a shawl on deck in the evening, or an extra covering on our beds towards dawn. We sleep with our cabin-windows open, and enjoy a delicious equality of temperature from sundown to sunrise. The days and nights, too, are of almost equal length.
Now, also, the Southern Cross and a second group of stars, which we conclude must form part of the Centaur, are visible between two and four every morning. They have been creeping up, a star at a time, for the last fortnight; but are still so low upon the eastern horizon that we can only see them when there comes a break in the mountain-chain on that side of the river. At the same time, our old familiar friends of the northern hemisphere, looking strangely distorted and out of their proper place, are fast disappearing on the opposite side of the heavens. Orion seems to be lying on his back, and the Great Bear to be standing on his tail; while Cassiopeia and a number of others have deserted en masse. The zenith, meanwhile, is but thinly furnished; so that we seem to have travelled away from the one hemisphere, and not yet to have reached the other. As for the Southern Cross, we reserve our opinion till we get farther south. It would be treason to hint that we are disappointed in so famous a constellation.
After Gerf Hossayn, the next place of importance for which our maps bid us look out is Dakkeh. As we draw near, expecting hourly to see something of the temple, the Nile increases in breadth and beauty. It is a peaceful, glassy morning. The men have been tracking since dawn, and stop to breakfast at the foot of a sandy bank, wooded with tamarisks and gum-trees. A glistening network of gossamer floats from bough to bough. The sky overhead is of a tender luminous blue, such as we never see in Europe. The air is wonderfully still. The river, which here takes a sudden bend towards the east, looks like a lake, and seems to be barred ahead by the desert. Presently a funeral passes along the opposite bank; the chief mourner flourishing a long staff, like a drum-major; the women snatching up handfuls of dust, and scattering it upon their heads. We hear their wild wail long after the procession is out of sight.
Going on again presently, our whole attention becomes absorbed by the new and singular geological features of the Libyan desert. A vast plain covered with isolated mountains of volcanic structure, it looks like some strange transformation of the Puy de Dôme plateau, with all its wind-swept pastures turned to sand, and its grassy craters stripped to barrenness. The more this plain widens out before our eyes, the more it bristles with peaks. As we round the corner, and Dakkeh, like a smaller Edfû, comes into sight upon the western bank, the whole desert on that side, as far as the eye can see, presents the unmistakable aspect of one vast field of volcanoes. As in Auvergne, these cones are of all sizes and heights; some low and rounded, like mere bubbles that have cooled without bursting; others ranging apparently from 1000 to 1500 feet in height. The broken craters of several are plainly distinguishable by the help of a field-glass. One in particular is so like our old friend the Puy de Pariou, that in a mere black-and-white sketch, the one might readily be mistaken for the other.
We were surprised to find no account of the geology of this district in any of our books. Murray and Wilkinson pass it in silence; and writers of travels – one or two of whom notice only the “pyramidal” shape of the hills – are for the most part content to do likewise. None seem to have observed their obvious volcanic origin.
Thanks to a light breeze that sprang up in the afternoon, we were able to hoist our big sail again, and to relieve the men from tracking. Thus we glided past the ruins of Maharrakeh, which, seen from the river, looked like a Greek portico set in a hollow waste of burning desert. Next came Wady Sabooah, a temple half buried in sand, near which we met a tiny dahabeeyah, manned by two Nubians and flying the star and crescent. A shabby Government Inspector, in European dress and a fez, lay smoking on a mat outside his cabin door; while from a spar overhead there hung a mighty crocodile. This monster was of a greenish brown color, and measured at least sixteen feet from head to tail. His jaws yawned; and one flat and flabby arm and ponderous paw swung with the motion of the boat, looking horribly human.
The painter, with an eye to foregrounds, made a bid for him on the spot; but the shabby inspector was not to be moved by considerations of gain. He preferred his crocodile to infidel gold, and scarcely deigned even to reply to the offer.
Seen in the half-light of a tropical afterglow – the purple mountains coming down in detached masses to the water’s edge on the one side; the desert with its volcanic peaks yet rosy upon the other – we thought the approach to Korosko more picturesque than anything we had yet seen south of the cataract. As the dusk deepened, the moon rose; and the palms that had just room to grow between the mountains and the river turned from bronze to silver. It was half twilight, half-moonlight, by the time we reached the mooring-place, where Talhamy, who had been sent forward in the small boat half an hour ago, jumped on board laden with a packet of letters, and a sheaf of newspapers. For here, where the great caravan-route leads off across the desert to Khartûm, we touched the first Nubian post-office. It was only ten days since we had received our last budget at Assûan; but it seemed like ten weeks.