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Explorer Sass Flóra – Florence Baker – part 2

Explorer Sass Flóra – Florence Baker – part 2

Éva Wajda

Sam accepted a supervisory position in the construction of a railway across the Dobrudja Peninsula connecting the Danube with the Black Sea. Before leaving Bucharest, the English Consul Colquhuan granted a British passport to Flora as she had no identity papers.  She became Florence Barbara Maria Finnian, her last name being derived from the sound of the pronunciation of Finjanjian, name of the family who had taken her in.

They moved into the director’s house in Constanza, a small fishing village on the Black Sea (now the 4th largest town in Romania) and Florence transformed it into a comfortable home with local carpets and furniture.  Sam’s china and silver arrived from England, adding a refined air to their dining table.  During this time, he would go hunting and horseback riding with Florence.  To his shock, she rode astride the horse in trousers when English ladies rode side saddle.  The riding outfit he bought her had to be altered.  She would dress as a young boy, her hair under a cap, and this way they avoided a scandal. 

When the construction job came to an end, they lived in Central Europe for a while, traveled around southeastern Europe and the Balkans, but all the time Baker was reading of the escapades of his friend Speke and his quest to find the source of the Nile.  He developed a great yearning to go to Africa, requested maps from the English Geographical Society and began to order items they would need for the expedition, including firearms, bullets and gunpowder, tools, a medical chest complete with quinine and opium, custom saddles, a selection of sewing and cooking utensils and a portable bath.  Since his expedition was self-funded, he arranged money to be available to him through the Bank of Egypt in Alexandria.  While awaiting their supplies they went on an extended trip to Lake Sapanga in Turkey and hunted in the mountains. 

Florence and Sam arrived in Cairo in March 1861.  It was swelteringly hot, dusty and chaotic.  They had much to arrange.

Crossing the Nubian Desert

They set sail from Cairo on April 15th, 1861, in what the tourists called a Nile diahbiah, a small steamer with a triangular sail, deck, and cabins below.

After 26 days of sailing, they disembarked in Korosko where they hired 16 camels to carry themselves, their cook, a dragoman (guide and interpreter), several camel drivers and a huge pile of luggage and supplies to cross the Nubian Desert to Berber, there to rejoin the Nile.

The camels were strong and hardy and functioned well in the 137°F   heat, but the humans did not do so well.  The desert wind simoom sucked all moisture from their bodies.  Water in goatskin bags and in two large barrels was to last until they reached the only water source, an extinct crater that collected salt and acrid water in its bowl.  They traveled at night as the temperature fell to 78°F and the camel drivers shivered.  Florence was ill with dehydration and heat stroke, but they had to push on to the well.  A day’s rest meant a day’s extra water consumption and a day’s delay in reaching the next water source.  A day could kill, as evidenced by innumerable skeletons of camels that lay in the endless stretch of hot sand in all directions, the heaps of dried skin and bone in the distinct forms in which the camels had died.  There were no flies here, thus no worms to devour the carcasses.

After two days of actual marching from Korosko, the caravan reached the water hole Moorahd, the bitter well.  The air was hotter here in the valley because the high rock formations radiated heat like an oven.  Within smelling distance of the water hole, the camels ran frantically toward the water, collapsing onto their knees and drinking their fill of the salty, acrid water; the others followed suit.  No sooner had their overworked camels lain down exhausted on the sand, crows perched on cliffs descended and walked around the exhausted camels and paid particular attention to a camel in very weak condition.  After six hours of rest, with their water bags refilled, the expedition continued on the last leg of their trek to Abou Hammad.  They rarely spotted a sign of life, only a few gazelles here and there and stunted acacia trees.  They arrived early morning on May 23rd at Abou Hammad, almost two-thirds of the way to Berber.

Two days later they set off early in the morning.  The heat and the simoom was as unbearable as before.  After a few days Florence was so ill that they stopped for half a day on May 27th to allow her to rest.  Sam shot some gazelles and the fresh meat helped revive her.  The extreme dryness attacked everything.  The leather covers of the gun cases shrank so badly they had to be cut open to extract the guns.  Crumpled paper in the hand broke into pieces.  The ivory knife handles split and wooden items warped and twisted.  The dry air induced a large amount of electricity in the hair and all woolen materials.  Florence’s face was like crinkled parchment paper and her eyes gritty like a river bed.  On May 31st, after marching another 143 miles, they reached Berber, a large town along the Nile, and spent a week resting.

“On arrival at Korosko, twenty-six days from Cairo, we started across the Nubian Desert.  During the cool months, from November until February, the desert journey is not disagreeable; but the vast area of glowing sand exposed to the scorching sun of summer, in addition to the withering breath of the simoom, renders the forced march of two hundred and thirty miles in seven days, at two and a half miles per hour, one of the most fatiguing journeys that can be endured."  (Source: "In the Heart of Africa” by Samuel White Baker) 

Sam felt convinced that the Nile expedition would be impossible without a knowledge of Arabic and resolved to become independent of all interpreters. Even though Flora spoke Arabic, Sam thought he would be able to deal better with the Arabs if he did not have to rely on Flora - a woman! - to interpret for him. He therefore decided to learn the language.  He also planned to explore for a year the rivers that flow into the Nile from the Abyssinian mountain ranges and follow up the Atbara River from its junction with the Nile. 

The rainy season was approaching and they had no time to lose.  They left Berber and the following evening reached the junction of the Nile and Atbara.


(to be continued)

Eva Wajda is a member of the Magyar News Online Editorial Board.

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