Explorer Sass Flóra – Florence Baker – part 3

Éva Wajda

Explorer Sass Flóra – Florence Baker – part 3

Sam Baker (lazarus.elte.hu)

Sass Flóra and Sam Baker left Berber on June 10th, 1861 with a new group of porters, two Turkish soldiers as attendants along with several others.  Mahomet the dragoman (interpreter and guide) stayed on, but thought his employers lost their senses to venture on such a “useless” journey.  Their heavy baggage of 28 individual pieces had been sent ahead by boat from Berber to Khartoum so they could travel lighter.  This time Florence and Sam journeyed on donkeys, which walk more rapidly than camels, but had greater need for water and forage.  The heat was dreadful, the simoom was worsening and both Sam and Florence suffered from attacks of malaria, heatstroke and dehydration.

Florence was an able seamstress, she sewed their comfortable garments.  Her trousers were loose and her long shirt covered her arms, much cooler than a dress or blouse and skirt would have been.  Her face was protected by a broad brimmed hat.  Sam’s clothes were similar.

The weather grew cooler and more humid as the rainy season approached.  They reached the junction of the Atbara and the White Nile which was a broad river of sand with occasional pools of standing water, thick with crocodiles, turtles, fish, gazelles, hyenas, birds and wild asses, all crowded into the few waterholes in the dry season, as were the goats and sheep of the local Arabs.  The largest pool was about a mile in length, some 160 miles from the junction of the Atbara and the Nile.  Now the expedition was freed from carrying enormous supplies of water since it became available by digging in the sand.

Sam had a long standing wish to hunt hippos and the opportunity presented itself when he came across several in shallow water.  They  were raiding  the melon patches of the natives and killed a man.  Sam shot a very large and a smaller one, after which 300 Arabs came running with knives and, with Sam’s permission, began to butcher them.  Men stood knee deep in hippo intestines and fought over choice bits, women were hacking off fatty meat for their families.  Uneaten meat was dried, hides were tanned to make girbas (pouches that hold water), bones were pounded to remove marrows and the rest was cooked for soup.  The Arabs were grateful for the meat supply. 

On the night of June 23rd the rainy season arrived suddenly and unannounced.  It started with an ominous rumbling and in the darkness Arabs were shouting “El Bahr!  El Bahr!”, “the River, the River!”  The camp awoke.  Many people had been sleeping on the clean sand of the river and rushed to the riverbank for safety. 

Within minutes a massive wall of water came charging down the riverbed like a locomotive.  Within days, the barren desert blossomed with leaves and flowers and fruits, animals and birds gave birth.  The rains were pouring into Abyssinia.

After six days of marching from the junction of the Atbara and the White Nile, about 220 miles, they arrived in Gozejarup, a village inhabited by Bishareen Arabs, the largest Arab tribe in Nubia.  Gazerajub was appalling.  The people had no regard for sanitary habits.  Human waste and garbage contaminated the river that people drank from and washed in, no one dug latrines, no one bothered to get drinking water upstream of the village.  Sam and Florence drank only boiled  milk which was scarce despite the large number of cattle.  The villagers gave lame excuses to the Turks as to why milk was scarce until they lost patience and beat the villagers with a hippo hide whip known as a coorbatch, freely, cruelly, and randomly.  After that, milk became available.  “They said why pay good money for something when with force the same result can be achieved.”  Violence was a primary medium of communication along the River.

Florence had befriended a little girl about 3-4 years old, whose mother invited her to an important ceremony.  The little girl sat in the middle of a circle of women in a hut and the ritual of circumcision began.  Florence was horrified, felt sick and left, trying to shut out the gruesome vision.  A young girl explained to her proudly that all the tribes from Cassala to Berber perform this procedure on their women, because no man would marry a dirty woman who had not been circumcised.  Because an uncircumcised wife could take many lovers without his knowing.  Florence had nightmares afterwards and was ill for several days.

Sam began looking for fresh camels to continue their journey, but the Arabs flatly declined to hire out their animals.  The Turkish soldiers again solved the problem by seizing as many camels as were needed, plus their owners as camel drivers.  They arrived back at the banks of the Atbara and wanted to spend the winter months in the village of Sofi on the other side of the River.  There was a crude ferry to transport people across but the animals had to swim.  Camels are reluctant to swim in the water and to avoid the ordeal of shouting, beating, and pulling and pushing the beasts into the water, the camel men and their charges absconded during the night.  The replacement animals were stubborn and out of control, with irritable temperaments and bad habits, bolting through thorn bushes and leaving Sam bleeding, his clothes torn, and nearly naked.  Weeks later they were loaned a pair of genuine hygeens by another sheik.  These camels were pure white with swift, smooth riding gaits that left the baggage camels far behind. 

Rainstorms grew more frequent as they moved southward.  The thunder at night made sleep impossible and rain fell like a waterfall into their tent, soaking Florence and Sam in their beds.  The large flat feet of the camels sank into the mud so they could no longer walk.  So they stood until the camel men cleaned their feet.

At Sofi, Sam bought an empty hut and had it moved close to the banks of the Atbara.  Florence lined the inside of the hut with canvas to keep the insects and snakes out of the living space.  Maps, guns, instruments, sewing notions were suspended in nets and in baskets attached to the canvas to protect them from ants and termites that ate everything.  The camp was cozy and functional.

But the rainy season washed their comfort away.  Horseflies, tsetse flies, mosquitoes and all sorts of stinging or biting insects hatched by the millions.  Insects transformed a cup of coffee into a wiggling thick soup before it could be drunk.  People and animals were covered in welts and sores from biting flies.  Ox peckers and egrets stood on animals’ backs and picked at the sores removing lice, but also enlarging the wounds.  The donkeys refused to graze in the open, preferring to stand in dense smoke clouds produced by burning grass and sticks.  Fever struck hard.  Sam was doctoring the men and tending to Florence who suffered from a gastric attack and stayed in bed for nine days.  An outbreak of boils infected everyone.  Sam mixed gunpowder and sulfur with water and fat to make an ointment, and this seemed to work.

Sam and Florence decided to move on, as the rainy season was coming to an end.  They left Sofi, crossing the River again.  In the new camp, Sam fished and hunted.  Florence made him some tough gaiters of gazelle skin that protected his lower legs from the sharp barbed grasses and thorn bushes.  Many of the men fell seriously ill with fever and some died.

On August 17th, 1861 they went further down the Settite River.  In October, more rain fell and more men became ill.  Everything began to mold, rot, and mildew – clothes, leather, canvas, pages of books.  And there was mud everywhere.  They were trapped, unable to move at all.

Sam and Florence traveled and hunted along the Settite River.  One day Sam went hunting with several men and when he did not return later that day Florence became worried.  While dinner was being prepared, she scanned the landscape for a sign of them.  It was getting dark, and Sam’s horse cantered into camp in a lather; his skin and saddle were scraped and scratched, his rider gone.

Florence was frantic with fear.  When darkness fell, she ordered the men to build a fire so it could be seen from a long distance, and she posted sentries in all directions to watch for the hunting party.  She took her little Fletcher rifle and with a few men armed with swords and lances, set out to find Sam.  At intervals she would fire the shotgun, listening for a reply.  When at 9 p.m., three hours later, she fired her rifle again, there was an answering whistle.  It was Sam!  Florence and the men shouted and fired repeatedly, and she heard the whistle again.  They kept doing this, and the sound guided Sam and his party in the darkness.  Finally, they appeared and Florence rushed to embrace Sam.  They walked three miles back to camp.  Sam explained that, while they were chasing elephants, his horse stumbled and did a complete somersault.  Sam was thrown on the ground.  The gun bearers thought Sam would die and ran off, but returned when they saw he was alive.  They were 17 miles from camp and were lost until they heard the rifle shots that guided them in the right direction.

On May 19th, 1862, a year after leaving Korosoko, Sam and Florence evaluated their progress with pride.  They visited every river that flowed into the Nile from the east:  the Atbara and its tributaries, the Settite, the Salaam, the Angarep, and the Royan.  They also followed the Rahad and the Dinder.  They traveled hundreds of miles on unknown river systems, made detailed observations on the climate, terrain, the people and animals and plants.  They had hired and managed a large crew of natives, put down several mutinies, mastered the riding of camels, horses, donkeys, and collected specimens of mammals that inhabited that region of Abyssinia.  Although they suffered many fevers and ailments, as could be expected, the expedition was a success, and so was their partnership.

They continued their trip to Khartoum, but as they drew closer, their journey became close to unbearable.  They were tired and worn out, emotionally and physically.  On June 11th, 1862, they arrived at Khartoum.

                                                                                                                                        (to be continued)

(Sources:  To the Heart of the Nile by Pat Shipman

               In the Heart of Africa, by Samuel Baker)

 

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