chapter  V
Gordon Leaves for Gondokoro
Pages 9

G o rd o n left Cairo for Suez on his way to his post on the morning of 21st February, 1874. With him were his Chief of Staff, Lieutenant-Colonel Chaille-Long, and Lieutenant Hassan Wassif. Major Campbell, Gessi, the two Englishmen, and the others remained at the Egyptian capital in order to finish their task.1 At Suez ship was taken for Suakin. From the latter harbour the little party started across the desert for Berber on the Nile. Two hundred and fifty miles of sand lay before Gordon. It was his first experience of camel riding, but he covered the distance in record time. A four-day river journey brought him from this point to Khartoum, the capital of the Sudan. He had then crossed more than a frontier. He had entered a land of which he said :—

“ Egypt in her greatest days never seems to have extended permanently farther south than Wadi Haifa. There are certainly near Khartoum some ancient ruins of the time of the Pharaohs, and at Merowa there are some pyramids ; but the occupation of these large regions was only ephemeral. To what was due this apparent indifference to conquest on the part of Ancient Egypt ? The explanation is to be found in the difficulty of access to the Soudan-the Country of the Blacks, as the word means. From Wadi Haifa southwards to Hanneck-a distance of 180 milesan utter desert extends, spreading also for miles and miles eastwards on both sides of the Nile. For the same length the river also is encumbered with ridges

of rock. Any invader who should have succeeded in passing the waste tract would have found deployed against him the warlike tribes of the Soudan. Ancient Egypt might certainly have penetrated from Suakin on the Red Sea to Berber on the Nile. But her forces coming by this route would have had to cross a desert of 280 miles, and would equally have had to face the enemy at the end of their wearisome march. It was therefore this boundary of the desert that kept the warlike and independent tribes of the Soudan quite apart from the inhabitants of Egypt proper, and has made the Soudanese and the Egyptians two distinct peoples, that have not the least sympathy one with the other.” 1

Khartoum was reached on 9th March, 1874, at daybreak. In a letter to his sister Gordon wrote :—

“ The Governor-General met your brother in full uniform, and he landed amid a salute of artillery, and a battalion of troops with a band. It was a fine sight. The day before your brother had his trousers off, and was pulling the boat in the Nile in spite of crocodiles, who never touch you when you move. . . . The Governor had news the day before I arrived that the dense mass of vegetation-the sudd-in the Bahr Gazelle had been removed by the soldiers, so that Gondokoro is only three weeks from this.” 2

Another letter, dated 1 7th March, gives some interesting information about this “ sudd ” . “ I have spoken of the opening of the sudd,” he wrote. “ You know that the Nile comes out of Albert Nyanza Lake. Below Gondokoro it spreads out into lakes ; on the edge of these lakes an aquatic plant, with roots extending five feet into the water, flourishes. The natives burn the top parts when dry ; the ashes form mould and fresh grasses grow, till it becomes like

terra firma. The Nile rises and floats out the masses ; they come down to a curve and there stop. More of these islands float down, and at last the river is blocked. Though under them the water flows, no communication can take place, for they bridge the river for several miles. Last year the Governor went up, and with three companies and two steamers he cut large blocks of the vegetation away. At last one night the water burst the remaining part and swept down on the vessels, dragged the steamers down some four miles, and cleared the passage. The Governor says the scene was terrible. The hippopotamuses were carried down, screaming and snorting ; crocodiles were whirled round and round, and the river was covered with dead and dying hippopotamuses, crocodiles, and fish who had been crushed by the mass. . . . You can scarcely imagine the advantage of this opening to me.”