The Boy Travelers - Africa by Thomas W. Knox Boy Travelers-Africa by Thomas W. Knox    

Chapter 4: Berber and Shendy. Hunting the Hippopotamus.

The adventure with the crocodile had consumed the entire forenoon, and the boys were ready for a well-earned rest of a couple of hours. In the afternoon they crossed the Nile to the island of Mokrat, which lies opposite Abu Hamed, and is about twenty miles long. The fields of cotton, beans, dourah, and other Egyptian products were in marked contrast to the desert, and the dark-green foliage of the palm and sycamore trees were a grateful sight to the eyes of the young travelers after their eight days' travel where no verdure could be seen. Frank said the only green things in the desert were themselves, but the Doctor told him the joke was old enough to be allowed to rest. "Bayard Taylor made it in 1851," he remarked, "and nearly every traveler since his time has repeated it."
The Home of Behemoth

While they were crossing the stream on their way to the island a crocodile showed his head close to them, but immediately disappeared from sight. Fred thought he must have heard of their slaughter of one of his kindred, and therefore showed prudence in going away. He was in no danger, as they had left their rifles at Abu Hamed, and were quite without the appliances for capturing a fresh prize.

Abdul said they might possibly see a hippopotamus, and, in the hope of finding one, he took them to a part of the island where these amphibious beasts are said to come ashore. There were several broad tracks in the sand, and one of the natives showed where his field had been seriously injured by these disagreeable visitors.

The visit to the spot naturally led to stories of the chase of these animals. Doctor Bronson had never hunted the hippopotamus, but he informed the boys concerning the character of the beast and his place in natural history. "He is a curious product of nature," said the Doctor, "and his name comes from two Greek words meaning 'river horse.' The name describes him very fairly, though not accurately. He makes his home in the river, but can hardly be ranked with the horse. His head reminds one of the hog, while the body resembles, to some extent, that of the ox. His motions are generally sluggish, but he possesses great strength, which he is not slow to use.

"He lives upon vegetable food, and his feet are provided with toes instead of hoofs. In the daytime he remains concealed in the water, or among the reeds, and his depredations in search of food are committed at night. He is the 'behemoth' of the Bible, and his common name among the people where he abounds is 'sea cow.'"

"He is more valuable than the crocodile," continued the Doctor, "and likewise he is more dangerous to pursue. The crocodile is harmless, unless you come within reach of his tail or jaws, and when attacked, his whole effort is to get away. The hippopotamus will show fight when attacked, particularly if it happens to be a mother with young."
An African River Scene

"I'll tell you about a fight with one," said Abdul, "as soon as the Doctor has finished with his description of the animal."

"The flesh of the sea cow resembles pork," Doctor Bronson continued. "The skin is tough and thick, and is made into those terrible whips which are called kurbashes by the Arabs, and are used all over Africa. It can also be used for the soles of sandals and boots, and for helmets, shields, and other defensive things. It is not easy to send a bullet through it, and an old hippopotamus is nearly as impenetrable as the side of a locomotive engine. The teeth are valuable, as they are an excellent ivory, and for some purposes surpass the tusk of the elephant. So much for the value of the hippopotamus; and now for the story of Abdul's fight with one."

"Twenty years ago," said the dragoman, "there were more of these animals here than now, and there were also more crocodiles. In the neighborhood of Khartoum, the river was full of them, and if you went out just at daybreak, in certain localities, you might see dozens of them in a single morning. The crocodile and the hippopotamus do not get along well together, and sometimes they have fierce fights; but more frequently they mind their own business, and you may see them swimming peaceably side by side. Where both are so well able to take care of themselves, they are not very likely to quarrel.

"The river full of these animals and the air full of birds made a very lively picture. Anybody who was fond of hunting could get all the sport he wanted.

"One morning I went out with an English gentleman whom I had accompanied from Cairo. He was an excellent shot, and on his way up the river had killed no less than seven crocodiles, which he secured, in addition to at least a dozen that had escaped into the water after being mortally wounded. He was anxious to kill a hippopotamus, and I promised to give him the opportunity.

"We went quietly along until we reached one of their haunts, where we brought the boat to land. Creeping through the reeds, I caught sight of a large sea cow eating her breakfast and quite unconscious of danger. I beckoned to the gentleman, who came forward cautiously to get a good position for firing.
A Narrow Escape

"He worked around until he thought he had the proper aim and then fired. His shot was not fatal, and she turned with a roar that was something like the squeal of a hog, though much deeper and louder.

"At the same moment I saw her calf, which had been lying on the ground, and then I knew she would face and fight us. If she had been without young, her first move would have been to rush for shelter in the water.

"I stumbled and fell, but was up again in an instant. Luckily, for me the hippopotamus is clumsy on land though quite agile in the water, and I was getting nicely out of the way when my foot caught in a tangle of reeds and I was down again.

"This time the animal reached me, and opened its great jaws as if to swallow me at one gulp. I thought I was lost, but at that moment another bullet from the gentleman's rifle called her attention the other way.

"Another bullet followed, and then the beast turned toward the water; but she had been struck in a vital part, and fell before getting to the river. The calf did not run away, but stayed by its mother. It was too large for us to capture alive, and so we killed it, or rather the Englishman did. We had a good deal of trouble getting the boatmen to help us carry the prizes to the bank, as they were all afraid of being attacked if they ventured away from the water.

"At another time, two Englishmen went out in a boat with an African who was to ferry them over the river. While they were crossing, they wounded a calf. The little fellow bellowed at the top of his voice and his mother made a rush at the boat, dragging the stern under water and giving them a narrow escape from drowning; but in attacking the boat she raised herself half out of water, so that they had good aim at her at very close range. A couple of bullets made her loosen her hold on the boat and drop again into the river.
Hippopotamus Spears

"In the interior of Africa," Abdul continued, "the natives hunt the hippopotamus in two or three ways. They set pitfalls for him so that a heavy spear falls on his back when he is traveling along a path in search of food. When he has found a good feeding ground in somebody's field, and has spent the night there, he is liable to come again the next night, and so the natives feel pretty certain of securing him when they set a trap. But it has to be arranged very skillfully, as he is a cautious brute, and very apt to discover the disturbance of the bushes or trees.

"Another mode of hunting them is with the spear, and for this purpose it is made with a very strong barb that will hold in the skin, and has a handle eight or ten feet long. Three or four of the natives get on a raft of reeds and float slowly along in perfect silence until they reach the spot where the hippopotamus is supposed to lie.

"The animal when undisturbed is generally found with his nose just above the water, while his body is concealed beneath it and resting on the bottom of the river. The raft drifts along until it touches the nose of the sleeper; he rises up and brings his back above the surface, so that his assailants have good aim at it.

"Down come the heavy spears into his thick hide; the barbs get good hold under the skin, and then the natives paddle the raft to land, and fasten the ropes of the harpoons to the nearest trees or to a strong stake hastily driven into the ground.
Spearing the River-Horse

"The animal is their prize, as he cannot tear out the harpoons or break the ropes, and his enemies are out of his reach. They sit down and wait for him to exhaust his strength by struggling, and then he can be finished with spears and knives, as they are unprovided with firearms. I have seen several of these animals captured in this way; the only danger is that he may upset them before they have taken the ropes to land and made them fast."

By the time Abdul's story was ended the boat was back at the landing place in front of Abu Hamed, and in a few minutes the boys were once more in their tents. Their excursion had given them a keen relish for supper, which consisted of a stew of mutton from a sheep which Abdul had bought before they started for Mokrat. Whenever it was possible to obtain food by purchase, they did so, and preserved their canned provisions against such times as they should need them in the heart of Africa.

They had expected to go by river from Abu Hamed to Berber, but unfortunately there was no boat to be hired, and therefore a new bargain was made with the camel drivers to continue the journey by land. The boys had become accustomed to the Arab mode of travel, and did not particularly regret the absence of a boat. The dragoman told the Doctor that they would get along faster and cheaper with the camels than with a boat, as there was a cataract to be passed about half way on the route, where they would be subject to delay and the inevitable demand of the natives for baksheesh. The day's halt had refreshed the camels and their riders, and early the second morning the procession wound along the road as cheerfully as it had departed from Korosko.

Much of the way the route was along the bank of the Nile, sometimes in the desert sands, and sometimes among rich fields where the natives were at work attending to their crops, or lying idle in the warm sun. Occasionally a bend of the stream caused the caravan to take a short cut of several hours among rocky ridges or over stretches of yellow sand that reflected a painful glare to unprotected eyes. The camp was made each night on the bank of the Nile, and generally in the neighborhood of a village. The inhabitants were miserably poor, and it was difficult to buy anything more than a few vegetables and eggs, and possibly a lean and unattractive chicken. The natives are heavily oppressed with taxation, and frequently their goods are taken from them by the Egyptian officials, and they receive no payment in return. Several times they fled as our friends approached, and it was not an easy matter to assure them they would not be harmed.
A Berber Arab

Several times the party had glimpses of gazelles that abound in this region, but have been hunted so much that they are very shy. Frank and Fred were eager for a gazelle hunt, but it was not deemed advisable to halt the caravan sufficiently long to accommodate them. Their chances of success were very slight, from the wildness of the game and their inexperience, and a very little argument induced them to postpone the chase until they were more certain of bringing something home that would make a good dinner. Abdul told them there were formerly wild asses in the Wady El-Homar; they subsisted on the hard, thorny grass that grows there, but were very fleet and shy, so that they were rarely caught except by stratagem. The wady, or valley, is a pass among the hills which come down to the river in long ridges, and are destitute of water except in the season of rains.

As they approached Berber the sterility of the scene diminished, though the travelers were not out of the desert until near the city. On the other side of the river the fields stretched away for a long distance, and Frank remarked that the picture reminded him of the delta of the Nile in the neighborhood of Cairo. They met or passed crowds of people going between Berber and the surrounding villages, many on foot, and others mounted on camels and donkeys, the latter being the most numerous. As they passed the mud walls and entered the city, the attention of our youthful friends was centered on the people rather than on the architecture of the place. The houses were not unlike those of the towns of Lower Egypt, but the inhabitants were quite different in appearance, and both Frank and Fred remarked that they were in a new country.

Three-fourths of them were Nubians and Ethiopians of various tribes and kinds, and the remainder included Arabs from the desert, soldiers from Cairo and Alexandria, a few Copts and native Egyptians, and a small number of individuals whom it was very difficult to classify. Berber is the center of a considerable trade with the Lower Nile and the coast of the Red Sea on one hand, and the Upper Nile and Central Africa on the other; consequently, its streets are the meeting place of many tribes that roam over a large extent of country.

Abdul told the boys that Berber had a population of about twenty thousand, and was formerly the capital of the Ethiopian kingdom of the same name. It is an important military point, and the government generally keeps a garrison of not less than a thousand soldiers in the fort which commands the town. These troops are intended less for the protection of the place than as a terror to the surrounding tribes, who sometimes show signs of insubordination, and are kept in order by the military presence.

Frank thought the fort was not of much consequence, as its walls were of mud and brick, and could be battered down in a short time by a small army with artillery. Doctor Bronson said there was little probability of an army coming against it, as it was in the hands of the only military power in all that part of Africa. The fort was intended as a defense against the natives, and the few cannons they possessed were of antiquated pattern, and no match for the modern weapons of the Egyptian army.
Sheep of Berber

Outside the walls were several encampments of caravans from Suakim, on the Red Sea, and from the country to the southward. The bank of the Nile was lined with boats, some loading or unloading their cargoes, and others lying idle and waiting for patrons or crews. Negotiations were opened with the owner of one of the largest boats for the transportation of Doctor Bronson's party to Khartoum. Before any conclusion was reached the business was brought to an end by the arrival of a steamboat from up the river, and the announcement that she would return a couple of days later.

"For once we have found the Asian policy of delay in our favor," the Doctor remarked, when telling the boys of the arrival of the steamer. "If the owner of that boat had been an Englishman or an American, he would have closed the transaction in an hour or so, and we should have been obliged to go with him, or pay for breaking the contract. But he sat down and smoked his pipe, on the first interview and the second, without saying a word about business, and by the time he was ready for a third consultation I knew all about the steamboat, and had no farther need of his services."

The steamer belonged to the Egyptian government, and before the Doctor's party could be allowed to travel by it the permission of the Governor of Berber was necessary. Fortunately, they were provided with letters from the high authorities at Cairo, and the permission was easily obtained.

The baggage had been stored in the warehouse of a French merchant, to protect it from weather and thieves. As soon as the arrangements were completed for passage up the river the boxes and bales were taken to the steamboat and snugly stowed in the hold. As was naturally expected in this land of delays, the boat did not leave until a day after the appointed time, and the Doctor considered himself fortunate to get away so soon.

Aided by the wind from the north she breasted the current of the Nile, and very soon the mud walls of Berber were left behind. The banks of the river showed signs of greater fertility than our friends had seen on their ride from Abu Hamed; groves of palm trees were numerous, and there were many fields of grain, cotton, and other growing things. Abdul said there had been great suffering in this region at different times, owing to bad government. At one time the Governor-general of the Sudan had caused the natives to be plundered, in order that he might secure a larger taxation than usual. Many villages were abandoned, the people fleeing to the interior to escape persecution, and neglecting agriculture altogether. When he passed up the river with Baker Pacha's expedition the country was almost destitute of inhabitants, and for miles and miles where formerly were prosperous villages not a native could be seen.

The land here, like that lower down the Nile, is kept fertile by irrigation. The sakkiehs, or water wheels, are turned by oxen, and their creaking is the reverse of musical. In some places they seem to form a continuous line along the banks, and in a distance of less than a mile Frank counted thirty-seven sakkiehs at work, besides nearly as many more lying idle. This part of the Nile might be made one of the most productive parts of Egypt, and it is to be hoped that a better government will control it than has been its ill-fortune since the days of Mohammed Ali to the present time.
View in the Atbara Valley

Abdul called the boys to look at the Atbara River.

"It is noticeable," said the Doctor, "as the first tributary of the Nile above its entrance into the Mediterranean. For fifteen hundred miles this great river does not receive so much as the tiniest brook, a condition of things without parallel with any other river of the world."

"The Atbara rises in Abyssinia," said Abdul, "near the base of two lofty mountains called Abba-Jaret and Amba-Hai. They are not far from the coast of the Red Sea, and one of the head streams of the Atbara is said to start as though intending to reach the coast, when it suddenly turns and flows toward the Nile. It is called Atbara only in the lower part of its course; higher up it is known as the Tacazze, and it runs through a country that would be very productive if it contained people to cultivate it."

A short distance above the mouth of the Atbara they passed Damer, a town situated on the point of land between the Nile and its tributary stream. Abdul said it was not unlike Berber, but smaller, and they were not losing much in passing it without stopping.

They stopped a couple of hours at Shendy, to take in fuel for the steamboat, and the delay was utilized by our friends to obtain a glimpse of the town. As they walked through the streets, formed by rows of mud houses, with here and there a building of more pretentious character, the Doctor told his young companions of a terrible incident in its history.

"Shendy was formerly the capital of the Sudan country," said the Doctor, "and had an important trade with Darfur and other countries of Central Africa. After the conquest of Egypt Mohammed Ali sent his son, Ismail Pacha, to demand the submission of Mek Nemr, the King of Ethiopia, who ruled at Shendy, and had received the nickname of 'The Leopard,' on account of his ferocity.

"Ismail Pacha made his camp outside the walls of Shendy, and sent for the king to come to see him. He demanded hay for his horses and camels and food for his troops. The king said it was impossible to meet the demand, as his people were poor and the season had been very bad.
An Ethiopian King

"The Egyptian became angry and struck the king over the head with the stem of his chibouk. The king bowed his head, as if frightened, and said his people should bring all that was asked for, and more besides.

"All night long the king's people were busy bringing hay for the horses and camels and piling it around the camp. The largest heaps were in front of the tents of the Pacha and his officers, and they remarked that the Ethiopian king had evidently been thoroughly frightened into submission, and would hereafter be obedient to his rulers.

"At daybreak there was a change of the scene.

"Suddenly the whole circle of forage was in a blaze. Ismail Pacha and his officers and soldiers attempted to save themselves by flight. As they ran from the flames that threatened them, they were met by the lances of hundreds of Ethiopian warriors, who gave them the alternative of being speared or roasted.

"Not one of all the party escaped. When Mohammed Ali heard of the death of his son, he sent an army to destroy Shendy, and not leave one stone standing on another. The town was razed to the ground, but 'The Leopard' was not seized; he fled into the interior, and never fell into the hands of the Egyptians. This happened in 1822. A new town was started on the site of the old one, but it has never gained its former greatness. The capital of the country was moved to Khartoum, and that place has become the center of trade on this part of the Nile."

The spot where Ismail Pacha met his death at the hands of the ferocious King of Ethiopia was pointed out by Abdul. The boys looked in vain for any traces of the camp, but the dragoman assured them there could be little doubt of the locality, and none as to the correctness of the story.

    The Boy Travelers - Africa by Thomas W. Knox Boy Travelers-Africa by Thomas W. Knox    

Chapter 4: Berber and Shendy. Hunting the Hippopotamus.


Study the chapter for one week.

Over the week:

  • Read and/or listen to the chapter.
  • Review the vocabulary terms.
  • Complete the enrichment activities.


Dourah: A kind of millet, a variety of sorghum.
Verdure: The greenness of lush or growing vegetation.
Green: Someone untried, untested, or inexperienced.
Amphibious: Capable of functioning on land or in water.
Kurbash: A whip or strap about a yard in length.
Pitfall: A type of trap consisting of a concealed hole in the ground: victims fall into the hole and are unable to escape.
Behemoth, Sea Cow, and River-Horse: Alternate names for the hippopotamus.
Baksheesh: A bribe or a tip.
Stratagem: A tactic or artifice designed to gain the upper hand, especially involving deception.
Nubian: An inhabitant of Nubia, the ancient kingdom in the valley of the upper Nile bordering present Egypt and Sudan.
Copt: A member of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, Egypt.


Activity 1: Narrate the Chapter

  • Narrate the events aloud in your own words.

Activity 2: Study the Chapter Pictures

  • Study the chapter pictures and describe how each relates to the story.

Activity 3: Observe the Modern Equivalent

  • Examine the chapter setting in modern times: the desert in Sudan.

Activity 4: Map the Chapter

Find the countries of Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia on the map of the world.

Activity 5: Map the Chapter on a Globe

  • Repeat the applicable mapwork from Activity 4 on a three-dimensional globe.