AN AFRICAN WATERWAY A THOUSAND miles up the Niger river
from the seat a curious -refractory little tributary 'enters it after a hundred twisting miles -Of course froni Jega, which is the Chief trading town of the province of Sokoto. For a few monthS of the year the big Nupc canoes carrying the Niger trade can Use 'it to take produee to and from the Jega Market, but in the dry -Weather it is beset with .so many obstructiOns that "a -passage up its". bed though possible is difficult; and the canoes abandon all attempt at the laborious effort. It is an axiom, that cheap trans- port is the hinge whereon swings the door to-economic prosperity in any country, and in Africa especially water beats land for cheapness ;' so I determined to explore the possibilities of keeping this river open constantly as a highway of commerce.
I started from Jega one hot March morning when the stream was at its lowest, in the higgest local canoe I could get—a cranky craft, 'forty feet long by four feet broad, built in two halves and joined in the middle by iron clamps, the seam of the join caulked with mud and grass:- Through this the water oozed and swirled about in the bottom, and- constant baling was necessary. A bed of reeds was put down to support my deck chair, and a curved frame of canes -covered with grads 'mats kept the sun off me. Two men in front and two behind stood to pole or paddle the canoe. A smaller canoe carried my loads and-servants.
It was midday before we got off after much chattering and altercation, and all- that afternoon we poled down the stream, which here was narrow and uninteresting, flowing between high sandy banks. Navigation was easy–Ave feet of water which would take the heaviest laden canoe in this low water season—and the only obstacles were trunks of trees which had toppled over from the bank after years 'of rain scour. Their position was marked and they were entered upon my traverse for removal. ' An endless row of water dippers, the "shadoof-" of Egypt, told of the irrigation of constant farms along the -bank 'above where cassava, onions, beans and sweet potatoes weregrown mile after mile. - At sundown I chose a likely Spot- for camp, where we disembarked and settled for a short' night's rest, for a long journey next day demanded . ari early start. I dined on fresh river fish, a guinea-fowl With sweet potatoes, and dates stewed in milk, and slept out in the open under quiet stars, a better rest than any roof can give.
Two hours before the dawn- we were aboard again. The night was wonderfully still and calm. _ A lantern in the boW of the canoe helped my polers to see their way and showed where the snags appeared above the water. A light low mist streaked and coiled along the water, and above it in the lantern rays the banks slipped dimly. past. I saw an old grey heron standing like a spirit of another world; he swooped off heavily with a croak of fear. The fish, attracted by the light, jumped all around us, and a dozen leapt into the canoe—the easiest breakfast I have ever ; ,known ! The dark' journ ey had a weirdness all its, own it was a voyage on the Styx with four black Cliarons to match the night.
Then_ as the, stars . paled, the chill dawn wind began to sigh along the stream, rustling in the reeds and rippling the water so that it plashed against the bow. The east fanned out. a faint pearl green, swinging from right to left, and back again as we veered and twisted round the bends.; the sky flamed quickly first with yellow then. with golden light and, with the day, the banks awoke to life and sound. Birds twittered, guinea-fowl and francolin croaked their salutation to the morning, a rustling flight of teal tore down the stream. I saw the weaver birds quarrelling and fussing _round their swinging .globes of nests, and perky crocodile birds in their •uniforms of grey and white, were scuttling at the water's .edge. . This was the one good .hour of coolness before the villain .sun Should. crush and crumple us with his heavy rays, and we poled on rapidly, thrusting heavily on the sandy bottom, Then our enemy rose high and smote, us, and through the long hours of yellow heat we wandered down the tortuous river shut in and baked between the banks until he sank to a chorus of our parting curses, and the cool breath of evening came stealing once more upon the stream.
Another day of it, still occupied in sounding shallows and marking obstacles, and then monotony was ended, for we came out into a level country of green marsh and water plain, with gentle banks almost level with the strewn. Far in the distance the .blue hills of the high country showed across the open. Game . everywhere, antelope of four or five species feeding placidly. Black grouting specks among the reeds spoke of wart-hog turning up the marshy ground. In the shallows storks and egrets fished and great marabous with broad. white waistcoats and hideous featherless necks stood looking down their long noses as we passed.-. .
Next day,- the- fourth of our journey, we reached the Allo lake, which was the great difficulty of the waterway: The whole surface Of the water for several miles was covered with a soggy mass of waterwee&-a " sudd " in miniature. It lay, a dull green carpet Over the lake, with blue-white roots choking the river'flow sO. that the stream could only . percolate sluggishly :through, the monstrous obstacle. Villagers from every part on the "far-Off banks were slashing with heavy machets to cut a track through it, standing On -the weed and rolling it back Upon So fast this parasite grew that' each year the' strenuous labour had to be repeated. When we arrived- the path was almost finished; and after a hundred yards-of piiShing and hacking. we passed 'through- the last year's- 'growth into a clearlariefifteen.feet in width-and three lOng. Hem the fun began. - The stream: flow gathering to a Clear passage ran like a mill4ace, faster and faster as we went. The crew, using reversed pole ends which were forked; kept the canoe straight till the lane turned at' an angle. Then a shout of warning, a mighty thrust at the -star. board bow, and round the corner- we swung with' a roll. On went the flood .quicker and quicker. Another shout,, another lurch, and we negotiated narrowly 'a second turn.. Down. a Straight course of rushing water, travelling "tell' miles an hour. The suction force was terrific in the straightened way. Once we bungled it and ran half 'our_ length the to the matted . verge ; once we got janimed across the stream, bow and stern fixed in the weed; Water poured in over the side. Exhilarating. experience filled with a tension. which lasted till -we turned the last corner and shot out beyond the weed into the river's channel,- floating quietly -with slackened impetus.- It- had been the dementia of all travelling !
Twenty miles on we reached the great* Niger,-cOmint on to it as the sun- rose. The mighty river was in the. second of its two yearly floods—an amazing sight.' Over a mile in width just here, it raced along in -one: vast moving sheet of water painted with the red and gold of- sunrise. In the great torrent the - flotsam of a thdusdnd' miles passed by me'; large floating islands of grass-ail& bushes ; the trunks of-giant trees torn from their stance of countless' years; the carcasses of 'sheep' and cattle; the debris of ruined huts. Their passing left me with a sense Of force not -easy to- deScribe. The iinniensity of the river's power was so'heart-shaking that to cross it, as' we had to do, in that leaky and -unwieldy craft which- Irk& brought `me down froth Jega seemed a very tempting of Providence: A- moment later I' was shamed out' of uneasiness. Our pilot boat arrived, a small canoe just' twelve feet long and eighteen inches 'Wide ! In it' a tiny boy ten years of age and naked -as he was born' stood- holding a paddle longer- than himself, and balancing his cockleshell with easy nonchalance.
Solemnly he lookedupon the white man, and graVely accepting the present of an empty tin he pointed, out • carelessly the -line we Were to- take behind -him.' Then with a serene confidence' which I envied he slipped out upon the waters, a small black conqueror of nature's mighty element.
A. C. G. ThisTixos.