The departure from Ghat was, for most of us, an exciting moment. So far I had considered myself comparatively on familiar ground; for although I had followed different routes, the great points of Mourzuk and Ghat were well known to me. Now, however, we were about to enter upon a region totally unknown, of which no authentic accounts from eye-witnesses—unless we count the vague reports of natives—had ever reached us; valleys unexplored; deserts unaffronted; countries which no European had ever surveyed. Before us, somewhere in the heart of the Sahara, raised into magnificence perhaps by the mirage of report, was the unknown kingdom of Aheer, of which Leo Africanus hints something, but the names of whose great cities are scattered as if at haphazard over the maps, possibly hundreds of miles out of their right position. What reception shall we meet with in that untried land? In what light will its untravelled natives—fierce from ignorance and bigotry—regard this mission of infidels, coming from latitudes of which they have never dreamed, with objects unappreciable and perhaps hostile? Will nature itself be hospitable? Are there no enemies in the climate, no perils peculiar to the seasons? These questions occupied my mind as the caravan wound between the last palm-groves of Ghat; and my camel, resuming its swinging march, went away with its neck advanced like a bowsprit over this desert sea, which might be scattered with hidden dangers at every step.
The wind does not always serve at the outset of a voyage. Our first stage was only of two hours southwards, as far as Berket, a considerable town, well walled, situate under a low hill, and surrounded with palm-trees and gardens. The people visited us on our arrival; all proved troublesome and some insolent. I had heard a better account of them. Their country is pleasanter than themselves, certainly the most picturesque piece of desert I have seen since leaving Tripoli. A range of lofty black mountains extends on the east, with mounds of sand and smaller hills at their base, dotted with the beautiful ethel-tree; palms rise in abundance on all sides; gardens surround the wells; and animals feed about on the plain. The scenery is quite rich, and even suggests the idea of fertility. The Tuaricks possess many similar fine valleys.
We started late next day from Berket, and made only four hours to a well. Here it was necessary to wait for Waled Shafou, and the three extra camels which we have hired to go with us to Aheer. The scenery resembles that of yesterday; but there is not so much herbage, and the palms are absent. Probably the date-palms of Berket are the last trees of this species which we shall see until our return. The olive-district has long ago been left behind; and now the columnar date-palm is also to be among the things that were. They report, however, that there is a diminutive species in Aheer. We shall greet this dwarf-cousin of our old friend with pleasure.