Oct. 1st. 1833.
My dearest Molly
The Abyssinian Highlands are a wondrous formation. Imagine, Molly, a sheer cliff of basalt, running 400 miles due S. from the coastal plain & never dipping below 6000’ in height, raised by volcanism to form a near impregnable fortification that renders our Hadrian’s Wall a paltry thing, as might be built from the toy bricks of an infant. It surely numbers amongst the great Natural Wonders of this Earth.
We reached the edge of the plateau after 4 days in the desert, which I shall not weary you by recounting. When first we gained the place where the guide said we should ascend the escarpment, I was incredulous, & exclaimed that the fellow planned to cheat me—but Tekle grinned, not one whit perturbed, & repeated his instruction to follow. He pointed out a narrow cleft, formed by a stream—which must attain the proportions of a ferocious torrent at the height of the rainy season, so marked a gully had it carved—up one face of which a rocky path could be seen to climb. I say path, but it was a most perilous undertaking—unremittingly steep, & interrupted by rugged boulders over which our mules had to be alternately coaxed & bullied, which their handlers achieved by flicking small stones at their flanks.
The ascent took 2 days, & as dusk approached on the first with the summit out of reach, I searched in vain for a ledge on which to camp, when Tekle guided us to some caves in which I passed my most pleasant night yet since my arrival on the Continent. On the 2nd day, the path became yet steeper, more vegetated, & in places most slippery: one of mules missed its footing & nearly plunged into the chasm, a case being unluckily dislodged to slide some 50’ down the gully, before lodging in a crevice. Tekle again proved his worth by scrambling nimbly down the crags in his bare feet to secure a rope around it so that we could haul it back up. Most fortuitously, the chest contained my specimen-collecting equipment & not the fragile geographical instruments: its contents were little the worse for the experience. Aside from my shirt, which is sadly torn by brushing through thorn bushes, & a few cracked specimen jars, we reached the plateau quite unscathed.
Tekle, my guide, as you will have understood from the above, is altogether a fine fellow. Though he presents a most fierce aspect on first acquaintance—his teeth being filed into points—his true character is as gentle as yr. little Tabitha. He comes from a small village in Tigré, & is by way of being a linguist—though of course he cannot read a word—speaking besides his native tongue, fluent Amharic & Hindi, & a smattering of English. The Hindi, I fear, he can only have learned as a slave in India—but on the subject of his history the fellow is as silent as the desert, though in general his chatter is as ceaseless as the fountain at the Towers. He is giving me lessons in the Tigréan & Amharic languages in exchange for tuition in all those European languages I can muster, though his rapidity of learning far outstrips mine.
You will be thinking the Highland Plateau quite as flat as a table top, Molly, but in truth it is anything but—rising in peaks as high as the Alps, & criss-crossed by river gorges almost as deep, which make travel across it an arduous undertaking. The climate, despite the proximity to the Equator, is temperate—the thermometer reads 65º or 70º at midday, & some 6º lower at night—most agreeable after the relentless heat beside the Red Sea, where the temperature never dipped below 85º even at night. I find I can tolerate the heat as well as any man, but at the height of the Massowah dry season even the natives complain of it. The seasons are inverted up here in the Highlands, of course—though the rainy season now nears its end, we have experienced 2 rainstorms, & the sun is often veiled by thin clouds. The long water rations are making short work of the touch of fever that I picked up in the desert.
The land is verdant, with a varied vegetation most pleasing to the eye after the sterility of the coastal plain. The rim of the Highlands is liberally fringed with a species of juniper that the natives name arze, many specimens of which attain a majestic height, the crags themselves being clothed with succulent trees that they call kol-quall—most likely a form of Tree-Spurge. The latter presents a most peculiar appearance—the trunk bears 8 columns of spines each scalloped like a strip of lace, the numerous branches, borne like a candelabrum, being likewise scalloped, & some bear golden flowers at their tips somewhat akin to the wild rose. I have sketched an example of this curious tree for you, Molly, but fear that I have failed once again to do my subject justice. I am in need of Kepler’s Camera Obscura, by which a scene can be traced with exactness by a fellow lacking the smallest particle of artistic talent. Mr. Bruce is said to have carried one—but the design he recommends, with a hexagonal case 6’ across, seems to me entirely impractical for use in the field. I sh’d like to know how he carried it up to the Highlands—with such a device on the back of one of our mules, we would still be pushing the unfortunate beast up the path.
I have yet to observe any large mammals more interesting than the hyaena—which snap every night around our camp, making the mules restless—I have, however, trapped a great variety of birds, too numerous to describe here. The prize of the collection—in size, if not in rarity—is a huge Bearded Vulture, which the natives call nisser—the largest bird that I have ever seen. It has a dull gold plumage, much like the new curtains in yr. Father’s study, and its wingspan is fully 8’.
26th.—I wrote the foregoing shortly after my arrival in the small hill town of Dixan, with the aim of commissioning a caravan heading to the coast to carry it, but my intention was frustrated—it seems that none pass that way—& so now I pick up my pen again, with much of the month having passed, in the Tigré capital of Adowa, a town of some 800 stone houses guarding a broad mountain pass—indeed, the name simply denotes a pass—where yr. letters of the 1st & 28th of August were awaiting my arrival—& more welcome than any of the comforts of the capital. I am glad that you are going on well at Gower St. without me, & pray that you have now received my previous missives from Aden & Massowah, & are no longer imagining me drowned at sea, or eaten by cannibals, as I am certain that you were when you wrote, despite all yr. assurances.
It is kind of yr. Mamma to spare yr. Father for a visit. You are too modest to attribute the improvement in his spirits to the effects of your own society, but I am sure that he must be as glad of that as of any lecture at the Zool. Soc., however august the speaker—though Lord Hollingford does not exaggerate in numbering Mr. Owen among the foremost anatomists in Europe, despite his youth—M. Cuvier’s death is a profound loss to our field. I thank you for your excellent notes—Mr. Owen’s comments on the adaptations of the Hornbill bone structure to support this unusual bird’s massive head during flight are of particular interest.1
On a completely different head—& one still closer to my heart than comparative osteology—yr. scheme as to my brother’s poems is a sound one—Aimée is, of course, just the person to ask as to the name to substitute for her own. You are always so alive to the delicacies of people’s feelings, my love.
Yr. most affectionate Husband
P. S.—We do not spend many days in Adowa, but press on westwards to Axum—an easy 2 days’ journey—where I am to undertake archaeological investigations for the Soc. Antiq. You must imagine me exchanging my nets & collecting boxes for a spade & a sieve.
1Owen, R. On the Anatomy of the concave Hornbill, Buceros cavatus Lath. Given August 27, 1833 at the Zoological Society of London.