The Edges of Africa

Africa hovered behind his eyes like a dream carried through the day. Its massive wildnerness, its exotic goods, its interesting people.

The Venetian Captain diUmbria had sailed to the wild continent many times of course. From when he was just starting out, south from the Adriatic, in those days he had feared the brutal pirates that roamed the waters around Tunis, Algiers, or Alexandria. When he had braved the Strait of Gibraltar he had soon turned south, like Hanno of old, and pushed his way as far as he dared. Little by little, to Arguin, to Sierra Leone, to Sao Tome- to the Cape itself, over the years across many voyages. One wonderful time he had sailed past, nearly as far as he could go, venturing past Zanzibar and even on to exotic Sri Lanka. On another memorable occasion, he sailed with the wealthy trader Juan Garrion and a few others to as far as Edo, in Japan. That voyage had been led firmly by an intriguing character named Kosevo, a man with stories diUmbria could only dream of.

Aside from these two trips, though, he really knew little of Africa save for the coast that faced Europe. None of the ports would have let him in, in the past, as he had been too poor and inconsequential to obtain the proper permits. Now, though, in good part due to his work with Gerardus Mercator of Amsterdam, diUmbria was becoming known far and wide as a capable explorer and diligent cartographer.

Currently he sat in Seville, at the grand market there, trying to sell what cargo he could before starting his exploration of Africa in earnest. He needed space in his hold for food, water, timber, and trade goods. He debated over whether to sail the Mercury, a small galleon with respectable speed under a good wind, or the Roar of Triton, a trading carrack with a much larger hold though a somewhat slower pace. In the end, he went with the carrack, in part because of its large capacity but also because it had been a gift of Juan Garrion, whom he still hoped would join him on the journey. Others came to mind as well, some he had not spoken to some time; Captains Firebolt and Posiden dwelt foremost in his mind, though he also wondered what had become of Captains Marihelen, Marthalise, or countless others he had sailed with over the years. It was bound to be a fascinating journey, and such things were often best when shared with like minds.

With time it became clear the he would find no easy buyers in the Spanish markets today, so he packed up his things and made ready to depart for Casablanca.

From Casablanca, he sailed to Las Palmas, and from there down the coast to Arguin. Past here the land was less and less known, in a few weeks he would be in lands where he had never been allowed into a city, and he could only dream of what might await.

During the evening sailing out to the island of Las Palmas, the sky was exceptionally clear and the stars seemed to number in the infinite billions. He soon left the city, though, only having stopped as a precaution to pick up supplies. During the next leg captain and crew both dined on boiled eggs, considered a delicacy at sea.

At the village port of Arguin he departed the Mercury and finally boarded the Roar of Triton, having made the arrangements for the transition before leaving Seville. The new ship was indeed slower, but diUmbria was sure he would have it loaded with exotic goods to sell in no time. Juan Garrion himself had often told tales of gold and rubies, and diUmbria had no reason to doubt him.

diUmrbia had forgotten what fine ship the Roar was. As he moved to Cabo Verde, he marveled again at its craftsmanship. It had been made in the shipyards of Juan Garrion, at his own request, and it showed.
Pirates swept up to him on the first night out of Las Palmas, but left when the captain offered goods in exchange for safety. A day later he was carving his way through a light tropical storm drenching the islands around Cabo Verde.

There was more purple and turquoise here, in the water and the sky, every color brighter than even the shining Ligurian Sea. About a week’s sail onwards, and the land itself was reaching up into livid green ridges that rolled along with the waves in towering masses of emerald wilderness. The village of Sierra Leone was netled up against this forested bulk, wet with clouds of the rainforests beyond, glowing with verdant life.
He sold butter, onions, red snapper, and poultry at Sierra Leone, and bought coffee and incense. The crew was treated to a round of toddys from an open air cafe, and the old Venetian had as many lamb skewers as he could eat. No sign of gold yet, but he had plenty of hope; there was still plenty of coastline, after all.

At dry Abidjan, he sold fish and incense and bought gold bars and ivory figurines. There wasn’t much to buy, but he bought it all, then pressed on eastward.

In Saint-Goerges, a small village port near the point where the African coast turns south, he found more gold and ivory, and sold more fish. Things were already getting tight on board the Roar of Triton, and carrying forty five crew it could only hold about twelve days of supplies as it stood.

Three more days of sailing brought the crew to the port of Benin, but two of these days were spent fighting a raging storm within sight of the settlement. Torrents of rain pounded the water to churning froth that rose in swirling mists, great hills of waves carried the Roar of Triton heaving upward only to plunge fearfully down into the troughs between. Many times the waters swamped across the decks, taking terrified sailors to the sea, but through the timely and heroic efforts of diUmbria not a single man was lost. Lightning cracked over the forested ridges inland, and savage gusts of wind repeatedly knocked the ship away from shore. Finally, after hour upon hour of tense battle with violent nature, the storm broke and they were able to put in at the harbor. The ship had taken some damage, for sure, and would take a bit of work before sailing on, but every one was alive and nothing major had been damaged. It was a testament to diUmbria’s skill as a captain, and the efficiency of his crew.

Benin was very tiny, and they only bought a few crates of ivory here, but were lucky to get a good price on satin fabric brought all the way from Venice. The deep African forest clustered very close to the village, and just past the wooden fences you could peer into the darkened trees and wonder and what lived there.

Another four days brought them without event to the hamlet of Douala. This back to a more arid region, and finally past the point where the coast turned south.

A bit further on, at the island port of Sao Tome, the captain was surprised to find houses of a much different sort than any he had seen so far. They were several stories high, and made of wood planks, but still in the shape of huts complete with conical thatched roofs.

As they left, rains had come on again, and all wondered if more terrible storms would be in store for them. Despite their worries, though, by the end of the first day the clouds had dispersed and left behind and impossibly bright, blue night sky studded with brilliant diamond stars. Rugged Africa continue to entrance both captain and crew, but in particular the captain, who slowly fell in love with the vivid colors and rough primal shapes of the land.

Nine more days and another downpour brought them to the port of Luanda. This was the biggest port they had seen for a very long time, though the buildings were of the same simple mud-brick construction they’d seen elsewhere along the coast there was quite a few more of them than usual. There was even, tantalizingly, a gate inland that was open to foreigners. In other towns, even the tiniest, gates were closed to travelers, and diUmbria always respected this though he longed to explore further. Here, finally, he could get a taste for Africa beyond the coast.

Here they had more rounds of toddys, which they learned was made from the fermented sap of palm hearts, and diUmbria again filled his belly on lamb skewers, all consumed at a pleasant open area under the open sky, sitting on logs for chairs. They bough malachite at the market, which diUmbria had never to his memory found for sale before. Perhaps most amazing, he was able to actually enter one of the larger structures, and found within a sort of shrine with a strangely stylized humanoid sculpture at one end, an altar in the center, a shield and a fierce looking weapon set to either side on the floor, and large hand drums on either side against the wall. The overall effect was alien and exotic to a degree diUmbria had never experienced, and in humility and ignorance he knelt at the altar, unsure of what to do. After a bit of time taking in the scene, he left without touching anything.

The land beyond the village was rugged in the extreme. A harsh desert built from jumbles of jagged rock heaped above pale sands, he adventured a bit before heading back, having no interest in becoming lost or stranded in the forbidding landscape. A part of him wondered what secrets may lie in the desert beyond, but the more practical parts of his mind sent him to safety. Maybe another time, with better preparation and others along for support, he could venture into the hostile landscape.

Half a week further on brought the small port of Benguela, one of the tiniest settlements they had seen so far, a dry place eking out a living in one of Africa’s more severe lands. There was little to see here, though they did get a good price for seventy five crates of flour that they had crafted on board. The thought had been to make bread if things became difficult, but they found ports were frequent along the coast and the extra supplies were unnecessary.

A little over a week of smooth sailing south down the coast brought them to Karibib, another small port though not the smallest. There was little to do here as well, though there was deepening sense of being in an extreme land, an exotic world far removed from Europe.

Another week brought the Roar of Triton to Cape Town, another medium sized port. The only event at sea was the fishing lines being snapped over and over, the crew claimed it must have been fierce sharks. Many times diUmbria had found himself looking downward over the edge of the ship at the waters rushing by, wondering at what beasts lay in the depths beyond.

In Cape Town he found gold dust, and, to his amazement, diamonds for sale. He bought all he could, delighted to find such treasures in reward for pressing on. How much further should he go? He could enter cities as far north as the tip of Madagascar. But if he pressed on, he risked losing his precious cargo to pirates or natural disaster. People could be bribed or escaped, but storms could never be taken be lightly. Looking over his cargo, he found five crates of diamonds, four crates of goldwork, fifteen crates of ivory, five crates of malachite, seven crates of gold dust, eight crates of silver, fourteen crates of gold bars, five crates of chiffon, eight crates of roses, twenty five crates of coffee, nine crates of salt, and three pigs, along with thirty crates of white flowers he’d picked himself around Greece. It was a decent haul, and with the space he had it couldn’t be much improved. Still, the salt, flowers and pigs were all more or less replaceable, and he certainly considered dumping them off for a cheap price to make room for more valuable cargo. To help him decide, he made preparations to stay a few days in Cape Town before moving on.

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