OUT IN THE DESERT
THERE is no word which suggests more vague and horrible ideas than the Desert. We are prone, rather from the impressions left by classical writers and poets than from exact geographical study, to imagine it as a sea of sand, now stretching in level uniformity on every side to a circular horizon, now raised as it were into white billows by the wind. There are places to which such a description would apply; and the writer of this page has himself passed over limited expanses where he could discover no landmark, nothing to guide his steps, and where it was easier to navigate, if that expression may be used, at night, when the stars had taken up their immutable stations, than by the dazzling light of day.
But, in general, the Desert is far less dreary and dismal than this. Even that broad belt of country, so long indicated by a cloud of dots in our maps, extending between the Barbary States and the Black Kingdoms of Central Africa, is full of resting-places, though small, and in this way only can we account for the fact, that as far as history or tradition takes us back, we hear of caravan routes crossing it in every direction, with regular stations and places of rendezvous. There are difficulties and dangers to be overcome certainly; but imagination is a great coward, and requires to be comforted by science. Wonderful was the story of the Simoom; but, although a recent traveller persuaded himself that he saw water boil beneath its influence, two-thirds of what we hear of it may be ranked with the marvels of the Arabian Nights' Entertainments.
Yet there is something fascinating in the way in which the Orientals tell of the perils of desert-travelling, especially when we know that however those perils may have been exaggerated, they have a real existence after all, that lives have been lost, that whole caravans have truly "foundered " in a sea of sand, and that every difficult traject is strewed with bones, not always of camels. Although, therefore, after some time spent in the Libyan waste, I had begun to look upon it as a very comfortable sort of place indeed—the chances of dying by thirst or heat, or frays with robbers, not always suggesting themselves - yet, when I left a well announced as the last for four days, a slight feeling of awe seemed not inappropriate. Silence prevailed in the caravan for some time—all my companions being in the same mood of mind.
There are several sorts of caravans or Kafilas. Ours was composed simply of travellers; and it is worth while saying a word or two of its economy, in order that readers accustomed to a rather more expeditious mode of proceeding may be enabled to realize the slowness of our progress. We had with us nine camels to carry baggage, provisions, and water for nine men; whilst for “equestrian” purposes we had six animals which we rather vulgarly designated Jerusalem ponies. The four travellers walked or rode as they chose; their two servants generally walked; whilst the escort of three Bedouins shuffled along in their slippers or climbed up and sat between the water-skins or on the tent-gear. Our average rate of progress was two miles and a half per hour; for whatever was gained by pushing forward at a more rapid rate, was sure to he lost afterwards by idling on the way. When the country was absolutely arid we went steadily on in a compact body; but occasionally in the beds of valleys or in almost imperceptible hollows in the plain were expanses covered by a growth of dwarf plants with more weed than leaf, or even by spare thickets of rather lively green. Then the camels stretched down their long necks, now to one side, now to the other; not absolutely stopping but pausing to snatch mouthfuls, which they munched as they went. If they were denied the privilege, say the Bedouins, they would soon be exhausted and unable to continue work. It is scarcely necessary to say that the camel carries water for others than itself; and that only at copious wells is it allowed to drink.
The donkeys by their nature claimed better treatment; and generally, when we halted about evening time, a tin tray of water was put under their noses. Sometimes, it is true, they had to be satisfied with than a draught once every forty-eight hours; and then, poor things, they drooped, and we were obliged to dismount and walk with their halters round our arms. The rate at which a donkey travels is about four miles to the hour; so that when our animals were well refreshed we used to ride on ahead and wait for the slow moving caravan, enjoying our pipes, and sometimes even making coffee, though rarely could a patch of shade be found.
We were in motion at all hours of the day and night. Whenever possible, we halted at twelve, and rested till the assez, or about three. Then we proceeded until sunset; and, halting again, waited one, two, or three hours for the rising of the moon, by favour of which we completed our task. For every day it was necessary to get over so much space, and any failure, we knew, might lead to disaster. There can be no dallying by the way in the Desert. Water is taken in only for a definite number of days; and the Bedouins are so chary of their camels, that they almost always miscalculate on the wrong side, and prepare for a short period of suffering before the end of the journey. One occasion I remember that, in order to advance more rapidly, they actually emptied out a small supply we had left, so that we were compelled to toil on, beneath a sun that raised our thermometers to above a hundred in the tent, for eight hours without one single drop to wet our parched lips withal. There was a well ahead. What mattered a little suffering, if the camels were eased of a few pounds weight? We arrived, and were denied water by the Arabs during a tedious parley. But the warning was thrown away. Chic Desert has its routine; and on no single occasion, I believe, was a sufficient supply laid in.
On the particular occasion of which I speak a rather serious ground of alarm had been suggested. Some of the water-skins were not so solid as they might be; and it was possible that in the course of four or five days they might run dry. The danger was as great as that of a ship springing a leak a thousand miles from land. Should we be left without anything to drink in the midst of the rocky range we had to traverse, there were few chances of safety for even a remnant of the party. However, we were off; and it was best not to allow the mind to dwell on all possible dangers. In an hour or so we got rid of the seriousness, it could scarcely be called gloom, that had come over us; and regained the somewhat reckless confidence by which we had been, until then, upheld.
The aspect of the Desert in that particular spot was somewhat dreary. The ground oven which we moved was nearly level; but on either hand were low stony ridges that opened here and there, and allowed us to see similar ridges beyond. Grey lady-birds, butterflies of small size and sombre colour, and lizards that darted to and fro, were the only living things that presented themselves; but as I have said, there were now and then patches of meagre vegetation. Night at length came on; but for some reason or other our guides, instead of as usual waiting for the moon, lighted a lantern and endeavoured to follow the track by its means. Presently they hesitated, stopped, went on again, laid their heads together, separated on either hand, shouted one to the other; and at last when we, uncertain and anxious, halted and called for air explanation, they admitted that they had lost their way and were perfectly unable to determine whether we ought to advance or to retreat, to turn to the right hand or to the left. Would it not be best to stop and wait for the moon? The position was exposed; and a cold bleak wind had begun to blow. We moved on a little further, and at length it was resolved to spread the mat—no one talked of setting up the tent— and watch or sleep until morning came.
The Bedouins did not then explain the reason of their unusual anxiety. We afterwards learned that there was only one pass through the range of rocks that lay between us and our place of destination, and that, once the marked track missed, there existed no means of making what seamen term "a good fall." However, we were quite certain that things had gone very wrong indeed; and those who had most gaily made light of the dangers of the desert—going to the extreme of representing them as no greater than those which may be encountered in an omnibus ride front Pimlico to the Bank—now began to feel penitent and humble. There is nothing we regret so much as the insults we have foolishly heaped on peril when it really presents itself. The French peasant who had threatened to take Satan by the nose, merely doffed his hat when that gentleman appeared. For my part, I tried to persuade myself that I had been more reasonable than my companions; and did continue to recollect that I had expostulated with — when he audaciously sneered at the words of the poet—
"Sad was the hour and luckless was the day,
When first from Shiraz walls I bent my way."
The real state of the case was this: we might utterly fail in falling into the track again, such things having occurred, however unlikely it might seem, seeing that we could not have diverged above a mile; or we might only succeed after we had exhausted a considerable portion of our supply of water, which might involve great privation towards the end of the journey, or the necessity of falling back upon the well which we had drained, and near which we had met with rather a hostile reception. The mildest possibility was unpleasant; and we sat on our mat pensive and somewhat desponding.
It is on such occasions that man exhibits the wonderful power he possesses of self-torture. Instead of sleeping off his cares, one of our servants, huddling under a great basket of provisions, began to relate a terrible desert adventure. He said that a long time ago, a caravan of slaves, ivory, and gold-dust, left some distant country—no matter what, it was very far off—and journeyed towards the land of Egypt. After seventeen days it came to a well, which the perverse narrator described so graphically that I knew that he was drawing from his morning experience. Here the caravan halted to rest during the heat of the day; but when night came on, the guards lighted torches—he would have said lanterns if he dared—and moving ahead, led the long pile of camels and pedestrians into the Black Desert. On all sides rose huge hills of ebony – pleasant things to hear of, for we were now in fairy-land, and no ominous application seemed possible. The red lights flared, the caravan steadily pursued its way. But suddenly there was confusion; and it was announced that the track could no longer be seen.
The merchants at once gave themselves up for lost; for tradition said that there were demons in those parts who were not permitted to touch travellers so long as they pursued the beaten path, but to whom all who strayed were devoted as victims. Abu Salah, the principal owner of the caravan, at once suggested that the whole party should prepare to meet death; and began to pronounce sentences of manumission to his slaves. Even Mussulmans have a secret consciousness that to keep a man in bondage is to sin. The other slave-owners followed his example; so that when morning dawned all that were in peril were at least free souls. What consolation this can have been to the wretched beings who had been taken there, in obedience to and in the service of their masters, who can say?
The entire company wandered on until they came to a plain of sand, beyond which, some who climbed upon rocks said they beheld a lake, and trees, and houses. Upon this there was a wild cry and a general rush forward. The camels were urged on as fast as their drivers could induce them to move; and some of the slave-dealers began to cast covetous eyes on the slaves who had so lately been their property.
Now it happened that among the captives who had been manumitted was a young man named Hassan, and a girl named Zara. During captivity, they had suffered side by side, and had loved. When accordingly Hassan saw the caravan rushing heedlessly into the plain, he said to himself: "If it be true that there is safety yonder, our freedom may be taken from us again. It is better to perish." So he caught Zara by the skirt of her single garment, and told her to stay.
"And die?" she said.
"With me," he replied.
She sat down upon the ground—he sitting beside her—and began to braid her hair, which had become disordered luring their long journey. In a little while the crowd of men and animals disappeared amidst the dust which they themselves had raised, and the murmur which they sent up gradually died away.
Hassan then bade Zara arise and follow him, trusting in God, who might perhaps lead them back to their own country. Almost immediately they found the track by which they had come; and, retracing their steps reached the well which they had quitted the previous day. Here they were received by some Bedouins; and here they changed their minds as to their destination. An Egyptian cannot understand that any one can by preference go to any country but to his own, and to Cairo accordingly Hassan and Zara repaired. After much toil and much suffering from thirst, they reached the city of the conference; and, being free, prospered.
But what of the caravan? Centuries afterwards, some merchants were passing along the same track. A steady wind had blown all night long ; and they were fearful lest their land-mark might be covered. Suddenly they beheld what seemed a vast caravan moving to their right. They stopped; and the others stood still. They advanced; and lo! they beheld a caravan of skeletons. Some of the ghastly company—Arabs do not pause to explain such phenomena,— were on their camels; some on foot ; but all exactly in the position they had occupied when the sand had been blown over them.
The merchants were at first awe-struck but, soon recovering themselves, began to examine the wares of their deceased predecessors, and found them to he of inestimable value. They threw away all their own merchandise, and loaded their camels with gold and ivory, regretting that they had not a thousand camels more. Then they departed, determining to return from the nearest place of safety. They did so; but the wind had again blown; the skeleton caravan had been once more overwhelmed, and never since has any trace thereof been discovered.
Such was the story which regaled our cars before we slept that night. Next morning we looked eagerly for the track; and, by good fortune, found it in a few hours. Then we laughed at our doubts and fears; recovered the elasticity of spirits necessary on such a journey; and proceeded steadily towards the gloomy defile of which we were in search. No further accident hindered our march; and, on the morning of the fifth day, with empty. water-skins, but cheerful faces, we crowded up to the edge of the precipice from which we obtained our first view of the Oasis of Garah.
Back to Index