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Chapter 14

Suspicious characters--A trap--Held up--No water--The haunt of
robbers--Fierce daily winds--Volcanic formation--A
crater--Wall-like barriers--A salt stream--A caravan from Quetta.

We remained at Sahlabad the whole afternoon, and we were visited in camp by a number of suspicious-looking people, who were most inquisitive to know what I possessed and how much money I carried, and other such pertinent questions which they put to Sadek and my camel man. Also a peculiar lot of fellows, with very ugly countenances and armed to their teeth, passed by. They were mounted on fine horses with gaudy saddles, and on coming suddenly and unexpectedly upon us seemed quite upset. Instead of salaaming us, as had been usual with the few well-to-do people we had so far met, they whipped their horses and galloped away.

Sadek said they must be Sawars--mounted soldiers. Abbas Ali said they were robbers from Afghanistan. We shall see later what they were.

At 6.30 p.m. we left--it was quite dark--and we had gone but two miles when a distant voice called upon us to stop. By his speech the stranger seemed very excited when he reached us, and said we must keep the track, to the left and not follow the one to the right where two trails branched off. We could not see his face, for he kept some twenty or thirty yards off, and besides, his face was wrapped all round in the tail of his turban. We professed to be thankful for the information, but continued on the track to the right, which seemed greatly to disturb him--at least, judging by the number of times he entreated us to follow his advice.

Both Sadek and Abbas Ali corroborated my conviction that this was a trap laid for us. The man, on seeing us go a different way from the one he advised us, ran away, and presently we heard some shrill whistles which were no doubt signals to his companions.

We had gone but another mile when suddenly a figure with a gun in hand sprang before us and seized the camel man by the chest.

"Whose caravan is this?" he shouted.

"It is the ferenghi's," hastily replied the camel man.

There was a short pause in the conversation when our interlocutor, looking up at my camel which had got close upon him, perceived himself covered by my rifle.

Sadek had leapt off his camel as quick as lightning and shoved the muzzle of his Winchester in the man's face. As the stranger's demeanour was most peculiar and his answers incoherent as well as flippant, Sadek first disarmed his adversary, then turned his own rifle the round way about and gave the man a good pounding for his impertinence in holding up my camel man. We heard a number of voices of people hidden all around. When the fellow managed to effect an escape he gave an alarm signal, and we saw a lot of black figures jump up and stampede for their lives.

This furnished a little variation in our dreary night marches, and we proceeded briskly, Sadek, Abbas Ali and I being most grateful to our unknown friends for the amusement they had provided us.

Some three miles further we came upon several caravans that had halted and were hiding, for they were aware of robbers being about--they had seen fresh tracks of their horses during the day and were in fear of being attacked. At first when we appeared on the scene they mistook us for brigands, and as we discovered them hidden we also mistook them for robbers, so that the beginning of our interview did not lack in humour.

We had a hearty laugh over it all when their identity and ours were established, and after a few minutes' halt we continued our journey on soft sand, rather undulating, with frequent depressions in places. We travelled the whole night of December 1st, passing to the right of the salt deposits--which looked like a big stretch of country covered with snow and threw out a certain luminosity, possibly because the salt crystals reflected and condensed what light there was from the stars. As the hours of the night went by we gradually left the salt stretch behind us to the north, and proceeded on the flat for some distance.

In the morning we passed a small village right up on the mountain side, one mile and a half to the west of our course. We then entered a dry river-bed between high sand hills, and having marched nineteen hours continuously camels and men were rather in need of a rest.

At one p.m. on December 1st we pitched our camp in the middle of the river-bed--80 feet broad here--the only place where we could get a draught of air,--but the heat was suffocating, the thermometer registering 112°--the altitude being 5,010 feet.

As we expected to find water of some kind we had omitted to fill up the skins and load the camels unnecessarily, but, unluckily, there was no water anywhere at hand. Abbas Ali was sent to the village we had passed--now some four miles back--to get some, but being too tired to carry the heavy skin down to us again he entrusted it to a boy, giving him full directions where our camp was. The boy did not find where we were, and in the meantime Sadek and I had our throats parched with thirst. Abbas Ali returned at seven o'clock and had to be despatched back to the village in search of the lost boy and the water skin. It was ten o'clock when he returned, and after twenty-eight hours of dryness we had our first drink of water. It was brackish but it tasted delicious.

We were compelled to remain here for the night. Several caravans passed through going north, and also a lot of suspicious people, whose manner was so peculiar that we were compelled to sit up the greater part of the night and keep watch on my property. Some of the caravan men who had gone through had warned us that we had encamped in a regular nest of robbers, and that three men had been robbed and murdered at this spot only a few days before.

The high sand hills afford excellent hiding places for these gentry. It appears that the men on horseback whom we had seen at Sahlabad, and who had bolted on coming suddenly upon us, were the high chief of the robber band and some of his confederates,--very likely on their way to Birjand to dispose of booty. Being so near the Afghan border these fellows enjoy practical safety by merely going from one country into the other to suit their plans and to evade search parties occasionally sent out for their capture.

We had come forty miles from Sahlabad, and Abbas Ali brought us the news from the village that we should find no water on our course for fifteen miles more and no habitations for forty-eight more miles. Unluckily, we had hardly enough provisions to last one day, and we perceived a fair prospect before us of having to go one day without food, when Abbas Ali was despatched for a third time for another eight miles' walk to the village and back to see what he could get in the way of edibles.

He returned, riding a cow, in company with another man, and a third fellow on a mule carrying a fat sheep. The latter was there and then purchased and killed, and we had a copious breakfast before starting along the winding dry bed of the river at 11.30 a.m. on December 2nd.

Before us to the south by south-west (190° b.m.) was a lofty flat-topped mountain which appeared about fifteen miles off, and directly in front of our course was also another and more extensive long, flat-topped mountain stretching from north-east to south-west, three miles off, with precipitous sides towards the north-west and north. The sides were padded with sand accumulations which reached almost to the summit of the lower portions of the mountain barrier. To the south-west, approximately twenty miles off, stood a high range.

West and north-westerly winds blew every day in a fierce manner, usually from sunset till about ten or eleven o'clock the following morning, at which hour they somewhat abated. They are, no doubt, due to the great jumps in the temperature at sunset and sunrise. On December 1st, for instance, from 112° in the sun during the day the thermometer dropped to 20° at night, or 12° of frost. On December 2nd at noon it was up again as high as 114°.

We traversed a plain twelve miles long and at its south-east course, where the mountain ranges met, there occurred a curious spectacle--evidently of volcanic formation. On the top of the black hills of gravel and sand lying in a confused mass, as if left so by an upheaval, rose a pinnacle of bright yellow and red stone, with patches of reddish earth and of a dissimilar texture to the underlying surface of the hill. There seemed little doubt that both the rocky pinnacle and the red earth had been thrown there by some force--and under the projecting rocks and masses of soft earth one could, in fact, find a different formation altogether, bearing the same characteristics as the remainder of the hill surface.

This was on the northern slope of that hill. As the track turned here due east, and rounded, as it were, this curious mount, we found in reality on the other side a large, crater-like basin with lips of confused masses of earth both vermilion and of vivid burnt sienna colour, as well as most peculiar mud-heaps in a spiral formation all round the crater, looking as if worn into that shape by some boiling liquid substance. To the south-east, on the very top of a hill of older formation, was perched at a dangerous angle another great yellow boulder like the one we had seen on the north side of the crater. For a diameter of several hundred yards the earth was much disturbed.

One mile further south-east, in traversing a basin a mile broad, it was impossible not to notice a curious range of hills with some strange enormous baked boulders--(they had evidently been exposed to terrific heat)--standing upright or at different angles to the east side of the hills, stuck partly in the sand and salt with which the ground was here covered.

Irregular and unsystematic heaps of rock, on which sand had accumulated up to a certain height, were to be seen to the south, and huge boulders of rich colour lay scattered here and there; whereas near the mountains which enclosed the basin both to south and east there were thousands of little hillocks of rock and sand in the most disconnected order.

As we went on, two perpendicular flat-topped barriers were before us to the east--like gigantic walls--one somewhat higher than the other, and of a picturesque dark burnt sienna colour in horizontal strata.

The whole country about here seemed to have been much deranged at different periods. We passed hillocks in vertical strata of slate-like brittle stone, in long quadrangular prisms, but evidently these strata had solidified in a horizontal position and had been turned over by a sudden commotion of the earth. This conclusion was strengthened by the fact that the same formation in a horizontal position was noticeable all along, the strata in one or two places showing strange distortions, with actual bends, continuing in curves not unlike the letter S. In the dry river bed there were large rocks cut into the shape of tables on a single pillar stand, but these were, of course, made by the erosion of water, and at a subsequent date.

Further on we found a tiny stream of salt water in the picturesque gorge--as weird and puzzling a bit of scenery as can be found in Persia, if one carefully examined each hill, each rock, and tried to speculate on their formation.

From the rocks--a hundred feet or so above the salt stream,--we came to a spring--if one could call it by that name--of delicious sweet water. The water dripped at the rate of about a tumbler-full an hour, but a gallon or two had collected in a pool directly under the rock, with a refreshing border of green grass round it. We gladly and carefully transferred the liquid into one of the skins by means of a cup judiciously handled so as not to take up the deep sediment of mud in the shallow pool.

We came across a very large caravan from Quetta in charge of some Beluch drivers, and--after one's experience of how things are packed by Persian caravans--one was greatly struck by the neat wooden packing boxes, duly marked and numbered. I inquired whose caravan it was, and the Beluch said it belonged to two English Sahibs who were ten miles behind, and were expected to catch it up during the night. The names of the two sahibs were so mispronounced by the Beluch that I could not, to save my life, understand what they were.

We halted in the gorge at four o'clock, having come only sixteen miles from my last camp. Altitude, 4,440 feet.