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Chapter 3

An abandoned caravanserai--Fantastic hill tops--No water--A most
impressive mountain--Sediments of salt--A dry river bed--Curious
imprints in the rock--A row--Intense heat--Accident to our supply
of eggs--The end of a meeting--Misleading maps--Haoz Panch--The
camel-man's bread--Lawah.

Again we left camp shortly before midnight, and ascended continually between mountains until we reached a pass 7,250 ft. above the sea, after which we came upon the abandoned caravanserai of Abid (pronounced Obit). On descending, the way was between high vertical rocks, and then we found ourselves among hills of most peculiar formation. The sun was about to rise, and the fantastic hill-tops, in some places not unlike sharp teeth of a gigantic saw, in others recalled Stonehenge and the pillar-like remains of temples of Druids. In this case they were, of course, entirely of natural formation. Although there was no water in the valley into which we had descended, we camped here owing to the camels being very tired, and I took the opportunity of climbing to a neighbouring hill (6,300 ft.) in order to obtain a panoramic view of the surrounding country.

To the South-East, whence we had come, were low and comparatively well-rounded mountains with two narrow valleys separated by a flat-topped, tortuous hill range. To the north-east of my camp was a high and most impressive mountain, the upper portion of which appeared at first almost of a basaltic formation, with vertical quadrangular columns, while the lower portion of the mountain, evidently accumulated at a later period, and slanting at an angle of 45°, displayed distinct strata of light brown, a deep band of grey, then dark brown, light brown, a thin layer of grey, and then a gradation of beautiful warm burnt sienna colour, getting richer and richer in tone towards the base. Here at the bottom, all round the mountain, and in appearance not unlike the waves of a choppy sea in shallow water, rose hundreds of broken-up, pointed hillocks, the point of each hillock being invariably turned in a direction away from the mountain, and these were formed not of sand, but by a much broken-up stratum of black, burnt slate, at an angle of 20° in relation to an imaginary horizontal plane.

It was most curious to find these enormous layers of black slate here, for they were quite different in character from the whole country around. About two miles further off, north-east, we had, for instance, a range of mountains of quite a different type, not at all broken up nor with sharp cutting edges, but quite nicely rounded off. Between this range and the high peculiar mountain which I have just described--in the flat stretch--were to be seen some curious hillocks, apparently formed by water.

N.N.E. was the way towards Birjand, first across a long flat plain bounded before us by low greyish hills, beyond which a high mountain-range--the Leker Kuh--towered sublime. Two mountain masses of fair height stood in front of this range, one N.N.E. on the left of the track, the other N.N.W., with a white sediment of salt at its base; while beyond could be distinguished a long flat-topped mountain with a peculiar white horizontal band half way up it, like a huge chalk mark, all along its entire length of several miles. This mountain appeared to be some thirty miles off. The mountain mass to the N.W. showed no picturesque characteristics, but a more broken-up mountain, somewhat similar to the one to our N.E., stood between my camp and the range beyond.

As I have already stated, we had come along a dry river bed, and from my high point of vantage I could see its entire course to the north-west. It ran in a tortuous manner until it absolutely lost itself in the flat desert. The long snake-like hill-range separating the parallel valleys from south-east to north-west appeared to owe its formation to the action of water, the surface pebbles, even at the summit of it, being well rounded and worn quite smooth, many with grooves in them.

Near my camp I came across some very curious imprints in the hard rock, like lava. There were some rocks hollowed out, in a fantastic way, as if the hollows had been formed by some softer matter having been enclosed in the rock and having gradually disappeared, and also a perfect cast of a large tibia bone. On other rocks were footprints of large animals, evidently made when the lava was soft.

On returning to camp I found a general row going on between Sadek and the camel men--my own and those of the other caravan who had asked permission to travel with me. There was no water at this camp, and only salt water could be procured in small quantities some distance away. The intense heat had played havoc with some of my fresh provisions, and we unfortunately had an accident to the load of eggs which were all destroyed. A great many of the chickens, too, had gone bad, and we were running rather short of fresh food. The caravan men said that it was impossible to go on, because, this being such a dry year, even the few brackish wells across the desert would be dry, and they refused to come on.

The greater part of the evening was spent in arguing--everybody except myself shouting himself hoarse. At midnight, the usual hour of our departure, the camel men refused to pack the loads and continue across the desert. At 1 a.m. they were preparing to leave me to return to Kerman. At 1.30, my patience being on the verge of being exhausted, they most of them received a good pounding with the butt of my rifle. At 1.45, they having come back to their senses, I duly entertained each of them to a cup of tea, brewed with what salt water we had got, on a fire of camel dung, and at 2 a.m. we proceeded on our course as quietly as possible as if nothing had happened.

We still followed the dry river bed among hills getting lower and lower for about three miles on either side of us, and at last we entered a vast plain. We went N.N.W. for some twelve miles, when by the side of some low hillocks of sand and pebbles we came upon a caravanserai, and an older and smaller structure, a large covered tank of rain water (almost empty) which is conveyed here from the hills twelve miles off by means of a small canal.

To the S.S.E. we could still see the flat-topped mountain under which we had camped the previous day, and all around us were distant mountains. The flat plain stretching for miles on every side had deep grooves cut into it by water flowing down from the mountain-side during the torrential rains and eventually losing themselves in the sand.

On the English and some of the German maps these dry grooves are marked as large and important rivers, but this is a mistake. There is not a drop of water in any of them at any time of the year except during heavy storms, when the drainage of the mountains is immediately carried down by these channels and lost in the desert. It is no more right to mark these channels as rivers than it would be to see Piccadilly marked on a map of London as a foaming torrent because during a heavy shower the surplus water not absorbed by the wood pavement had run down it half an inch deep until the rain stopped.

To the N.E. we saw much more clearly than the day before the extensive salt deposits at the base of the mountains, and to the N.N.E. a grey mountain with a fluted top. A high mountain mass stretched from the South to the North-West and then there was a wide opening into another flat sandy plain. Far, far beyond this a distant range of high mountains could hardly be distinguished, for a sand-storm was raging in that direction and veiled the view with a curtain of dirty yellowish grey.

This caravanserai, called Haoz Panch (or "Fifth water") altitude 5,050 feet--was built by some charitable person to protect caravans during sand-storms, and also to supply them with water, which was quite drinkable, if one were not too particular, and if one did not look at it. The caravanserai, very solidly built, was left to take care of itself, there being no one in charge of it. The kilns erected to bake the bricks with which the caravanserai had been built, still stood near it.

It is rather curious to notice what effect a drink of fair water has on the temper of one's men. My camel man, Ali Murat, for that was his name, was in high spirits and came to fetch me to show me how he made his bread, for he was keen to know whether camel men(!) in my country made it the same way! I reserved my answer until I had seen his process.

The hands having been carefully washed first, flour and water, with great lumps of salt, were duly mixed together in a bowl until reduced into fairly solid paste. A clean cloth was then spread upon the ground and the paste punched hard upon it with the knuckles, care having been taken to sprinkle some dry flour first so that the paste should not stick to the cloth. When this had gone on for a considerable time the paste was balanced upon the knuckles and brought gaily bounding to where the hot cinders remained from a fire of camel dung which had previously been lighted. The flattened paste was carefully laid upon the hot ashes, with which it was then covered, and left to bake for an hour or so.

When ready, Ali Murat brought me a piece of the bread to try--which I reluctantly did so as not to offend his feelings.

"Do camel men in your country, Sahib, make as good bread as this when they cross the lut (desert)?" inquired Ali Murat, with an expectant grin from ear to ear.

"We have no camel men in my country, and no camels, and no lut! How could we then get as good bread as yours?" (Really, when one tried to forget the process of making it, which did not quite appeal to one, the bread was not bad.)

"You have no camels, sahib,--no lut--in your country?" exclaimed Ali, with his eyes fast expanding with surprise; "Why, then, did you come here?"

"We have so much scenery in my country that I thought I would come here for a change."

We left the caravanserai at 11.30 p.m. on November 9th and travelled across the plain all through the night. About 4 miles from Haoz Panch we found an ancient mud caravanserai abandoned and partly ruined. We had the hills quite close on our right and we came across a good many dry channels cut by water. We travelled on the flat all the time, but we passed on either side a great many low mounds of sand and gravel. There was absolutely nothing worth noticing in the night's journey until we came to the small villages of Heirabad and Shoshabad, eighteen miles from our last camp. Two miles further we found ourselves at Lawah (Rawar)--altitude 4,430 feet--a very large oasis with a small town of some three thousand mud huts and ten thousand inhabitants, according to native accounts.