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Chapter 31

Saindak--Beluch prisoners--Thana and Bungalow--Beluch bread--The
Saindak mountain and its mineral resources--The Daftan
volcano--Surmah and lead--Mukak and its strong man--A sick
camel--Gypsum--Regheth--Where the track will deviate in
future--Difficulty in obtaining drinkable water--Wells made
attractive--Sahib chah--A well ventilated rest-house.

Saindak had an imposing thana, the elaborate gateway of which was decorated with heads of wild sheep and dumbahs. There were nine rooms--some boasting of wooden doors--at the end of the large court, but all were occupied by the seven sawars, the postal moonshee, the three kassildars and the havildar, one duffadar, and one jemadar.

On my arrival they proceeded to clear one of the chambers for me, and to my astonishment out of it came four wretched men chained together by the hands and feet and in a pitiable condition. Not that their countenances, when one examined their faces, called for much pity. More palpably criminal types could be found nowhere, but somehow or other to see these poor devils stumbling along, with the iron rings round their bruised and sore ankles showing through the torn rags which covered their skeleton legs, and the agonized expressions on their worn, repulsively cruel faces, was not an edifying sight. They had been brought down here to work and, for prisoners, were treated considerately enough, I suppose. But they seemed very ill and suffering. Two were robbers, the other two--father and son--had murdered a man and stolen 400 sheep. They were condemned to captivity for life.

I declined to put up in that room, especially when I happened to peep in and was nearly choked by the foul odour that emanated from inside, and preferred--although it was very cold--to inhabit the unroofed new two-roomed bungalow in course of construction, which I found really very comfortable.

As can be seen by the photograph the thana and bungalow of Saindak are built on rather an attractive site under the shelter of the Saindak Mountain. Whenever I see a mountain I cannot resist the temptation to go up it, and now, after all the thousands of miles of flat country I had traversed, I felt this desire more strongly than ever. The ascent of the mountain presented no difficulty except that its rocky sides were somewhat steep. I resolved to go up early the next morning before making a start with my camels.

In the meantime during the evening I was instructed by Mahommed Hussein, my camel man, in the Beluch fashion of making bread--really a most ingenious device. A stone of moderate size, say 4 inches in diameter and as round as can be found, is made red hot on the fire, and upon it a coating of paste--flour, water, and salt--is deposited evenly so as to make an envelope of paste one inch thick all over. Three, four, five, or as many of these balls as required being made, they are placed in a circle near a blazing fire, so that the outside may get baked as well as the inside. When ready for consumption the balls are split open and the stones removed. The bread is really most excellent and resembles a biscuit.

At Saindak (altitude 3,810 feet) there are a number of wells, mostly very salt, but one has quite fair water, only slightly brackish. The water, however, had a peculiar taste of its own, as if it had gone through lead deposits, and, on mentioning this to some Beluch they told me that lead was, in fact, found on the mountains just above this camp. Having drunk two glasses of this water I was taken with bad internal pains, but I must in fairness own that I do not know whether to attribute this entirely to the water or to indiscreet consumption of an irresistible, extra rich plum-cake which the wonderful Sadek now produced, much to my surprise and delight, from among my provisions.

Travellers, however, would do well to bring their own supply of water from Kirtaka, if they are coming from Robat, or from Mukak, if travelling from Quetta.

The ascent to the summit of the Saindak mountain well repays the traveller for the exertion of getting there, and that not only on account of its geological formation. Looking over the lower mountains one obtained a magnificent view of the Afghan desert as far as the eye could see, to the north-west and north-east, while to the west lay a mountain mass, the Mirjawa mountains, and innumerable sand hills. To the south-south-west towered above everything the double-humped active volcano of Kuh-i-Daftan, with its snow-capped crater. It was smoking, notwithstanding the ridiculous theory entertained by some F.R.G.S. that volcanoes cannot exist so far south in the Northern Hemisphere! We saw this volcano for several days and it threw up considerable volumes of smoke. At night it occasionally had quite a glow above its crater.

The volcano, I need not say, is in Persian territory, and is some 60 miles distant, as the crow flies, from Saindak, although in the clear atmosphere it does not appear more than a few miles off. It is a most impressive mountain.

Parallel ridges of sand hills, facing east, were to be seen to the south-west of the Saindak mountain, and then a wide flat plain, beyond which four successive mountain ranges, formed a powerful barrier. To the south-east also were high mountains.

On the top of the mountain we came upon some of the holes that contain lead and Surmah or Surf--a substance much used by women in Persia, Afghanistan, Beluchistan and India for blackening the lashes and lower eyelids. Surmah was plentiful enough, especially between two layers of perpendicular rock, and also in surface pebbles when split open. Calcareous rock with galena was to be found, besides fragments of calcite, gypsum, and slag.

It appeared that the natives must at some time have tried to exploit these mines in a primitive manner, for there were many holes bored all over the top of the mountain, and near them bits of coal embedded in slag. These excavations were generally bored in mounds of yellow earth, or, rather, the mounds were of that colour because of the earth which had been extracted from the borings, the colour of the surrounding earth and rock being grey and black. Lead filaments in brittle layers were also noticeable mixed with the earth. Two inches below the ground one found, on digging, a thick deposit of salt and gypsum.

My camels with loads had made an early start, and on my returning to camp some three hours after their departure I proceeded to catch them up on my excellent mari. There was very little of interest on the march. We rose over a gentle incline, travelling due south upon undulating ground to an altitude of 3,870 feet, beyond which we descended into a flat basin with a broad outlet to the south-south-east, and another south-west by a narrow defile in the mountain range. We then crossed a broader plain, about two miles broad, with good grazing for camels, and here again, being well out in the open, we got a magnificent view of the Daftan volcano (south-west) in all its splendour.

We reached Mukak (3,580 feet) in the afternoon, the distance from Saindak being 13 miles, 880 yards, and, owing to my camels being tired, and the small beady plant called regheth--much cherished by camels--plentiful, we halted for the remainder of the day.

At this place we found the usual jemadar, a duffadar, and four men, and were cordially received by the palawan's moonshee, a nice fellow who wore a peaked turban of gigantic size, and a brown coat beautifully embroidered on the back and sleeves with violet-coloured silk. The embroidery, he informed me, took six years to make--it was not fully completed yet--and, on inquiring the cost of it, he said that it would certainly fetch as much as 10 rupees (13s. 4d.) when quite finished! The pattern on it was most cleverly designed and produced a graceful effect. On the middle of the sleeves were a number of superposed T's made of ribbon bands and with delicate ornamentations round them, such as little squares with radiating threads, a frieze going all round the arm, and parallel lines. On the back was a large triangle upside down, the base at the neck and the point downwards, joining at its lower end a square the inside of which was most elaborately embroidered.

The palawan, or strong man, in charge of this station, was a man with a romantic history of his own, and perhaps the British Government were very wise to employ him. He is said to possess enormous muscular strength, being able to perform such amazing feats as reducing to dust between his first finger and thumb a silver rupee by merely rubbing it once, or breaking any coin in two in his hands with the same ease that one would a biscuit. Aïd Mahommed, that was his name, was unfortunately absent on the day I passed through, so I was not able to witness his marvellous feats--of strength or palming(?)--and the accounts of his native admirers were not to be taken au pied de la lettre.

Mukak had six mud rooms, three roofed over and the others unroofed. Water was plentiful but slightly brackish, and a salt rivulet, a few inches broad, irrigated a patch or two of cultivation below the rest house.

Among low hills, we rode away first due east from Mukak, the track at a mile's distance rising to 3,620 feet, and we remained at this altitude for five miles. Again on this march we obtained a glorious view (at 200° b.m.) of the Daftan volcano, with its two imposing white domes on the crater sides. We had then gone north-east for 6½ miles, when, after rounding some sand hills, our track proceeded again due east.

We had crossed a plain one mile broad and four and a half miles long, where there was good grazing (regheth) for camels, but no tamarisk. At the termination of the plateau, which rose some 50 feet higher than the remainder of it, we commenced to descend by a gentle incline, having high hills to our left (north) and low hills to our right (south), the track being due east. To the north-east we had another long, straight, monotonous spread of fine sand and gravel in slight undulations, and to the south-west very low ranges of sand hills varying in height from 20 feet to 100 feet. Before us on our left to 100 bearings magnetic (E.E.S.E.) stood above the plain a pillar-shaped mound of enormous height resembling, from a distance, a semi-ruined tower, and south-south-east (150° b.m.) another isolated red mountain with a sharp, needle-like point. Other smaller rocks, of sugar-loaf form, were scattered about on our left.

By the roadside an enormous boulder weighing several tons could be seen, the presence of which could not easily be accounted for unless it had been shot out by volcanic action. It was most unlike the formation of the rock in the immediate neighbourhood of it, and had all the appearance of having dropped at this place.

The track again changed its course and now went to east-south-east, (120° b.m.). My riding camel was taken very ill, and even Mahommed's most affectionate language, and the caresses he bestowed on him as if the animal had been his dearest relation, had no appreciable effect upon his health. The animal evidently had a colic, caused, no doubt, by excessive eating of regheth the previous day. He seemed to have the greatest trouble in dragging his legs along, and every now and then he languidly swung his head round and gave me a reproachful look, which undoubtedly meant "Can't you see I am ill? I wish you would get off."

Well, I did get off, although walking in the desert is not a pleasure at any time, and when we arrived at the next well, after a dreadfully slow march, we proceeded to doctor up our long-necked patient.

Now, doctoring a camel is not an easy matter, for one cannot work on his imagination as doctors do on human beings. When a camel is ill, he is really ill. There was no mistake about the symptoms of his complaint, and after a consultation Sadek, Mahommed and I agreed that a strong solution of salt and water should be administered, which was easier said than done. While the poor brute lay with his long neck stretched upon the sand, moaning, groaning and breathing heavily, we mixed a bag of salt--all we had--with half a bucket of water, and after endless trouble--for our patient was most recalcitrant--poured the contents down his throat.

We had some moments of great anxiety, for the animal was taken with a fit. He fell on his side, his legs quivered three or four times, and for one moment we really thought our remedy had killed him. The medicine, however, had the desired effect, and about an hour later the camel was again as lively as a cricket, and we were able to continue.

The reader may perhaps gauge what the loss of a camel would have been when he is told that between Sher-i-Nasrya, Sistan, and Nushki--a journey of some 500 miles--neither camels nor any other mode of conveyance are, under ordinary circumstances, to be procured.

We passed a conical hill, by the roadside, which had thick deposits of gypsum on the south-east side of its base, while on the north-west side the process of petrification of the sand was fully illustrated. The thin surface layer when moist gets baked by the sun, and thus begins its process of solidification; then another layer of sand is deposited on it by the wind and undergoes the same process, forming the thin, horizontal strata so common in the section of all these hills. The lower strata get gradually harder and harder, but those nearer the surface can be easily crumbled into sand again by pressure between one's fingers.

These were the main altitudes registered on the day's march: Plain, 3,220 feet; 16 miles from Mukak, 3,200 feet; while a mile and a half further we had gone as low as 2,500 feet on a wide plain with undulations. The rocky mountain, when seen edgewise from a distance, had appeared like a tower; now, on approaching it on its broad side, its silhouette altered its semblance into that of an elongated crouching lion.

Great quantities of gypsum could be seen in layers under the sand and fragments that covered the surface. In places the ground was quite white as if with snow. The track, until we had passed the isolated "lion" mountain (about 20 miles from Mukak), maintained a direction of east, east-south-east, and south-east, but about a mile further, it turned sharply northwards in a bed of soft sand, between sand mounds to the north-east and a sand bank facing north, the top of which, full of humps, was not unlike a crocodile's back.

To the right we had an open space where one got a view of the desert and mountains to the south, and then we wended our way, in zig-zag, among sand hills bearing no unusual characteristics, and travelled across a very sandy plain with clusters of regheth here and there.

This was one of the worst bits of the Robat-Nushki road. The sand was troublesome and the track absolutely obliterated by it in this portion. Twenty-three miles, 660 yards from Mukak we arrived at Sahib Chah, a spot which no traveller is ever likely to forget, especially if a few drops of water from one of the wells are tasted. When the road was made it was very difficult to find drinkable water in this part, and this well--renowned all over Beluchistan and Sistan for its magic powers--has up to the present time been the only successful attempt; but I understand from Captain Webb-Ware, who is in charge of the road, that he hopes to find or has found water further north, on the other side of the hill range, and that in future the traveller will be spared the good fortune of visiting this heavenly spot.

Most attractive iron troughs had been brought here and placed near the four wells, and up-to-date wooden windlasses had been erected on the edge of each well--conveniences that were not quite so common at the stations we had already passed. This may lead the unwary traveller to believe that the water of these wells must have some special charm.

One well was, fortunately, absolutely dry. The water of two was so powerful in its lightning effects that unfortunate was the wretch who succumbed to the temptation of tasting it; while the water of the fourth well, one was told, was of a quite good drinking kind. I had been warned not to touch it, but my men and camels drank some and it had equally disastrous effects on men and beasts. Sadek, who was requested to experiment and report on such occasions, thought his last hour had come, and he and the camel men moaned and groaned the greater part of the night. The water seemed not only saturated with salt, but tasted of lead and phosphorus, and was a most violent purgative.

The rest-house could not be called luxurious; the reader is referred to the photograph I took of it facing page 332. It was roofless--which, personally, I did not mind--and the walls just high enough to screen one from the wind and sand. It was in two compartments, the wall of one being 4½ feet high, and of the other about 7 feet high, while 15 feet by 8 feet, and 10 feet by 8 feet were the respective dimensions of each section.

The place lies in the middle of a valley amid hills of chalk or gypsum and deep soft sand, and is screened by a low hill range to the north-east and north, while a low flat-topped sand dune protects it on the south-west. The new track, I believe, will go north of the north-east range.