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Chapter 32

Sick men and camels--What came of photographing Sahib
Chah--Losing the track--Divided opinions--Allah versus the
compass--Sadek's way of locating positions--Picked up hungry and
thirsty by sensible Mahommed who had come in search--Curious
scenery--Trouble at Mirjawa--Mythical Perso-Beluch
frontier--Gypsum and limestone--Mushki Chah.

As all my camels as well as my men had been very sick during the night; as we had a long march before us the following day, and as I wished to take a photograph of the place, I resolved not to leave until the sun had risen, and in order to avoid delay I despatched all the camels and loads, except my camera, at four o'clock in the morning, meaning to walk some ten or fifteen miles, and thus give my own camel a rest. Sadek, who said it was not right for a servant to ride when his master walked, refused to go on with the caravan and insisted on remaining with me.

When the camels left--there was a cutting northerly wind blowing raising clouds of sand--I retreated to the shelter to wait for the sun to rise, and had a few hours' sleep in a solitary blanket I had retained. The track had so far been so well defined that I never thought of asking Mahommed which way it led out of these hills.

The sun having risen, and the photograph of Sahib Chah shelter duly taken, we proceeded to catch up the camels, but a few yards from the shelter all signs of the track ceased, and even the footprints of my camels had been absolutely obliterated by the high wind of the morning. To the east-south-east were rather high rocky hills and two passes, one going round to the north-north-east (which apparently would take us away from our direction), and another east-south-east, which seemed more likely to be the right one. To mislead us more we saw what we believed to be faint camel tracks smothered in sand in this direction, so on we went, sinking in fine sand, which kept filling our shoes and made walking most uncomfortable.

I climbed to the top of the rocky hill to reconnoitre, but higher hills stood all round barring the view, and I was none the wiser. On we went--certain that we were going wrong, but unable to find where the track was. Among hundreds of sand hills, dunes, and high parallel hill ranges it was not easy to discover it.

There were flat stretches of sand and parallel dunes several hundred feet high stretching from north by north-west to south by south-east, and as I knew the way must be east we had to go over them, down on the other side, only to be confronted with others before us like the waves of a stormy sea.

The sun was scorching, and when the sand got hot, too, walking was most unpleasant. When we were not on sand while ascending the hill slopes and tops we were on cutting shale. Sadek, who had not yet recovered from his previous night's experience at Sahib Chah, was still sick, and with the extra exertion somehow or other lost his head altogether.

After having gone up and down, I should not like to say how many times, we were confronted by a flat valley to the south-west and more mountains to be crossed in the direction we were going, to the north-east. Sadek thereupon maintained that the track must perforce be along the valley, to which I would not agree, and I insisted on keeping east, which I knew would bring us right in the end. As we climbed hill after hill, Sadek dragged himself behind me with a discontented face, every few minutes glancing back at the distant flat valley to the south-west, to which he pointed, sighing: "Good master, that's road!"

But up and down we continued, away from it, eastwards, range after range of hills being left behind and more ranges standing in front of us. Sadek, who was sweating under the weight of the rifle and camera, grumbled that he was ill and tired, hungry and thirsty, and it was very little consolation to think that from this spot, the two nearest wells of drinkable water were distant one about twenty-eight miles, the other over forty miles. We had nothing whatever with us to eat or drink.

After some three hours of uncertainty--and I must confess that it was somewhat trying each time we had reached the top of a range, which we climbed with anxious enthusiasm, expecting to get a glimpse of the track, to find our view obstructed by yet another range, generally higher than the one on which we stood,--after hours of toiling, as I was saying, we now came to a rocky range about double the height of any we had climbed so far.

Sadek, on looking at it, declined to climb any more. He said he knew the track must be in the opposite direction and we should only have to climb all these hills back again. He sat down and puffed away at cigarettes to allay his hunger and thirst and soothe his temper, while I climbed to the highest point, some 480 feet, above the point where I had left Sadek. Behold! on reaching the summit, beyond another range lower to the north, along a wide undulating plain I did discern a whitish streak like a chalk line stretching from west to east,--unmistakably the road.

I signalled the news to Sadek, and shouted to him to come up, which he most reluctantly did. When panting half-way up the hill, he still turned round to the south-west and disconsolately exclaimed, "No can be road, my good master. That is road!" (to the south-west). I ordered him to hurry up to my point of vantage and see for himself.

"May be road, may be not road," was his obstinate verdict, when the white streak across the plain was triumphantly pointed out to him.

"But, Sadek, can you not see the white perfectly straight line stretching along, straighter than anything else around you?"

"I can see plenty white lines, master. Up-stairs mountains, down-stairs mountains"--(by which he meant gypsum strata on the top and foot of hills). "May be," he added, sarcastically, "all roads to Shalkot (Quetta)!"

"Can you not see that the white track leads exactly in the direction where my compass says we must go?"

"Pfff! Compass no good!" he exclaimed with an air of amusing superiority, and he stooped to pick two pebbles of different colours. "Take one of these in one hand, and one in the other," he asked of me. "Now throw one towards the east and one towards the west."

I having for curiosity's sake complied with his request, he gravely examined the discarded stones.

"Yes, Sahib, your compass speaks truth! Allah says yours is the right road!"

On requesting an explanation of this novel method of locating positions, Sadek looked very solemn, and with a pause, as if he were about to pour forth words of great wisdom, and disregarding altogether the fact that my efforts solely and simply were responsible for discovering the track, "You see, my master," he said, "one stone I called good road, the other I called no road. Whichever stone you throw first is Allah's wish. Allah is more right than compass."

At any rate the method was simple enough, and it fortunately happened that Allah and my compass seemed in agreement on that occasion; so adding these circumstances to the more substantial fact that we could see the track plainly before us, we gaily descended from our lofty pinnacle, and with renewed vigour climbed the lower and last hill range, the last obstacle before us.

In the trough between the two ranges, however, the fine sand was extremely nasty, almost as bad as quicksand, and we had some trouble in extricating ourselves. We sank into it almost up to the waist. We then crossed the broad plain in a diagonal for nearly four miles, and at last, after some seven hours of anxiety, not to speak of hunger and thirst, we struck the road again.

Sadek, who, notwithstanding Allah's patent method, my compass bearings, and our combined eyesight, was not at all certain in his own heart that we should find the road that day, was so overcome with joy when he actually recognised my camel's footprints upon the sand, where not obliterated by the wind, that he collapsed upon the ground from fatigue and strain, and slept snoring sonorously for nearly two hours.

As luck would have it, a Beluch horseman travelling towards Mushki-Chah had overtaken my camels, and much to Mahommed's astonishment, informed him that he had not seen the Sahib on the road, so Mahommed, fearing that something had happened, had the sense to turn back with two camels to try and find us. We were very glad of a lift when he arrived, and even more glad to partake of a hearty lunch, and a long, long drink of water, which although brackish tasted quite delicious, from one of the skins.

The track was like a whitish streak on a sombre grey valley, with black hills scattered here and there, and a most peculiar dome-like hill on our left (10° b.m.) towards the north. Eastwards we could see a long flat high table mountain, not unlike Kuh-i-Kwajah of Sistan. On our right were low, much broken-up hills; to the west, low sand hillocks, and facing us, north-east-east (80° b.m.) a low black hill range standing in front of some high and very pointed peaks. To the south-east there was an open space.

We made a diagonal crossing over several sand dunes that stood from 50 to 80 feet high, and extended to a great length southwards. Then we approached the curious-domed hill. It was of a warm reddish-brown colour, with a yellow belt of sand at its base, and half-a-dozen sugar-loaf sand hills to the west of it. To the east of it rose the flat-topped plateau, yellowish at the two extremities, as one looked at it from this point, and black in the centre. On the north-east (at 70° b.m.) was a pointed peak, perfectly conical.

It was a very long march to Mushki-Chah, and we had a few mild excitements on the road. We came across some picturesque Beluch, clothed in flowing white robes, and carrying long matchlocks with a fuse wound round the stock. They were extremely civil, all insisting on shaking hands in a most hearty fashion, and seeming very jolly after they had gravely gone through the elaborate salutation which always occupies a considerable time.

Further on we met a cavalcade, which included the Naib Tashildar of Mirjawa, an Afghan in British employ, and the duffadar of Dalbandin, the latter a most striking figure with long curly hair hanging over his shoulders. They were with some levies hastening to Mirjawa, an important place, which, owing to the ridiculous fashion in which the Perso-Beluch Commission under Sir T. Holdich had marked out the frontier, was now claimed both by Persia and Beluchistan as making part of their respective territories.

When I was at the Perso-Beluch frontier there was much ado about this matter, and some trouble may be expected sooner or later. Anybody who happens to know a few facts about the way in which the frontier line was drawn must regret that England should not employ upon such important missions sensible and capable men whose knowledge of the country is thorough.

It would, no doubt, be very interesting to the public to be told in detail exactly how the frontier was fixed, and whether Sir T. Holdich, who was in charge, ever visited the whole frontier line. The Government maps which existed at the time of the frontier demarcation were too inaccurate to be of any use, as has been proved over and over again to our sorrow. It would also be interesting to know whether the astronomical positions of some of the supposed principal points of the boundary have been accurately tested, and whether some points which had been corrected by really efficient officers have been omitted, if not suppressed, in order to cover certain discrepancies. And if so whether it was an expedient to avoid showing the weakness of the maps (on which certain names figure prominently) which were taken as a basis for the delineation?

The facts are too commonly known by all the officers in Beluchistan and by the Foreign Office in Calcutta, as well as by Persians, to be kept a secret. It is painful to have to register facts of this kind, but I most certainly think it is the duty of any Englishman to expose the deeds of men who obtain high sounding posts and can only manage to keep them by intrigue and by suppressing the straightforward work of really able officers (which does not agree with theirs) to the eventual expense and loss of the country at large.

As we went along, leaving the plain which we had crossed for some fifteen miles, we saw to the south-west large white patches like snow. These were made of gypsum and white limestone covering the ground. A curious long, low, flat hill, with hundreds of vertical black streaks at its base and a black summit, resembled a gigantic centipede crawling on the flat desert. At the eastern end of the long plain were mud-hills on the left side of the track, and black, isolated, rounded mounds on the right. To the south-east a very curious mountain could be seen, one side of which was of beautiful white and yellow marble, and from this spot we crossed hills of sand and gravel, and the track was more tortuous, but still travelling in a general direction of east-south-east (110° b.m.)

Other mountains there were, entirely of white marble, and a great many beautifully tinted fragments of marble, as well as yellow alabaster, were strewn about abundantly upon the ground. We travelled among hillocks for about seven and a half miles, then emerged again into a plain with a hill range to our left, but nothing near us on the south. At the entrance of the valley on our left stood a curious high natural stone pillar.

By moonlight, but with clouds fast gathering and threatening rain, we eventually reached Mushki-Chah at about ten in the evening, having travelled some 36 miles. The distance by road from Sahib Chah would have been 28 miles 660 yards. Here we found the remainder of my caravan which had arrived some hours previously.