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Chapter 5

Salt sediments as white as snow--Brilliant stars--Plaintive songs
of the camel men--An improvisatore--Unpleasant odour of camels--A
large salt deposit--No water and no fuel--A device to protect
oneself against great heat--Amazing intelligence of
cats--Nature's ways and men's ways--A hot climb--A brilliantly
coloured range--Sea shells and huge fossils.

On November 11th at ten o'clock p.m. we gladly left poisonous Lawah and spent the night (November 12th) traversing a mountain region by a flattish and low pass, and then travelling due north entered the actual Dasht-i-lut--the sandy Salt Desert, the sediment of surface salt being in some places so thick and white as to resemble snow. Here and there some hillocks of sand relieved the monotony of the dreary journey, otherwise flat sand and surface salt extended as far as the eye could see.

The nights, even when there was no moonlight, were so clear, and the stars and planets so brilliant, that with a little practice one could, for general purposes, see almost as well as by day.

The night was terribly cold, which I felt all the more owing to the fever, as I hung resting my head on the padded pommel of the saddle and my legs and arms dangling at the sides. A howling, cutting wind blew and made it impossible to cover one's self up with blankets, as they were constantly being blown away, no matter how well one tucked one's self in them.

There was a certain picturesque weirdness in these night marches in the desert--when one could dissociate one's self from the discomforts. The camel men had some sad, plaintive songs of their own--quite melodious and in good tune with the accompaniment of dingling bells hanging from the camels' necks. There was a musician in our party--Ali Murat's young brother--who carried a flute in his girdle during the day, but played upon the instrument the whole night--some doleful tunes of his own composition, which were not bad. True, when one had listened to the same tune, not only scores but hundreds of times during one night, one rather felt the need of a change, but still even the sound of his flute was a great relief in the dreary night marches. Occasionally, when the fancy took him, and he made some variations in the airs, the camel men, who slept while mechanically walking, would join in to sing in a chorus.

Overhead the stars gleamed with a brightness that we can never dream of seeing in Europe, and in the distance we now began to perceive some phantom-like hills rising from the whitish-grey surface of the desert. A good deal of the poetry of the desert is, nevertheless, lost each time that the camel on which you ride breathes. Behold! one is brought to earth very soon! The rancid smell which comes in regular whiffs is sickening. So is the powerful stench of his hump when it gets heated by the pads of the never-removed saddle.

About every two miles a few minutes' rest is given to the camels, then on again they slowly swing forward, the nose of one being attached by a long string to the tail rope of the preceding animal.

Twenty miles from Lawah, mud-hills covering underlying rock were reached, and closed us in on either side. Two miles further, when it got too hot to proceed--thermometer 148° in the sun and not a thread of shade--we halted on a white salt deposit of considerable extent. There was no water and no fuel, and the heat was well-nigh unbearable in the middle of the day. It was useless to pitch my tent, for in such stifling heat it is not possible to remain under it, nor could one breathe at all if one tried to get a little shade by screening one's self against a wall of loads which impeded the air moving.

My camel men showed me a device which by the ignorant may be ridiculed, but to the sensible is a great blessing when exposed to abnormally high temperatures. The only way to protect one's self against the broiling air is to cover one's self, head and all, leaving space to breathe, with one or two thick blankets of wool or thick felt, of a white or light colour preferably, white being a non-absorbent of the hot sun's rays. The thickness of the cloth keeps the body at an enveloping temperature slightly above the temperature of the body itself (even when with high fever seldom more than 104°), and therefore a cooler temperature than outside the blankets, when it is frequently 148° sometimes 150° and even more. By contrast this seems quite cool. It is, in other words, a similar process to that used by us in summer to maintain ice from melting.

In Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Arabia, the people who are much exposed to the rays of the hot sun in deserts always wear extremely thick woollen clothing, or bernouses; and in Persia the camel men of the desert, as we have seen, possess thick white felt coats in which they wrap themselves, head and all, during the hot hours of the day. The Italians, too, seem to have been fully aware of this, for in Naples and Southern Italy they have an ancient proverb in the Neapolitan dialect:--Quel che para lo freddo para lo caldo--"What is protection against cold is protection against heat."

I know one Englishman in Southern Persia who, when crossing the broiling plains of Arabistan, wears a thick overcoat and plenty of woollen underwear--a method which he learnt from the nomad tribes of Arabistan--but he is generally laughed at by his countrymen who do not know any better. This cooling device, naturally, only applies to tropical climates when the temperature of the air is greatly above the actual temperature of the blood.

I had arranged with the caravan that accompanied mine to carry fodder for my camels, as there was no grazing for the animals here. Large cloths were spread on which straw and cotton-seeds were mixed together, and then the camels were made to kneel round and have a meal.

On this occasion I was much struck by the really marvellous intelligence of cats. We hear a lot about dogs finding their way home from long distances by using their sense of scent (how far this explanation is correct we have no time to discuss), but of cats the general belief is that if they are taken away from home they seldom find their way back. This may be the case with cats that have always been shut up in some particular house, but it is not that they do not possess the intellect to do so in their natural state. Here is an instance.

On letting the cats loose when we halted, the newly-purchased one attempted to make his escape. I was watching him carefully. He did not do this in a haphazard manner, running here and there as a dog would, but jumped out of the box, took his bearings with great calm and precision and in a most scientific manner, first by looking at the sun, and then at his own shadow, evidently to discover whether when shut up in the box he had travelled east or west, north or south, or to some intermediate point. He repeated this operation several times with a wonderful expression of intelligence and reflection on his little face, and then dashed away with astounding accuracy in the direction of Lawah town. Mind you, he did not at all follow the track that we had come by, which was somewhat circuitous, but went in a bee line for his native place and not a second to the left or right of the direct bearings which I took with my prismatic compass to check his direction. Sadek and the camel men went in pursuit of him and he was brought back.

This seemed so marvellous that I thought it might be a chance. We were then only twenty-two miles from Lawah. I repeated the experiment for three or four days from subsequent camps, until the cat reconciled himself to his new position and declined to run away. I took the trouble to revolve him round himself several times to mislead him in his bearings, but each time he found his correct position by the sun and his own shadow, and never made a mistake in the absolutely correct bearings of his route.

A remarkable fact in connection with this is that the most ignorant natives of Persia, men who have never seen or heard of a compass, can tell you the exact direction of places by a very similar method, so that there is more in the process than we think.

It is rather humiliating when we reflect that what we highly civilised people can only do with difficulty with the assistance of elaborate theodolites, sextants, artificial horizons, compasses and lengthy computations, an ignorant camel man, or a kitten, can do practically and simply and always correctly in a few seconds by drawing conclusions on facts of nature which speak for themselves better than all the scientific instruments we can manufacture.

There was a high mountain north-east of camp, the Darband, 8,200 feet, and as my fever seemed to be getting worse, and I had no quinine with which to put a sudden stop to it, I thought I would climb to the top of the mountain to sweat the fever out, and also to obtain a view of the surrounding country.

After having slept some three hours and having partaken of a meal--we had the greatest difficulty in raising enough animal fuel for a fire--I started off about one in the afternoon under a broiling sun. The camp was at an altitude of 4,350 feet and the ascent not difficult but very steep and rocky, and involving therefore a good deal of violent exertion. The dark rocks were so hot with the sun that had been shining upon them that they nearly burned one's fingers when one touched them. Still, the view from the top well repaid one for the trouble of getting there.

A general survey showed that the highest mountain to be seen around was to the south-south-east (150° bearings magnetic), and a couple of almost conical hills, exactly alike in shape, but not in size, stood one in front of the other on a line with 160° b.m. Between them both to east and west were a number of misshapen mountains. Were it not for a low confused heap of grey mud and sand the desert would be an absolutely flat stretch from the distant mountains enclosing the plain on the south to the others on the north. A long high mud barrier runs diagonally at the northern end, in a direction from east to west, and another extending from south-east to north-west meets it, forming a slightly acute angle. The latter range is of a most peculiar formation, extremely brilliant in colour, the ground being a vivid red, regularly fluted and striped across so straight with friezes and bands formed by strata of different tones of colour, that from a distance it almost resembles the patient work of a skilful artisan instead of the results of the corrosive action of water. Another parallel and similar range stands exactly opposite on the east.

The mountain itself to which I had climbed was most interesting. Imbedded in the rock were quantities of fossil white and black sea-shells, and about half way up the mountain a huge fossil, much damaged, resembling a gigantic turtle. Near it on the rock were impressions of enormous paws.