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Chapter 6

A long detour--Mount Darband--A water-cut gorge--Abandoned watch
towers--Passes into the desert--A wall-like mountain range--The
tower and fortified caravanserai at camp Darband--Brackish
water--Terrific heat--Compensating laws of nature better than
absurd patents--Weird rocks--Cairns--Chel-payeh salt well--Loss
of half our supply of fresh water--Camels and men overcome by the

When we left camp soon after midnight on November 13th, we had to make quite a long detour to take the caravan around the Darband Mountain, which barred our way directly on the course we were to follow. On foot one could have taken a short cut in a more direct line by climbing up to a certain height on the western mountain slope, but it was out of the question to take camels up by it. We had to go some distance due north, through very broken country with numerous hillocks, after which we followed a narrow gorge cut deep by the action of water. The sides of this gorge were like high mud and gravel walls, occasionally rocks worn smooth, averaging from 60 to 100 feet apart.

The river bed, now absolutely dry, evidently carried into the desert during the torrential rain all the drainage of the mountainous country we had traversed, practically that from Abid, the Leker Mountains, and the combined flow of the Lawah plain from the mountains to the west of it, to which, of course, may be added the western watershed of the Darband Mountain itself. A glance at the natural walls, between which we were travelling, and the way in which hard rocks had been partly eaten away and deeply grooved, or huge hollows bored into them, was sufficient to show the observer with what terrific force the water must dash its way through this deep-cut channel. The highest water-mark noticeable on the sides was twenty-five feet above the bed. The impetus with which the rain water must flow down the almost vertical fluted mountain sides must be very great, and immense also must be the body of water carried, for the mountain sides, being rocky, absorb very little of the rain falling upon them and let it flow down to increase the foaming stream--when it is a stream.

Some sixteen miles from our last camp we came across a circular tower, very solidly built, standing on the edge of a river cliff, and higher up on a ridge of hills in a commanding position stood the remains of two quadrangular towers in a tumbling-down condition. Of one, in fact, there remained but a portion of the base; of the other three walls were still standing to a good height. The circular tower below, however, which seemed of later date, was in good preservation. According to the camel men, none of these towers were very ancient and had been put up to protect that passage from the robber bands which occasionally came over westward from Sistan and Afghanistan. It had, however, proved impossible to maintain a guard in such a desolate position, hence the abandonment of these outposts.

This is one of the three principal passages by which the mountains can be crossed with animals from Kerman towards the east (north of the latitude of Kerman 30° 17' 30"). The other two passages are: one to Khabis over a pass (north-east of Kerman) in the Husseinabad Mountains; the second between the Derun Mountain and the Leker Kuh from Abid, also to Khabis. From the latter place it is also possible to cross the Desert to Birjiand, but the lack of water even at the best of times makes it a very dangerous track to follow both for men and animals. Barring these passages there are high mountains protecting Kerman and continuously extending, roughly, from N.N.W. to S.S.E.

We travelled partly above the high cliffs, then, near the circular tower, we descended to the dry river-bed of well-rounded pebbles and sand. Our course had gradually swerved to the south-east, then we left the river bed once more and went due east, over confused masses of mud hillocks from twenty to a hundred feet high. To the north we had a wall-like mountain range formed of superposed triangles of semi-solidified rock, the upper point of each triangle forming either an angle of 45° or a slightly acute angle; and to the south also another wall-like range, quite low, but of a similar character to the northern ones. Beyond it, to the south-west, twenty miles back (by the way followed) lay the Darband Mountain, on the other side of which we had made our previous camp.

The camp at which we halted bore the name of Darband, and from this point the desert again opened into a wide flat expanse. The mountains to the north suddenly ended in a crowded succession of low mud-hills, descending for about a mile into the flat. The desert in all its dignified grandeur, spread before us almost uninterruptedly from due north to south-east, as far as the eye could see. North, a long way off, one could perceive a low range of hills extending in an easterly direction, and beyond at 30° bearings magnetic (about N.N.E.) rose a very high mountain and yet another very far north-east, with some isolated conical hills of fair height standing before it in the same direction; otherwise everything else in front of us was as flat and as barren as could be.

At Darband halting place there is an interesting old circular tower, much battered, as if it had seen some fighting. The attacks on it seem to have taken place mostly from the south-westerly side, which aspect bears evident marks of violent assaults. The tower is most cleverly loopholed, so as to protect the inmates while firing on the enemy, and has a look-out house on the top. For additional protection the entrance door is about twenty feet above the ground and can only be reached by a ladder, which was drawn up in cases of emergency.

A large dilapidated and filthy caravanserai--a regular fortress with a watch tower of its own and loop-holes all round--is erected in the vicinity in another commanding position. In the gully below there is a small oasis of palm trees and a few square yards of vegetation alongside a small spring of brackish water--the only water there is--with a reservoir. Next to this, west of the caravanserai, are the remains of a few mud huts in ruins.

We were here only 3,780 feet above the sea. The heat was terrific.

Brackish water is not pleasant to drink, but it is not necessarily unhealthy. Personally, I am a great believer in the compensating laws of Nature in preference to the ill-balanced habits of civilised men, and am certain that the best thing one can drink in the desert, under the abnormal conditions of heat, dust and dryness, is salt water, which stimulates digestion and keeps the system clean. Of filters, condensing apparatuses, soda-water cartridges, and other such appliances for difficult land travelling, the less said the better. They are very pretty toys, the glowing advertisements of which may add to the profits of geographical magazines, but they are really more useful in cities in Europe than practical in the desert. Possibly they may be a consolation to a certain class of half-reasoning people. But anything else, it might be argued would serve equally well. One sees them advertised as preventatives of malarial fever, but no sensible person who has ever had fever or seen it in others would ever believe that it comes from drinking water. Fever is in the atmosphere--one breathes fever; one does not necessarily drink it. When the water is corrupted, the air is also corrupted, and to filter the one and not the other is an operation the sense of which I personally cannot see.

It has ever been my experience, and that also of others, that the fewer precautions one takes, the more one relies on Nature to take care of one instead of on impracticable devices--the better for one's health in the end. I do not mean by this that one should go and drink dirty water to avoid fever,--far from it,--but if the water is dirty the best plan is not to drink it at all, whether filtered--or, to be accurate, passed through a filter--or not, or made into soda-water!

One fact is certain, that if one goes through a fever district one can take all the precautions in the world, but if one's system is so inclined one is sure to contract it; only the more the precautions, the more violent the fever.

But to return to our specific case, brackish water is not necessarily dirty, and as I have said, is to my mind one of Nature's protections against fever of the desert. In my own case, when I partook of it freely, it decidedly kept the fever down.

We made a much earlier start, at 8 p.m., on November 13th, and I had to walk part of the way as it was too steep for the camels. We had great trouble in taking them down to the dry river-bed--which we were to follow, being quite flat and therefore easier for the animals. We went along between low hills, getting lower and lower, and some two miles from the Darband tower we emerged into the open, the river-bed losing itself here in the desert.

During the night of the 13th-14th we travelled 28 miles on the flat until we came to more low hills, which we entered by another river-bed, also dry. We had come in a north-north-east direction so far, but we now turned due east among high, flat-topped hills which resembled a mass of ruined Persian houses of a quadrangular shape, so strangely had they been carved out by the corrosive action of water. They were of solid rock, and eaten into holes here and there, which from a distance gave the appearance of windows and doors, and of caves.

The river-bed on which we travelled was of soft sand--very troublesome--and minute gravel strewn here and there with large boulders fallen from the cliffs at the sides. Cairns had been erected in various prominent points by caravan men, to show future travellers the way to Naiband for Birjiand and Meshed.

Following this in an easterly direction we came to a large basin, and then further on to another. We continued in zig-zag for a short distance, when we arrived at a place where the river-bed makes an elbow, turning to the north. At this spot a caravanserai was in course of construction, built at the expense of some charitable person. There was only one well of brackish water, and very little of that, too. The workmen would not let us partake of it. Everything, of course, had to be brought, as nothing could be obtained there, and the few workmen complained bitterly of the hardships they had to endure in going on with their work. They feared they would soon run short even of water. They were all fever-stricken, and two quite in a pitiable condition. They had little food left; most of their animals had died, and they were unable to leave. Chel-Payeh was the name of this well (altitude 4,420 feet).

We were thirty-two miles from our last camp, and reached here at 8 a.m. On taking the loads down we had a great disappointment. Sadek, who was not accustomed to ride camels, was suffering considerably, and in order to make himself comfortable he had contrived a clever device to avoid coming in immediate contact with the wooden frame of his saddle. He had fastened the two largest skins we had with our supply of good water on the top of his saddle, and having covered them over with blankets and carpets, on them, he sat and slept through the whole night. Alas! the weight of his body burst both skins during the night and squeezed all the water out!

So here we were, with only two small skins of fresh water left, which would have to last the whole party several days. But we were to have a further misfortune on the following march.

The heat was intense--146° in the sun--not an inch of shade in the middle of the day, and the river-bed being cut into the plain, and therefore lower than the surface of the remainder of the desert, the lack of a current of air made this spot quite suffocating; so much so that both camels and men were getting quite overcome by the heat, and we had to start off early in the afternoon at 4 o'clock.