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Chapter 7

Fortress-like cliffs--A long troublesome march--Sixteen hours on
the saddle--All our fresh-water supply gone!--Fever--Electricity
of the desert--Troublesome camel men--A small oasis--An ancient
battered tower--A giant--Naiband mountain and village--Rock
habitations--A landmark in the desert.

Fortress-like, vertical rocky cliffs rose to our left and enormous boulders tumbled down to our right. Our direction was due north. On our right, as we were again entering the flat desert, a quadrangular fort of natural formation stood on the mountain-side.

We did not halt for dinner as we could find no fuel to do the cooking with, and we marched all night (November 15th)--a most painful march, for the camels were all more or less sick and tired, and they dragged themselves jerkily, grunting and making the most awful noises all night.

My fever got very bad and I was seized with bad pains in my ribs and spine. Sadek and the camel men complained of feeling very ill, and the cats remonstrated from their high perch at not being let out of their box at the customary hour. To add to our happiness, one of my camels, carrying some air-tight cases with sharp brass corners, collided with the camel conveying the precious load of the two remaining water-skins which hung on its sides, and, of course, as fate would have it, the brass corners wrenched the skin and out flowed every drop of water, which was avidly absorbed by the dry sand.

The character of the country was the same as on the previous day, a long stretch of flat, then undulations, after which we entered another dry canal cut deep, with vertical rocky sides, very similar to the Chel-Payeh except that in the bed of the gorge itself there were now enormous flat slabs of stone instead of sand and gravel, as the day before. Further on we were surrounded by low hills, which we crossed by a pass, and after having been on the saddle continuously for sixteen hours we halted at eight o'clock a.m. in the middle of a broiling, barren stretch of sand, gravel and shingle.

After so long a march, and under such unpleasant conditions, our throats and tongues were parched with thirst. Fortunately, we still had one skin of water left, I thought, so my first impulse was to hasten to have it taken off the saddle that we might all have a sip. But misfortune pursued us. On approaching the camel that carried it, the animal was all wet on one side, and I fully realised what to expect. Sadek, with a long face of dismay, took down the flabby empty skin; the water had all dripped out of it, and here we were, in the middle of the desert, no well, whether salt or otherwise, and not a thimbleful of water!

The very thought that we could get nothing to drink made us ten times more thirsty, and we seemed to be positively roasting under the fierce sun. The camel men threw themselves down upon their felt coats and moaned and groaned, and the camels, who had drunk or eaten nothing for three days, appeared most unhappy and grunted pitifully.

For want of better remedy we sucked pebbles, which stimulated salivation and allayed the thirst to a certain extent, but with the high fever, which brought about fearful exhaustion and severe aches, and the unpleasant, abundant electricity in the air caused by the intense dryness--which has a most peculiar effect on one's skin--we none of us felt particularly happy. The three cats were the only philosophers of the party and were quite sympathetic. They amused themselves by climbing up the camel's long necks, just as they would up a tree, to the evident discomfort of the larger animals. They had a particular fancy for sitting on the camels' bushy heads.

The electricity with which the air of the desert is absolutely saturated is gradually absorbed by the human body and stored as in an accumulator. On touching the barrel of a rifle or any other good conductor of electricity, one would discharge an electric spark of some length. By rubbing one's woollen blankets with one's hands one could always generate sufficient electricity to produce a spark; and as for the cats, if one touched them they always gave out a good many sparks. At night, if one caressed them, there was quite a luminous greenish glow under one's fingers as they came into contact with the hair. Quite a brilliant flash ensued when the cats were rubbed with a woollen blanket.

We had only risen about 100 feet to 4,520 feet from our last camp, and we steered N.N.E. for the high Naiband Mountain.

The camel men, taking advantage of my being ill, were very troublesome and attempted some of their tricks; but although I was absolutely at their mercy I screwed up what little strength I had and brought them back to their senses. The camels, they said, were very ill, and we could not possibly go on. We certainly could not stop where we were, and I most decidedly would not go back, so, when night came, on we went leaving camp at 10 p.m. and travelling first over a great flat stretch, then among low hills and through several ravines cut by water. We travelled some ten hours at a good pace, and when nearing the Naiband Mountain the country became quite undulating.

On November 16th we arrived in a small oasis of high palm trees, with a streamlet of salt water forming a pool or two, dirty to a degree owing to the bad habits of camels when drinking. Our camels, who had drunk nothing for several days, on perceiving these pools made a dash for them and sucked to their hearts' content gallons of water of a ghastly reddish-green tint, almost as thick as syrup with mud and organic matter, but which they seemed to enjoy all the same.

There was here a much battered tower, attributed, to Beluch, who are said to have fought here most bravely in times gone by, but more probably of Afghan origin--or at least erected during the time of the Afghan invasion. It is said to be some centuries old, but here again it is well to have one's doubts upon the matter.

As I was examining the tower, which has undoubtedly seen some terrific fighting, a giant man emerged from the palm trees and came towards us. He was some 6 feet 6 inches in height, and being slender, with a small head, appeared to be even taller than he really was. He strode disjointedly towards us and was somewhat peculiar in manner and speech. He examined us very closely and then ran away up to the village--a quaint old place perched high on the mountain side and with eight picturesque towers. Most of these towers were round, but a large quadrangular one stood apart on a separate hill.

There were innumerable holes in the rock, which were at one time habitations, but are used now as stables mostly for donkeys, of which there were a great number in the place. The rock on which the village stood is very rugged and difficult of access, as can be seen by the photograph which I took, and the architecture of the buildings had a character peculiar to itself and differed very considerably from any other houses we had met in Persia. They were flat-roofed, with very high walls, and four circular apertures to answer the purpose of windows about half-way up the wall. The roof was plastered and made a kind of verandah, where the natives spread fruit and vegetables to dry and the women had their small weaving looms. On one side of the rock, where the greater number of habitations were to be found, they actually appeared one on the top of the other, the front door of one being on the level with the roof of the underlying one.

The path to the village was very steep, tortuous and narrow. The village extended from south-west to north-east on the top of the mountain, and the separate quadrangular tower occupied a prominent position to its eastern extremity. There were palm trees and fields both to the south and east at the foot of the rocky mountain on which the village stood, and to the W.N.W. (300° bearings magnetic) of it towered the majestic Naiband Mountain mass, very high, one of the great landmarks of the Dasht-i-Lut, the Salt Desert.

Directly above the village of Naiband was a peak from which, although of no great altitude--4,500 ft.--one got a beautiful bird's-eye view both of the village and the surrounding country. An immense stretch of desert spread below us, uninterrupted from north-east to south except by a small cluster of hillocks directly under us, and by the continuation towards the south-west of the Naiband mountainous mass; a high mountain lay to (170° bearings magnetic) S.S.E. The highest peak of the Naiband was to the north of the village, and the mountainous region extended also in a direction further north beyond the mountain that gives its name to the whole mass. S.S.E. (150° b.m.) of the village down in the plain rose an island of hills and also a few more to the east.

The desert was rather more undulating in the eastern portion, but absolutely flat towards the south-west and to the south, while north-east of the village stood a weird collection of picturesquely confused brown-red and whitish mountains.

Most of the cultivation--only a few patches--was visible to the S.W. and E.N.E. of the village. Palm trees were numerous. A spring of fresh water ran down the mountain side, through the main street of the village, and down into the fields, in the irrigation of which it lost itself.