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Chapter 9

Misfortunes--Suffocating heat--An expected
attack--Electricity--Strayed camels--A barber and his ways--A
track to Meshed--Pilgrim husband and wife across the
desert--Another long march--A salt stream--Brackish well.

Many misfortunes befel us at this place. We had made our camp in the oasis of palm trees at the foot of the mountain, and as the camels were much worn out we were unable to proceed on our journey the same evening. The heat during the night under the palm trees was quite suffocating, and I had to remove my bedding into the open where one could breathe a little better.

The camel men feared that during the night we might be attacked by the villagers and we made ready for any emergency, but nobody came.

There was so much electricity in the air that it gave quite an unpleasant feeling, and had a curious effect upon one's skin. The cats on coming in contact with the woollen blankets discharged sparks all over, and sparks also snapped from one's fingers on touching anything that was a good conductor of electricity.

A wild animal came into our camp during the night and carried away some newly-purchased hens. We had been told that there were many wolves and foxes in the neighbourhood.

In the morning we were confronted with what seemed a disaster. Eleven camels of our combined caravans had disappeared. Had they been stolen or had they run away? The camel men were in tears, and, instead of going to look for them, sat on the loads sobbing bitterly and wiping the tears from their eyes with the skirts of their long coats. A ray of hope arose when we discovered their tracks. They had made for some hot water springs, some miles to the east, and judging from their footprints were evidently travelling at a great pace. Two men on other camels were despatched after them, and we had to resign ourselves to a delay of another day.

Curiously enough, there was a sudden change in the temperature, and the thermometer in the sun only registered 105°, which made us feel quite chilly after the 140° and 150° of previous days. Our camp was at an altitude of 3,810 ft. (at the foot of the Naiband Mountain).

Sadek took the opportunity of the delay to set everything tidy, and we had a great washing day. He sent for a barber in the village to trim his hair and beard. The Naiband Figaro was an extraordinary creature, a most bare-faced rascal, who had plenty to say for himself, and whose peculiar ways and roaming eyes made us conceal away out of his sight all small articles, for fear that he should walk away with them. He carried all the tools of his trade around his waist in a belt, and ground his razor first on a stone which he licked with his tongue, then using his bare arms and legs for stropping purposes, as snapshotted in the accompanying photograph.

The camel men--on whom he was first requested to experiment--he shaved, splashing their faces with salt water during the process, but Sadek, the next victim, produced a cake of soap with which he luxuriously lathered his own face, and which the barber scraped gradually from the chin and cheeks and every now and then deposited the razor's wipings on his patient's head.

We were able to buy some fresh water skins, and this time they were really water tight. The natives, naturally, took every advantage of us in the bargains, but we were able to purchase a lot of fresh provisions, which we needed badly, and men and beasts felt none the worse for our compulsory halt.

In the middle of the second night we were waked up by some distant grunts, and the camel men jumped up in great glee as they had recognised the beloved voices of some of their strayed camels. A few minutes later, in fact, the whole eleven were brought back by the two men who had gone in search of them. They had found them some twenty miles off.

From Lawah to Naiband we had come practically due north, but from this camp to Birjand the way lay due east for the first portion of the journey. At 160° b.m. (S.S.E.) in the desert rose a high mountain.

We had everything ready for our departure, but the camel men were in a dreadful state as some villager had told them that the news had spread that the strong boxes which the ferenghi had were full of silver and gold--as a matter of fact there was hardly any left of either--and that a raid was being arranged for that night to kill us and rob our baggage when we were starting. The camel men spent the whole day polishing up the old rifles they possessed and, much to my concern for their safety, loaded them.

To allay their fears we made a sudden start at 5 p.m. instead of at the hour of 10 p.m. which had been previously arranged.

One mile beyond Naiband a track branches to the north-east for Meshed, and here we bade good-bye to a Persian husband and wife--he aged twenty-eight, she aged twelve--who in the company of a donkey, were on a pilgrimage from Yezd to the Sacred Shrine. We had picked them up in a sorry plight in the desert, the husband riding the lame donkey, the girl on foot and shoving both from behind. I could not help admiring their enterprise. All the provisions they had carried were a few cucumbers, figs, and a load of bread, nearly all of which were exhausted when we found them. On remonstrating with the strapping youth for riding the donkey while he made his poor wife walk, he replied that they had been newly married and it would not do for a man to show consideration for a wife so soon!

She, being a city girl, was a bundle of clothing and we could not see her face, but she seemed a nice meek little thing, with pretty hands and feet. On being asked whether she was tired, a thread of voice from under her chudder said she was, and on being invited to ride one of my camels on the top of a load, there was a giggle which meant "yes."

The selected camel was brought down on his knees, and Sadek and Ali Murat hauled her up in the most approved style; she having an evident joke at her selfish husband for having a better mount than he after all. Unfortunately, the poor child was so exhausted that after she had gone some distance, with the swaying of the camel she became fast asleep, lost her balance and fell on her head. Nobody delighted in the misfortune more than her lord and master, who did not fail to impress upon her that this was evidently Allah's punishment for her vanity in trying to be superior to her better half! Rubbing her aching skull, and much concerned at the chudder having got torn, the bride thought she had better resign herself to walk after all.

Here, too, as in other parts of the desert, near mountainous regions we found the usual deep, cut channels carrying into the desert the overflow of rain water from the Naiband Mountain, and the many little hills at its foot; otherwise in the thirty-six miles which we covered during the night there was absolutely nothing of interest.

When we had gone some ten miles from Naiband the camel men, tired of carrying their matchlocks, slung them to the saddles and professed the danger of an attack over. We were in the open again. I was much troubled by my fever, which had seized me violently and brought on aches all over my body.

We camped at 3,480 feet, having descended 330 feet in thirty-six miles, an almost perfectly flat stretch except a hillock or undulation here and there. My fever continued so fierce the whole day that I had not the strength to stand up nor the inclination to eat, the exhaustion caused by the very high temperature being indescribable.

We left at 7 p.m., meaning to make another long march. The night was intensely cold, with a terrific wind sweeping from the north-east. Several times during the night, when we came across a tamarisk shrub or two, we halted for a few minutes to make a bonfire and warm our frozen hands and toes. We actually came across a stream of brackish water--four feet broad, and about two to three inches deep--the largest stream we had seen since entering the desert, and having been twelve hours on the saddle to cover only twenty-four miles, camels and men shivering pitifully from the cold, and the latter also from fever, we made camp in a spot where there was an abundance of tamarisks and a deep well, the water of which was fully twenty feet below the earth's surface.

A small basin had been excavated next to the well. We filled it with water by means of a bucket, and it was a real pleasure to see the camels crowding round it and satisfying their thirst of two days. We did not allow them to drink the water of the brackish stream.

The elevation of this camp was 3,890 feet.