Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/A day in the desert

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2894609Once a Week, Series 1, Volume IX — A day in the desert
1863Samuel Bevan



Some years ago, before viaducts spanned the Nile, and tall poles marked the course of the iron way which now crosses the Goshen desert, travellers to and from India found their way over it as best they might. For those who preferred to ride in carriages, there were machines on two wheels with tilted covers, like errand-carts. For timid maidens and elderly ladies, there was the donkey-chair, a rude invention, closely resembling the old sedan, where asses took the place of chairmen, and whose motion, when the forward donkey indulged in a gallop, whilst his lazier friend in the rear would persist in a trot, was indescribably parabolic and dislocatory both of limb and temper. Enterprising young men and brave warriors bestrode the patient ass, mounted on a square and flat, but withal, comfortable Egyptian saddle, whilst a very small per-centage would be tempted to mount the perilous hump of the dromedary, and sail cosily over the yielding sand.

It was in these early days of “The Overland” that I had the charge of the mails and passengers between Alexandria and Suez, and vice versâ, and very different were the incidents of travel then to the humdrum monotony of the present transit by rail. That which is now accomplished in a few short hours, was, in the time of the careless, but brave and ill-requited Waghorn, somewhat of an undertaking. The disembarking from the Peninsular and Oriental steamer, the landing at Alexandria, the passage of the Mahmoudieh canal and subsequent voyage up the Nile, the sojourn in Cairo, and the eighty-four miles of desert ere the traveller reached Suez, afforded altogether a little mine of adventure and novelty, anticipated with keen enjoyment by the genuine lovers of travel. At the time of which I write, Waghorn and Company were a sort of Eastern Pickford’s, conveying passengers and merchandise of all descriptions between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. For years they enjoyed a well-merited monopoly of this traffic, until the report of their success induced certain French adventurers to seek a concession from Mehemet Ali and start a rival messagerie. Unfortunate, however, were such travellers as, tempted by a cheaper tariff, entrusted themselves to the “French Agency.” Having no right of entrée to the desert stations erected by Waghorn, with the aid of the Bombay Steam Fund, their forced and frequent halts were passed, not under the shade of stone walls, and within reach of good food and cool water, but beneath ill-constructed tents inadequate to screen them from the scorching sun, and where their only refreshment was afforded by an impromptu and dubious cuisine, and a carte des vins, which furnished little else than ready-mulled claret. It will therefore be readily believed that Waghorn and Company were not greatly in fear of being run off the road by the opposition agency, but it was nevertheless needful for their employés to board every steamer arriving from the westward, to prevent India-bound travellers from falling too easily into the hands of their piratic rivals.

This boarding work formed a part of my duty, when one fine morning in June, the lighthouse, which now occupies the site of the old Pharos of the Ptolemies, signalled the arrival of the monthly packet from Southampton. In a few minutes I had been paddled by sinewy arms over the calm surface of the bay, and before she had dropped her anchor, was standing on the deck of the Tagus. The next proceeding was to ascertain what passengers were going on at once to join the mail steamer lying at Suez, and to receive from the supercargo an invoice of their luggage and of the mail boxes, these latter being stowed without loss of time in a lighter alongside, and sent round to the mouth of the Mahmoudieh canal. As this process invariably occupied some hours, the sea-weary travellers were at liberty to land at their leisure, and recruit themselves at Key’s Hotel in the Grand Square, before the time arrived for betaking themselves to the canal boats.

The India-bound voyager will doubtless remember that his troubles began when he quitted the side of the good ship to plant his foot on the sandy soil of Africa. He will recall the hurry-skurry scramble on donkey-back through the bazaars and labyrinthine suburbs of Alexandria; the limited ablution, and the comfortless confusion of the odd thè-dinant at the hotel, and finally, perhaps, the writer’s “call to horse” if such a term can be properly applied to the kicking, braying, fighting squad of ready-saddled donkeys below. Then the pell-mell race at full gallop by rough and treacherous paths, over the half-hidden ruins of ancient Alexandria, to the unsavoury Mahmoudieh, and lastly the squeeze into the omnibus-like and overcrowded treykshuyt. Who that has once made the overland journey about the time of which I write, will have forgotten the arrival at Atfeh, and the debarcation, often at daybreak, of the wearied occupants of the boats? The crossing of the plank to gain the shore, the slipping and sliding on its steep declivity in the grasp of ready but reeking fellàhs, and the twenty minutes’ walk to the Nile among the mingled merchandise on the summit of the bank, dogs, timber, grain, pigs, dates, dirt, and sleeping Arabs! And anon the puffing little English steamer, no bigger than a Thames penny ’bove-bridge, with its English captain (!) in gold-laced cap and familiar “go-ahead” and “ease her.” And then Atfeh and its darkness, din and confusion fade away in our wake, and we gratefully sniff the morning air borne down upon the bosom of old Father Nile; and the cheery rattle of cups and saucers, and the fragrant aroma of early “Mocha,” force from us the admission that there may be a bright side to every picture.

If I thus venture to revert to scenes so hackneyed, it is not with the intention of enlarging upon them. I use them as accessories to my narrative, and to explain the nature of my duties as one of Waghorn’s employés. Did space permit of it I would gladly smoke a chibouque with my countrymen grouped on the deck of the panting little steamer as she cleaves the sluggish waters of the Nile, and join in admiration of the towering palms that skirt its shores, or the shout of pleasure that, later on in the day, greets the first glimpse of the pyramids of Ghizeh lighted up by the western sun. I should like the second edition of the donkey-ride which occurs between Boulac and Cairo, and to make one at the well-covered dinner-table of the “Great Eastern” hotel, taking a post-prandial cheroot with dear old Dr. A——, in its proprietor’s comfortable sanctum. But the confused sounds which reach us from the court yard below, warn the passengers to prepare for the desert journey. Hastening down, and threading a few of the very narrow streets of Cairo, for the inn-yard is not accessible to anything with wheels, we find in a somewhat more open space, half-a-dozen or more of the rude-looking carriers’ carts before alluded to, used by Waghorn and Company for traversing the desert. Raven, the resident partner of the firm, has previously assigned the six inside seats of each to as many ladies or gentlemen, and they soon find their appointed places. His way-bill, however, made up without the slightest regard to compatibility of tastes, is not always happy in the arrangements dependent on it. Singular enough, at times, was the admixture of creed and grade in these desert coaches. I once saw General Ventura wedged in between a member of the Society of Friends and the Bishop of Antioch, their vis-à-vis consisting of the daughter of an Indian officer, her English maid, and Dwarkanauth Tagore. The Baboo’s medicated and constant pipe dispensed an odour anything but agreeable to the general, who drew forth a manilla, and puffed away vigorously. The bishop and the “Friend” followed suit with their cigarettes, and the fumes of the Indian pastile soon gave way before a cloud of genuine fragrance, which the ladies were glad enough to tolerate.

But it is time to return to the vans, which during my short digression have cleared the crazy old gates of Cairo, and having skirted the cemetery where poor Burckhardt reposes, are fast gaining that desert which he was not permitted to explore. On this particular journey, Raven has provided me with a fleet dromedary, in place of a seat in one of the vans, for I am in the company of two personal friends who are bound on a long and perilous journey towards the interior of Africa; and who, alas! were fated to swell the list of victims already sacrificed to the White Nile and its sources,—a problem now so happily solved by the glorious discoveries of Speke and Grant. They are both well-mounted; one on a powerful saddle-horse of Raven’s, the other on his own especial favourite—a black Arab of the purest blood. The moon is up, and the desert stretches beyond and around us, bathed in its cool silvery light. Despite the saddened feelings which precede a long separation, we trot gaily and swiftly along; leaving, far away in the rear, our fellow-travellers in the vans. At the centre, or No. 4 Station, we make a long halt, for a spurt of forty-two miles, whether on horse or dromedary, renders repose needful both for beast and rider. Then we press on again, for the reis or captain of the Red Sea boat has warned us, by a messenger, that the wind, now favourable, may speedily chop round to another quarter. Reaching Suez, we pass together our last short night, and I take a hurried farewell of friends I am never to meet again on earth. As he wrings my hand, B—— presses upon my acceptance his favourite Arab, whispers some last earnest commissions, and the shore-boat bears me away.


The day was far advanced when I reached the shore after some hours’ laborious tacking. Being in no humour to encounter the idlers who were awaiting at Manson’s hotel the departure of the Bombay steamer, I determined to trot back leisurely over the twenty miles of sand, between Suez and the No. 6 Station; and therefore looked about for a lad who would ride my return-dromedary, and take charge of my only article of luggage, a small but well-stuffed carpet-bag. The right sort of man was soon found, a copper-legged fellàh, who stowing away in his shirt-front the residue of his half-eaten supper, was speedily perched aloft on the hump of the willing beast, and in a few minutes we had turned our backs upon the low wall which environs the dirt and dreariness of Suez. Evening had set in ere we passed the well, so familiar to desert travellers, and the angry voices of the camel-drivers wrangling over a few pints of muddy water, became gradually inaudible, as we gained the clear hard sand beyond, now sparkling in the light of the rising moon. Jogging on leisurely, the profound stillness being only broken by the footfall of our beasts, and an occasional futile attempt on the part of my companion to break into song, we reached No. 6 at ten o’clock, where refreshment and a shake-down were kindly provided by the English lady who then farmed the station.

Accustomed to the noonday heat, I was in no hurry to start the next morning, so looked after the well-being of our four-footed friends, and lingered over Mrs. Seedeick’s grateful Mocha. The dromedary also seemed unwilling to stir, and greeted me when I attempted to rouse him with such unmistakeable signs of displeasure, that I decided to leave him behind, and start alone upon my journey. Charging the lad who had the care of my carpet-bag to follow me to the centre station, No. 4, I was once more on the sand, with a bright sun overhead, and our shadows beneath us. Mrs. Seedeick had uttered some commonplaces as to the “extreme fineness of the day, &c.” In Egypt the characteristics of a “fine day,” would be a canopy of dull cloud above, and a continuous pelting shower of rain, and such was certainly not the sort of weather I was now to experience. Not a cloud was visible above the horizon, not a sign of anything greeted me save the mane and sharp ears of my Arab, and the eternal sand. If my friends in the Red Sea boat were, as I hoped they might be, scudding away towards Jeddah under the influence of a northerly breeze, not a breath of it found its way to me! All—around, above, and below—was silent and scorching. So overpowering was the heat that I almost resolved to return to the station, and make the trial later in the day, when the decline of the sun would be followed by light airs and a cooler track than that now before me. But my presence was required at No. 4, and go on I must. So I put my kerchief to the pristine and legitimate use of that appendage, by winding it round my tarboosh, and then taking a last look at the station behind me, to assure myself by its bearings that I am going in the right direction, I half close my eyes to shut out the glare, and am borne gently onwards.

The easy jog of the horse must have lulled me to sleep, or the heat and the glare combined had produced a lethargic feeling which had deadened my senses to outward objects. Certain it is, that after an indefinite interval of time I was aroused to consciousness by the sudden stopping of the Arab. Opening my eyes, I make the startling discovery that the sand over which I should be travelling has been changed, as by the enchanter’s wand, to a boundless tract of verdure: that I am, in fact, surrounded by some sort of vegetation, of whose vitality in the desert I had never even dreamed. Dismounting, to convince myself that I am really awake, I find interminable patches of a prickly sort of grass, brown and sunburnt, with intervals of sand between. I must, then, have been carried very wide of the faintly-defined track, and as the sun and my watch agree in telling me that it is past one, I may by this time be miles away from it. I get into the saddle again and stand up in the stirrups to obtain a more extended view. Nothing but the grassy tufts! Nothing, probably, six inches above the ground for miles around me, save, perhaps, the carcase of some unlucky camel festering in the hot sun! Not a sign to furnish me with a clue to the west. Had it not been so close to mid-day, my own figure and the sandy plain might have afforded a capital impromptu sun-dial; but the orb was too much in the zenith, and I made but a useless gnomon. Suddenly the horse neighs, nearly jerking me out of my seat, and scaring me fearfully in the dread silence. Then he turns his head round towards me, and the large full eyes seem to interrogate me uneasily. Fear is catching, and I am fast becoming uneasy also, if not positively alarmed. What if we are really lost in this pathless waste of sand and scrub? Could I but tell how to shape a course we might soon reach one or other of the low ranges of sand-hills which skirt the Suez desert. But should we fail to hit the rising ground, our strength might be exhausted, and escape still more uncertain. Oh! for one breath of air! A moistened finger, when held aloft, sometimes gives a clue, by its cool side, to the direction of the wind; but my throat and lips are parched, and I begin to experience the sensation of extreme thirst. There are no pebbles, but I have bullets in the stock of my carbine, and one of them gives some relief, and, what is still better, helps me to an idea. What if I draw the charge and flash off a pinch of powder? The smoke must go somewhere, and the reverse of its course ought to be northerly if my friends on the Red Sea are making any “way.” The Arab starts, but does not break away, and the little white cloud ascends for a second, and then meeting an upper current is borne slowly away from us. I determine to follow the opposite direction, feeling sure that if we could steer northward we must ere long reach the hills on which were still standing the old deserted stations of the telegraph formerly in use between Cairo and Suez. So I concentrated into one short cheering speech all that remained to me of confidence and hope, and patting the glossy head which had sought my own with instinctive desire of companionship, I once more got into the saddle, and started off at a brisk trot.

We speedily cleared the grass, and in a short time I saw rising ground far ahead of us. But a long and trying interval elapsed before I made out either of the old wooden towers; not, indeed, until we were nearly close upon one, for sight had been sorely taxed in the glare and my own anxiety. The rickety affair was soon gained, and tying the Arab to one of its sun-cracked timbers, in a minute I had reached the top, and was eagerly peering round for No. 5 Station, which I hoped to find very near it. There it was, sure enough, and just below me as it were, but with its mud walls and roof so assimilated in colour to the surrounding sand that it took me some time to recognise it. To mount the now willing horse and gain the station was the work of a few minutes. Then I roused the sleepy old bawaub or doorkeeper, and, clutching his goolah, drained from it the most welcome draught that I ever remember to have tasted. Never did juice of princely grape or humble “malt” confer such unalloyed satisfaction as that pint of tepid, highly-flavoured Nile-water! Then the bonnie Arab and I dined together off horse-beans and tank-water, and, exhausted by the combined effects of heat, fatigue, and excitement, laid ourselves down side by side on the same bed of straw, to sleep.

But not for long. My own safety confirmed, I remembered Selim and my carpet-bag. Had the old bawaub seen aught of them? Not he. Then perhaps he thought it possible that the dromedary might have bolted with Selim, and Selim with the bag? The old fellow thought it extremely likely, and evidently wondered at my simplicity in presupposing any other contingency. Had the overland travellers passed Suez-ward? They had not. Under these circumstances, and becoming really uneasy about my valuables, I despatched the old man, whose eyes—if more ancient—could read long distances better than mine, to reconnoitre from the summit of the telegraph, in the vague hope of descrying the absentees. A nine-piastre piece put vigour into his wasted legs, and as he hobbled off I lay down to sleep once more.

Sleep, however, came not; for the carpet-bag I have before-mentioned, was the depository of nearly all my worldly possessions, and contained not only a round sum in English gold, but certain papers of value. Hence my anxiety and self-reproach that I should so readily have entrusted it to a stranger. The only ground for reassurance lay in the hope that I might be known to the man as being connected with Waghorn & Co., in which case my property would be respected; so I took a long pull at the bawaub’s cocoanut-pipe, and was busily cogitating amidst its potent fumes, when I was startled by a loud knock at the great wooden door of the stable, of which I had put up the bar at the old man’s departure. There were no key-holes to peep through, but as a knock at a desert-door is comparatively of rare occurrence, I may be pardoned if I confess that I hesitated to open it until I had taken a good look through the aperture at the bottom. The sight I thus witnessed was by no means reassuring, for I counted at a rough estimate as many as two score of hoofs, revealing the presence of something like a dozen mounted Bedaweens. As these wanderers of the desert—albeit, generally honest—do not always respect the law of meum and tuum, I loosened the bolt, and, making a virtue of necessity, met my surprised guests with a finished salaam, backed with my entire repertory of courteous Arab phrases. As the visit of my new friends was rather to Waghorn’s beans and tanks than to the old bawaub, I deemed it politic thus to receive them, and by offering such refreshment as the stable afforded, ingratiate myself with these often very rough customers. My procedure was eminently successful. We drank healths and long shadows to each other in the dirty water, and passed the fragrant “gibel” from one to the other whilst the horses crunched the beans. In fact, we soon established a confidence so mutual that I was induced to impart to them my anxiety about Selim. Then I had to give full particulars as to the fellàh’s dress, and the colour of his turban and dromedary, with the direction he might be supposed to be taking, &c. And, as a last resource, I ventured on a slight allusion to the bag, and dwelt upon the fact of my being an agent of the “Overland,” when, to my great delight, a swarthy rascal exploded with a loud “Fi, fi!” (Fee, fee! it is—it is,) and assured me that he had “spoken” a solitary dromedarian bearing before him a burden like that I had described (he omitted to add that he had carefully overhauled it), and that, as he had taken a course far south of the usual track, and was going steadily towards No. 4 Station, I should probably find him there awaiting me. This was good news indeed, and the old doorkeeper having returned, I decided to start forthwith. The Bedaweens saddled and bridled for me the now recruited Arab, and amid a shower of good wishes, I galloped off from the relai. Nor did I draw bridle until I had reached the one solitary tree under whose leafless branches Napoleon and Bourrienne made their famous desert picnic. Giving it good lee-way, for this singular prodigy of vegetation now bears a ragged and not particularly well-scented fruit,[1] I approached the centre station, of which I could now see the lights, evening having closed in during my ten-mile ride. The dogs and live-stock round and about the place had already become aware of the approach of a stranger, and my arrival was heralded by a babel of bark and cackle that was thoroughly cheering after my forced solitude.

So I discharged my carbine to add to the general uproar, and in half-an-hour afterwards was amusing myself with one of the most noisy of the turkey-cocks in the company of the faithful Selim and my carpet-bag.

S. B.

  1. Those among the poor who pass this tree on their pilgrimage to Mecca, hang among its branches, as votive offerings, some portion of their garments.