Wilfred Thesiger: “The First Crossing of the Empty Quarter”

“The departure of five Bait Kathir leaves me
with a party of only four. We are short of
food and water. We cross the Uruq al Shaiba
and arrive at Khaba well near Liwa Oasis.”

The Bait Kathir helped us to load our camels. We said good-bye, picked up our rifles, and set off, passing the bush where bin Kabina and I had sat the day before. The plants he had collected to show me still lay there, withered on the ground. It seemed a long time ago.

The Rashid took the lead, their faded brown clothes harmonizing with the sands: al Auf, a lean, neat figure, very upright; bin Kabina, more loosely built, striding beside him. The two Bait Kathir followed close behind, with the spare camel tied to Musallim’s saddle. Their clothes, which had once been white, had become neutral-coloured from long usage. Mabkhaut was the same build as al Auf, whom he resembled in many ways, though he was a less forceful character. In the distance he was distinguishable from him only by the colour of his shirt. Musallim, compactly built, slightly bow-legged, and physically tough, was of a different, coarser breed. The least likeable of my companions, his personality had suffered from too frequent sojourns in Salala and he tended to be ingratiating.

After a short distance al Auf suggested that, as he did not know what we should find to the north, it would be wise to halt near by, with the Bait Imani, to allow our camels a further day’s grazing. The Arabs, he added, would give us milk so that we need not touch our food and water. I answered that he was our guide and that from now on such decisions must rest with him.

Two hours later we saw a small boy, dressed in the remnants of a loin-cloth and with long hair falling down his back, herding camels. He led us to the Bait Imani camp, where three men sat round the embers of a fire. They rose as we approached. ‘Salam Alaikum’, ‘Alaikum as Salam’, and then, after we had exchanged, the news, they handed us a bowl of milk, its surface crusted with brown sand. These Bait Imani belonged to the same section of the Rashid as al Auf and bin Kabina and were from three different families. Only one of them, a grizzled elderly man called Khuatim, wore a shirt over his loin-cloth, and all were bareheaded. They bad no tent; their only possessions were saddles, ropes, bowls, empty goatskins, and their rifles and daggers. The camping ground was churned and furrowed where the camels slept, and littered with camel droppings, hard and clean on the sand like dried dates. These men were cheerful and full of talk. The grazing was good; their camels, several in milk, would soon be fat. Life by their standards would be easy this year, but I thought of other years when the exhausted scouts rode back to the wells to speak through blackened, bleeding lips of desolation in the Sands, of emptyness such as I myself had seen on the way here from Ghanim; when the last withered plants were gone and walking skeletons of men and beasts sank down to die. Even tonight, when they considered themselves well off, these men would sleep naked on the freezing sand, covered only with their flimsy loin-cloths. I thought, too, of the bitter wells in the furnace heat of summer, when, hour by reeling hour, they watered thirty, thrusting camels, until at last the wells ran dry and importunate camels moaned for water which was not there. I thought how desperately hard were the lives of the Bedu in this weary land, and how gallant and how enduring was their spirit. Now, listening to their talk and watching the little acts of courtesy, which they instinctively performed, I knew by comparison how sadly I must fail, how selfish I must prove.

THE BAIT IMANI TALKED of Mahsin and of the accident which had befallen him, asking endless questions. Then Khuatim shouted to the small herdsboy, his son, to fetch the yellow four-year-old and the old grey which was still in milk. When the boy had brought them, Khuatim told him to couch them and loosed the hobbles from our bull’s forelegs. Already the bull was excited, threshing itself with its tail, grinding its teeth, or blowing a large pink air sac from its mouth and sucking it back with a slobbering sound. Clumsily it straddled the yellow camel, a comic figure of ill-directed lust, while Khuatim, kneeling beside it, tried to assist. Bin Kabina observed to me, ‘Camels would never manage to mate without human help. They would never get it in the right place.’ I was thankful that there were no more than these two camels to be served; there might have been a dozen to exhaust our bull.

The boy brought in the rest of the herd, thirty-five of them, at sunset. Khuatim washed his hands beneath a staling camel and scrubbed out the bowls with sand, for Bedu believe that a camel will go dry if milked with dirty hands or into a bowl which was soiled with food, especially meat or butter. He stroked a camel’s udder, talking to her and encouraging her to let down her milk, and then standing on one leg, with his right foot resting on his left knee, he milked her into a bowl which he balanced on his right thigh. She gave about two quarts; several of the others, however, gave less than a quart. There were nine of these camels in milk. Al Auf milked Qamaiqam, bin Kabina’s camel. She had given us a quart twice a day at Mughshin, but now from hard work and lack of food she only gave about a pint.

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After milking, the Bait Imani couched their camels for the night, tying their knees to prevent them from rising. Al Auf told us to leave ours out to graze, adding that he would keep an eye on them. Our hosts brought us milk, We blew the froth aside and drank deep; they urged us to drink more, saying, ‘You will find no milk in the sands ahead of you. Drink – drink. You are our guests. God brought you here – drink.’ I drank again, knowing even as I did so that they would go hungry and thirsty that night, for they had nothing else, no other food and no water. Then while we crouched over the fire bin Kabina made coffee. The chill wind whispered among the shadowy dunes, and fingered us through our clothes and through the blankets which we wrapped about us. They talked till long after the moon had set, of camels and grazing, of journeys across the Sands, of raids and blood feuds and of the strange places and people they had seen when they had visited the Hadhramaut and Oman.

In the morning bin Kabina went with one of the Bait Imani to collect our camels, and when he came back I noticed he was no longer wearing a loin-cloth under his shirt. I asked him where it was and he said that he had given it away. I protested that he could not travel without one through the inhabited country beyond the Sands and in Oman, and that I had no other to give him. I said he must recover it and gave him some money for the man instead. He argued that he could not do this. ‘What use will money be to him in the Sands. He wants a loin-cloth,’ he grumbled, but at length he went off to do as I had told him.

Meanwhile the other Bait Imani had brought us bowls of milk which al Auf poured into a small goatskin. He said we could mix a little every day with our drinking water and that this would improve its taste, a custom which enables Arabs who live in the Sands to drink from wells which would otherwise be undrinkable. They call this mixture of sour milk and water shanin. When we had finished this milk a week later we found in the bottom of the skin a lump of butter, the size of a walnut and colourless as lard. Al Auf also poured a little milk into another skin which was sweating, explaining that this would make it waterproof.

Then, wishing our hosts the safe keeping of God, we turned away across the Sands. As he walked along, al Auf held out his hands, palms upwards, and recited verses from the Koran. The sand was still very cold beneath our feet. Usually, when they are in the Sands during the winter or summer, Arabs wear socks knitted from coarse black hair. None of us owned these socks and our heels were already cracking from the cold. Later these cracks became deeper and very painful. We walked for a couple of hours, and then rode till nearly sunset; encouraging our camels to snatch mouthfuls from any plants they passed. They would hasten towards each one with their lower lips flapping wildly.

At first the dunes were brick-red in colour, separate mountains of sand, rising above ash-white gypsum flats ringed with vivid green salt-bushes; those we passed in the afternoon were even higher – 500 to 550 feet in height and honey- coloured. There was little vegetation here.

Musallim rode the black bull and led his own camel, which carried the two largest water- skins. Going down a steep slope the female hesitated. The head-rope attached to the back of Musallim’s saddle tightened and slowly pulled her over on to her side. I was some way behind and could see what was going to happen but there was no time to do anything. I shouted frantically at Musallim but he could not halt his mount on the slope. I prayed that the rope would break, and as I watched the camel collapse on top of the water-skins I thought, ‘Now we will never get across the Sands’. Al Auf was already on the ground slashing at the taut rope with his dagger. As I jumped from my saddle I wondered if we should have even enough water left to get back to Ghanim. The fallen camel kicked out, and as the rope parted heaved herself to her knees. The waterskins which had fallen from her back still seemed to be full. Hardly daring to hope I bent over them, as al Auf said ‘Praise be to God. They are all right,’ and the others reiterated ‘The praise be to God, the praise be to God!’ We reloaded them on the bull, which, bred in the sands, was accustomed to these slithering descents.

Later we came on some grazing and stopped for the night. We chose a hollow sheltered from the wind, unloaded the water-skins and saddle-bags, hobbled the camels, loosened the saddles on their backs and drove them off to graze.

At sunset al Auf doled out a pint of water mixed with milk to each person, our first drink of the day. As always, I had watched the sun getting lower, thinking ‘Only one more hour till I can drink’, while I tried to find a little saliva to moisten a mouth that felt like leather. Now I took my share of water without the milk and made it into tea, adding crushed cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, and cloves to the brew to disguise the taste.

Firewood could always be found, for there was no place in the Sands where rain had not fallen in the past, even if it was twenty or thirty years before. We could always uncover the long trailing roots of some dead shrub. These Arabs will not burn tribulus if they can find any other fuel, for zahra, ‘the flower’ as they call it, is venerated as the best of all food for their camels and has almost the sanctity of the date palm. I remember how I once threw a date- stone into the fire and old Tamtaim leant forward and picked it out.

BIN KABINA BREWED COFFEE. He had stripped off his shirt and head-cloth, and I said, ‘You couldn’t take your shirt off if I had not rescued your loin-cloth for you.’ He grinned, and said, ‘What could I do? He asked for it,’ and went over to help Musallim scoop flour out of a goatskin: four level mugfuls measured in a pint mug. This, about three pounds of flour, was our ration for the day and I reflected that there must be very few calories or vitamins in our diet. Yet no scratch festered or turned septic during the years I lived in the desert. Nor did I ever take precautions before drinking what water we found. Indeed, I have drunk unboiled water from wells, ditches, and drains all over the Middle East for twenty five years without ill-effect. Given a chance, the human body – mine at any rate – seems to create its own resistance to infection.

When Musallim had made bread, he called to al Auf and Mabkhaut, who were herding the camels. It was getting dark. Though a faint memory of the vanished day still lingered in the west, the stars were showing, and the moon cast shadows on the colourless sand. We sat in a circle round a small dish, muttered ‘in the name of God’, and in turn dipped fragments of bread into the melted butter. When we had fed, bin Kabina took the small brass coffee-pot from the fire and served us with coffee, a few drops each. Then we crouched round the fire and talked.

I was happy in the company of these men who had chosen to come with me. I felt affection for them personally, and sympathy with their way of life. But though the easy equality of our relationship satisfied me, I did not delude myself that I could be one of them. They were Bedu and I was not ; they were Muslims and I was a Christian. Nevertheless, I was their companion and an inviolable bond united us, as sacred as the bond between host and guest, transcending tribal and family loyalties. Because I was their companion on the road, they would fight in my defence even against their brothers and they would expect me to do the same.

But I knew that for me the hardest test would be to live with them in harmony and not to let my impatience master me; neither to withdraw into myself, nor to become critical of standards and ways of life different from my own. I knew from experience that the conditions under which we lived would slowly wear me down, mentally if not physically, and that I should be often provoked and irritated by my companions. I also knew with equal certainty that when this happened the fault would be mine, not theirs.

During the night a fox barked somewhere on the slopes above us. At dawn al Auf untied the camels, which he had brought in for the night, and turned them loose to graze. There would be no food till sunset, but bin Kabina heated what was left of the coffee. After we had travelled for an hour we came upon a patch of grazing freshened by a recent shower. Faced with the choice of pushing on or of feeding the camels al Auf decided to stop, and as we unloaded them he told us to collect bundles of tribulus to carry with us. I watched him scoop a hole in the sand to find out how deeply the rain had penetrated, in this case about three feet; he invariably did this wherever rain had fallen – if no plants had yet come up on which to graze the camels while we waited, we went on, leaving him behind to carry out his investigations. It was difficult to see what practical use this information about future grazing in the heart of the Empty Quarter could possibly be to him or to anyone else, and yet I realized that it was this sort of knowledge which made him such an exceptional guide. Later I lay on the sand and watched an eagle circling overhead. It was hot. I took the temperature in the shade of my body and found it was 84 degrees. It was difficult to believe that it had been down to 43 degrees at dawn. Already the sun had warmed the sand so that it burnt the soft skin round the sides of my feet.

At midday we went on, passing high, pale-coloured dunes, and others that were golden, and in the evening we wasted an hour skirting a great mountain of red sand, probably 650 feet in height. Beyond it we travelled along a salt-flat, which formed a corridor through the Sands. Looking back I fancied the great, red dune was a door which was slowly, silently closing behind us. I watched the narrowing gap between it and the dune on the other side of the corridor, and imagined that once it was shut we could never go back, whatever happened. The gap vanished and now I could see only a wall of sand. I turned back to the others and they were discussing the price of a coloured loin-cloth which Mabkhaut had bought in Salala before we started. Suddenly al Auf pointed to a camel’s track and said, ‘Those were made by my camel when I came this way on my way to Ghanim.’

Later Musallim and al Auf argued how far it was from Mughshin to Bai, where Tamtaim and the others were to wait for us. I asked al Auf if he had ever ridden from the Wadi al Amairi to Bai, He answered, ‘Yes, six years ago.’

‘How many days did it take?’

*An extract from Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger.
Sir Wilfred Thesiger (1910-2003) was probably the greatest traveller of the  twentieth century, and one of its greatest explorers. His travel writings and  autobiography A Life of My Choice (1987) have been hailed as  classics of travel literature, and his other publications, such as Desert,  Marsh and Mountain (1979), introduced many more people to his remarkable  archive of photography spanning over fifty years of travel. Source

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