CHAPTER VI. THE DESERT.
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Equipage for crossing the Desert - Donkey-chairs - Sense of calmness and
tranquillity on entering the Desert - Nothing dismal in its
aspect - The Travellers' Bungalow - Inconvenient construction of these
buildings - Kafila of the Governor of Jiddah and his Lady - Their
Equipage - Bedouins - Impositions practised on Travellers - Desert
Travelling not disagreeable - Report of the sailing of the
Steamer - Frequency of false reports - Ease with which an infant of
the party bore the journey - A wheeled carriage crossing the
Desert - Parties of Passengers from Suez encountered - One of Mr. Hill's
tilted Caravans - Difficulty of procuring water at the Travellers'
Bungalow - A night in the Desert - Magnificent sunrise - First sight
of the Red Sea and the Town of Suez - Miserable appearance of the
latter - Engagement of a Passage to Bombay.
We found the equipages in which we were to cross the desert waiting for us at the City of Tombs. They consisted of donkey-chairs, one being provided for each of the females of the party, while my friend Miss E. had also an extra donkey, with a saddle, to ride upon occasionally. Nothing could be more comfortable than these vehicles; a common arm-chair was fastened into a sort of wooden tray, which projected in front about a foot, thereby enabling the passenger to carry a small basket or other package; the chairs were then slung by the arms to long bamboos, one upon either side, and these, by means of ropes or straps placed across, were fastened upon the backs of donkeys, one in front, the other, behind. Five long and narrow vehicles of this kind, running across the desert, made a sufficiently droll and singular appearance, and we did nothing but admire each other as we went along. The movement was delightfully easy, and the donkeys, though not travelling at a quick pace, got on very well. Our cavalcade consisted besides of two stout donkeys, which carried the beds and carpet-bags of the whole party, thus enabling us to send the camels a-head: the three men-servants were also mounted upon donkeys, and there were three or four spare ones, in case any of the others should knock up upon the road. In this particular it is proper to say that we were cheated, for had such an accident occurred, the extra-animals were so weak and inefficient, that they could not have supplied the places of any of those in use. There were eight or ten donkey-men, and a boy; the latter generally contrived to ride, but the others walked by the side of the equipages.
In first striking into the desert, we all enjoyed a most delightful feeling of repose; every thing around appeared to be so calm and tranquil, that, especially after encountering the noises and multitudes of a large and crowded city, it was soothing to the mind thus to emerge from the haunts of men and wander through the vast solitudes that spread their wastes before us. To me there was nothing dismal in the aspect of the desert, nor was the view so boundless as I had expected.
In these wide plains, the fall of a few inches is sufficient to diversify the prospect; there is always some gentle acclivity to be surmounted, which cheats the sense with the expectation of finding a novel scene beyond: the sand-hills in the distance also range themselves in wild and fantastic forms, many appearing like promontories jutting out into some noble harbour, to which the traveller seems to be approaching. Nor were there wanting living objects to animate the scene; our own little kafila was sufficiently large and cheerful to banish every idea of dreariness, and we encountered others much more picturesque.
Soon after losing sight of the tombs, we came upon a party who had bivouac'd for the night; the camels, unladen, were, with their burthens, placed in a circle, and the people busily employed in preparing their evening meal. Other evidences there were, however, to show that the toils of the desert were but too frequently fatal to the wretched beasts of burthen employed in traversing these barren wastes; the whitened bones of camels and donkeys occurred so frequently, as to serve to indicate the road.
Our first stage was the shortest of the whole, and we came to the rest-house, or travellers' bungalow, just as night closed in, and long before I entertained any idea that we should have been able to reach it, travelling as we did at an easy walk. The bungalow was not yet completed, which we found rather an advantage, since it seems to be exceedingly questionable whether the buildings erected for the accommodation of travellers on the track to Suez will be habitable even for a few hours in the course of another year. The funds of the Steam-committee have been lamentably mismanaged in this instance. However, there being no windows, we were enabled to enjoy the fresh air, and the room we occupied, not having been long whitewashed, was perfectly clean.