My Apingi Kingdom - Paul du Chaillu
DEPARTURE.—A CARAVAN.—APPEARANCE OF THE PEOPLE.—RIDING A CAMEL.—I AM CAMEL-SICK.—WELLS IN THE SAND.
I was obliged to wait so long for a caravan that I began to feel somewhat fearful that I should have to leave the Senegal country without a visit to the Great Desert; but at last the opportunity arrived. An excursion was arranged with which I was to go, which would at least take me to the borders of the Sahara. While waiting for my companions to get ready, I usually employed my afternoons in walking along the shore till I came to a spot where nothing was before me but the ocean sparkling in the sunlight. Not a soul was ever within sight. Behind me lay an ocean of barren sand, so loose that it was most difficult and fatiguing to walk through it. How strangely the wind whispered as it blew from that immense extent of scorching desert! The landscape was gloomy and forlorn, and had a most depressing influence over me. Between the sad murmurs of the wind, and the solemn and monotonous noise of the waves as they broke on the shore, I could not tell which was the most melancholy sound to hear. But still I loved to seat myself on the edge, if I may so term it, of the Great Desert, and have before me the wide Atlantic; for then thoughts of home would come over me, and many memories of the dear friends I had left behind.
A CARAVAN OF MOORS.
At last, when my patience was almost exhausted, the preparations for our trip were finished, and the day of departure came. The caravan was going somewhere far to the north, and was to follow the line of the sea-shore; and it was arranged that a certain number of men were to remain with me whenever I chose to stay behind for the purpose of hunting, for I did not intend to go with them to the end of their journey. I only wanted to enjoy the novelty of real desert life for a little while.
The men were mounted on a great variety of animals, camels, horses, and donkeys; and when offered my choice, I selected a camel, having never ridden one in my life. Every man was armed with a double-barreled flint-lock gun, and some had pistols and swords. The party was accompanied by a marabout (Mohammedan priest); he was a strange-looking old man, with a white beard, and seemed to be very much venerated by the people.
We had with us all that was necessary for a camp. Our tents were made of the coarse cotton cloth manufactured by the people, and for beds we had soft tanned leather mats. For myself, I had bought a splendid rug, made by the Moors, exceedingly soft, the material of which was young calves' skins.
One splendid morning, immediately after our Mohammedan priest had recited his prayers, we set out, and I must say that there was something very picturesque in our departure. The men all wore broad-brimmed hats and loose barbaric costumes; some were mounted on small, hardy donkeys, others on horses, and a very few on camels. Other beasts were loaded with provisions and goods which were to be taken to the Moors.
My camel was made to kneel down by his master to enable me to climb upon his back. I was told that he was very gentle and docile. I must have looked queer enough with that immense straw hat on my head, my double-barreled gun over my shoulder, my pistols hanging by my side, and a huge hunting-knife, as sharp almost as a razor, the bright steel of which shone splendidly as the rays of the sun struck upon it.
A camel-saddle is a queer-looking affair, and as for the riding, I must say I did not like the camel's jolting gait very much.
Our road lay along the barren and shadeless sea-shore, and gradually the sun reminded me that the day was advancing, and that it was getting hot. The glare on the white sand and the reflection from the sea were very painful to the eyes, and I did not wonder that ophthalmy was so prevalent among the people there. It became positively unbearable as the day wore on, in despite of my big broad-brimmed hat, and at length I put over my face a very thick green veil with which I had happily provided myself, and for which I was very thankful. After, riding some time I began to feel a queer sensation in my stomach. The long, swinging strides of my camel, to which, of course, I was not accustomed, did not seem to agree with me, and I was beginning to feel symptoms of sea-sickness. "What," said I to myself, "sea-sick on the back of a camel!" There was no mistake about it. It was a kind of camel-sickness. The men had a good laugh at me; but I tried to fight it down, and after a while succeeded, just as I was on the point of giving up friend camel and betaking myself to the back of a high-spirited donkey, on which I had fixed my eyes before we started. He was a beauty of his kind; but I was told that he was a very obstinate creature when he took it into his head to be so. After all, I did not find that my camel was such a gentle and docile animal as I had been told. I thought it was pretty obstinate.
By noon the air became very hot, and the sand was so scorching that it would have been no fun to walk through it barefooted. We were going very slowly, and toward four o'clock we thought we would pitch our tents and encamp for the night. A spot by the sea-shore was chosen for a site, and then the people began to busy themselves in digging holes in the sand about high-water mark. I did not know at first what they were doing this for, but soon discovered that they were digging wells. These were six or seven feet in diameter, and, as the sand was very loose, the workmen were constantly hindered by the caving in of the sides; but, in spite of this drawback, the wells in a short time were completed to a depth of about six feet, when water began to show itself, as they had dug below the level of the sea. In two wells the water was brackish, while in two others it tasted quite fresh and sweet. We kept one for ourselves, and made the approach to the other accessible for our beasts. The poor creatures, suffering from thirst, came and drank so greedily that twice they had to be driven back to let the water come in again, they having completely emptied the well.
These rude wells are very useful, and, if properly protected by iron tubes, would be of immense benefit. This manner of digging wells is the usual method of getting water by the sea-shore.
Mohammedans are always very devout, and a little before sunset all the people became quiet, and listened reverently while the marabout prayed aloud. Afterward they seated themselves cross-legged on the sand, with their faces turned toward the setting sun, saying their evening prayer to Allah, whose sole prophet they believed to be Mohammed. Then the camels and other animals, so tethered as to prevent their straying far from camp, were turned loose to graze on the scanty herbage that grew here and there along the shore. The evening meal was eaten with good appetite, and after this important duty was dispatched I took a solitary stroll along the beach to watch the camels feeding. As I observed these faithful, patient, and docile creatures, I could not help thinking how bountiful and wonderful is Nature in providing for man's wants in the different countries of the world. Every where animals are found adapted for the mode of life required according to the formation and climate of the country. In desert and arid lauds, where food is scarce, and even water is far from being abundant, the camel is found, and proves to be the best friend of man. Not only can this animal go several days without drinking as it crosses the great Sahara, but the milk of the female camel furnishes her master with drink. Many a wanderer's life has been saved in that manner. As for food, the camel will be satisfied with the parched grass, the scraggy vines, or the dry branches of the stunted trees found in the desert, or a few handfuls of grain or dry dates. I do not wonder that the natives love their camels, for what would they do in that desert country without them?
How is it that the camel, unlike other animals, can go so long a time without drinking water? I will tell you. In its stomach are a great number of deep cells into which the water passes when the camel drinks, and is then prevented from escaping by a muscle which closes the mouth of the cells. When the camel feels thirsty, it has the power of using some of this reserved store of water. The natives say that when a camel has been accustomed to a certain route, he knows exactly how long to keep this supply of water to make it last from one well or spring to another. Hence there is sometimes danger of a camel's suffering from thirst, and even dying, if a long journey is to be performed over a route with which he is unacquainted. The camel's feet are broad, and so constructed that they present a broad surface to the desert sands, to prevent his sinking into it too deeply. Their knees are hard and horny, from the habit of kneeling down to be loaded and unloaded.
The Moors come frequently down to the banks of the Senegal River with an imposing array of camels, loaded with gum arabic. The sight of one of these caravans is curious and picturesque, as may be seen by the illustration on another page.