CHAPTER XIII: TO THE RAILROAD
WE were well cared for at Djidda. The sick and wounded found shelter and attention in a comparatively good military hospital. A difficult point for me to settle now, was how it was best to proceed on our way. I had learned that the Bedouins who had attacked us were in the service of the English, a fact to which the modern English rifles with which they were equipped, attested. The way out of Djidda by sea was also closed to us. During the day we could distinctly see the mast tops of the English blockaders now and again. Nevertheless, I decided to continue our journey in zambuks. It appeared to me that the way by water offered greater possibilities of success than to travel by land.
The first step to be taken was to spread abroad the report that we intended to go overland. Meanwhile, very secretly, I provided myself with a zambuk and a good pilot. On account of the wounded it was necessary to remain in Djidda for some days. The eighth of April was the day set for our departure. In the harbor at Djidda there was a motorboat in which I made a trip of inspection as far out to sea as possible. I saw no sign of the English. Did they believe in the rumored land journey?
On the night between the eighth and ninth of April the wind was in our favor, and we ran out. We met much better conditions than when we ran the English blockade upon leaving Hodeida. The wind held steady all through the night, and when the sun rose, we were out of sight of the blockading Englishmen. I hugged the shore with my zambuk as well as I could, and took advantage of every reef to creep behind it, and so increase the difficulty of our capture by any possible pursuers. Our progress was slow but sure. We stopped for a short time, generally not more than a few hours, at several little coast towns to inquire for news, and to purchase fresh provisions. The pilot we had taken with us from Djidda was thoroughly familiar with the waters through which he was conducting us, and spoke English very well. We lay at anchor at night, as the reefs rendered navigation impossible in the dark. At Sherm Rabigh I had to change zambuks, as the one I had procured at Djidda proved to be too weak. Our new zambuk had first of all to be ballasted with sand, as, without either cargo or ballast, the ship could not carry sail.
Our anchoring, in the evening, was always a peculiar manoeuvre. In the proper sense of the word anchoring, it was not such at all. The coral reefs between which we were sailing fell off abruptly all round into a great depth of water. The anchoring proceeded in this way: We ran to within a few meters of the coral reefs, where we took down all sails. Two Arabs, standing ready at the bow, then jumped overboard, each one carrying with him a light rope to which iron hooks were attached. These iron hooks were bored into the cavities of the coral formation just below the surface of the water. And so we lay for the night. This was not always pleasant however, for when the wind shifted, there was danger that it would blow us onto the coral formation to which we had made fast.
On our way to the north we passed several boats sailing in the opposite direction. It is the custom in Arabia for boatmen, in passing, to greet each other with a sort of howl. The Arabs in the boats we met were always amazed to hear, as they sailed by us, the howling of their countrymen in our zambuk energetically supplemented by fifty vigorous voices.
We found practically no coast population along the entire way, but occasionally we met, far out at sea, a little dugout carrying an Arab or two engaged in fishing. We always hailed these fishermen, and traded rice for fish with them.
Our way northward took us past Mecca. It is the custom with Arabs, when at their prayers five times a day, to face toward their Holy City, and to touch their foreheads to the ground in that direction. So it came about that during the first days of our sailing, the Arabs in our zambuk would stand facing toward the bows, then, later, to starboard, and finally they faced aft.
Without meeting with any special difficulties we reached Sherm Munnaiburra on the twenty-eighth day of April. This is a little sheltered bay about ten nautical miles south of our intended point of destination, El Wegh. From this bay onward our course lay without the shelter of the reefs, and deep water ran close to the shore. We had now been fighting our way onward for nearly six months, and there prevailed among us a general disinclination to trust ourselves to a sailboat over this last short stretch that might prove dangerous to us on our journey. For this reason we cast anchor at Sherm Munnaiburra, to go overland to El Wegh.
Our coming had been made known to the local authorities by messengers despatched overland, who had arrived before us. A few gendarmes had therefore been sent to the coast to meet us. We got hold of one of them while we were still in the harbor, and sent him out to find camels for us. Before the night had passed, we could see from where we lay, a number of little watch fires burning here and there along the shore, an indication that the animals for our caravan were assembling.
When we rode off on the following day, we took with us nothing more than our arms, and provisions sufficient for one day only. Everything else was left on the zambuk, to take its chances by sea. Fortunately, the zambuk reached its destination without sighting a single hostile ship. On the evening of the twenty-ninth day of April we were in El Wegh.
The first thing we did here was to get a good bath, and a good sleep. Here, too, we at last had an opportunity to change our underclothing and have it washed, for it required two days to get the necessary camels together at El Wegh.
On the second of May, at eight o'clock in the morning, we began our march. Here in the north, the camels traveled differently than in the south, where, as has been described, they were all tied together so as to form one long line. This is not the custom in the north, where every animal goes along by itself, and must be guided by its own rider. At first this proved a difficult task for my men, but before long they had their camels so well in hand that the caravan could be kept together quite well. We were conducted on our way by Suleiman, Sheikh of El Wegh.
At first our road lay through the desert with which we were all too familiar. But very soon we came to a mountain region, and passed some charming scenery. The water conditions also were far better than those we had found in the desert. The wells were better kept, and furnished water that was at least drinkable, although not absolutely clean. That we should see running water when we reached the mountain ridge was announced to us by our Arab escort, days before we got there, as a matter of special interest and wonder. If any of us were anticipating the pleasure of bathing in a mountain torrent, our hopes were certainly doomed to disappointment. To be sure, the water in the tiny rivulet that we saw did move, but any one of us could easily have stopped its flow for some time, by stepping into it with both feet.
Up here in the mountains, where it was cooler, we marched by day, and rested at night. Because of our bitter experience in the desert, we made it our habit to intrench ourselves every evening before going to sleep, much to the astonishment of our Arab escort. But we had finally reached the point where we doubted that anybody was to be trusted. Our fortifications were usually very quickly thrown up, as we had brought with us spades enough for all. And so, each evening saw a small fortified camp arise in the wilderness, and from out its ramparts our four machine guns protruded threateningly. Within our fortifications no watch fire was allowed, but the immediate region all round our camp was well lighted by fires kept burning by our sentinels. We slept, as usual, with loaded rifles in our arms. Comfort was not a prominent feature in this sort of camp. The nights were very cold. The well men among us frequently gave their blankets to the sick, that they might be kept warm. But those of us who had none did not mind it, but followed the old rule which runs: "Lie down on your back and cover yourself with your belly."
The domain of our conductor, Suleiman Pasha, did not extend quite to El Ula, from whence we expected to go by the Hejaz Railroad. just before reaching El Ula we had to cross territory that was controlled by another sheikh, one who was at emnity with our friend, and who was illy disposed toward us because we had not hired camels of him for the last four hours of our march, while passing through his territory.
Under these circumstances it was quite possible that we still might have to break our way through by force of arms. Suleiman Pasha also seemed to regard something of this kind as probable. On each day, and from every direction in the mountains, small bands of his adherents joined him, until our caravan had gradually attained a total strength of some four hundred men. It was a most picturesque scene we looked upon as these Bedouins marched along, carrying long Arab flintlocks, clad in their loosely flowing brown garments, and with fluttering bright bead-cloths. If, on the preceding days, we had been the only ones to be cautious enough to intrench, it was now Suleiman Pasha himself who adopted this measure, an evidence to us that it might yet be made pretty hot for us. That night we made special efforts to be well prepared. But it passed without disturbance of any kind.
We were now only one day's journey distant from a railroad station. Our way lay over a high mountain region. We wound along through narrow passes that seemed just fitted for an attack. Through these defiles but one camel could pass at a time, with the result, that the caravan stretched away in so long a line that it could hardly be kept together under the command of one leader. To guard against any possible surprise, Suleiman had organized a regular reconnoitering service, which, in its wonderful efficiency, was worthy of admiration. Perhaps it was also an evidence that he had frequent need of it. Little patrols, mounted on camels, rushed at a full gallop into every mountain valley, emerged on the other side of the mountain, made their observations, reported, and returned to their places in the caravan.
When we were but a few hours' march distant from El Ula, letters were brought to us. They had been sent to inform us that the angry sheikh who, we had supposed, would attack us, was at the time embroiled in a fight farther to the north, and that we could therefore continue on our way without fear of being molested.
Upon receipt of this information I decided to ride ahead of the caravan, so as to get to the telegraph station at El Ula as soon as possible, order a special train, and make arrangements for the comfort of my men. I was accompanied by Suleiman Pasha, his two sons, and several other dignitaries. We rode at a sharp trot, and covered the last stretch of the journey in a few hours. We had all come to be on very friendly terms with our Sheikh and his two sons, although our means of conversation were very limited. All three of them showed the greatest interest when, on arriving at the summit of the mountain range, from whence the white houses of El Ula could be seen gleaming out from among the palm trees, I took out my binoculars to get sight at last of a telegraph wire and a railroad. Glasses of this kind are as yet unknown in this region. Each of my Arab friends wanted to get at least one look through them, and so the glasses passed from hand to hand. With every change of hands, the glasses were given an extra turn. How much the last one could see, I can not say.
In order to impress our Arab escort at the very outset with the efficiency of our weapons, I had, some days previously, given Suleiman Pasha, to his great astonishment, an illustration of what our machine guns were capable of in the way of firing. He was eager to be allowed himself to press the button, and manifested a surprised delight when the gun, which we had got ready for him beforehand, fired an unbroken succession of shots, and brought down pieces of stone from the cliffs at which it was aimed. As all weapons are subjects of great interest to Arabs, I presented Suleiman Pasha and each of his sons with a revolver and the necessary ammunition for it. In addition, I promised to send them a binocular from Germany.
As we were riding across a wide plateau which stretched beyond the limits of our vision, I utilized this opportunity to impress upon the Pasha an idea of Germany's greatness. To his amazement he was told that German warships, when engaged in battle, could fire upon the enemy from a distance considerably greater than the breadth of the plain we were then traversing. Although this was a slight exaggeration, for the tableland stretched from horizon to horizon, it produced the desired effect. The size of the guns from which these shots were fired, I pictured to him by saying that a sheep could easily run through the barrel of any one of them.
Toward noon we arrived at El Ula, and, much to my surprise, everything was in readiness for us. A special train stood waiting for us, its engine all ready for the order to light the fires. This order was not long delayed.
Two German gentlemen and a number of Turkish officers had come to meet us; letters and news from the colonies in Syria were awaiting us. We were treated to chilled Rhine wine, champagne, peaches, and other delicacies of which we had long been deprived. Being given the choice between a glass of wine and a bath, I chose the former. Why depart so suddenly from a familiar habit to which one had faithfully adhered for weeks past?
A few hours later my men arrived. I rode out a short distance to meet them. With flag flying, and cameras pointed at us from every side, we marched together into the little town where a railroad and a waiting room gave us the first indication that we were returning to civilization. An abundant meal, a greater abundance to drink, and a quick bath (after all!) occupied the next few hours. Then the train moved northward at the wonderful speed of thirty kilometers an hour, and we could yield our weary limbs to the comfort of red-cushioned seats, a luxury long denied us.