Friday, July 15, 2011

Camel Skeletons II


I've finally started reading Samuel W. Baker's book The Nile Tributaries of Abyssinia. And I'm wondering why it took me so long to begin reading this book, because it's packed with useful information about trekking through the desert.

Baker was one of the Victorian explorers, by the way—a contemporary of Burton and Speke. Baker mentions that his intrepid wife came with him. Being a man, and therefore obtuse in certain areas, he neglects to mention what sort of clothes she was wearing. So, at one point, where she is suffering from what today we would probably call heat exhaustion if not heat stroke, we can't tell whether or not her clothes were partly to blame. On the other hand, perhaps Baker doesn't mention her clothes because he is drawing a veil over certain common-sense improprieties in her desert get-up.

Baker's account of crossing the Nubian desert (in today's southern Egypt/Northern Sudan) is full of dead camels, of course. He refers to "withered heaps of parched skin and bone…; the dry desert air had converted the hide into a coffin."

He answers my question about garbage disposal in the desert: "There were no flies here, thus there were no worms to devour the carcases; but the usual sextons were the crows, although sometimes too few to perform their office." The crows perched on the cliffs, and presumably found shelter there. I doubt that you would even find crows in the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Desert. Time and desiccation alone would do the necessary work.

Baker counted an average of about 8 dead camels per mile. Camel carcases [using Baker's British spelling] are more abundant near the watering hole, since the camels keep going somehow until they reach water, and then revive or die. In the hottest part of the desert, there are sometimes heaps of half a dozen dead camels.

For some bizarre reason, Baker was crossing the desert in midsummer. It's so hot that the water evaporates at an alarming rate through the pores of its animal-skin containers. In one of the chapters of my WIP (work in progress), the men drink a little date wine. This will have to be changed. If water evaporates in desert heat, then volatile alcohol doesn't have a chance.

The above information is taken from pages 10, 11 & 13 of Baker's book. [I have omitted a tale of collective self-destructive behavior induced by a mirage. Not on Baker's expedition, though!] The edition is an e-book (Barnes & Noble), which does not include any of the original publication information.

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