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We started from Cairo by night. You can have an excellent dinner on the Wagons-lits, and the sleeping berths are ideal for a hot climate. There are only two in each room, and each room has a dressing-room off it with convenient washing arrangements. Further, for the sake of coolness, the partitions are made of plaited cane, which is hung over with leather screens in cold weather. And there are of course punkahs, and electric light. I have never been in better sleeping-carriages in Europe or America.
I understand that the carriages can be built more comfortable because they can be built wider, being intended for single-line traffic.
Before five o'clock in the morning the scene changed, like a magic-lantern slide, from the wagons-lits to pioneers' cabins in the desert. Dawn was breaking as we were shot out by the guard. The train was stopped for us, so he did not wish to waste time. A ghafir and about twenty other natives were crouching round a crackling fire, though it had been over a hundred in the shade in the middle of the day. It is always chilly at night in the desert. We were just on the edge of the desert, where cemeteries begin. The modern Egyptian continues the tradition of the Pharaohs in burying his dead on the edge of the desert. Only he prefers the eastern side as looking towards Mecca, and the children of Cheops prefered the western, because the souls of the dead were supposed to descend to the under-world in the west, like the sun. A light train, what they would call a secondaria in Italy, conveyed us to the base some minutes' distance away. We had been wondering what was going to happen to us as we were deposited on the platform by the flying express in the dusk of dawn, wondering where Mohammed, the Berberine dragoman, who was to take charge of us for the expedition, would put in his appearance. But our minds were soon at rest, for two immaculate Englishmen rushed across from the other train. It is wonderful how spruce the British pioneer in Egypt contrives to be, no matter how arduous his work. They might have just ridden in from a smart country-house. The Arabs they called seized our
baggage and put it into the oasis train as carefully as if it had been packed with wine-glasses and bank-notes, for they locked the van the moment it was in, and, after cordial greetings, we were escorted to a saloon carriage with plaited cane seats, and windows guarded with glass, fly-wires, and shutters.
At the base they had breakfast ready for us, with baconand-eggs and chops and several kinds of jam-a desert welcome. Commissariat is the Arab's strong point. The bungalow and cabins, in which the Englishmen stationed here live, are wonderfully neat and attractive-looking--they have even got a garden of sorts, which will soon blossom like a rose with their water-supply. The tomatoes are prodigal already. They reminded me of the tomatoes a friend of mine started on a station in Australia. He thought he would lay down a field of tomatoes to see how they did. They grew in such a thicket that you could only gather the fruit at the edges, for all the poisonous snakes in the neighbourhood collected in the tomato patch, because it was such a nice shady place; and snakes hate the sun in an Australian summer. One extra hot day in Melbourne all the snakes in the Zoo died because sufficient precautions had not been taken for keeping the snake-house cool. But that dangerous tomato-patch was a thing of beauty, for its ruddy fruit attracted clouds of the dear little love-birds, which Australians call budgery-gahs.
To return to the Kharga base: besides the garden, there are some fascinating enclosures of tame gazelles and jerboas. The jerboa is a sort of kangeroo-rat, which makes holes in the sand for horses to break their legs in-donkeys have too much sense. The bungalow of the manager had an avenue in front of it-a young avenue—and fine healthy shrubs in protected spaces round it. At that moment we saw him riding up, a soldierly figure in white on a beautiful Arab, from one of his perpetual inspections. His house and his verandah were full of interesting antiquities, chiefly Roman, found in making cuttings for the railway. As we had some time to kill before the train started, and
it could not start without us, we inspected these finds, and the engine-sheds and the repairing shops ; this little railway knows the importance of being independent in Egypt, where a man once attempted to charge me twenty-five shillings for putting a spring into a type-writer.
Outside the shed was a mysterious-looking object which may make the fortune of the inventive manager, or give him the fame of a Blériot-a desert ship, something on the lines of an ice-ship, with which he had already made flights with some success on the smooth desert, up and down the strong north wind. It would come in handy for the fly-districtthe tsetse-fly district-if the winds reach far enough and his success develops.
At last the train started. The time seemed long because we had been up so early, not because the train was late. The last thing we saw before we left the comparative civilisation of the base was a native cemetery. The next thing we saw was a mirage which gave us mountains. We were travelling in the manager's observation car, built up out of the centre of a carriage platform, as one of Gordon's gunboats was built up out of a penny steamer. It had an open sort of verandah at each end, and a dust-proof cabin in the centre, provided with tables and easy chairs.
The desert at first was flat and strewn with flints, but soon changed into low parallel valleys.
Suddenly we heard yells, and the Arab signalman at the back of the train began to swarm along the outside of our carriage like a monkey. In another second half the thirdclass passengers were out on the steps of their carriages. What was it all about? In any case the train stopped. We looked up and down the track, which was as straight as a Roman road. What was the matter? we asked the man in a scarlet sweater with W.O.R. on it, the thing most like an official which we carried on the train. He said the thief had jumped off. We wondered who the thief was, and why they had not tried to stop him, instead of gesticulating like maniacs. The man had got nearly half an hour's start by the time that they had tapped the wire and sent a field
telegram at the telegraph-post, which represented the twentyfourth kilometer. The train did not wait for the operator ; he had to run after it and jump on while it was in motion. We got most of our information from Mohammed, our dragoman, who had not introduced himself to us before. We thought he would be there all right because the manager said he would. For this desert journey, on which he was to be our cook and general servant, he came dressed in a black frock-coat and trousers, a tarboosh, and tattered white tennis shoes—a costume which he doubtless considered gave him an official appearance. He was a Berberine with an eternal smile, and he mentioned that he had lunch for us. The disappearance of the thief, he said, was not important; he had only stolen himself from his family; he was, moreover, the Omdeh's nephew, and he thought the people in the train would be glad of the disappointment to the Omdeh. He knew nothing whatever about the country through which we were passing, and appeared to be inclined to talk about general subjects. So we told him to bring the drinks at once, and the rest of the lunch the first time the train stopped after one o'clock. There did not seem any reason why the train should stop anywhere. There is not a human habitation between the base and the oasis, except a cabin at intervals on the line, in which two unlucky signalmen pass their lives, with nothing to break the monotony except two trains a week each way. But they have a telephone, and probably carry on a conversation with the outer world by that from time to time, though if they are fellahin they would be content to have a spot of shade to sleep in, and no one to kick them up and make them work. There is a proverb to that effect in Egypt.
After the Nunc dimittis of the thief, the railway passed through a sort of Valley of the Kings, planed down, and probably most of the planing was natural, as the line was laid at the rate of nine kilometers a day. We were now deep into a most unredeemed desert, which never had had anything in it since the days of the Romans, except the caravans-chiefly slave caravans before the English came, which crossed it from
the oasis to Assyut and less favourite places. In the future there will be hardly any caravans, slave or otherwise. Few people would go by camel across a desert when they could go by train-natives always seem to have money for trains and trams. But this abandoned desert did not look any worse than the surroundings of Helwân. Our understanding of the desert was interfered with by the grey morning. It looks such a very mild-mannered affair in grey weather, though here and there you saw the bones of a camel bleached by the sun.
We were able to get out very often, because the train was always stopping. The ground was hard enough for a motor to work on here. We wondered if the oasis trains were like motors and suffered from punctures, or whether our engine was merely suffering from the fire-boxes getting overheated, like the Sudan engines. Arabs are always finding new games for trains and motors. As there did not seem to be any European in charge, there seemed no reason why the train should arrive at all. I attacked Mohammed, our smiling and frock-coated Berberine, on the subject. He said that the engine-driver was a Scotchman, or undoubtedly the train never would arrive. He added that it would have been impossible to get the natives to go in it if they had thought that the engineer was an Egyptian: this was a length to which their Nationalist aspirations would never take them.
The stations on this line are very fine. We expected them to be something belonging to the Stone Age to suit the scenery, but they were rather attractive-looking reed shelters. When we got to the first, the official with a red jersey marked W.O.R. put a hose into one of the huge water tanks, which accompanied us on goods cars, and watered first the Mohammedan passengers and then the engine. And it is not so easy as one would think to fill water-bottles with an engine-hose. This individual spent most of his time in climbing round the train like a monkey, while it was in motion.
Soon the scene changed, and everything turned as white as snow with salt crystals. You could have sworn that the