May 8, 2012

The Khamsin, 1849 | Walking Through Egypt

The Khamsin, 1849
Florence Nightingale


About three, the khamsin increased; it was a wind like this which destroyed six years ago a caravan of 300 camels belonging to Mehemet Ali. The air became filled with sand. The river seemed turned upside down, and flowing bottom upwards, the whirlwind of sand from the desert literally covering it. We could not see across the river; and when we could stand upon deck, which was not often, our eyes were completely filled and our faces covered with sand. As to the critic making Thames not to walk between his banks, he does not deserve the credit of originality for that idea, for Nile invented the plan first, and today instead of walking between his banks, his banks walked between him. I saw the sand blown up into the ridge upon the water, and it looked as if you could have passed the river on dry ground, only the dry ground was on the top. I am glad to have seen it, for I should never have believed in it if I had not, and I give you leave not to believe. By this time Nile seemed to be walking with his bed on his head; but it was no beneficent miracle, like the paralytic man’s, for it looked as if earth, air, and water had been blasted together into one whirlwind of sand. We could not wash, for it was no use fishing for water in the Nile; instead of water he gave us a stone, i.e. a sand-bank. The waves were as high as when there is a moderate sea in the Channel, and the wind was hot. It grew dark, and the blast increased so, that we drove a stake into the bank and fastened a rope to it for the night.

Presently Paolo rushed in for one of the guns, which was always kept loaded. He said he saw a strange boat coming in sight. I ran out on deck after him and sure enough, in pitchy darkness, I saw one of the dahabiehs which had overtaken us in the afternoon, floating past us, bottom upwards; nothing to be seen of her passengers. She stuck in the sand just astern of us, and remained fast there. By this time the wind increased so much, and we bumped so incessantly that we were afraid the rope would not hold, and we put out another. I could not help laughing, in the middle of all this, at the figure of our Reis, who had squatted himself at the bottom of our little boat (which was between the dahabieh and the bank), and sat there smoking his pipe, and taking no further interest in the question. If the rope wouldn’t hold it wouldn’t, and why should he be disturbed?

I did not go to bed we bumped incessantly, and at the stern especially so hard that we thought we must spring a leak. It was so dark that we could see nothing, but in the morning we found that our boat had been astride of the poor wreck all night, which had been whirled round by the eddy under us. At dawn I looked out, she had entirely gone to pieces, nothing was left of her but a few of the cabin planks, which our boat picked up, a chest of clothes which we saved, and her oranges floating in the whirlpool. I never saw anything so affecting as those poor oranges, the last luxury of their life in the midst of death.

Torrents of rain were falling our cabin roof was completely soaked through the sky was still one heavy mass, but the wind had a little fallen, and we struggled on, towed by the wretched crew, their teeth chattering, dripping with wet, and evidently thinking of the Day of Judgement, the end of the world, was come (for to them rain is much what to us English an earthquake might be) to Manfaloot, which we reached about twelve. There we learnt the fate of the five boats which passed us yesterday to windward: four had gone down, and of their passengers, twenty (including women and children) had been lost.

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