Patrolling with Camels to the Dead Sea, 1940, Part 2

The farther eastward and the lower we got, the drier and more stony the country became, until the hills were as bare of vegetation as any desert and the wadis could only provide a few dry stunted bushes as evidence that rain ever fell in those parts. It was hot, too, in those wadis, without a breath of wind and unaccustomed British throats became parched with the heat and with the dust which our caravan of camels kicked up and which hung suspended in the still air, so that those at the back of our long line were in a perpetual fog which could almost be chewed. Then we blessed our doctor, who had had the forethought to provide us with two sacks of oranges, which were slung over one of the camels in the centre of the line; and when one of the patrol had made a small slit in a sack and extracted some of the fruit it was not long before all the rest of us either stopped to tie a shoe until we were caught up by the orange-carrier, or sweated up from the rear to collect an orange in each fist; and never have I known the big, juicy, Jaffa to be more delectable.

We made a short stop for lunch and to compare blisters - if only we could have had a hundred yards uphill walk to relieve the pressure on our heels and the tops of our toes as we braced ourselves against the downward slope! - and by four o'clock in the afternoon had reached the top of the cliff overlooking the Dead Sea. "Ha", we said, "we've got there!" And indeed it looked as though we had. Just below us - a mere thousand feet - was a mass of green vegetation right down to the shore of the cool-looking and incredibly blue sea. A marvellous sight it was, as, with the sun behind us, we looked down and across the ten or 12 miles of water to the hills and valleys of what was then called Transjordan - looking as distant country always looks, so much more fertile and attractive than the country one is looking from.

Our cameleers seemed in no hurry to get down to the Garden of Eden below us and they spent some time messing about with their animals, adjusting and tightening their loads in what we thought was a most unnecessary manner when we had so little way to go; but once we had started the descent of the cliff we realised their wisdom and were glad we had not interfered. The first five hundred feet of the descent - which was probably the best part of a mile in walking distance - was a narrow track with a surface of stones varying from six inches to a foot in diameter over which our long-legged beasts slipped and stumbled in the most frightening manner. In places it was so narrow that the load on one side of a camel was hanging in space while the other was touching the cliff-side; and that was an awful moment when one camel slipped inwards and knocked his load so hard against the cliff that it nearly cannoned him off the edge the other side; and some of the hair-pin bends were so sharp, and the track so narrow, that when a camel had shuffled its fore feet round, its hind legs were literally lifted over space as they followed!

Scrambling down the face of the cliff I asked if there was another track, a better one; and was told that it was the only one for ten miles in each direction. Then it struck me that if it were the only track to 'Ain Jiddi, it must be the one David took thousands of years ago. This sounded far fetched, but the more I though of it, the more I realised that it must be so. The spring - 'ain is the Arabic for a spring of water - was just below us and I could look back at the face of the cliff; and as far as I could see it was impossible to get up or down the cliff except by the way we had come.

I felt sorry for David then having to come to this God-forsaken place - even the mass vegetation below us did not seem sufficient compensation for this frightful track - but I changed my mind a few hundred yards and several nasty corners on, when we suddenly came upon the spring gushing out from the face of the cliff. It wasn't the trickle one usually associates with the springs of Palestine, but a gush such as one expects from a good old English fire hydrant, as clear and sparkling as a bottle of soda water and as cold as a Scottish loch; and it went rushing down a well defined channel to the bottom of the cliff, where it spread out to bring life to the masses of natural vegetation and to nourish the rather miserable patches of tomatoes planted by the indolent Bedouin. Now one could see why David came here: well hidden, inaccessible, with sufficient water to maintain half the tribes and flocks of Palestine, it was the ideal hiding place, where he could remain at his ease until things blew over.

The track got wider here and became a broad slope beside the stream, bordered with cool green plants and bushes and surfaced with good earth. It was Paradise and it was as much as we could do to prevent ourselves from jumping in the stream there and then. But we still had some way to go to the bottom and the camels were as weary and exhausted as we. At last we reached flat ground and - wonder of wonders - had to search for a space clear enough of vegetation to camp. This was not easy and, as we all decided that we must be beside the stream, we went farther than we need have done. At last we found our spot, unloaded the camels and drove them and their masters to camp well down wind of us - we were determined that this idyllic place should not be polluted by the foul belchings of these extraordinary beasts as our other camp had been - and sat down on our bundles to undo our shoes and dangle our feet in the cool water. Some bathed in the Dead Sea, but those of us who had sampled that pickling solution before knew what effect it would have on the broken blisters, sweat rashes and thorn scratches we had all collected on the way down and contented ourselves with a wash in the cold stream. When we were freshened up - or howling with pain in the case of those who had bathed - and had the cup of tea we had all been longing for (it is funny how beer takes second place when the Englishman is really thirsty) we set about putting our camp in order and preparing a meal. Half empty sacks of camel fodder, we found, make excellent mattresses for tired bodies, while a meal made by slinging bully beef, onions, and potatoes together into a pot and putting it on the fire, was all that was desired by any of us. After we had finished and had washed our dishes in the stream we sat round the fire—it was none too warm at that time of the year after the sun had gone down—and, with a very welcome glass of whisky in our hands, talked together of the day's walk and of the intriguing place we were in. 'Ain Jiddi - the Spring of the Young Goat; how did it get its name? Obviously the Bedouin often brought their goats there, but why 'young' goat? Well, it appeared to have been named before David went there three thousand or so years ago, so it was equally obvious that it was no good asking any of the local Bedouin for an explanation; so we went to bed and dreamed of the terrible time we were going to have tomorrow on our return journey UP the blooming hill.

Harold Jennings, Palestine Police News Letter, No.104, September 1976.

Photos: Matson Collection