While a camel can support thirst better than any beast of burden in the world, it has a very definite limit of endurance. Almost any camel can go three or four days without a drink, especially if it has had the opportunity to fill itself before starting.
Yet a camel which has been living in a fertile country, and has become "green." Four days of thirst is its limit. On the fifth day, it will kneel down on the sand, and never get up again. It is useless to beat the animal or to prod him with the goad. Removing the load will make no difference. The creature will not try to get up. When a camel has once made up its mind to die, it will do so, even though water may be only an hour's journey away.
If the wells are not reached by the end of fifth day, most of the camels which are not desert-bred and desert-trained will succumb. For long trans-Saharan marches, therefore, camels from the northern parts of Algeria and Morocco are useless.
Usually, a camel which can endure five days can endure six, and the Bedouin Arabs have a tradition that if a camel dies on the sixth day it is a sign that an afreet has been sitting on the top of the load. A well-trained desert camel should always be able to reach the evening of the seventh day, without water.
This is the breaking point. On the morning of the eighth day, fully a third of the camels of a caravan will not even try to rise, and, at intervals, all day long, those which have started will drop to their knees, abandoning hope. A camel which, without food or water, has carried its load or its master until the evening of the ninth day, according to Bedouin tradition (though not of the Koran) has won for itself a human soul and will go to Paradise. Should the evening of the tenth day be reached and the camel still be able to travel, it is regarded as having been touched by the miraculous hand of Allah and may never be ridden again, save by a marabout in a Holy War.
There is a legend, beloved by the Bedouins, which tells how the Angel Gabriel was saved by a camel.
"In the days of ignorance," the legend runs, "before the Koran was revealed to Prophet, the Angel Gabriel came down to earth. As the Koran had yet been revealed, the earth was still in the hands of the demons who eat the evil thoughts of man for their food.
"When these demons saw the Angel Gabriel, they determined to capture of the hosts of the sky, to rob him of his thoughts, as one robs a caravan, and send him back to Heaven empty. Had they succeeded in catching the Angel, they might have done this, for was it not in the days of Ignorance?
"Now the Angel Gabriel had been given special powers by Allah, and, had he wished it, he could have blasted these demons by a Word of Might.
But as his mission on earth was a secret one, escape seemed to him the best way to carry out the wishes of Allah.
"The Angel Gabriel summoned his mehari. This racing-camel was whiter than milk, faster than the fastest gazelle, its eyes could see a blade of cram-cram grass fully ten miles away, and it could smell an unpierced well of water at two days' march distance. The angel leaped upon this mehari and the demons folled.
"That was a wild ride!
"Every day, for exactly fourteen hours daily, the Angel Gabriel rode. He stopped, only, to give his mehari the four hours of grazing, the two hours of cud-chewing, and the four hours of sleep which the Creator-the All-Wise and the All-Powerful-has ordained for these sponge-footed racers over the desert miles.
"Yet, fast as the angel rode, the demons stayed close behind. Upon black meharis, whose breath was hotter then the simoon upon the Waste of A'i'iz, they followed him nearly. They could not advance while he rested, for never did the Angel delay a moment longer than the prescribed house of repose, and never did he rob his mehari of the rest which was its due.
"For nine days, the Angel Gabriel rode thus, and wide was the expanse of the desert that he crossed. And for nine days the demons maintained their pursuit, discouragement not yet having withered their harts. But when, upon the coming of the tenth day, the demons found that the mehari of the Angel Gabriel was still able to travel, those dark Sons of Eblis decided that the camel must have more than earthly powers, and gave up the chase. Thus by the endurance of a mehari to the tenth day, the Angel Gabriel was saved and the designs of Allah were not thwarted."