Wilfred Thesiger – Writer and Explorer in Arabia

First European to fully explore the Arabian Sands. Hard as nails.

By many considered the last of the great explorers, Wilfred Thesiger died in 2003 at the age of 93 in an old folks home in sleep Surrey, England. The irony was not lost on a man who had become the first European to fully explore the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Desert, live for seven years with the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq and travel extensively with the nomads of Kurdistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Indeed, he had settled with the herdsmen of Kenya in 1968 and lived there for 25 years, hoping that “This will be where I will end my days. They can dig a hole and bury me.”

Failing eyesight and personal tragedies forced Thesiger back to England, the last place in the world he had ever felt comfortable. Thesiger was born in Addis Ababa in 1910 and though he attended school in England, his heart was still roaming the plains of Africa where he had spent his early years. Invited by Haile Selassie to attend his coronation in 1930 Thesiger jumped at the chance.

Whilst in Ethiopia he took advantage of the opportunity to slip away on an adventure into the notorious Danakil country, ostensibly to solve the mystery of a disappearing river. Out in the desert with his caravan, self-reliant and responsible for the lives of all the men under his command, Thesiger couldn’t look back.

“I was often tired and thirsty, sometimes tired and lonely, but I tasted freedom and a way of life from which there was no recall.”

His travels in the Danakil country were incredibly dangerous; the Danakil were a ferocious tribe hostile to outsiders and with the custom of severing slain foe’s genitals as spoils of war. Thesiger commented:

“I found it disconcerting to be stared at by a Danakil, felling he was probably assessing my value as a trophy.”

Against his political inclinations, Thesiger worked for the British administration in Sudan merely as a way to stay in Africa. He was posted in the north where he spent much of his time hunting lion and boar but by now he was hooked to the merciless desert clime. Following service in the second world war in Syria, Thesiger swung a job researching the breeding grounds of locusts in Arabia. Here he was to spent the happiest five years of his life.

He ventured out with the Bedouin to cross the great sands of the ‘Empty Quarter’ of Arabia and was the first European to fully navigate this immense desert. He did so in the last years before Arabia was to change forever with the discovery of oil and recorded in his classic ““Arabian Sands”:http://www.roadjunky.com/greats/arabiasands.shtml” a culture and way of life that was about to disappear forever.

“I had no faith in the changes we were bringing about. I craved for the pat, resented the present and feared for the future.”

He won acceptance, even friendship among the Bedouin for his intrepid streak that nearly cost them all their lives as they crossed immense distances through warring tribal territories with barely enough food and water to survive. He learned all he could about the Bedouin way of life and admired them intensely. The changes that oil wrought broke his heart and he remained bitter about the encroachment of the modern world up until his death.

In an attempt to recover some of the fraternal acceptance he had felt with the Bedouin he ended up staying seven years with the Marsh Arabs of Southern Iraq. He had originally only gone there to “..shoot duck for a fortnight.” Conditions were incredibly tough here but Thesiger was far from the modern world and therefore content after a fashion.

After decades of travel in the far flung regions of the world Thesiger settled in Kenya where, as usual, he ignored the towns and cities in favour of living with the local tribesmen. Thesiger considered the car an ‘abomination’ and wanted nothing to do with progress beyond a bag of antibiotics and a camera.

He was to shoot a breathtaking 35,000 images in his life and write a dozen books, many of which are considered to be the finest accounts of modern exploration that exist. A fierce traditionalist, Thesiger dread the consequences of globalisation and homogenised world culture and saw no future for the world whatsoever.

“It will destroy itself. To me it is inconceivable that there will be any human beings left at all on this planet in 100 years time.”

A distinguished photographer, writer and environmentalist ahead of his time, Wilfred Thesiger was perhaps the last great explorer of the physical world. The need to explore and understand human society is an ongoing task but Thesiger lived in the last era of vast unknown territories. Thanks to his books and photos, a part of them lives on with us today.