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A life of his own.

A love of travel and traditional ways has been the motivation for Wilfred Thesiger's amazing life of adventure. Fiona McWilliam meets the man who has been described as perhaps the greatest living explorer of his time. Photos by Andy Baker

The Danakil went lower than that," interjects the elderly man to my left, "they cut off a man's private parts to prove they had killed him." We're discussing the Maori practice of head-stuffing and the removal of body parts in general, and the man next to me is none other than Sir Wilfred Thesiger, who is considered by many to be Britain's greatest living explorer.

"Explorer" is an epithet he dismisses. "If they knew me better they wouldn't say it," he told his biographer Michael Asher, insisting instead that he was the last person with the opportunity "to go off and find an area where the population hadn't been explored". Always travelling by foot, animal transport or open boat, Asher writes, "Thesiger reached these places while they still remained virtually unchanged by the outside world."

Wilfred Patrick Thesiger was born at the British Legation in Addis Ababa in 1910 and spent his first nine years in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). By his own account, these were happy years, spent "riding about everywhere" with his younger brother Brian, camping in the Entoto hills and accompanying his father on hunting trips.

The family left Abyssinia in 1919, eventually taking rooms in Brighton, near young Wilfred's preparatory school. During his second term, Thesiger's father collapsed suddenly, dying in his wife's arms. ("Few marriages can have been as happy as theirs," recalls Thesiger "and it was a devastating shock to my mother", who, undaunted, "dedicated herself to looking after four sons.")

In the summer of 1924, during Thesiger's first year at Eton, Ras Tafari, Regent of Ethiopia, arrived in London on a state visit and invited Wilfred and his mother to call on him. As they were leaving, Thesiger turned to Ras Tafari and said: "More than anything in the world, sir, I want one day to return to your country."

These "heartfelt words", Thesiger later remarked, "were to decide the course of my life". Ras Tafari turned to him and replied: "One day you will come as my guest."

And so in 1930, Thesiger -- by this time an Oxford undergraduate -- attended the coronation of His Imperial Majesty Halle Selassie at the Emperor's personal invitation. He spent a month afterwards hunting in northern Abyssinia's hostile Danakil Desert and returned three years later "to explore the Awash River to its end". Thesiger was the first European to travel through the Sultanate of Aussa, surviving the constant threat of attack by Danakil tribesmen (now known as the Afars), whose status depended on the number of men they had killed and whose penises they removed. It was an expedition he regards as his most dangerous, and one which established his reputation as a great explorer.

"Everyone who ran away was still carrying the trophy the Danakil wanted," Thesiger explains -- although what they actually did with them after removing them remains unclear -- he adds. "It's said they hung them around their houses, but I never saw any evidence of this all the time I was there."

Thesiger joined the Sudan Political Service in 1935 and over the next five years visited the Sudan, Libya and the French Sahara. He served with the patriots in Abyssinia during the Second World War -- under Orde Wingate -- and later served with the Special Operations Executive in Syria, and with the SAS in the Western Desert. From 1945, he returned over a period of five years to Arabia's Empty Quarter, where he lived with the Bedu (Bedouin), trekking more than 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometres) by camel. He later lived among Iraq's Marsh Arabs over a period of eight years, embracing their way of life, explored the mountains of western Pakistan as far as the Chinese border, travelled among the Harzaras of Afghanistan, crossed Iran's Dasht-i-Lut, and trekked with Bakhtiari nomads.

I met Thesiger in London last May, just before he was due to move from his flat in Chelsea to "a home for old men" near Blackheath, southeast London. For more than 20 years he lived mainly among the pastoral Samburu near Maralal, northern Kenya, before moving to what had been his mother's flat, in London, in 1994. (Thesiger's life at Maralal is documented in an interview conducted by his good friend and official biographer Alexander Maitland and published in the August 1990 issue of Geographical).

When asked what irritates him most about living in London, Thesiger responds immediately and, to those familiar with his writing, somewhat predictably: "the cars".

He has long spurned motor transport. "While others -- even before him, and most certainly after -- were gleefully adapting to the possibilities of cars, aircraft and radio," writes Asher, "he chose to venture into the wilderness and meet it on its own terms", deliberately looking for those places "where motor cars had not yet penetrated, and where something of the old ways survived".

"The biggest disaster in human history," says Thesiger (admitting that he's quoting what he's previously written) "was the invention of the combustion engine." He then recounts a story from the late 1960s that typifies his view of "progress".

While at Lake Rudolph (now Turkana) in northern Kenya, he saw a naked Turkana tribesman. Pointing up at the sky, the man said "the [Europeans] are on the moon". At the time, says Thesiger, he had been somewhat "cut off", having not seen a paper or heard a radio. He thought to himself: "What nonsense is this man talking?" And later, when he heard that man had indeed landed on the moon, Thesiger confesses to having felt "desecration and despair".

"`Where's it going to end?' I thought. We can't take a bet on this but I'm absolutely convinced that we will be extinct as a species within the next 100 years," says Thesiger.

Thesiger "has rightly been called `old-fashioned'", remarks Asher, but even as a boy "he foresaw the way in which technology would ride like a juggernaut across the earth, devastating what was priceless in traditional life". He was drawn to the traditional ways, "to the wild and unspoiled lands, with a rare passion, yet he belonged to a generation and an era that did more than any other to destroy them". And Thesiger realised quite early on, Asher claims, "that he himself was the harbinger of a different world".

Thesiger remembers with great affection his Bedu companions bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha and says that he'd like to feel that nothing in their lives had been altered by his arrival in their land. He knows this is not so: "I realise that the maps I made [he was initially employed to plot locust populations by entomologist OB Lean] helped others with more material aims to visit and corrupt a people whose spirit once lit the desert like a flame," he writes in his first book, Arabian Sands, which was published in 1959.

"That's why I use the [Oscar Wilde] quote `Yet each man kills the thing he loves',", he tells me.

Of his five years in the Empty Quarter with the Bedu, Thesiger says: "I wanted to live as they lived and be accepted by them."

Yet he could not, he claims, meet their standards of behaviour, "their hospitality and absolute loyalty."

He recalls an incident when having not eaten for three days ("not an experience I want to repeat") one of his companions managed to kill a hare. "We talked all day about how we'd cook the hare; we talked and talked and talked about the hare," he says. Having eventually cooked the animal, using up the last of their water, they saw three Arabs approaching their camp. Thesiger's Bedu companions insisted that their guests eat the hare.

"I felt absolutely murderous," Thesiger remembers. "I fell down." But they, he says of his Bedu companions, "had a quality, a nobility which I have met with in no other society."

As Maitland remarked in Geographical, Thesiger's reputation was confined largely to geographical circles until the publication of Arabian Sands. Over the past 40 years he has produced another six books, most recently, The Danakil Diary, published more than 60 years after the events it describes, at the suggestion of Maitland. "Without Alex's insistence it would never have occurred to me to publish these diaries," Thesiger remarks in the book's preface.

Thesiger says that he never had any intention of writing a book, from the outset of his career. "I went through the Arabian Sands and wrote one or two articles [it was actually several more than this]. Then the literary agent Graham Watson from Curtis Brown came along to sees my photos and said: `You've simply got to write a book'; I said: `I'm damned if I'm going to write a book'."

According to Asher, Thesiger's literary reluctance stemmed from the fact that he associated book writing "with the academic efforts he had fared so poorly in at school". So why, in the late 1950s, did he change his mind?

"By the grace of God, Graham Watson came back and brought Mark Longman ]of Longmans]," Thesiger recalls. "My mother was also there and they were all going on and on at me; they said you can have as long as you want to write it." With no deadline and so many people willing him to have a go, Thesiger had little choice but to give it a try.

He "broke the back" of Arabian Sands, he says, during the four months he spent holed up in a Copenhagen bedsitting room -- he chose the Danish capital as he "didn't know a soul there". He then finished the book in Ireland. "After that I found I could write a book," he says, "but I never meant to."

The rest, as they say, is history, and Thesiger is now working on his eighth book, which will describe five journeys in the Karakoram and Hindu Kush.

Books had a huge influence on Thesiger's early life and his choice of career. He cites Kipling and Rider Haggard as childhood favourites, together with a series of books about a terrier who loved hunting called "Jock of the Bushveld".

"I was quite obsessed with the Zulus," he admits. "It was only later that I found out it was my grandfather Chelmsford [General Frederic Augustus Thesiger] who commanded the British forces in Zululand."

The 2nd Baron Chelmsford, writes Asher, had incurred the wrath of the British public by allowing a column under his command to be wiped out by Tsetswayo's Zulu impis at Isandhlwana in 1879. "All his life, the young Wilfred Thesiger would claim more sympathy with the Zulus -- finally destroyed by Chelmsford at Ulundi -- than with his grandfather."

Thesiger says that he always wanted to go to South Africa and just over a year ago received an invitation to Rourke's Drift from hotelier and Anglo-Zulu War specialist David Rattray. He accepted the invitation and while in South Africa met Zulu leader Chief Mangosothu Buthelezi -- the great-grandson of Tsetwayo -- who presented him with a Zulu shield and stabbing spear. "It was a sort of family reconciliation," Thesiger says. "Buthelezi put his arms around me and gave me these things."

So, having eventually made it to South Africa, is there anywhere else Thesiger wished he'd travelled to? "Mongolia is the place I'm always sorry to have not visited," he says, "and I'm sorry to have not visited Tibet in the 1930s." Heinrich Harrer's Seven Years in Tibet is, he adds, a favourite book.

Towards the end of our meeting, Thesiger suddenly remembers something he's been trying to recall for the past hour, the third of three items no traveller should be without: "It's a compass," he says. A camera, field glasses and a compass are, according to Thesiger, the three most important items for a traveller. To my mind there's something even more important missing from this list -- a diary.

The world, or at least our understanding of its peoples, would be considerably poorer were it not for the meticulously recorded journals of Wilfred Thesiger. How else would we know how the Bedu lived prior to the large scale exploitation of Arabian oil, or Iraq's Marsh Arabs before their "complete destruction" (Thesiger's words) by Saddam Hussein?


Thesiger's books: Arabian Sands (Penguin); The Marsh Arabs (Penguin); Visions of a Nomad (Motivate); Desert, Marsh and Mountain (Flamingo); The Life of My Choice (Fontana); My Kenya Days (HarperCollins); The Danakil Diary (Flamingo). Also Michael Asher's biography Thesiger (Penguin).
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Title Annotation:Wilfred Thesiger
Author:McWilliam, Fiona
Article Type:Interview
Date:Sep 1, 1998
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