Sir Wilfred Thesiger

Great explorer who craved the adventure of the unknown
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The Independent Online

Wilfred Patrick Thesiger, explorer: born Addis Ababa 3 June 1910; DSO 1941; FRSL 1966; CBE 1968, KBE 1995; Honorary Fellow, Magdalen College, Oxford 1982-2003; died Croydon, Surrey 24 August 2003.

One day in 1933, the young Wilfred Thesiger - aged 23 and just down from Oxford - sat in a clearing in the jungles of Ethiopia with the xenophobic Sultan of Aussa. Surrounded by dozens of Danakil tribesmen - whose avowed object in life was to kill and castrate anyone who came within reach - Thesiger made the somewhat impudent request to be the first European ever allowed through the Sultan's domain.

He then retired with his camel-men to his own camp to await the Sultan's decision, fully aware that the ferocious Danakil might descend on them at any moment and cut their throats, just as they had done to two previous European expeditions. Though the cameleers must have lain awake all night in trepidation, Thesiger himself admitted no such misgivings: "It was a dramatic meeting in unknown Africa," he told me years later, "yet I never considered failure. One merely assumed one would be successful and, as it turned out, one was."

This theatrical self-assurance was the hallmark of a character whose experience ranged far beyond the ambit of most 20th-century men and women. Thesiger always ascribed his wanderlust to his formative years in Ethiopia, where he was born in 1910, the eldest son of the British minister in Addis Ababa, the Hon Wilfred Thesiger, and his wife Kathleen Vigors.

As a boy, Wilfred's bracing daily programme of riding, shooting, and drilling with his father's siwars was alleviated only by the visits of consuls and district commissioners from the far-flung corners of Africa, who thrilled him with tales of lion-shooting, tribal raids and exotic rituals. One particular experience - Ras Tafari's victory parade after the battle of Sagalle in 1916 - remained with him always as a symbol of the "barbaric splendour" and the "savagery and colour" which he would spend his life trying to recapture in the deserts, swamps and mountains of the east.

At his prep school and later at Eton, Wilfred Thesiger found himself a misfit among his peers, and was labelled "aggressive". He later learnt to sublimate his pugnacious instincts in boxing, and discovered that he had a powerful knockout punch, which won him many a match both at school and later at Oxford, where he was a member of the university team, 1930-33, becoming captain in his last year.

He read History at Magdalen College and while an undergraduate was the only private individual to be invited to attend Ras Tafari's coronation as Emperor Haile Selassie I - a tribute to Thesiger's late father, who had been Tafari's support during the civil war of 1916. The coronation led eventually in 1933 to Thesiger's first major expedition: the quest for the destination of Ethiopia's Awash river - one of Africa's last unsolved mysteries. Thesiger was the first Westerner to march successfully through the Sultanate of Aussa, and the first to circumnambulate Abbe - the salt lake into which the Awash debouched. Although he was threatened by truculent Danakil tribesmen throughout the trek, Thesiger's dark humour never deserted him: he likened one young chief he met - smeared with the blood of three men he had just killed and castrated - to "a rather nice, self-conscious young Etonian who had just got his school colours for cricket".

Thesiger's passion as a young man was big-game hunting, and it was his desire to shoot lion which led him in 1935 into the Sudan Political Service - considered an élite of British colonial administration. As ADC in Darfur, he first learnt to speak Arabic, to wear Arab dress, to ride camels and to live like the tribesmen who accompanied him on his first desert treks. The thrill of the desert, the simplicity of desert life, and the companionship of desert peoples, soon came to replace game-shooting as his abiding interest.

Although he shot 70 lion while in the Sudan, and also served as ADC in swampy Eastern Nuer, where he had all the game he could desire, he yearned with ever-increasing intensity for the freedom he felt only the desert could give him. In 1939, he spent his leave exploring the mountain massif of Tibesti: the Sahara's highest mountain range.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Thesiger was drafted into the Sudan Defence Force as Bimbashi (Major). He fought at Gallabat on the Ethiopian frontier, and later served with Orde Wingate's Gideon Mission to restore Haile Selassie to the throne - a campaign which he considered the one great emotional cause of his life. Awarded the DSO in 1941, Thesiger later saw service in Syria with one of the last cavalry units ever raised in war - the Druze Legion - and in North Africa with David Stirling's fledgling SAS.

A tedious assignment as Political Officer at Dessie in Ethiopia during the last year of the war led indirectly to a chance meeting at dinner with the locust-fighter O.B. Lean, who was looking for someone to scour the vast Empty Quarter of Arabia for locust outbreak centres. Lean offered Thesiger the job before he had finished his soup.

His exploration of the Empty Quarter - the world's largest sand desert - was the great adventure of Thesiger's life: he spent a period of five years exploring the region, travelling always by camel and on foot, always in Bedouin dress, and always with companions from the Bedouin tribes, for whom he developed a profound respect and affection. His two bold crossings of the Sands, in 1946-47 and 1947-48, were classic journeys of adventure and exploration, and on a subsequent trek through Oman in 1949 Thesiger became the first Westerner to find his way through the deadly Umm as-Samim - the only true quicksands on the Arabian Peninsula. Drawn back to the desert again and again by his friendship with the Bedouin, Thesiger would have remained in south Arabia indefinitely had he not been officially excluded for political reasons in 1950. For the rest of his life he looked on this exclusion as a kind of exile.

Although he never again attained the satisfaction of his journeys in the Empty Quarter, Thesiger's later years were far from sedentary. He explored Kurdistan by horse, lived among the Marsh Arabs of Iraq over a period of eight years, climbed in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, explored the Hindu Kush, the Karakoram, Ladakh, Nuristan and the Hazara mountains of Afghanistan, crossed the Dasht-i-Lut in Iran, tramped on migrations with the Bakhtiari nomads in the Zagros, rode mules across the mountains and plains of Ethiopia, donkeys in the Yemen during the civil war there, and trekked with camels in Kenya.

Always travelling on foot, with animal transport or by open boat, he reached these places while they remained virtually unchanged by the outside world. Of this he was very proud. For much of his life he strove to find those few places on earth where motor-cars had not yet penetrated, and where something of the "old ways" survived. For him, traditional peoples were the most significant aspect of the environment, and to understand them truly, he believed, one must live as they lived - eating the same food, drinking the same water, enduring the same privations, facing danger shoulder to shoulder, accepting common rules of behaviour.

He saw modern technology as an intrusion into the idyllic traditional world, and believed that the technological society produced selfish and materialistic individuals. All his life, he stood out against the disintegration of traditional values, and lived by a personal code of integrity he never lost. This is summed up best by the concept of "nobility" - a quality he claimed to find in kings and illiterate tribesmen alike - and he believed that these ideals were most fully developed among the Bedouin of Arabia whose ethic of miruwa or "manliness" matched perfectly with his own.

Thesiger was driven by the quest for adventure, but he had no interest in feats of pure physical endurance: he considered the idea of traversing the uninhabited wastes of the Antarctic to be as ludicrous as climbing a mountain with a ball and chain attached to one's leg. Neither did he feel anything in common with the single-handed sailor or mountaineer. Though he chose to travel in the remotest areas, enduring hardship and danger, he insisted that his journeys should provide him with companions from traditional peoples - and it was among these companions that he found the most meaningful relationships of his life.

His greatest works, Arabian Sands (1959) and The Marsh Arabs (1964), are tributes not merely to wild places, but to the unmatchable spirit of the tribes who lived there. Thesiger travelled neither for the sake of science - which he held in contempt - nor for material gain. His true rewards were symbolic and often intangible ones. After his first crossing of the Empty Quarter, for instance, he wrote:

To others my journey would have little importance. It would produce nothing but a rather inaccurate map which no one was ever likely to use. It was a personal experience, and the reward had been a drink of clean, nearly tasteless water. I was content with that.

Unfortunately, others did use the map which Thesiger made, just as they followed his footsteps inevitably into the regions he had seen as unspoilt wilderness. That he was never able to resolve the disparity between his craving for the unknown and the effect of his own intrusion into traditional society, was suggested when he chose to preface his book Visions of a Nomad (1987) with Oscar Wilde's famous words: "Each man kills the thing he loves." His last great project - his 30-year sojourn among the Samburu and Turkana peoples of northern Kenya - provided a sobering example of this adage when two of the boys he had raised as his "foster sons" died tragically in their early thirties. Thereafter Thesiger returned to Britain, where he lived quietly until his death.

If exploration is to be defined as "going where no man has gone before", then Wilfred Thesiger was the last explorer of an era. He was aware that those who followed him would be specialists, each with his own small domain of expertise - ornithologists, geologists, anthropologists - who would travel by car and keep in touch by radio. "They will bring back results far more interesting than mine," he wrote, "but they will never know the spirit of the land nor the greatness of its people."

This is Thesiger's legacy: he demonstrated that the traditional, illiterate people among whom he travelled had a sense of belonging, a sense of identity, a connection with the universe which we have lost - a timely reminder that there is more to our relationship with the earth than can be shown in a satellite image or analysed in a technical report. With the death of Wilfred Thesiger we have lost perhaps the greatest British traveller of the 20th century.

Michael Asher