Born in Addis Ababa on June 3 a century ago this week, Thesiger lived a life that reflected the stark hardship of the desert world in which he made his home.
A compass all his own
The first time I met Sir Wilfred Thesiger, he was sitting in the shade of his porch in Kenya's remote Samburuland, drinking piping hot tea. The porch was attached to a shack that looked as though the great English explorer had built it himself. It clung like a limpet to the side of the hill. The temperature was touching 45 degrees but Thesiger was wearing a pair of thick twill trousers and a tweed jacket with tatty elbow patches. He was staring out dreamily at the zebras slumped under the thorn trees down in the valley below.
The sound of my final ascent over the crags, panting and wheezing, caused him to turn slowly and peer down. He narrowed his eyes, shaded a wrinkled hand to his brow, and called out, "You're fussing like an old woman, what's wrong with you?!" My first visit to Thesiger's home began a friendship that lasted until the explorer's death at 93, in 2003. It was the friendship of mentor and pupil, one that I value higher than any other in my life. Almost 25 years have passed since that afternoon I turned up in the Kenyan desert and first set eyes on him, sitting there in tweed. I was 19 and in need of raw encouragement, waiting for the order to seek out a path of my own.
Born in Addis Ababa on June 3 a century ago this week, Thesiger lived a life that reflected the stark hardship of the desert world in which he made his home. He is remembered as a man who chronicled regions of Africa and the Middle East that hadn't changed in centuries, documenting them shortly before they were reshaped forever. And he is remembered as an icon, the kind of man who endured the endurable without fuss, and refused to toe a politically correct line. These days he is regarded as a mythical character, someone unapproachable - the kind of lofty figure who is cast in bronze and placed on a plinth somewhere posh.
But, for me, Thesiger was never aloof or distant in any way. He was warm and caring, with a shockingly mischievous sense of humour and the ability to inspire - not in a limp way, but deep down to the marrow of your bones. His was inspiration right out of the Boy's Own Annual. As he told me again and again, when he was 19 he had been invited to the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie of Abyssinia. After the pomp and grandeur of it all, he set off to hunt lion in the land of the Danakil, a tribe who wore the testicles of their slain victims around their necks. He was little more than a schoolboy himself. But death-dicing travels among the Danakil paved the way for a life of exploration, a life unbounded by the expectations of others.
After Eton, Thesiger went up to Oxford. It was there that he won a Blue in boxing, and acquired the profile that was in many ways to become his trademark. It was best described in Eric Newby's classic travel narrative, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush: " ... and Thesiger himself, a great, long-striding crag of a man, with an outcrop for a nose and bushy eyebrows, forty-five years old and as hard as nails". That meeting between the two extremes of English traveller was in the wilds of Afghanistan, but it is for his travels in Arabia that Thesiger is best known.
Following active service with the fledgling SAS during World War II, he spent more than five years with the nomadic Bedouin of the Arabian Peninsula. He once told me that, from the first moment, he decided the only way to live with the Bedu was to do so without any compromise. He would live as they did, enduring levels of harshness that have become the thing of legend. Along with them he twice crossed the fabled Empty Quarter, developing bonds of kinship that were far more important than anything else. Indeed, he would say that without his companions, a desert crossing would have been a meaningless penance. It was for the kinship alone that he travelled.
As a travel writer, I know too well the pressure which burdens one of getting a commission, the cold hard cash that will pay for the next great journey. But the wonderful thing about Thesiger's writing is that it came about years later, almost as an afterthought. He never intended to write about the years with the Bedouin, and only did so when his mother and the respected publisher Mark Longman begged him to do so. The critically acclaimed Arabian Sands followed and was published in 1959. It established Thesiger as one of a kind - the last of the Victorian gentlemen-explorers.
After Arabia, Sir Wilfred travelled to the marshes of southern Iraq. The lure was at first the prospect of a little duck shooting. He stayed in the marshes for years, returning home once in a while to his mother's flat in Chelsea's Tite Street, where Oscar Wilde had once made his home. Again, only after leaving the marshes and the life he so loved there among the labyrinthine waterways did he publishThe Marsh Arabs, in 1964.
As one who had known the rugged beauty of Arabia, and the traditions that had been moulded by the desert terrain, Thesiger was understandably critical of the change that seemed to follow in his coat-tails. No long conversation with him would be complete without periods of silence in which he was transported back to his youth - to the world of the Danakil, the Bedouin and the Marsh Arabs. In the same way, no cup of tea in his company was the quite complete without him snarling at the "infernal" combustion engine, or exclaiming that cars and aeroplanes were robbing the world of diversity.
It wasn't only motorised vehicles of which Thesiger disapproved. He despised anything mechanical. Towards the end of his life, he returned to England to live in the top-floor flat his mother had bought during the Blitz. I used to go over a great deal, thrilled that I no longer had to traipse up to the shack in Samburuland to see him. One summer afternoon we were sitting in silence over mugs of weak tea. Thesiger was 90 and had become a great deal more frail. He enjoyed just sitting in his old armchair, in the company of another. I always felt it were as if we were squatting around a campfire in the desert, the two of us lost in our thoughts.
Something stirred me to break the silence. I spat out an idea that I hadn't thought through very well - said I was thinking of cycling from London to Cape Town. Thesiger looked up, squinted over at me hard, wiped his eyebrows away from his eyes. "Sounds like nothing but a stunt," he said coldly. I choked out an explanation, insisting that it was all about meeting people along the way. The great explorer winced, sipped his tea pensively. Then he seemed to rise up out of the chair, his lanky form looming over me like an executioner. "On a bicycle you won't meet anyone or see anything at all!" he barked. "You'll be going too fast! If I were you, I would walk it."
I breathed in deep, and championed the idea. "Walking, yes, I'll walk it," I said nervously. Thesiger seemed pleased. He almost grinned. I asked if he had any advice - advice for walking. Sir Wilfred touched a long index finger to his lips and sank back into his chair. "Get yourself a good pair of army boots," he said.
The Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford is holding an exhibition titled Wilfred Thesiger In Africa: A Centenary Exhibition, featuring photographs from the explorer's travels in Ethiopia, Sudan, Morocco, Tanzania and Kenya, as well as objects collected by Thesiger in Ethiopia and later donated to the museum. The exhibition runs until June 5 next year. Admission is free. (www.prm.ox.ac.uk)