Freya Stark: the last of the great Victorian travelers

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

She has plunged into the darkest reaches of Persia and Afghanista long before many could have pointed them out on a map. She has crisscrossed the bleak Hadramut of Saudi Arabia and retraced the footsteps of Alexander the Great. She has traveled -- mostly alone -- through Greece and Turkey, Iraq and Syria and knows most of these countries better than her native England. She is, according to writer Lawrence Durrell, "one of the most remarkable women of our age."

Now 88, Dame Freya Stark has become a legend in her time. She is the last of the great Victorian travelers. And fortunately for the world about her, she has combined her skills as traveler, writer, and commentator to produce over 20 travel books considered by many to be masterpieces of travel literature.

Dame Freya still harbors the youthful zest for travel that has taken her across dozens of remote lands. Two years ago, she achieved a lifelong dream of sailing down the Euphrates on a raft.

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And in February this year, the intrepid Dame Freya joined a small expedition to climb the treacherous trail up the Himalayas from Katmandu. In typical modesty, she remarks that her venture was not really true mountain climbing. "I just sat on my little pony and went up and up," she says, beaming.

Dame Freya now lives in Italy but returns to England twice a year "to keep up with my friends." On her last trip, we met at London's Overseas League. A tiny figure greeted me -- a complete stranger -- with a hug and a kiss on both cheeks. In a nearby tearoom, she talked about her full and varied life.

"My two greatest riches are the enjoyment of landscape and the knowledge of the peoples of the world," she says with a warm smile. "And my favorite landscape is the desert. For one thing, the quality of light is so exceptional. And for another, the desert makes me feel wonderful."

But above everything, she believes the most important thing is contact with people. This is only possible when you know the language. "Before I visited any new country, I tried very hard to learn the language," she states. "Without language, you lose half the pleasure of traveling." Over the years she has mastered Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Russian, adding these to four other languages -- English, German, Italian, and Polish -- she learned as a child.

Freya Stark's books tell much about her travels and as much about the woman. Vivid descriptions of sights and sounds are interlaced with snippets of Starkian wisdom.

"Absence is one of the most useful ingredients of family life, and to dose it rightly is an art like any other," she writes in "The Coast of Incense." Later, in "The Lycian Shore," she notes that "there can be no happiness if the things we believe in are different from the things we do."

Every detail of her many journeys is written down in her books. Between the first, "Valleys of the Assassins," written from Persia in 1934, and her most recent collection of letters, she has also turned out two volumes of essays and four of autobiography. The last of these, "Dust in the Lion's Paw," describes her propaganda work with the Ministry of Information during the last war. It was then that Freya Stark launched her most ambitious venture, one she refers to as "my little brotherhood."

"Our job in Egypt was to convince the Egyptian people that we meant to win the war," she points out. "We had to reach as many people as possible, so 12 of us formed a group, called the 'Brotherhood of Freedom,' and organized committees to spread out around the country. In one year, we had the support of over 100, 000 people who wanted to help, and they did in so many ways. It was very touching."

Freya Stark's life of travel began almost the day she was born. Both parents were artists and constantly moved about different European countries. Once, when their two baby daughters were both under two, they carried them over the Dolomites in a wicker basket.

The family settled for a short time in England, in Dorset, where Freya Stark recalls her first twinge of wanderlust.

"I was only three when I remember running away from home," she chuckles. "The postman found me on the edge of Dartmoor, and I told him I was going to Plymouth to be a cabin boy. All I had with me was three ha'pennies and my toothbrush. He managed to convince me that wasn't enough to get to Plymouth and took me back home."

The family then moved to northern Italy. The girls were first brought up by multilingual governesses and later sent to boarding school. While they were at school, their parents separated. Their father moved to Canada, leaving a shocked and bewildered Freya in his wake. In a desperate effort to keep in close touch with both parents, Freya began writing them letters, which were to become the nuclei of her early books.

One day soon after she left school, Freya Stark picked up a book that was to change the whole course of her life. "I found a copy of Doughty's 'Arabia Deserta' -- quite the most splendid book in the English language -- and I was immediately hooked on the Arabs. Once you've read that book, you feel that's a place you simply must go."

She returned to Italy, started a market garden business, and poured all the profits into Arabic and Persian lessons.

In the summer of 1927 she set out on wanderings that were to take her through Syria, Persia, Iraq, Palestine, southern Arabia, and later to Greece, Turkey, and Afghanistan. In an almost chain reaction, each new language she learned sent her off on new explorations. Those would be transformed into another book, winning her recognition from the Royal Geographical Society, the Royal Asiatic Society, and the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, among others. In 1953 she was summoned to Buckingham Palace and knighted by the Queen with the prestigious Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Like other seasoned travelers, most notably Wilfred Thesiger, Freya Stark abhors the change of values that the advent of oil has brought to many parts of the Middle East. Not only has it changed the land, but it has changed the people she came to know so well.

Recently, she crossed the desert from Baghdad to Damascus, sharing a taxi with three young Syrians. They met a group of Bedouin, who had run short of water and halted the taxi to ask for help. "The three young men said, 'No, we only have one bottle, and we can't part with any of it,'" Dame Freya recalls indignantly. "So I gave them my bottle. Then my companions turned on me and said I was crazy to do such a thing. I was furious. To refuse water to someone who is thirsty in the desert just isn't done. That would have been inconceivable 10 years ago."

Today, Dame Freya lives in a small flat in Asolo, 40 miles from Venice. She is surrounded by books and photographs and artifacts -- trophies drawn from a lifetime of travel.

For someone who has covered half the globe and lived a full and adventurous life, is there anything left she would like to do?

"Oh, yes. I would lovem to visit China," she exclaims, eyes shining. "But I wouldn't go unless I could speak Chinese, and that might be a tough one to embark on. "But," she adds, "I would still love to try!"

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