He calls himself 'the last nomad'
To anyone who harbors adventure in his blood, the name of Wilfred Thesiger holds a magic appeal. His compatriots -- T. E. Lawrence, Charles Doughty, and Sir Richard Burton -- may be better known. But Thesiger's journeys into uncharted territory are, in many ways, equally spectacular.
He has ventured into the savage and remote Danakil country of Ethiopia, crisscrossed the once unknown interior of Oman, and lived among the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq. He has explored the mountain country of the Hindu Kush and the Karakorams and crossed the dreaded Empty Quarter of Arabia with a handful of Bedouin companions.
And just three years ago, following in the footsteps of novelist Joseph Conrad, he sailed in a 65-year-old ketch through the Indonesian islands of Bali, Sarawak, and Brunei. Wilfred thesiger knows the perils and the joys of the adventurer.
He has now abandoned the deserts and the marshes and lives in a tiny makeshift hut among the Samburu people of northern Kenya. They affectionately call him "mzee juu the Sangalai" -- the old bull who walks by himself.
He walks barefoot and wears a tucked up, ankle-length Arab nightshirt, topped by a tweed jacket. One friend tagged him "a cross between the ultimate Big White Hunter and Widow Twankey."
Until last year, he lived in a tent with only the most rudimentary essentials. "I don't have any urge to be in a London hotel with a bath," he explained. "I'd much rather be groping about in the mud in my tent."
Last year, his long-time Samburu companion, Lawi, built him a small hut which is now home for at least eight months of the year. The rest of the time, he explores other corners of the world or makes his annual pilgrimage to London "to pick up the threads with my old friends."
On his most recent visit, he was also promoting his new book "Desert, Marsh and Mountain: The World of a Nomad," which was recently published in the US under the title "The Last Nomad." The book is a handsome labor of love culled from many years of travel among tribal peoples. It also includes the first exposure of his own striking photographs.
We met in the sedate lounge of his English publisher, William Collins. Mr. Thesiger, who greeted me with a shy, retiring smile, was dressed as the perfect English gentleman: dark pinstriped suit, gold watch chain, and rolled umbrella.
Though his clothes defied his true self, his face revealed all: dark, tanned, leathery skin bearing witness to a lifetime under the sun. He looked uneasy in the large stuffed armchair but assured me that he lives quite happily in two different worlds.
"When I'm here, I am at home with my friends, my books, and my club. The moment I get back to Africa, I slip quite naturally into my other world with Lawi and my Samburu friends."
Wilfred Thesiger was born in 1910 in a mud building that housed members of the British legation in Addis Ababa where his father was British minister. He was sent to school in England, first Eton and later Oxford. While at Oxford, he received an invitation from Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie to return to Addis Ababa for his coronation. It was during that visit that he decided to set out to explore the remote and savage country of the Danakils in eastern Ethiopia.
"The moment the telegraph poles along the railway dropped out of sight, I knew I was alone and had only myself to rely on if things went wrong," he remarked.
That one trip, according to Mr. Thesiger, was the most decisive month in his life. "After that, I knew there was no turning back."
He then worked as district commissioner in a remote corner of Sudan "because it was close to Ethiopia which I regarded as my homeland." In World War II he won the Distinguished Service Order for capturing 10,000 Italian soldiers with a force of 300 tribesmen.
After the war he traveled in Kurdistan and Iran on horses and mules, through the Iraqi marshes by canoe, and on foot in Nuristan (now part of Afghanistan) and the Karakorams. He explored the Ethiopian Blue Nile gorges, sailed up the Chitral River in Pakistan, and walked to Hunza with yaks.
But the journeys he treasures most are the two crossings of the vast Empty Quarter of Arabia with a small team of Bedouin tribesmen.
"When I first went to them, they had never heard of an Englishman," he recalled. "I came from a world which they knew nothing about. But they accepted me, with reservations at first, and little by little, I made the grade."
When he decided to make his second crossing in 1947, Mr. Thesiger recruited two of the same companions, bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha. But when he set out, little did he know that this would be the most dangerous journey of his life.
"The whole desert was at war and there were hostile tribes near us most of the time. I knew if these chaps saw us, they would shoot on sight. I underrated hopelessly the dangers we ran into."
"Bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha certainly knew the risks they were taking," Mr. Thesiger added, "and yet they came with me. They could have said no, but they said, 'Wherever you want to go, we'll go with you.'"
Wilfred Thesiger spent five years among the Bedouin and still speaks of them with deep respect.
"When I went to the desert, I expected them to be superior to me in things such as endurance, sustaining thirst, long rides, etc.," he reflected. "What I didn't expect was their remarkable moral values: their hospitality, generosity, courage, endurance, patience. In all these qualities, they far excelled me."
In 1977, more than 30 years after his first desert crossing, Mr. Thesiger returned to the lands and friends he had known so well. But it was a devastating experience.
"All my old Bedouin friends had moved into concrete houses. Bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha were among the few living on the edge of the sands in their black tents, but whenever they move, they hop into a Land Rover."
He looked melancholy. "Their sons will never know the harshness and hardship of desert life -- the things that fashioned bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha. All that is gone now." Western materialism, oil, and modernization have all taken their toll.
Wilfred Thesiger receives hundreds of letters each year from would-be travelers asking for a few words of advice. These letters grieve him.
"I have to write and say that it's all finished. It just isn't there any more, not anywhere. It is now tourist buses and transistor radios and airplanes and Land Rovers. It will just never be the same again."
Mr. Thesiger's explorations, particularly in the Arabian desert, have won him many awards and laurels. But he shuns any recognition as being "rubbish."
"All I did was persuade bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha to cross the Empty Quarter and I tagged along behind. It was something I always wanted to do."