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Volume 32, Number 4July/August 1981

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A Taste for Freedom

Written and photographed by Michael Winn

At the age of 23, Wilfred Thesiger led an expedition into territory . controlled by Ethiopia's Danakils, a tribe that had already wiped out three other expeditions and was known to mutilate enemies savagely. For Thesiger, the expedition meant fear, loneliness, thirst and exhaustion, but, as one writer put it, it was also his first taste of freedom — and he never recovered.

Today, almost everyone travels; businessmen on jets, tourists in the cool luxury of tour buses, and some—the back-pack crowd—on foot. But no one travels like Wilfred Thesiger. Since he first faced the Danakils, he has spent 40 years in the ivilds of the world: patrolling the Sudan on camel back, climbing the mountains of the Hindu Kush, and hunting wild boar with the Marsh Arabs in the vast swamps of the Euph rates Delta — "in the stillness of a world that knew no engine."

Thesige's fame, however, rests largely upon the five years he spent with the Bedouins of the Arabian Peninsula. Assigned by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) to study the movement of locusts on the Peninsula, he began to travel and live with the Bedouins and, eventually, cross and re-cross the Empty Quarter, the largest and hottest sand desert in the world.

To those who travel to clinch a deal or get a tan, Wilfred Thesiger's travels often seem incomprehensible. For though he has explained himself clearly, even poetically, in such books as Arabian Sands, one of the greatest travel books ever written, and The Marsh Arab, Thesiger remains, by contemporary standards, an elusive, even mysterious figure. Michael Winn's recent interview with Thesiger, therefore, is of special interest; it is the first ever given by Thesiger to an American journalist and it sheds additional light on a man whose feats can never be duplicated —for reasons he makes distressingly clear.

It was not an easy interview to get. Winn, invited to visit Thesiger, flew 10,000 miles from New York to Kenya's remote Northern Frontier District, but, delayed enroute, arrived to find that Thesiger had gone camping. Undeterred, Winn talked his way onto a chartered flight leaving an airstrip in the bush for Lake Turkana, found Thesiger and spent two weeks camping with him in Kenya's Rift Valley where, when the mood was right, Thesiger, often quoting from his own books, attempted to explain, one more time, his need for challenge, solitude and freedom.

— The Editors

Because Wilfred Thesiger ranks with such great 19th century explorers as Burton and Doughty, I was quite unprepared for the man I found camped by the blue soda waters of Lake Turkana in a bleak volcanic desert in Kenya. What I expected was someone grizzled, old and somehow wild. What I found was a polite, unassuming man in dapper tweeds looking much younger than 70 and speaking softly, if strongly, in an Oxford accent. Only his face gave a clue to his nomadic past: a nose like chiseled granite,' bushy eyebrows hung like shutters to hide his deep-set eyes from the elements, and the sharp lines etched by years of squinting into a blazing desert sun.

Thesiger's camping companions were six young Samburu tribesmen - cousins to the famous Masai warrior-and the ease with which Thesiger mixed with them provided my first glimpse into a character that comfortably contained many contradictions. As for the Samburu, they refer to Thesiger as"Sangalai," which means 'The Old Bull Elephant That Walks Alone."

For the next two weeks, as it happened, the Old Bull Elephant did not walk alone. Instead, he drove his 12-year-old Land-Rover, a fact that he lamented and, in what was obviously a familiar tirade, criticized fiercely. "I suppose with age I've lost some of my enthusiasm for walking everywhere. It's the bloody car and airplane that have ruined travel. Ifs made it too easy. In the old days, if you spent two months on a steamer getting to Africa you would stay six months and see the country properly. It kept the casual tourist out. Now things are ruined for the serious traveler."

Thesiger has had a lifelong obsession with the destructive impact of machines. "I remember how in my youth I resented hearing that someone had crossed the Sahara desert in a car," he said. "Even then I realized that machines would rob the world of all diversity?'

During World War II, Thesiger fought in Abyssinia and, as a major, in Syria and North Africa, but even then he objected strongly to using motor vehicles. "Though we were operating behind German lines, I found the Libyan jeep campaigns absolutely boring," he recounted.

"I was totally insulated from the beauty of the desert as we speeded past in jeeps. I'd rather jolt for 17 hours on a camel's back than spend 17 hours in a comfortable jeep. At least the camel offers a challenge."

A man who hates motor vehicles that intensely must, of course, do a lot of walking-and Thesiger has. How far? "Close to 50,000 miles," he says, adding dryly, "about the same distance an ordinary housefly travels in its short life." He didn't bother to add that in walking a distance twice round the earth he wore out both kneecaps and had to replace them after months of the most strenuous up and down climbing of his life - in Yemen at age 58.

Ironically, the only other serious health problem occurred when he slipped a disc pulling luggage from a train back in England. In 25 years of drinking brackish waters from ditches and wells in the Middle East-whose tastes ranged, he said, from "camel's urine to Epsom Salts" - he never became seriously ill. And though he faced and shot more than 2,000 wild boar during his eight years with the Marsh Arabs, he said he was never gored.

Accounts of such adventures led, inevitably, to the question everyone puts to Thesiger eventually: why? What drove a man with an Oxford education to spend 40 years in the wilderness?

One writer on Thesiger, Peter Munro, put it rather neatly when he said that in the loneliness and dangers of his expedition among the Danakils, Thesiger"got his first taste of freedom - and never recovered." But as Thesiger's life suggests, there was a bit more to it than that. His taste for adventure, in fact, was planted early in his childhood when his father, British Consul to Abyssinia, began to take him big game hunting, a sport young Wilfred would pursue enthusiastically for 40 years; he found the risk addictive, as well as a good excuse for exploring new country.

When he returned to England to attend school- where the other pupils snickered at his wild tales of colorful armies and exotic beasts in Abyssinia -Thesiger's interest in the area may have waned, but in 1930 a personal invitation from Haile Selassie to attend his coronation rekindled it. Then, after graduation from Oxford, came the chance to solve one of the last remaining geographic mysteries in Africa by tracking the course of the Awash River to the point where it disappeared in the desert - a six-month expedition that took Thesiger into territory controlled by the Danakils, a tribe notorious for wiping out three previous European expeditions. That expedition was a success; though losing 14 of his 18 camels, he succeeded in mapping the river without the loss of human lives. But to Thesiger the real satisfaction came from the exhilaration of pitting himself against the unknown.

Subsequently, Thesiger joined the Sudan Political Service, in its remote northern Darfur district. Unlike most colonial administrators, he soon learned to ride a camel - so well that on one three-month vacation he raced 2,000 miles on camel back to the distant Tibesti Mountains in Libya, then one of the few areas of the Sahara not explored by motor car.

In the Sudan he also tested his courage by facing a hippopotamus while armed only with a spear, and by hunting and shooting 70 lions. "It was not like the modern safari in which the Great White Hunter is backed by several expert guides," Thesiger told me. "I rode the lion down on my horse, jumped off and shot it just before it charged me. You could tell it was going to charge because its tail would stand straight on end."

Another time, he went on, "I was knocked down by a lion and three young Arab companions were badly mauled. I got up and shot it in the ear. The greatest danger was infection from the lion's paw, as in those days we had no antibiotics. But in 1945 I lost the desire to kill for sport... I've since served as honorary game warden in Kenya and worked to protect animals from poachers."

The next stage in his evolution occurred in Syria where he first encountered the northern Bedouins -Thesiger prefers "Bedu" to the anglicized "Bedouin" - and realized, with a shock, that he was prejudiced. "Raised with my parents' Victorian ideas of culture, I first went among the Arabs with a belief in my own racial superiority. But in their tents I felt an uncouth and inarticulate barbarian, an intruder from a shoddy and materialistic age."

That encounter also led Thesiger into the desert where he would later gain fame as an explorer and author. "I recall Ruwala tribesmen asking me, 'Why do you visit us now, when we are caged in our summer encampment? Come with us to the desert, where we live in freedom"'

Thesiger soon did. When Desert Locust Control Officer O. B. Lean offered him a job traveling through Arabia to look for the breeding grounds of the locusts that periodically plague the Arab East, he instantly accepted and not long after entered the desert that he would later cross, re-cross and come to love: the Rub'al-Khali, or Empty Quarter.

Thesiger was not the first Westerner to cross the Empty Quarter by camel – nor even the second. Bertram Thomas did it first in 1931, followed by St. John Philby in 1932, and though Philby's 400-mile waterless crossing was a stunning feat, both he and Thomas took relatively easier routes. Thesiger crossed both the eastern and western "Sands" - the Bedu term for the Empty Quarter- over steep 215 meter high dunes (705 feet).

Later he also explored thousands of miles of the interior fringes of desert as well as the little known Trucial coast, now the United Arab Emirates, and from Oman down the coast of the peninsula to Yemen.

His greatest feat, however, was to win acceptance from the Rashid tribe and then live as a Bedowin for years.

Bedouin life, as Lawrence wrote in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, was hard, even for those brought up in it, "and for strangers terrible: a death in life." Some have said that living conditions are among the harshest in the world, matched perhaps only by the bushmen of the Kalahari, and Thesiger does not entirely disagree.

"Certainly they were the most exacting conditions I've ever encountered," he said one evening as we relaxed under a wild olive tree surrounded by a garden of bougainvillea and succulents that Thesiger had carefully nurtured himself. "We marched 12 hours a day, at times for weeks on end, with a pint of water a day and little or no food." Daily fare, he said, might consist of a single biscuit so dry in his mouth that Thesiger often refused to eat it. "Even the Bedu considered it starvation rations; [and] our camels scrounged grasses left over from rains four years before."

To win acceptance from the Bedouin tribesmen, Thesiger tried to become an Arab - almost literally. He learned Arabic, for example, and though he modestly claims to be a poor linguist, he could - even with his"bad ear" - distinguish and understand the Arabic spoken in Iraq, Syria, Morocco, the Hijaz, Egypt and among the Bedouin of Saudi Arabia. Thesiger accepted also the normal discomforts of Bedouin life. "I refused to wear sunglasses, even though the glare off the sands was murderous. I didn't want any advantage over the Bedouin." He also wore a loin-cloth and a long, tattered thawb, and at night slept on his saddle rug beside his camel.

He did make certain exceptions, of course; hidden in his saddlebag were a Leica camera, some rolls of B&W 125 film, binoculars, a few books - Kipling's Kim, Conrad's Lord Jim, or a history by Gibbon -and the specimens of plants, rocks and insects which he was collecting for the British Museum or FAO's locust control work.

At one point I asked Thesiger if the beauty of the desert was worth the loneliness and isolation, and he immediately made it clear, as he had in his books, that he was not lonely - ever. "I've often wondered how many minutes I spent alone in five years in the desert," he replied. "I was with the Bedu constantly, the Bedu brought the empty desert to life. There was no privacy in the desert."

Later, we also discussed his preference for Arab friends over Europeans. Thesiger said he resented Europeans because they sometimes intruded on a world not their own. Paradoxically, though, Thesiger also intimated that he felt freer with Arabs because they could not penetrate his private, and essentially European, inner self. Riding along in the isolated beauty of the desert, he could tune in or out of his tiny Bedu society at will.

On the other hand, he also said that "its always the people, not places that interest me. Without the Bedu my journey would have been a meaningless penance." Indeed, he continued, a basic reason for his espousal of the nomadic life was to experience the comradeship forged in hardship, starvation and thirst. "The human spirit achieves an essential nobility under conditions of hardship," he said. "In their courage, endurance, good temper and generosity, the Bedu were infinitely superior to my race. Their spirit lit the desert like a flame."

A dichotomy in Thesiger's thinking became apparent to me when I asked him why he had not adopted Islam, the religion of the Arabs, if he wished to share their life. He was silent a moment, then answered with genuine pain in his voice: 'The thing I envied most was their belief in God. I am resentful that science had destroyed my belief..."

I wonder. Could Thesiger be concealing a deeper motive for his nomadic quest? Or, more likely, was he unconscious of it? Because it is impossible to ignore the spiritual quality embedded in his writing. In the desert Thesiger had found his absolute: "The deserts I traveled in were blanks in time as well as space," he wrote. "All pretense was stripped away and basic truths emerged. "And before crossing the Empty Quarter, he writes, he joined hands with his Bedouin companions, and in what must have been an emotional moment, said solemnly: "We commit ourselves to God." Are these the words of a man without belief?

Whatever the answer, Thesiger spent the rest of his life trying to recapture those basic truths. They were not truths in the Western sense - i.e. rational knowledge - but rather a deep feeling of serenity springing from the experience of freedom pushed to its absolute limits. In the Empty Quarter, in the marshes, and later the mountains, Thesiger seems to have found an uninhibited sense of physical freedom, and in the life of the nomadic peoples a willingness to live on the edge of death that heightened his awareness of life's fullness. For most members of his own race such a life would have been purgatory; for Thesiger, it was a private, personal heaven.

This deep, desert-inspired vein of asceticism runs through Thesiger's life as well as through his books. Luxury is meaningless to him. He never smoked. He rarely drank. And, with regard to women, he assured me that at no time were his travels into the wilderness ever an attempt to escape heartbreak and that usually he was too exhausted by his journeys to even think of women; more often he dreamed of food or icy rivers.

Thesiger is quite straight forward about his motives; they are totally selfish. Though he did gather information and collect specimens for museums, this was really incidental to his private experience, and though he realized that he might win distinction as a traveler and explorer, it certainly wasn't a compelling motive; it took friends nine years to persuade him to write Arabian Sands. He never, in fact, seems to have sought money, power or status, refusing them when they interfered with the purity of his nomadic quest. He has often pointed out that nomadic people the world over have never fallen prey to decadence; it is only when they have settled in cities that human vices proliferated and their societies declined.

Today, these feelings have left Thesiger pessimistic about the future. With the deserts invaded by machines, and the life of tribal peoples "desecrated," he sees a bleak future. "There won't be a person alive in 50 years," he said to me in dead earnest. "Nervous breakdown, pollution and the arms race will soon do us in. Every scientific invention has been another nail in the coffin. Urban people are completely helpless. Primitive people have at least a slim hope - they know how to live off the land."

"During one of our talks, Thesiger and I were sitting inside his wood hut, the walls coated with a mixture of mud and dung, the only furniture a hard, wooden bed, a small table and a folding chair. In one wall was one small window that, I thought, could hardly compare with the grand view of the river Thames Thesiger had inherited along with his mother's apartment in London. Yet instead of retiring to rest comfortably on his laurels - he has received every explorer award in England and dined with the Queen-Thesiger chooses to live nine months of the year in conditions some of his Oxford friends would probably find squalid, or, at best, beneath their dignity.

I pointed out to him that most holy men would envy his ascetic self-discipline, and suggested his expeditions were spiritual rites of passage and he replied cautiously that his journeys did strengthen his rejection of materialism. "But if my trips were rites of passage," he said, "it was unconscious."

But he mulled over what he had said -as if his tribal self were arguing with his English self. "The attraction of my trips is that life was reduced to bare essentials. I could load my entire belongings onto a camel in 10 minutes. We clutter and obsess ourselves with possessions, houses, cars ... The Empty Quarter was great precisely because I did manage without 'possessions.' Motors especially destroy the magic of a place for me. I was shocked to see Philby motoring into Marib... [and] just before I left the marshes in Iraq hydrofoil boats were introduced to replace the reed taradas used for 5,000 years. It was more than absurd - it was a desecration

Thesiger is the world's last great traveler who can claim to have relied solely on non-mechanical, native means of transport; he walked, rode camels or, in the marshes, used reed boats. Thesiger didn't even use maps. There were none for most of the places he visited.

Today, Wilfred Thesiger has the satisfaction of knowing that no contemporary can ever match his accomplishment- not for lack of physical stamina, but simply because the world has changed so quickly the ancient cultures and wilderness he once explored no longer exist. "I was very lucky" he admits. "Everywhere I went I missed the intrusion of machine culture by only a few years."

He did so by always moving on. In a sense, Thesiger was a kind of super-nomad, whose impulse to move on was always greater than that of the nomadic tribes he lived with. In his autobiographical The Last Nomad (Dutton, 1980), Thesiger recounts time and again how he was forced to leave his adopted tribal home as revolutions, political and technological, forced him out of the latest variation of nomadic life to which he had adapted. "When I left Arabia after five years I knew what it was like to go into exile," he said, recalling the central experience of his life. "For several years after, I saw my countrymen through the eyes of a Bedu, like a critical and intolerant shadow that followed me everywhere."

The Sands - as the Bedouin referred to the Empty Quarter- gave Thesiger everything he wanted in life, and today he still reflects on that period more often -and more bitterly - than any other. "I can't stand it when a culture suddenly throws out all they've had for centuries and starts aping us," he says.

In rejecting modernization, Thesiger is markedly different from such Arabists as St. John Philby who, in becoming an automobile dealer, speeded up the introduction of Thesiger's hated "machines."

Nevertheless, Thesiger remains deferential to those who trod the desert before him. He strongly defends T.E. Lawrence against recent attacks and said that it was "almost an impertinence to write about the desert and Arabs after The Seven Pillars of Wisdom." He thinks that Charles Doughty, author of Arabia Deserta, "saw the Arabs more truly as they were," finds Philby's books packed with information, but difficult reading, and prefers the books of Glubb Pasha as a contemporary Arabist.

In 1977 Thesiger returned to Arabia, 27 years after he left it, and found it unrecognizable. The fact that he was received as a returning hero - Abu Dhabi had put his face on a postage stamp - made no difference to the despair that overwhelmed him as he watched a parade of schoolboys in sequined trousers play pop music and carry plastic palms about.

He was particularly dismayed to find that modernization had affected even the Bedouins. "I assure you the Bedu have ceased to exist," he said. "The Bedu struggle for survival depended on camels and on raiding. You can't be Bedu and whiz through the desert in a Mercedes Benz -its a contradiction in terms. They now even transport their camels by lorry. The camels have probably degenerated and are in danger of losing their thoroughbred qualities. The camel race in Abu Dhabi is ridiculously short, three times around a track-you need 60 or 100 miles (96 to 160 kilometers) to test a camel's mettle."

Thesiger's trip was a media event. He flew out to the desert with a TV crew in a helicopter, where cars took him to meet Bin Kabina, once his guide and companion, now a gray-bearded older man. The meeting, however, was a disappointment. "All feeling of real comradeship was disrupted by modernity." Thesiger recalled.

"The whole challenge of... Bedu life," he went on, "has been killed. In the Empty Quarter, the Arabs lived on the knife edge of survival - threatened constantly by raiders, drought, starvation -yet they were always cheerful and laughing happily. Back then I never met a depressed desert Arab in my life. Now, I fear many are becoming neurotic and depressed..."

The loss Thesiger felt is not limited to Bedouin culture. The once plentiful oryx, ibex and gazelle, for example, have been hunted for sport, sometimes from cars, and at one point were close to extinction. Yet hunting continues, he says, because of the Arab passion for shooting.

"In Yemen, I nearly had my feet shot off by an entire patrol firing their machine guns at a nearby rabbit," he noted with amused dismay, [and] "the fragile desert ecology is being destroyed by motor tracks -which are permanent."

Thesiger claims the true Bedu skills are almost completely gone. In 1968, he said, some Americans planned to cross the Nafud Desert in north central Saudi Arabia in order to read Arabic poetry in the context which first inspired it, but could not find enough camels and had to send a lorry off 150 miles to fetch camels fit for riding. "Then they couldn't find saddles or guides!"

And now? Today? Today, Thesiger lives in Africa - and among Africans - most of the time. In his compound are 17 Samburu, some of whom, he laughs, "meet my definition of a gentleman -someone who has never ridden in a car, flown in an airplane, or watched TV.

There is just enough wildness left in this part of Kenya to satisfy Thesiger's need for a sense of risk. Elephants occasionally wander past, and a wild buffalo recently gored a man to death 200 yards from the manyatta (183 meters). They keep dogs to ward off lions, and there is much excited gossip about the dreaded noroko - cattle raiders from Somalia and Turkana - now armed with AK-47's and mortars.

Thesiger's health is such he may well live until the year 2000. He has stopped trekking, but his mind hasn't; he is half finished with what he swears is his last book - on his campaign in Abyssinia and his travels there and in Kenya by camel. He says it is hard going as he is mentally lazy - the same excuse he gives when accused of being fearless: "My lack of fear is really just a lack of imagination," he says.

But then I ask what he'll do for the next 20 years, and a black, vacant look crosses his eyes for a moment. "There is virtually no place I want to go now," he replies slowly. "There are tarmac roads everywhere." He shrugs with a hint of resignation. "I'm being boxed in gradually by civilization.. .I might like Burma. But I'll probably go to India - it has a vast and authentic culture. Perhaps the Kashmir."

If so, my belief is that Thesiger will go in search of the India of Rudyard Kipling's Kim, which Thesiger has read over 40 times and considers pure poetry. Kim is an English orphan boy who moves about the local cultures as easily as he changes clothes, and who, amidst adventure and intrigue, meete a nomadic Tibetan lama who tries to guide him on the way, and shares his final moment of enlightenment with him.

"When I was a boy", Thesiger had told me, "the world was my oyster. The British Empire was still in its glory, and adventure was to be had for the asking." The parallels between Kim, an orphan, and young Thesiger- whose father died when he was 10 - are obvious. If their quests could have a similar ending, I think Thesiger would die happy. Thesiger is still part Kim and part lama, grappling with a life rich in the paradoxes of a man who has lived in more worlds than most men are capable of dreaming of: a strict ascetic, he has been wildly selfish in seeking his freedom; in environments that would kill many men he has found peace; uncompromising in his praise of tribal life throughout the world, he also upholds the glory of the British Empire which colonized and developed those same tribes.

Thesiger is remarkable for his empathy with tribal people, his attachment to animals, his innate spiritual feeling for the controlling power of the land itself. Yet the man who successfully evaded machine culture for most his life, has failed to find lasting serenity in an irritating world of noise and speed.

On the other hand, Thesiger has lived without compromise, opposed the tide of change and inspired others to seek adventure in their lives. Ahead of his time - and forever out of sync with it - he is the last of a dying breed and when he, the old Bull Elephant, dies, the species will be extinct.

This article appeared on pages 3-8 of the July/August 1981 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1981 images.