The Last Great Explorer : Wilfred Thesiger Has Spent a Lifetime Satisfying a 'Craving for Barbaric Splendor, for Savagery and Color and the Throb of Drums'

THE NIGHT BEFORE, TWO LONG-AWAITED FRIENDS HAD COME FROM England, and there had been no dinner ready for them. On the busy, dirt main street of Maralal, Kenya, in front of the service station where he makes his informal headquarters, Wilfred Thesiger was tormenting himself for this unforgivable breach of hospitality. It was as if one of the Bedouin with whom Thesiger had lived for five years in the sands of Arabia had failed to feast a guest; in no time, the entire desert would know of the man's shame.

Fretfully, he hectored three of the slender, young Samburu men he employs to do odd jobs. "Don't forget the food, for heaven's sake! This can't happen two nights in a row!" The youths nodded placatingly. They were used to this. It was all taken care of, they assured him respectfully. He turned to leave, then doubled back, remembering that his friends were setting out the next morning on a seven-day camel safari. "The water! Don't forget to arrange for the water! Good Lord, we can't forget that!" There were more patient assurances. "The water is right here," one of the boys said.

Thesiger pointed his heavy, brown oxford shoes up the road. It was hot under a bleached sky, but he was wearing a wool tweed jacket with brown patches at the elbows. A faded and soiled red paisley handkerchief flapped from the breast pocket. Except for his shapeless, green safari hat, this is not exactly the customary garb among the tribal herdsmen and dirt-road entrepreneurs of this semi-arid district of up-country Kenya. But then, wherever he has gone in his 80 years of living and traveling in Africa, Asia and Arabia--and however much he has been accepted by the tribal communities, among whom he has spent almost all his life--Wilfred Thesiger has been someone who does not exactly fit in.

Today, he complains about his failing eyesight and a number of general ailments--"My mind is going," he says. "My memory's going." But no stoop diminishes the powerful 6-foot-2 frame. Age has made his craggily aristocratic features--a hawklike nose and steel-blue eyes under a pair of glowering, bushy eyebrows--even sharper than those that stare out from the jackets of his five books, chronicling a series of journeys that began when he was 23.

These journeys, often undertaken largely as his way of escaping the European civilization he professes to detest, made him a famous figure of adventure and letters in the middle of this century. He was often the first European to penetrate regions of fabled isolation--notably the harsh Danakil depression of eastern Ethiopia and the vast Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia--and the last to do so on foot before aircraft and hardy four-wheel-drive vehicles enabled anyone to do it in relative comfort.

His single-minded determination to finish treks in conditions of unbelievable adversity is what made books such as "Arabian Sands," the 1959 chronicle of his Saudi trip, enormously popular throughout the English-speaking world. His 1987 autobiography, defiantly entitled "The Life of My Choice," reintroduced him to a public enthralled by his solitary adventures and his prickly personality.

Dutch writer and traveler Ian Buruma tried to divine Thesiger's appeal in a 1988 essay: "He is the quintessential English eccentric, forever embarking on impossible adventures in impossible countries, among impossible people; the well-bred aristocrat reveling in excruciating discomfort and horrid food." Another British travel essayist, Eric Newby, summed him up as "a remarkable throwback to the Victorian era." In truth, the era of solitary adventurous travel has gone the way of the Victorians, and perhaps the only remnant of it today is this old man, a product of British aristocracy and an Eton and Oxford education, happily living out his last years in one of the most primitive places on Earth.

"In terms of geography and exploration, he's unique," says his close friend George Webb, chairman of the Travellers Club, the venerable institution on Pall Mall that Thesiger haunts for the two or three months a year he spends in London--his only time away from Maralal. "He belongs to a vintage which regarded travel as something you did the hard way, on your feet."

It has been suggested that part of what made "The Life of My Choice" a bestseller in Great Britain is Thesiger's stature as that compellingly romantic figure, the last of a breed. There is no question that the feats of physical daring he accomplished in the 1930s and '40s could not be replicated today: Travel is too easy. Western pop culture has saturated even the most remote vastnesses of desert and mountain range.

The newer generation of admired travel writers, such as the late Bruce Chatwin and Jonathan Raban, are somehow more and less than Thesiger, their literary forebear. None undergoes the astonishing perils and privations that he did, and none is as satisfied as he to frame his narrative simply as thrilling adventure, with virtually no reference to the politics and other complexities that make human beings, of whatever culture, what they are.

Thesiger managed to do what every schoolboy of his time--or any other--dreamed of: He lived the adventure stories he read as a lad, "Jock of the Bushveld" and John Buchan's secret agents and Kipling's "Jungle Books." He met fierce native tribesmen, shot lion, engaged in wartime sabotage behind German lines in North Africa and twice traversed the Empty Quarter (only to be arrested and briefly imprisoned by King Ibn Saud, who had forbidden the journey).

For the five years it took to cross the desert, Thesiger lived among the Bedouin (he insists on the proper tribal name Bedu , complaining that Bedouin is a corrupt double plural form). Then he moved on to Iraq, where he spent eight years among the marsh Arabs of the country's south, observing a fading way of life that allied bombs this year may well have obliterated.

Then he returned to Africa, the continent of his birth, to explore southern and northern Ethiopia. Finally, in the 1960s, having exhausted the dwindling number of unexplored places on Earth, he settled among the Samburu, a northern Kenyan tribe of slender cattle herders, in a dusty provincial town 100 miles beyond the last inch of paved road.

The question of what drove him to shun the company of his own countrymen and spend his life among primitive peoples is one he often asked himself. In "Arabian Sands," he wonders aloud "at this strange compulsion which drove me back to a life that was barely possible." All he could tell himself was that "it was the same pull which takes men back to the polar ice, to high mountains and to the sea."

He has stopped asking himself why he did it, but spends more time lamenting the passage of his era.

"There's no longer an opportunity for someone like myself to go into the Danakil country (the fierce badlands of eastern Ethiopia) and test oneself." Thesiger is on the porch of the Maralal Safari Club, in front of a low wall dividing the guests from the herds of zebra and Cape buffalo that come to the man-made water hole around which the lodge is built.

As he speaks, the glimmer in his eye is not all nostalgia; there is also a hint of his sense of luck at having been able to seize his chance before it evaporated entirely--before the gasoline engine made travel not only motorized but expensive, for example. (The modest income provided by Thesiger's family was enough to cover his goods and the minuscule wages of his porters, although the Arabian trips were paid for by a British agency for which he surveyed the region).

"In those days, I did it all by camel safari," he says of one trek across the Abyssinian border to colonial Kenya, into a district that British authorities had closed to travelers because of incessant tribal warfare. "To go now by camel would be ridiculous, with Land Rovers and buses all around you. I don't think exploration, in the sense that it used to be, any longer exists. It can't. There's nothing left to explore." He sighs. "The world's a duller place. People come to me now and say, 'I wish I could have lived your life.' " He bursts out in a laugh. "If I'd been born 20 years later, I couldn't even have shot a lion!"

HIS REFERENCE TO HUNTING IS AN IMPORTANT clue to Thesiger's background. In 1910 he was the first British child born in Addis Ababa, then the muddy capital of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). Wilfred Thesiger senior was British Minister to that country in an era when only a few European countries and the United States merited diplomats of ambassadorial rank.

By the age of 7, young Billy Thesiger was steeped in the brocaded majesty of the Abyssinian court, which gave him, as he wrote in "The Life of My Choice," a "lifelong craving for barbaric splendor, for savagery and color and the throb of drums." That year, he accompanied his parents to India, where his uncle was viceroy, his hosts were maharajahs, and his father took him on a tiger hunt.

Then to school in England. From his recollections, it is hard to determine who was worse--the sadistic St. Aubyn's headmaster or his mean-spirited playmates. "I'd never seen European children before," he recalls. "I knew none of the conventions that small boys set such store by." Wilfred would regale them with stories of tiger shoots and lion hunts. "Well," he says, "one gets a reputation of being an appalling little liar."

He was already an outsider, putting himself to sleep with dreams of Abyssinia, "far more real to me than the cold, bleak English downs behind the school."

Among the elements of his upbringing that emerged unaltered in young Wilfred was the gentry's enduring preoccupation with game-hunting. He was an expert shot. Now that the sport is disreputable because of the decimation of African wildlife, he accepts that its time has passed, but he is unapologetic about his own marksmanship. He does not miss it--"Hunting is a thing you grow out of," he says--but he stresses that he "never had that desire to kill animals just for the sake of killing animals." The point was always to bag a great head for a museum--an oryx with its majestic antlers, for example--or to bring in food or (most important) to rid the district of a marauding lion.

Thesiger's books burst with hunting yarns, some of them grisly. On his first journey in Ethiopia, he found a riverfront teeming with crocodiles. "I disliked these malevolent-looking reptiles and used them as targets, to impress the Danakil with my marksmanship. It never occurred to me that within 50 years crocodiles would be facing extinction over much of Africa."

BECAUSE OF THEIR VERY SINGLE-MINDED-NESS, Thesiger's outlook and work sometimes give a strange impression. Books such as "Arabian Sands" and his 1964 "The Marsh Arabs," both still in print, are not about anything as much as they are about wanderlust--travel for its own sake.

The variety of wanderlust that Thesiger exemplifies seems to have been a peculiarly English phenomenon. English literature is full of characters who head for extreme remoteness on an impulse best described by Evelyn Waugh, himself a hardy traveler, as "the longing, romantic, reasonless, which lies deep in the hearts of most Englishmen, to shun the celebrated spectacles of the tourist and without any concern with science or politics or commerce, simply to set their feet where few civilized men have trod."

He could have been describing Thesiger in the flesh. Ask Wilfred if he considers himself a scientist or anthropologist, and he gives a schoolboyish chuckle, as if to ask how could anyone be so, well, grave about it. "Not an anthropologist, no," he says. "Not much of anything, really."

George Webb concurs that scholarship is not Thesiger's strength as a traveler and writer. Thesiger himself laments his lack of linguistic ability; he was forced to learn Arabic in his training as a junior British diplomat in Sudan but never picked up much Amharic, the language of his native Ethiopia. And he speaks no Samburu or Swahili, the local languages of Maralal.

"He hasn't got what I would call an intellectual cast of mind or much critical acuity," Webb says. "But he is a humanist. When he feels emotionally involved, he steeps himself in tribal lore."

This approach gives Thesiger's world view a firmly personal complexion. It is full of contradictions that a more rigorously intellectual mind might have successfully resolved over the course of eight decades: The way he abjures modern conveniences--motorcars, televisions, airplanes--that his tribal companions welcome, for instance. His glorification of primitive lifestyles, many of which condemn villagers to lives of disease, isolation and penury, smacks of another Victorian relic: paternal colonialism. Thesiger never tires of questioning the value of education for the herders and nomads and subsistence farmers among whom he has spent his life--but then he is able to do so from the lofty vantage point of an aristocratic education.

For these reasons and others, one does not turn to Thesiger or his books for learned advice on world politics, even when the subjects are regions he grew to know intimately. For years he cherished a hatred of the Italians for their atrocious behavior in his beloved Abyssinia, which they subjugated in the '30s and '40s through poison gas and civilian massacres. But, he says, "I don't resent the Italians anymore. The ones I resent are the Israelis."

That dates from his life in Iraq and his World War II service in Lebanon, when he lived with a detachment of Druze, the southern Lebanese followers of an ancient Egyptian cult. "I see no justification for this influx of Jews onto Arab land, from where they had been expelled 2,000 years before."

The Iran-Iraq war, whose battlefield was the marshes, anguished him, but not as much as the Gulf War this year. The bombardment to which Iraq was subjected repels him, and he believes that the United States and its European allies had no business injecting themselves into the region's politics. "Certainly Saddam Hussein was a menace," he says. "But he was a local menace."

YES, HE IS CONTENT here," says Lawi Leboyare. Lawi is a solid-looking Samburu, 36, the mayor of Maralal. He is also Thesiger's adopted son. For a couple of years, Thesiger has been living in cramped quarters with another Samburu family on the next hilltop, but Lawi has been hard at work building an annex to his own house for his friend. Cheerfully he gives some visitors a tour: two spacious rooms fashioned substantially of concrete, with heavy wooden doors. "He will be peaceful here," Lawi says.

When he met Thesiger, Lawi was 8, living in destitution with his aged grandmother in a waterless hollow, attending a local mission school. Thesiger used to stop near the school on his travels across the countryside and took to giving the schoolboys impromptu boxing lessons. "I noticed he was a remarkable little boy," Thesiger recalls.

"I was the best boxer," Lawi continues proudly. Thesiger began paying Lawi's school fees, something he still does for selected children among the Samburu families of Maralal, until one day, as the youth was finishing primary school, Thesiger returned to his car to find Lawi waiting inside. "I'm coming with you," he told Thesiger.

The two of them traveled together, in a companionable male relationship that seems to be the type Thesiger has always most enjoyed. His books document a succession of highly appreciated native friends--bearers, guides, guards and interpreters--but few conventional relationships. "All my life I have felt the need of human company," he wrote in "The Life of My Choice." But family life, except what he experienced with his parents and brothers and the metaphorical variety he enjoys with the Samburu in Maralal, is almost entirely unmentioned in his books except as one of the "commonly accepted pleasures of life" (a category encompassing good food, beer, wine and tobacco) by which "I have never set much store."

"Sex has been of no great consequence to me, and the celibacy of desert life left me untroubled," he wrote. "Marriage would certainly have been a crippling handicap."

In 1971, Thesiger bought a Land Rover, the only motor vehicle he would ever own, and Lawi was appointed its driver. Thesiger arranged for Lawi to get a mechanic's education from Saddiq Bhola, the garage owner in Maralal, whose grandfather had come to Kenya from India as a laborer for the epic construction of Britain's East African railroad.

For 10 years, they lived together in a tent on a hill outside Maralal, until one evening they decided to build a house near its summit. This is where Lawi lives today, a man of means, a husband and the father of a son, owner of the wines and spirits store in town and of 300 head of cattle as well as a truck and bus service. A lot of it was started with Thesiger's help.

"He's like one of us," Lawi says of the ease with which Thesiger lives among the Samburu. "He's family. He taught me a lot . . . the way a father advises his son."

IN 1930, HAILE SELASSIE, a friend of Thesiger's family, invited him to be a guest at his coronation, and in 1933 gave the young Englishman his blessing to embark on what became his first journey of self-discovery. Three previous European expeditions had braved the country of the ferocious Danakil tribe in eastern Ethiopia to seek the source of the mysterious Awash River. All three had vanished, presumed dead, probably violently.

Ask Thesiger today what drove him to undertake such a perilous expedition with only a few native porters and soldiers, and he erupts with a schoolboy's glee. "This river that flowed where nobody knew--good Lord, how could you resist it?"

As he relates the tale of his fantastic journey, he characteristically reveals more about himself than perhaps of the places or people he encountered. His voice is like his prose: deadpan and crisp, exuding sang-froid at the often horrific displays he witnessed. One feels he met every challenge with this same serenity, reveling in the sheer adventure of coming face to face with savage murderers and, at their hands, receiving not death but dinner. Without irony he generously appraises the Danakil, who kept his party alive with gifts of milk and roast meat: "They might be a murderously inclined race, but no one could call them inhospitable."

Or take, for example, this description of his meeting with the fearsome sultan of Aussa during the same journey. Aussa was the most menacing part of the route, and Thesiger's guard of 15 unhappy soldiers would have been worthless in an attack. One night he was summoned to a moonlit forest glade to meet the sultan, who was surrounded by a huge retinue of armed men. He takes up the story in "The Life of My Choice":

"As I looked round the clearing at the ranks of squatting warriors and the small isolated group of my own men, I knew that this moonlight meeting in unknown Africa with a savage potentate who hated Europeans was the realization of my boyhood dreams. The knowledge that somewhere in this neighborhood three previous expeditions had been exterminated, that we were far beyond any hope of assistance, that even our whereabouts were unknown," he writes, "I found wholly satisfying."

Inexplicably, the sultan granted the 23-year-old traveler safe passage and provisioned him with skins filled with milk and clarified butter. Thesiger happily recalls "the lure of the unexplored, the danger of the unexplored" that propelled him on that journey. "Meeting the sultan--why, our lives depended on that one man!"

SOME DAYS THESIGER spends sitting in the front seat of a Land Rover on the main street of Maralal. The town's 200 shops, mostly one-story concrete affairs painted in faded blue or yellow, serve a population of 50,000 townspeople and nomadic herdsmen. There is a steady traffic of Land Rovers serving the local government or European-funded development schemes--water projects, grain farming and the like.

As in every other place in Africa, the roadside is teeming with people on the move. Urbanized Africans mix with rural Samburu, these latter often carrying great spears so slender as to be misleadingly delicate, tipped with alarming points of hammered iron.

"I could do this for hours," Thesiger says. "But I couldn't imagine sitting in a car in a main street of London, just watching. I'd be jolly well bored!"

Still, he returns every year to London. Old friends and his old flat in Chelsea draw him back. There, his few lifelong possessions are gathered, including the items he values above all others, 65 albums of his photographs, some of them classics of travel photography and documentation of people and traditions forever vanished.

"What do I own here in Maralal, Lawi?" he asks his adopted son. "Everything I have here I can pack in that one suitcase of mine, can't I?"

For someone with such a profound aversion to the modern world, Thesiger adjusts to London surprisingly easily. He sheds the ancient tweed jacket familiar to Maralal passers-by and instead "dresses impeccably," says his friend Webb. "Three-piece suits and all. He used to wear a bowler hat until it became a laughingstock to wear a bowler even in London. He's curiously conformist, in a way."

Once Thesiger took his young Samburu protege to London and introduced him to the Travellers Club. To the delight of the old Etonian, one member remarked to Lawi: "You were obviously educated in England; which school were you at?"

Despite having turned his back long ago on what most others would consider civilization, Thesiger scarcely hesitates in expressing his approval of the colonial impulse. "The British brought these people order and peace," he says. Not all such impulses were admirable: He views the "civilizing" effect of mass education as destabilizing to ancient ways of life.

Education forced innovation upon the tribes with whom Thesiger spent years, and the transplanted Briton came to harbor an enduring mistrust of the village schoolhouses of Africa. "This sort of education is invariably destructive, isn't it?" he asks in a tone of pure reason. The school calendar interferes with herding and harvesting; the curriculum becomes an influence inimical to that of the family.

"What of any use can a schoolteacher tell a herds boy?" Thesiger recalls the tribesmen of Darfur, in Sudan, where he traveled an administrative circuit in the 1930s as a member of the British colonial service. "These people were happy--we'd given them peace. They didn't ask for schools. It results in family life being destroyed, in their being dissatisfied with what they have."

Not long ago he toured the district around Maralal. "I was surprised to find that every village had a school. Here in Kenya, you have mass education, and the result is mass unemployment. They gather in the cities; they become a danger to the country." He pauses to reflect. "That's what overthrew Haile Selassie."

This may be part of Thesiger's natural suspicion of modernity, bred of his living with people who had done all they could to adapt their meager resources to implacably harsh conditions.

Of course, his own access to modern anodynes served him well. He could often insinuate himself into a tribe's confidence by distributing a handful of aspirin; because his medicines were more efficacious than the bizarre preparations of local healers, he was once asked to perform a traditional circumcision, eventually gaining local fame among marsh Arabs for his skill in the procedure. Once, he accomplished 115 operations in a day. But medicine or conveniences were not for him. He says he fell ill on the road only once (with malaria). "I've never carried purification tablets or boiled water. I've just taken whatever was at hand," he says, adding in an afterthought, "Some of it was incredibly filthy."

SINCE SETTLING IN Maralal, Thesiger has returned twice to the scene of his greatest physical and literary triumph: Arabia. The experience seemed simultaneously to mellow him and congeal his habitual mistrust of modernity. In 1977, he was invited to Abu Dhabi for an exhibition of his photographs. During his second crossing of the Empty Quarter, in 1948, this coastal sheikdom had beckoned to him from across 200 miles of desert over a route that his map showed as a blank. Thirty years later he found it overrun with motor traffic.

"It was the ultimate disillusionment," he recalls. "Bedu society was going to be destroyed the moment they came into contact with cars." It is as if he were the only man alive who thought the old traditions worth preserving against the onslaught of the petroleum economy.

"I was a guest of the sultan (of Oman)," he remembers. "He put at my disposal helicopters and Land Rovers. Well, traveling like that was absolutely pointless!"

He returned again a few years ago. This time, he says a little sadly, "I was prepared to accept that this was modern Arabia."

The reminiscence starts him off on a long reverie about the Bedu. One feels that among these beleaguered people Thesiger found the community in which, in all his life, he felt most at home. That comes through in his best book, a chronicle of his five years time with them, "Arabian Sands." It is here that Thesiger came closest to illuminating the inner life of his companions.

"The Bedu were the only community I've been to that you could apply the word noble ," he says. "All Bedu want to excel--be more brave and particularly more generous than anyone else." In part, this is because everybody's character is ceaselessly rehashed across the desert, any time two or more parties meet. "The desert is a sounding board because everyone is always on the move. They'd meet and stay together for eight days and tell each other every little detail: if a man had distinguished himself or blackened his face."

He goes on. "Any of them could have gone and lived in the town or worked for the oil companies--'the easier life of lesser men,' I called it--but they chose freedom, something you'll never have if you have possessions."

He is reliving the time even as he retells it. "Five years in the desert. We were hungry all the time and desperately thirsty. But I never thought to myself, 'I'd give anything to be in the Dorchester Hotel right now.' " In truth, Thesiger's penchant, even enthusiasm, for physical hardship often outstripped that of his native hosts.

But the Englishman lived the explorer's cliche, dragging his native crews into places that made them quail. In the same way, he often seems to want to preserve a way of life that its own practitioners would sooner discard. Today still, he seems out of step with the Samburu tribesmen who are his companions and who have taken to modern conveniences much more easily than he has.

"He hates this," Lawi says, gesturing to the things that fill his hilltop home. "Hates music, hates the radio." It's a struggle to get him to watch a videotape; Lawi is not sure Thesiger has ever seen the one the BBC made of his own life, entitled "The Last Explorer."

Lawi, who dresses in tailored clothes and can often be found entertaining friends from the metropolis at the local safari lodge, sometimes ribs Thesiger about his resolute primitivism. "I tell him, 'It's because you are Stone Age man and I am modern man!' "

EQUATORIAL KENYA'S TWILIGHT is short, its sunsets abrupt, and late one afternoon Thesiger accepts a lift to the hillside home he temporarily shares with a Samburu named Laputo and the man's noisy family. Yellowed and cracked prints of his photographs, some mended with Scotch tape, decorate the walls of his dim quarters, along with some drawings of animals and men made by one of the children.

"The thing you've got here," he says of the bustling house, "you're often going to be exasperated, but you'll never feel lonely. In England you could never become an intimate part of another family. In London, even if you go to the Explorers Club, there's a constant sense of loneliness that you never have in the marshes."

He's explaining that his life was a search for fellowship he could never feel among the citified Britons who were by birthright his peers, not after his St. Aubyn's schoolmates laughed at his tall tales and forced him to see the noisy pageant of Africa as his real home.

In front of the new house being furnished, Lawi nods his head toward the expanse of flat brown scrub before him. "He always tells me, 'When I die, just leave me out there and let the hyenas eat me.' But I won't do that. I won't give him to the hyenas. I'm going to bury him peacefully, like a father."

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