An Englishman in Africa;
Another writer/explorer extraordinaire.
Wilfred Thesiger, who lived when there was still a lot of exploring left to do, was the first foreigner to cross the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia twice. Still a vast unexplored desert in 1946, the Arabian Peninsula was a harsh and forbidding area of ranges and ridges of cascading sands. Traveling by camel and with a small group of Bedouin, Thesiger traversed a circular route from the eastern part of the desert near Salalah, by the Arabian Sea, to Mughshin, Khaba and finally Boi. Thesiger wasn't the first, Bertram Thomas was, but when Thesiger crossed it again in 1948, he was the first to come back for seconds. Continuing on after the second crossing, which ended on the Persian Gulf, Thesiger traveled on to Dhaufer, Hadramaut, Oman, and the Persian Gulf states; Just part of an extraordinary life by an extraordinary English gentleman.
Thesiger was born on June 3, 1910 in the Abyssinian capital of Addis Ababa, the son of the British minister to the capital's Emperor. The first nine years of his life was spent there, in what is now Ethiopia, and his
love for exotic places and cultures was an appetite whetted. The family returned to England in 1919 and Thesiger attended St. Aubyn's school in Sussex (1919-23), Eton College (1923-28), and Magdalen College, Oxford (1929-33). His first bit of exploration began while on vacation
from school, where he worked for his passage on a tramp steamer to Istanbul and returned third-class by train; He was hooked. In 1930, the Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie, invited Thesiger to attend his coronation, which of course, he did. It was here, his writing and exploring began in earnest. He traveled into Danakil territory where previous explorers had met with death, in order to ascertain why the great Awash river, which crosses their land, never reaches the sea. His discovery, that the Awash evaporates into the salt banks of Lake Abbe, made his reputation as an explorer.
In 1934, Thesiger joined the Sudan Political Service and was sent to the remote Kutum district. There, living in a thatched hut, Thesiger wrote, I was exhilerated by the sense of space, the silence...I felt in harmony with the past, travelling for untold generations across the
desert. During World War II, Thesiger helped his friend , the deposed Emperor Haile Selassie, liberate Ethiopia from Mussolini's occupation and then joined Britain's Special Air Service to entail in "hit-and-run" raids behind German lines in North Africa. It was after the war, in the period between 1945 and 1950, that Thesiger made the two crossings of the Empty Quarter, supposedly to find the breeding grounds of predatory locusts, but
any excuse would suffice to have the opportunity to explore.
By 1950, Saudi and Omani authorities began to block travel to their peninsula, so Thesiger moved to the marshes of southern Iraq and lived there for the next seven years with the local Arabs. In 1956, he moved on, to write and record the lives of the peoples of Iraq, Persia, Kurdistan,
Pakistan, Afghanistan, and later, Kenya. It was there at the age of 70, at Maralal, Kenya, that he built a zinc-roofed cabin, which he shared with a Samburu family and lived for close to twenty years. He was knighted in 1995, returned to England around the turn of the century, and only his ill health kept him from the deserts of Africa, where his name rings true with
the likes of Livingstone, Stanley, Speke, Burton and Lawrence of Arabia.
Wilfred Thesiger was 93 when he passed away on August 24, 2003.
Bibliography (Most of which are reprints):
The New York
Times:Obituaries; August 27, 2003