The Frontier Comes for the Explorer

It takes twin litanies to sketch the life of Sir Wilfred Thesiger. Of firsts: first Westerner to live as an equal among the Bedouin of Arabia's Empty Quarter, first to set eyes on the quicksands of Umm al Samim, first to survive a trek among Ethiopia's Danakil. And lasts, the most pressing being the most poignant: last of the true adventurers.

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Wilfred Patrick Thesiger — adventure-travel anachronism, foremost living remnant of this century’s golden age of exploration, author of the classic Arabian Sands, slayer of 70 lions and 2,000 boars — is standing outside Orford House when my taxi from London’s Purley Station pulls up. He has stepped out to greet me in front of the retirement home: a tall man approaching 90, leaning on his Zulu walking stick, a bit stooped and shaky on his legs but alert and emphatic as we shake hands.

Orford House itself is a sprawling white stucco affair that abuts a golf course and has its own sizable grounds and garden. Inside, the place is light and spacious, with nary a wheelchair or medical tube in sight. Plainly, in this case, “retirement home” is just what it means, not a euphemism for terminal-care hospital. The two or three fellow residents we encounter in the hallway are, if anything, rangier than he is.

Just one catch, though. “They’re all women here,” Thesiger grouses. This is not literally true, but the ratio is so skewed — something like eight to one — that the irony is obvious. A man with a reputation as one of England’s most notorious adherents of the women-belong-in-the-kitchen school of thought has established digs in a sorority house.

“Look at that.” Thesiger nods toward the common room, cluttered with overstuffed chairs. “Nobody’s using it. It’s always that way. All those women go straight to their rooms after meals. If this were a men’s place, we’d go in there and talk.”

Conversation is what Thesiger, 88, thrives on these days — the opportunity to spin tales about his glory years wandering the expanses of the world’s last tribal wildernesses. He had hoped to be living in a place far more fraternal and chummy than Orford House — namely, a gentlemen’s retirement home in London called The Charter House, occupied by aging Oxbridge eminences and several highly decorated military officers — but he was denied admittance on the grounds that he was, of all things, too old.

As we climb the stairs to his second-floor room, Thesiger occasionally grabs hold of my elbow to steady himself. In his room, I’m ordered to take the only easy chair, and Thesiger leans the stick against his desk and lowers his six-foot-two-inch frame onto the bed. Behind me are a TV and a bookcase stocked with his favorites — Kipling, Conrad, John Buchan — as well as his own works: seven books so far, with an eighth, Among the Mountains, a memoir of his 1950s treks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, coming out next month in England. All his books are illustrated with the light-drenched black-and-white photographs he began taking with his father’s old Kodak and then with the Leica he kept wrapped in goatskin to protect it from the desert sands. On a chest at the foot of the bed is a photo of his late mother, and over his desk hangs a pencil drawing of Thesiger when he was a rakish 75, a gift from one of the young Samburus he lived with in Kenya until recently.

Even now that he’s only a decade younger than the century, Thesiger is impressive, with iron-gray hair, a deeply creased brow, and a cantilevered spatula of a nose. It’s the kind of craggy, weatherbeaten face also possessed by Sir Edmund Hillary, who shares with Thesiger the lonely distinction of living on when most of their peripatetic contemporaries are long dead. Like Hillary (and Norwegian voyager Thor Heyerdahl and Lord John Hunt, the leader of Hillary’s Everest expedition), Thesiger belongs to a lost era of giants — the age of imperialism and high romanticism when men (white men, needless to say) could claim an undiscovered corner of the globe as their own. “He’s one of the very few people in our time who could be put on the pedestal alongside the great explorers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,” the author and filmmaker David Attenborough has written.

More than any other corner of the globe, it was southern Arabia that Thesiger made his own, in particular those portions of Oman, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia known collectively as the Empty Quarter (from the Arabic Rub al Khali). When the 36-year-old Thesiger arrived in 1946, seasoned by years of travel in North Africa and by his combat experience there during the Second World War, only two other Europeans had ever made inroads in that “bitter, desiccated land which knows nothing of gentleness or ease,” as he describes it in Arabian Sands. He realized that the Empty Quarter — with the geography of its immense expanses still labeled “unknown” on maps — was his for the taking. He was also urgently aware that the fierce, free, immemorial life of the nomad peoples there was doomed. He would spend the next five years in southern Arabia, living among the Bedouin and tracking back and forth across the endless dunes. He bound himself as an apprentice to his beloved Bedu (as Thesiger often called the Bedouin) and has spent the rest of his life mourning the end of that time and recalling, as he wrote in Arabian Sands, “how often I was humbled by those illiterate herdsmen who possessed, in so much greater measure than I, generosity and courage, endurance, patience, and lighthearted gallantry.” The winds of modernity would soon sweep those noble warrior nomads into history. Leaving Arabia in 1950, he declared in the final words of the book, “I knew how it felt to go into exile.”

Fifty years later, the once-Empty Quarter is dotted with more oil rigs than oases. It is still a forbidding, largely unvisited place, but today the Bedouin drive trucks, not camels. In Oman and Yemen, the verges of the Quarter are traversed by caravans of tourists in Land Rovers, who pay dearly for a week or two of authentic desert adventure. The last thing Thesiger sought was comfortable recreation; he scoffs at the whole concept. “I’ve always wanted to do journeys where it was necessary to use the traditional means of transportation,” he tells me. “Now when people do it, it’s just a stunt.”

These days, Thesiger is, in a sense, enduring a second exile. After moving to Kenya’s arid north-central plateau in 1968, he had hoped to spend the rest of his life there among the Samburu tribesmen (while also enjoying interludes in the Chelsea apartment he had maintained since the late ’40s). This period lasted 26 years, but his faltering eyesight, along with the deaths of several African friends, sent him back to England for good in 1994 — a man out of time and place.

Leaving the confines of Orford House, Thesiger and I head out into the field in search of lunch. He had planned for us to walk the few hundred yards to the golf club and eat there, but it turns out they aren’t serving today. Instead we’re going to try a local pub named the Red Lion.

Thesiger gets antsy as we wait for a taxi. Then the Red Lion’s upstairs restaurant proves to be closed, annoying the explorer further. We clump back down to the bar. Thesiger fusses over his meal of fish and chips — “I don’t know why they fill your plate so full,” he mutters — and sends me bouncing up and down to fetch salt, tartar sauce, and finally a second plate to give his food more room.

I distract him with questions about his routine. His day usually begins with a telephone call to Alexander Maitland, his literary executor and close friend, with whom he discusses his schedule and corrections for his forthcoming book. He reads if his eyes are working well (they have good days and bad days), receives visitors, takes a walk after lunch. He is a famous man, even more so since the publication of an unauthorized biography in England in 1994 (Michael Asher’s Thesiger). He was knighted in 1995.

But Thesiger is clearly more animated when our talk turns to the distant past. He was born in Abyssinia, now Ethiopia, into an old English military and diplomatic family, the sort of upper-class clan that has a Latin motto: spes et fortuna, “hope and luck,” was theirs. His father, the minister in charge of the British legation in Abyssinia, died when young Thesiger, the eldest of four sons, was nine, and the family returned to England. After Eton he went to Oxford, where he won boxing prizes and the distinction of being the only British private citizen invited to Abyssinia for the November 1930 coronation of Ras Tafari as Emperor Haile Selassie.

Evelyn Waugh was there too, as a working journalist, and you could hardly imagine more divergent takes than Waugh’s rollicking condescension in When the Going Was Good and Thesiger’s solemn and reverent account of the occasion in his 1987 autobiography, The Life of My Choice. “I disapproved of [Waugh’s] grey suede shoes,” Thesiger wrote, “his floppy bow tie and the excessive width of his trousers: he struck me as flaccid and petulant and I disliked him on sight.” But the monthlong trek among the fierce Danakil tribe during his visit was “decisive” for Thesiger: “I was among a savage, good-looking people with a dangerous reputation. I was travelling with camels in hot, arid country under testing conditions.”

Back in Abyssinia after graduation, Thesiger racked up the first of his firsts. In 1934 he solved the mystery of the disappearing Awash River, which rises in the mountains west of Addis Ababa, flows east, but never reaches the sea. That trip, he tells me, “was the most dangerous of all.” He and his men passed through territory where Danakil warriors were known for collecting the testicles of their enemies. He discovered that the river dead-ended in a salt lake, but more than that he brought his men back alive — a piece of work for a 23-year-old.

Thesiger had set his sights on a life of “colour and savagery, hardship and adventure,” and in 1946, gazing down on the Empty Quarter’s vast dunes from the mountains to the west, he found its ultimate form. But he needed a mission, some badge of official business that would open tent flaps in a land of xenophobic sheiks. What better cover than the Middle East Anti-Locust Unit, an offshoot of the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome? Equipped with official papers and a beneficent crusade, Thesiger set out to hunt for the breeding grounds of the desert locust, in effect wangling a license to roam the Empty Quarter at will. Into the desert he walked with a team drawn from the Rashid Bedouin tribe, including 16-year-old Salim bin Kabina, his boy Friday for the next five years.

He traveled as the Bedouin did — only the necessities. For a swashbuckling desert adventurer, these were limited, he tells me, to “a rifle, a camera, field glasses, a compass,” not forgetting Lord Jim and Kim. He gathered the requisite information about the locusts, but what he really did was rack up discoveries in territory where Christians had rarely been allowed to roam. To take one example Thesiger is particularly proud of: On his second crossing of the Quarter, in 1949, he became the first European to gaze upon the elusive and fabled quicksands of Umm al Samim.

Thesiger’s Bedouin were nomadic by choice. They herded goats, rode camels, carried rifles, wore garments made from imported cloth, drank coffee, and smoked tobacco, but knew almost nothing of the outside world. Rather, they were exquisitely attuned to their ruthless milieu, and had cultivated severe codes of honor and hospitality that tested men’s courage and stamina to the utmost.

“Where I couldn’t compete with them,” Thesiger laments of the Bedouin, “was in their way of behaving.” Once, Thesiger and a Bedouin advance group ran out of water and rode for more than 24 hours before finding a well. The Bedouin then sat by the well for more than five hours, refusing to drink until the rest of their companions showed up. They encouraged Thesiger to go ahead and drink, but he resolved, despite intense suffering, to go by the rules. At other times, he admitted in his autobiography, “it was humiliating to fall short.”

Those years were by far the most fulfilling time of his life. Still, he went on traveling after leaving the Empty Quarter in 1950. For much of the subsequent decade you might have caught up with Thesiger in southern Iraq (he wrote a second classic travel narrative, The Marsh Arabs, about his experiences there). But he found the summers intolerable, and so in the torpid months you might have run into him in Kurdistan in 1951, in Pakistan climbing in the Hindu Kush in 1953, or in Afghanistan in 1956, living among the Nuristanis. After Iraq’s 1958 revolution forced him out, he was back in Ethiopia, exploring the Simien range in 1960. And then in 1968 and for almost 30 years thereafter, in his Kenyan home in Maralal. He estimates he’s walked 100,000 miles.

Even before Thesiger’s first book came out in 1959 — he had never intended to become an author, but his mother urged him to write Arabian Sands — Thesiger’s reputation preceded him. The English travel writer Eric Newby recalls trekking in the Hindu Kush in the mid-1950s and chancing upon another caravan near a steep gorge. Among them, Newby writes, was “Thesiger himself, a great, long-striding crag of a man … 45 years old and hard as nails.” The explorer was outfitted in an old Eton-style tweed jacket and “rope-soled Persian slippers.” Newby sums up Thesiger as a “remarkable throwback to the Victorian era, a fluent speaker of Arabic, a very brave man.” After a convivial evening together, Newby and his companion started blowing up their air mattresses rather than opting for the bare ground “like iron with sharp rocks sticking up out of it.” Thesiger was appalled. “God,” he said, “you must be a couple of pansies.”

But no matter how far Thesiger wandered, he found his world was ending — and he has always believed it was the automobile, more than any other force, that finished it off. After our lunch, Thesiger begins fretting about a cab, which leads to his dark assessment of the new age. He divides time into two epochs: b.c. and a.d. — Before Cars and After Driving. “I have the strong conviction,” he says, “that the greatest disaster in human history was the invention of the internal combustion engine. And next came the airplane.”

With that, he launches into an all-encompassing diatribe about the proliferation of dangerous weapons, the increasing befoulment of the planet, and other doomsdayish topics. However, to understand his primary resentment — against motorized transport — you only have to consider the effect of oil economics on the two key figures he lived and traveled with during his heyday. On the strength of their reputation as Thesiger Boys, Salim bin Kabina and Thesiger’s other young companion in the late 1940s, Salim bin Ghabaisha, got hired by oil companies and were driving their own cars within a few years of Thesiger’s departure. “It was dangled in front of them, and they took of it,” he observes. “But if you meet them today, they don’t talk about the life they lead now. They talk about the desert trips they took then.” For years, bitter about what he saw as bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha’s sellout to the oil companies, Thesiger stayed away from Arabia. But since revisiting the region twice in recent decades, he has reconciled with the two former camel boys, who are now nearing 70.

“Some people maintain that they will be better off when they have exchanged the hardship and poverty of the desert for the security of a materialistic world,” Thesiger wrote of the traditional Bedouin in Arabian Sands. “This I do not believe.”

There’s more than a touch of paternalism in some of Thesiger’s elaborate grieving over the old days, and a similar attitude colors most of his biting comments about modern-day life. He recently caused a minor flap by telling the British newspaper The Guardian that the female of the species has no place on expeditions. “A woman’s job is to stay at home and look after the kids,” he declared.

Women are all but invisible in Thesiger’s travels, a feature that suited him fine. He never married, never had children, and contentedly progressed from boys’ school to men’s college to the desert and the army. On the other hand, he doted famously on his mother, who died in 1973. (Of the other three Thesiger sons, one was killed in World War II, another died last year, and the youngest, is now 83.) He has plenty of women friends. The warmest tribute in the acknowledgements of his autobiography is to a devoted servant named Mollie Emtage, who for four decades ran the flat he kept in Chelsea.

Still, Thesiger himself says he prefers the “ancient Greek ideal that the young male is the symbol of human beauty.” He put this into practice by choosing beautiful boys as his aides-de-camp. In the Empty Quarter there was sweet-faced bin Kabina, and soon another of those “Bedu boys who look like girls,” bin Ghabaisha, whom Thesiger credits with “a face of classic beauty … which lit up when he smiled, like a pool touched by the sun.” In the Iraqi marshes there was Amara bin Thuqub, “slightly built and remarkably handsome.”

Thesiger insists his admiration was always Platonic, and I don’t doubt him, but it’s hard not to draw a connection between his asexuality — or, if you prefer, his impeccably controlled homoeroticism — and the loneliness, the life sentence of apartness he often writes and speaks about.

Back at Orford House, the conversation drifts to a subject dear to Thesiger’s heart, tales of his closest calls with death. There are multiple examples. There was the charging African lion that knocked him down by slamming into the man next to him. (Thesiger jumped up, thrust his gun into the lion’s ear, and killed it.) Or the pair of charging boars that he brought down in an Iraqi marsh. Or an incident in Yemen in 1967: “I was backing the royalists, and at Mahabsha I was inspecting a captured antiaircraft gun, and two of the people with me moved to where I’d been standing. The gun went off, and they were both killed. If I hadn’t moved, I would be dead too.”

Left unspoken is the irony that a risk-taker who defied death so many times in barren wilderness is now likely to give up his ghost in the bowered domesticity of suburban London. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In the early ’90s, when Thesiger was certain Kenya would be his final resting place, he told a visitor, “This is where I will end my days. They can dig a hole and bury me here.” In Kenya he lived surrounded by an extended family of Samburu tribespeople in a mud-walled house. Then the deaths of two Samburu companions, grown men who had been the last of his young acolytes, came just as he was coping with a cataract and a bad retina. The loss of those friendships sealed the matter for Thesiger. “Those deaths hit him very hard,” says Alexander Maitland. “He said to me, ‘That’s all finished now,’ and he simply closed the chapter. He could have gone on there, but his life has been like that — a series of closing chapters.”

And so four years ago he returned to London, living contentedly in his old flat in Chelsea until June of this year. He may feel lonely, but during one recent week Thesiger had visitors six out of seven days — among them the travel writer Gavin Young and Lady Egremont, who accompanied Thesiger to Addis Ababa in 1996 for the centennial of the founding of the British legation there. Bin Kabina’s son is scheduled to come calling shortly.

As I leave, Thesiger grabs his Zulu stick and escorts me downstairs. He waits till my taxi shows up, steps outside with me, and sends me off with a final polite wave.

The extra measure of hospitality reminds me of the Bedouin generosity to guests that Thesiger has never ceased to praise. But it also reminds me that those tribesmen gave him something more. Apart from a few small symptoms of impatience with his lot, he exhibits an exceedingly graceful stoicism. Far from a pathetic old lion caged in a ladies’ home, Thesiger seems unfazed by the nearness of death, an attitude shared by the Arabian friends he loved in another epoch. “Inevitably these Bedu had little veneration for human life,” he wrote in his autobiography. “In their frequent raids and counter-raids they killed and were killed, and each killing involved the tribe of family in another blood-feud to be settled without mercy … I soon acquired the same attitude, and if anyone had killed one of my companions I would unquestionably have sought to avenge him: I have no belief in the ‘sanctity’ of life.”