Wilfred Thesiger, First Foreigner to Cross Arabia’s Emptiest Deserts

In December 1946, as the English explorer Wilfred Thesiger was starving in the Arabian desert, he comforted himself with the thought that there was no place he would rather be.

“I lay with my eyes shut, insisting to myself, ‘If I were in London I would give anything to be here,’” he wrote in Arabian Sands, his memoir of crossing the Empty Quarter twice, traveling by camel with a small group of Bedu tribesmen he had grown to love fiercely.

He sheltered for three days in the shade of his cloak thrown over a bush, watching the stars wheel through the night as a bitter wind keened through the dunes, imagining the jeeps and lorries at a distant British outpost so vividly that “I could hear the engines, smell the stink of petrol fumes.” Even in such a state, the thought of whisking across the desert in an automobile was abhorrent to him. “No, I would rather be here starving as I was than sitting in a chair, replete with food, listening to the wireless and dependent on cars to take me through Arabia.”

Thesiger preferred to travel as people had for millennia, by camel, horse, donkey, or on foot. In this manner he traveled tens of thousands of miles in his lifetime, exploring the horn of Africa and Sudan in the 1930s, the Empty Quarter in the 1940s, the Great Sand Desert of eastern Iran and the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan in the 1950s. He lived for seven years among the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq and continued traveling until 1980 when, at the age of 70, “he finally put down roots in Kenya, building himself a zinc-roofed cabin without electricity or running water,” according to his New York Times obituary.

Thesiger was born in 1910 in the mud-walled compound of the British consulate in Addis Ababa, the capitol of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). He came from a long line of diplomats and soldiers. His father was the British consul-general in Addis Ababa. His grandfather, the second Baron Chelmsford, commanded the British forces at Isandhlwana, where the Zulu dealt with the British army much as the Sioux did Custer’s cavalry. His uncle, the third Baron, was Viceroy of India.

Thesiger was schooled at Eton and Oxford, where he wore tailored tweed suits and once broke a man’s jaw in the ring. He cared nothing for rugby, cricket or soccer, but boxing fit his style—an individual sport that rewarded the ability to push through fatigue and absorb pain.

After his first year at Oxford, he worked his way to Istanbul on a tramp steamer, and returned by train, traveling third class. When he arrived home he found two letters waiting for him: a personal invitation to the coronation of the Abyssinian emperor, Haile Selassie, and a notice from the Foreign Office naming him to the official British delegation. The door was open to a comfortable diplomatic career, but Thesiger had other uses for his influence.


Thesiger in Sudan, 1934. Wikimedia Commons.


In Addis Ababa he gained permission to explore Abyssinia’s Awash River and the homeland of the Danakil, a nomadic people “chiefly noted for a disturbing tendency to kill men and carry off their testicles as trophies,” according to a colorful Guardian obituary by Michael Asher.

He completed the expedition in 1933, when he was just 23 years old, establishing a budding reputation as an explorer and helping him secure a coveted position in the Sudan Political Service. The work brought him to Darfur in 1934, an arid region where in Asher’s telling, “he first learned to travel by fast-riding camel with local companions, dressing as they did, eating local food out of the same bowl, and asking nothing of technology but a good rifle, a torch and a compass.”

Thesiger had found his calling, even as his career in the colonial administration flagged. He had little appetite for social climbing, and rather than spending his leave in London or Cairo he used his time to explore the southern Sahara. A long expedition to the remote Tibesti Mountains consummated his love affair with the desert.

“I was exhilarated by the sense of space, the silence, and the crisp cleanness of the sand,” he wrote in his 1987 autobiography, The Life of My Choice. “I felt in harmony with the past, traveling as men had travelled for untold generations across the deserts, dependent for their survival on the endurance of their camels and their own inherited skills.”

During the Second World War he helped organize the Ethiopian resistance to the brutal Italian occupation of that country, which in five years had reduced the population by 7 percent. (“Il Duce will have Ethiopia with or without the Ethiopians,” the Italian governor general had declared.) In May 1941, Thesiger led a column that marched 50 miles in a day to harry a much larger retreating force, and later forced the surrender of more than 2,000 Italian troops. Thesiger went on to serve with the Special Air Service behind enemy lines in North Africa, before being assigned to Addis Ababa in 1943, where he finished the war as a political adviser to Haile Selassie.

Thesiger resigned his post in 1945 and, while waiting for a plane home, accepted a dinner invitation from the head of the Middle East Anti-Locust Unit, an obscure agency charged with finding sources of the Biblical plague deep in the Arabian desert. Thesiger recognized a chance to explore one of the last uncharted corners of the world, with a people he’d learned to adore. He accepted the job on the spot.

Other westerners had crossed the Empty Quarter before, but Thesiger would be the first to explore it thoroughly. He mapped the oasis of Liwa and the quicksands of Umm As-Sammim, and was “caught up in inter-tribal raids, pursued by hostile raiders, and arrested by the Saudi authorities,” according to the New York Times.

Salim bin Kabina traveled twice across the Empty Quarter with Thesiger. “His comradeship provided a personal note in the still rather impersonal atmosphere of my desert life,” the explorer wrote. Wilfred Thesiger/Wikimedia Commons

His first journey across the Empty Quarter began in October, 1946 from the Omani town of Salalah on the Arabian Sea. He’d secured permission to go only as far as the Mughshin Oasis, but secretly arranged to meet another party of Bedu to make a great loop of the eastern desert, through Saudi Arabia all the way to Abu Dhabi on the Persian Gulf and back into Oman. He quarreled with the Bedu leader, and by the time they neared the Liwa Oasis in mid-December only four men remained with him, and their supplies were exhausted. There he lay starving and hallucinating, imagining the feast he would share with his companions when they returned from Liwa with a goat. When they arrived late in the afternoon of the third day, however, they brought only two packages of dates, gritty with sand. They boiled the grain into a gruel, and marched for two more months.

In December 1947 Thesiger began his second crossing, a four-month arc from Hadhramaut in Yemen to Abu Dhabi. The New York Times called it “the last and greatest expedition of Arabian travel.” This time, in addition to the usual heat, hunger and cold, the party was briefly detained on orders of the Saudi king.

Thesiger thrived on such hardship, and the manly companionship it engendered. He never married, and many sources hint more or less overtly that he was gay. Thesiger himself professed a kind of ascetic asexuality. “Sex has been of no consequence to me, and the celibacy of desert life left me untroubled. Marriage would certainly have been a crippling handicap,” he wrote in The Life of My Choice.

“It was the comradeship of the Bedu I travelled with that drew me back to that land year after year; two among them in particular mattered to me as few other people have mattered. A similar attachment kept me eight years in the marshes of Iraq and…kept me longer in northern Kenya,” where he lived from 1968 until 1994.

To modern sensibilities, whether or not those relationships were sexual is inconsequential. Far more notable is the depth of the connections he shared with those men. Though brought up in a system designed to set the British apart and above the native people of a far-flung empire, Thesiger felt most at home among those his own culture dehumanized.

“I was happiest when I had no communication with the outside world, when I was utterly dependent on my tribal companions,” he wrote. “My achievement was to win their confidence.”

Thesiger held traditional cultures in deep admiration, and loathed technology and its homogenizing, softening influences. The inexorable spread of consumer culture will be the end of mankind,” he told Jonathan Glancey for a 2002 Guardian profile. “Our extraordinary greed for material possessions, the ways we go about nurturing that greed, the lack of balance in our lives, and our cultural arrogance will kill us off within a century unless we learn to stop and think,” he said. “It may be too late.”

Thesiger witnessed this several times in microcosm, as western ways swallowed up the cultures he loved most, one after another. When the postwar oil boom came to Arabia and the Empty Quarter began to fill with pipelines and oil derricks, Thesiger washed his hands of the place. He moved on to the marshes of Southern Iraq, and lived among another people whose way of life was coming to an end. He explored Kurdistan, Iran and Afghanistan, where in 1956 he had his most famous encounter, with the travel writer Eric Newby.

The anecdote figures prominently in Newby’s comic-adventure masterpiece A Short Walk In The Hindu Kush, with Thesiger delivering the punchline—“God, you must be a couple of pansies”—as Newby and his companion began to inflate their air mattresses. But there’s more to that story, as Newby wrote shortly after Thesiger’s death in 2003. It’s worth quoting at length for Newby’s delightful description, and the insight it gives into the way Thesiger traveled.

Children in the Empty Quarter, 1947. Wilfred Thesiger/Wikimedia Commons

“The party consisted of two villainous-looking tribesmen dressed like royal mourners in long overcoats reaching to the ankles; a shivering Tajik cook, to whom some strange mutation had given bright red hair, unsuitably dressed for central Asia in crippling pointed brown shoes and natty socks supported by suspenders, but no trousers; the interpreter, a gloomy-looking middle-class Afghan in a coma of fatigue, wearing dark glasses, a double-breasted lounge suit and an American hat with stitching all over it; and Thesiger himself, a great, long-striding crag of a man, with an outcrop for a nose and bushy eyebrows, 45 years old and as hard as nails, in an old tweed jacket, a pair of thin grey cotton trousers, rope-soled Persian slippers and a woolen cap comforter.”

The jacket was the same one he’d worn at Oxford more than 25 years before. Thesiger was famously parsimonious despite his considerable family wealth, but that evening in the Pansjir he was feeling magnanimous. He insisted Newby and his companion join him for dinner, and ordered the redheaded cook to kill three chickens for the occasion.

“Famished, we wrestled with the bones in the darkness,” Newby wrote, describing Thesiger’s diatribe about England’s decline, as evidenced by the quality of its textiles. “Look at this shirt, I’ve only had it three years, now it’s splitting. Same with tailors; Gull and Croke made me a pair of whipcord trousers to go to the Atlas Mountains. Sixteen guineas—wore a hole in them in a fortnight.”

Then came the punchline: “The ground was like iron with sharp rocks sticking up out of it. We started to blow up our air beds. ‘God, you must be a couple of pansies,’ said Thesiger.”

Thesiger, too, was a gifted writer. His best-known works are Arabian Sands, the Marsh Arabs and The Life of my Choice. Starting in his late seventies he published five more books, each meant to close a chapter of his life, according to his official biographer Alexander Maitland. Each also chronicles a changing way of life, as the traditional cultures he loved slowly gave way to technology and consumerism. He was also a talented and prolific photographer who documented these cultures in an extraordinary collection of black and white photographs. Thesiger donated more than 38,000 negatives to the Pitt-Rivers Museum at Oxford, and left the manuscripts of his books to Eton.

By the late 1960s, he’d moved on from Arabia and Afghanistan to northern Kenya, where he lived for decades with an adopted family in a zinc-roofed hut without electricity or running water. He wanted to live out his days there, and leave his body for the jackals in the hills. But he became too much of a burden, and returned to England where he lived in a retirement home, battling Parkinson’s Disease and working on his next book. He died in 2003, aged 93.

Top photo: Wilfred Thesiger in the Empty Quarter, 1947. Wikimedia Commons

For further reading

Thesiger’s “Arabian Sands” is considered an exploration classic. Pick up your copy, here.

Alexander Maitland’s “The Life of the Great Explorer” is considered the finest biography of Thesiger, well, besides this article, of course. Available, here.



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