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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'

April 28, 1991|Michael A. Hiltzik | Michael A. Hiltzik is The Times' Nairobi bureau chief and author of the forthcoming book "A Death in Kenya" (Delacorte Press). and

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.

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