Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Derring-Do Is What He Did

September 07, 2003

Recent dispatches from abroad delivered word of the passing at age 93 of Sir Wilfred Thesiger, one of the planet's last true adventurers. He was little known in this country, which was just fine with Thesiger, who never set foot in the United States, blaming it for the virulent global spread of modern civilization and conveniences.

A tall, craggy author, commando, spy, hunter and explorer, Thesiger lived a long, full life of wanderlust and asceticism back when countries had other names and vast corners of exotic geography remained unexplored, unphotographed by satellite and unvisited by Michael Jordan T-shirts.

Thesiger penned colorful books in his Chelsea flat in London and ventured out again to somewhere new and unpronounceable, relishing life in the bug-infested swamps of Iraq and perilous Danakil reaches of Ethiopia -- when it was Abyssinia -- and trekking 1,500 miles of Saudi Arabia's vast Rub' al-Khali, the 250,000-square-mile Empty Quarter of endless sand dunes. He went by camel with a pint of water and a handful of dates to eat each day. Along the way, he learned Arabic and photography, producing stunning black-and-white documentation of disappearing cultures.

In a modern era, when hard times involve traffic jams and broken air conditioners, his perpetually peripatetic life is reminiscent of another time, not that long ago, peopled by characters thirsting to visit faraway places and do what had never been done -- and this did not mean riding a tricycle into a swimming pool off a garage roof in Texas.

Here are a few details: Born in 1910 to a British foreign service officer in a mud-walled compound in revolution-torn Addis Ababa, Abyssinia, Thesiger attended Eton and Oxford before setting out to explore a disappearing river in an area of Abyssinia where the fearsome Afars did not welcome or return visitors. He helped organize the Ethiopian resistance to Italian invaders. He served as a British Special Air Service commando in North Africa. He hunted for the Arabian breeding grounds of pestilential locusts, twice crossed the Empty Quarter and took up residence with Iraq's marsh Arabs. When "crowds" of oil explorers appeared in the mid-1950s, he wandered Afghanistan, launching an expedition to the Nuristan region of the Hindu Kush. Later, he settled with Kenya's Samburu tribesmen.

"I hate this speed with which we are living," he said. A rootless eccentric who relished life unburdened by possessions, he once said he'd like to die walking the Kenyan flatlands and be consumed by jackals. He did not accomplish that feat; he died in a London hospital of Parkinson's disease, endured in a spartan Surrey retirement home. Other than that, he led a life suitable for cinema. Not likely to be any Sir Wilfred sequels, however, for real or reel.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|