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Thrilled by Thesiger

Wilfrid Thesiger is my favourite travel writer. From the first few lines of Arabian Sands I was hooked. I wanted to drop everything and travel across the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia on a camel, just as Wilfrid did in the 1930’s. His account of the journey and the hardships he endured with his Bedu travel companions is now considered one of the great classics of travel writing. Wilfrid was partly responsible for my own lifelong interest in travel and travel writers.

Several years after reading Arabian Sands, I found myself living and working in Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, tantalizingly close to the Empty Quarter. I promised myself I would disguise myself as a Muslim and cross the desert to Mecca for the hajj. This particular fantasy was inspired by Wilfrid as well as Richard Burton, the famous nineteenth century explorer. The nearest I got to it was a desert fun run in Dubai with the Hash House Harriers. I was young. There was plenty of time for adventure.

In The Marsh Arabs Wilfrid describes an amazing world of straw boats and straw houses in the marshes of Southern Iraq. Not long after I read The Marsh Arabs, Saddam Hussain effectively destroyed what was left of the delicately balanced culture and ecosystem of the tribal people around Basra; their punishment for supporting the Americans in the First Gulf War.

In 1997 I visited Kenya, and brought a copy of My Kenya Days to keep me company. I now looked fondly on Wilfrid as a sort of travel companion. My Kenya Days describes Wilfrid’s thirty years among the Samburu people of Northern Kenya. It was to be his last book, written while his eyesight was failing.

I met a man in Nairobi who knew Wilfrid personally. I listened enviously as he recounted tales of Wilfrid’s eccentricities. He told me of one incident when he was camping with friends in a remote area. They had set up camp and were relaxing for the evening, when a tall, gaunt figure appeared out of the forest. It was Wilfrid, dressed in his gentleman’s tweeds, complete with walking stick. He joined them for tea and then disappeared back into the forest as night fell. If time had permitted I would have sought an introduction to Wilfrid while I was in Kenya, but the opportunity didn’t arise. My friend recounted how Wilfrid was getting too old and too sick to stay where he was. Some of the “Samburu boys” had beaten him up and stolen his money. I was appalled that such a survivor could be so vulnerable at the end of his life. Wilfrid describes the attack and robbery in My Kenya Days, but does not show any ill-will towards his attackers. His friends were thinking of sending him to a nursing home in the UK; a fate worse than death for Wilfrid. The last line of My Kenya Days reads: “It is here, among those whose lives I share today, that I hope to end my days.” It was not to be. Wilfrid died in a nursing home in England on August 24th 2003.

The region of Darfur in Southern Sudan has been in the news recently, with grim warnings of imminent famine.

A friend travelling in the region emailed me some extraordinary accounts of his experiences there. I thought of Wilfrid. At one point in his colourful career he was British Assistant District Commissioner in Darfur. Wilfrid eschewed all modern conveniences and I have no doubt he would have frowned on email; a further intrusion of Western civilization into the remotest corners of the globe. The irony remains however that were it not for the very Western medium of print and the world of publishing, Wilfrid could not have shared his experiences with the rest of us.

Wilfrid has left a powerful legacy in his travel writings. He has given us a better understanding of the value of diversity and tradition in this age of increasing globalization. Thank you for that Wilfrid.

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