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Wilfred Thesiger – the Life of his Choice

Wilfred Thesiger's diary

Wilfred Thesiger was one of my heroes. It was his books who inspired me to join (very briefly!) his old Boxing Club at university. They encouraged me to think ambitiously but simply about making big journeys. And when he died (I was cycling through South America at the time), I felt sad that I never had the opportunity to meet him.

Thesiger pushed himself hard to test himself. He lived ascetically, and scorned modern convenience, speed and luxury. The harder the life, he believed, the finer the person. His prose is simple and measured, thoughtful and honest. His photography was superb, particularly when you consider that he took fewer photographs in an entire expedition than I do on a single day. Thesiger “had the man’s courage to live out the boy’s dream.” And ever since I read Arabian Sands, I have dreamed of one day making a journey in Thesiger’s footsteps.

Major Sir Wilfred Patrick Thesiger, CBE, DSO, FRAS, FRGS, also known as Mubarak bin London (Arabic for “the blessed one from London”)(3 June 1910 – 24 August 2003) was a British explorer and travel writer.

This introductory sentence from Wikipedia gives a sense of a life rather different to yours or mine!

Thesiger boxed for Oxford. He served with both the SOE and the SAS during World War 2. Then after the war he led a life of extraordinary adventure. He told the stories of these adventures through his writing and his photography. His most impressive journeys were into the heart of the Empty Quarter desert in Arabia.

If you are interested in learning more about Thesiger I’d recommend these books:

  • Arabian Sands. A beautiful book about his epic desert journeys. I have to admit –sotto voce– that it is a bit long and boring in parts unless you are a true groupie!
  • Across the Empty Quarter. An abridged version of Arabian Sands and a super appetizer. Strongly recommended.
  • The Life of My Choice. The first autobiography I read. Includes  stories from all the sections of his life.
  • Visions of a Nomad. Thesiger’s book of photography. A lovely coffee table book for any lovers of photography or travel.

Arabian Sands is certainly Thesiger’s masterpiece. In amongst the long and confusing descriptions of Wadi What-dya-ma-callit and Sheikh Whats-his-name trying to kill Thesiger, you get treated to beautiful nuggets of writing that will resonate with anyone who has ever travelled masochistically or yearned for solitude, silence and simplicity:

  • The everyday hardships and danger, the ever-present hunger and thirst, the weariness of long marches: these provided the challenge of Bedu life against which I sought to match myself, and were the basis of the comradeship which united us.
  • A cloud gathers, the rain falls, men live; the cloud disperses without rain, and men and animals die. In the deserts of southern Arabia there is no rhythm to the seasons, no rise and fall of sap, but empty wastes where only the changing temperature marks the passage of the years. It is a bitter, desiccated land which knows nothing of gentleness or ease…. Men live there because it is the world into which they were born; the life they lead is the life their forefathers led before them; they accept hardships and privations; they know no other way. Lawrence wrote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, “Bedouin ways were hard, even for those brought up in them and for strangers terrible: a death in life.” No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have within him the yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match.

  • For me, exploration was a personal venture. I did not go to the Arabian desert to collect plants nor to make a map; such things were incidental. At heart I knew that to write or even talk of my travels was to tarnish the achievement. I went there to find peace in the hardship of desert travel and the company of desert peoples.

  • I had no desire to travel faster. In this way, there was time to notice things — a grasshopper under a bush, a dead swallow on the ground, the tracks of a hare, a bird’s nest, the shape and colour of ripples on the sand, the bloom of tiny seedlings pushing through the soil. There was time to collect a plant or to look at a rock. The very slowness of our march diminished its monotony. I thought how terribly boring it would be to rush about this country in a car.

  • For years the Empty Quarter had represented to me the final, unattainable challenge which the desert offered. Suddenly it had come within my reach. I remembered my excitement when casually offered me the chance to go there, the immediate determination to cross it, and then the doubts and fears, the frustrations, and the moments of despair. Now I had crossed it.

  • To others my journey would have little importance. It would produce nothing except a rather inaccurate map which no one was ever likely to use. It was a personal experience, and the reward had been a drink of clean, nearly tasteless water. I was content with that.

  • Looking back on the journey I realised that there had been no high moment of achievement such as a mountaineer must feel when he stands upon his chosen summit.

  • For me, exploration was a personal venture. I did not go to the Arabian desert to collect plants nor to make a map; such things were incidental. At heart I knew that to write or even to talk of my travels was to tarnish the achievement. I went there to find peace in the hardship of desert travel and the company of desert people. I set myself a goal on these journeys, and, although the goal itself was unimportant, its attainment had to be worth every effort and sacrifice. Scott had gone to the South Pole in order to stand for a few minutes on one particular and almost inaccessible spot on the earth’s surface. He and his companions died on their way back, but even as they were dying he never doubted that the journey had been worth while. Everyone knew that there was nothing to be found on the top of Everest, but even in this materialistic age few people asked, ‘What point is there in climbing Everest? What good will it do anyone when they get there?’ They recognised that even today there are experiences that do not need to be justified in terms of material profit. No, it is not the goal but the way there that matters, and the harder the way the more worth while the journey. Who, after all, would dispute that it is more satisfying to climb to the top of a mountain than to go there in a funicular railway? Perhaps this was one reason why I resented modern inventions; they made the road too easy. I felt instinctively that it was better to fail on Everest without oxygen than to attain the summit with its use. If climbers used oxygen, why should they not have their supplies dropped to them from aeroplanes, or landed by helicopter? Yet to refuse mechanical aids as unsporting reduced exploration to the level of a sport, like big-game shooting in Kenya when the hunter is allowed to drive up to within sight of the animal but must get out of the car to shoot it. I would not myself have wished to cross the Empty Quarter in a car. Luckily this was impossible when I did my journeys, for to have done the journey on a camel when I could have done it in a car would have turned the venture into a stunt.

  • To others my journey would have little importance. It would produce nothing except a rather inaccurate map which no one was ever likely to use. It was a personal experience, and the reward had been a drink of clean, nearly tasteless water. I was content with that

  • I knew instinctively that it was the very hardness of life in the desert which drew me back there – it was the same pull which takes men back to the polar ice, to high mountains, and to the sea

So Leon McCarron and I walked 1000 miles across the Arabian Peninsula, inspired by the spirit of Thesiger’s own expeditions in the Rub ‘al Khali desert, the Empty Quarter. Into the Empty Quarter tells the story of our journey.

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Into The Empty Quarter is available as a DVD, an HD Download, or a DVD and Download bundle. Running Length: 52 minutes.

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    Comments

    1. Dan Wilkinson Posted

      I read Arabian Sands and several articles about Wilfred Thesiger and have been nothing but inspired by his approach to his work and life. I agree that the book is a bit of a trek at times but is truly worth every word.

      Your blog does a similar job of keeping me inspired to wonder what is over the next horizon. Keep up the good work Al.

      Reply
    2. An awesome blog on a role model for all adventurers!

      I lived in that region for 8 years (1996-2004) and explored a few desert ‘patches’. I was always in total admiration if Thesiger to have lived in that harsh part of the world, to survive, and, in a way, to even flourish.

      Reply
    3. Not a name I’ve heard of before, I’ll most certainly check out his work, thanks for the tip!

      Reply

     
     

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