Epic tale of the desert before the oil came

The British explorer Sir Wilfred Theisger awoke the world's interest in the Arabian peninsula with his writing - and his story is still powerful today.

Wilfred Thesiger, centre at Qasr Al Hosn, Abu Dhabi. Credit: Wilfred Patrick Thesiger © Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford
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His gentle passing amid the very sanitised and mechanical surroundings of a 21st-century English hospital was a world away for a man who, like his hero TE Lawrence, wrote his will across the sky.

His service with the Special Air Service (SAS) - the elite British commando unit - in North Africa during the Second World War, his encounters with lions in Sudan, his exploration of Ethiopia's Awash river and his cherished years in Kenya were just some of the many highlights in the life of a most unconventional character, who, far from dying in the wild as he had wished, met a very conventional end.

Sir Wilfred Thesiger, the great British explorer, who died 10 years ago this week, was a man apart, a true pioneer who, like the French oceanographer, Jacques Cousteau, and the Scottish missionary and African trailblazer, David Livingstone, sought to bring us all that little bit closer to some of the more remote parts of our planet.

For this tough and determined Englishman, it was his 1945-50 crossing and recrossing of Arabia's so-called Empty Quarter - some 250,000 square miles of vast emptiness covering the modern-day territories of Yemen, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Oman - and his subsequent publication of his first book Arabian Sands that first propelled him into the public consciousness. In doing so, he brought alive a region of the world that Thesiger himself called "the final and greatest prize of Arabian exploration".

More than 50 years after its publication, this book - which put on record Thesiger's success in opening up two new and tougher routes of the Empty Quarter, neither of which had been achieved by the previous two conquerors of this waterless desert - still stands for some as the greatest story of exploration ever told, its writing crisp and clear, and without any trace of the slog and reticence that had so dogged a writing process he didn't begin until 1957.

"It is a work of outstanding literature - there's no question about that," says Thesiger's close friend and authorised biographer, Alexander Maitland. "He didn't look forward to writing it and he didn't particularly enjoy the process of writing it but he got into the way of writing after he had got started. In a sense, the great struggle for (Thesiger) was to try to make something varied and compelling and collected, if you like, out of what had been essentially repetitive and sometimes confusing and alien in journey and setting.

"It would have been very easy to have simply described the day-by-day journey and found that it was more sky, more sand, more hunger, more thirst, more of the same. Instead … he engages the reader in a different way and helps us to connect with the nomad desert Arab society and the life that they lived."

Wilfred Patrick Thesiger was born on June 3, 1910, in Addis Ababa, Abyssinia, modern-day Ethiopia. Ten years after leaving Abyssinia for England in 1919 with his father, who had spent his years in the country as the British Minister in Addis Ababa, and his Irish mother, Thesiger won a place at Oxford where he made a name for himself as the university's hard-as-nails boxing champion.

He had no interest in forging a career in England and ,when he left Oxford, his travelling began in earnest.

From 1933 to 1934, he explored Ethiopia's Awash river - in 1938 he crossed the Sahara to Tibesti. With the onset of the Second World War II, and as a member of Sudan Defence Force, he fought the Italians in his beloved Abyssinia, and after spells in the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the SAS, it was to Abyssinia that he returned.

It was in Addis Ababa where he met OB Lean, the desert locust specialist of the Food and Agriculture Organisation. Lean required someone to travel the Empty Quarter to collect information on Arabia's locust movements, and Thesiger duly obliged. As he would later write in Arabian Sands: "I was not really interested in locusts but they provided me with the golden key to Arabia."

"I first read (Arabian Sands) in the 1990s when I was on a two year secondment from the British Army to the Royal Army of Oman," says adventurer Adrian Hayes, author of Footsteps of Thesiger and a British resident of the UAE.

"It struck me as eloquently written in a descriptive style very different from modern-day books - one that transports the reader right into the time, place and spirit of his world. I personally don't get carried away with some of the superlatives accorded to many books these days, but (Arabian Sands) certainly was a groundbreaker."

Thesiger's initial reluctance to put pen to paper and begin the process of writing his 1959 classic was largely to do with his natural reticence, explains Maitland, author of Wilfred Thesiger: The Life of the Great Explorer.

"He was a very private man," says Maitland. "He loved talking and was very open and easy and would tell you a lot about what he had done after you had won his confidence so to speak - but he really didn't know how to disclose these feelings that had been shut up inside him for half a lifetime because he was nearly 50 when he wrote this book - but it wasn't the very first thing that he wrote by any means - and he had been writing all through the 1930s and the 1940s describing journeys he had made in Ethiopia, his experiences of the Sahara, his experiences of Morocco on which he had written for a variety of newspapers and given lectures for the Royal Geographical Society.

So, he already had a clear idea of how to put words on paper."

Thesiger, who would go on to spend eight years in Iraq - on which he based his 1964 book The Marsh Arabs - and embark on a whole host of other journeys, wasn't impressed with modern Arabia and the changes that the region's considerable oil-wealth had brought at the expense of Bedu tradition."He was able, in a sense, to take this position of being a unique and final witness of the vanishing nomadic desert life," says Maitland. "So, as far as his view of modern Arabia was concerned, of course I think he didn't realise how quickly some of the Bedu would themselves assume the changes (of modernity) and would go out and get four-wheel drive cars and all the bric-a-brac of the post-oil boom and how their lives would, in his view, be diminished by that … I think he was distressed to find that the beautiful coastal villages of Dubai and Abu Dhabi had transformed into metropolises."

Yet, while Thesiger's Arabia will forever be consigned to the history books, there is, insists Hayes, a semblance of nomadic culture that still endures within the Gulf region.

Arabian Sands, he says: "carries a story of a life that, on the face of it, has completely disappeared," he says. "(But) as I wrote in Footsteps of Thesiger, however, progress is inevitable and who are we to bemoan Bedouin who have decided to swap camels for Land Cruisers or tepees for houses. The good news is that, away from the bright lights, there is a culture that is still thriving. It can be hard to find in the UAE compared to Oman, but even in the UAE it exists."

As far as celebrity is concerned, the likes of Hayes are still somewhat amazed at how far Thesiger's name continues to resonate within the Gulf as opposed to his homeland.

"I often ask people in both the Gulf and the UK about their knowledge about Thesiger and it is as surprising - and unjust - at just how well known he is in the Gulf and how comparatively little known he is in his home country," says Hayes.

"In the Gulf I am always struck at just how much respect he is accorded - quite staggering for someone who was a foreigner. In the UK, the lack of knowledge on him is probably explained in part by the dumbed down news and celebrity culture prevalent there - he was the antithesis of the modern day TV 'adventure celebrity'."

So, a decade on from Thesiger's death what of his legacy? Maitland says that he hopes people will recall his great friend as a "unique chronicler of a vanishing world".

"It was a world in which he was uniquely positioned, and, to some extent, consciously positioned himself, to be ready to share and to experience," adds Maitland.

"And ultimately, and somewhat to his own surprise and pleasure, to not only chronicle in terms of photography, which he had striven to perfect, but also in the medium of literature, which he made his own - just as he made everything else his own. Everything he did was so utterly consistent."