A good deal of the travel writing one reads these days is a rather dismal mixture of brochurese and landscape painting by cliches. How many times has the reader seen such hackneyed reflections as "it was a land of many contrasts," or "and as the sun sets, we reluctantly bid farewell to . . .," or "as our boat breasted the waves, I could see the swaying palms and the white sand beach in the distance."
Only a very few genuine travel writers continue to pursue what remains of the world's undiscovered terrain and then describe it with simplicity, clarity and a distinctive style.One towering remnant of the old British school of gentleman explorer/writers is still very much alive and continues to write of his remarkable journeys. He is Wilfred Thesiger. From his explorations and books, he has clearly established himself as the greatest traveler of his time, and possibly, and other.
He was born in Addis Ababa in June of 1910. His father was the British Minister to Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). He had an Irish mother and later an Ethiopian foster mother.
Since then, he has explored the remoter parts of the Near and Middle East from the wild Danakil country of Abyssinia to the Hindu Kush and Nuristan. He has accompanied the Kashgai tribe on their annual migration across the plains of Iran; he has traveled with mules across the northern mountainous Persia and found, among other things, that he liked and respected the Arab tribes. There is today no man alive who knows more about the Arab tribes than Wilfred Thesiger.
His towering achievement in all of this has been his double passage (across it and back), on foot and camel, of the vast waterless deserts and dunes of the Empty Quarter of Southern Arabia.
Thesiger only returns to England and his Chelsea apartment to write and catalogue his photographs. He will, on occasion, venture out to buy new equipment or clothing, the declining quality of which he sadly bemoans. He is a member of the Travellers, one of London's most exclusive clubs, and many of his closest friends are dons at Oxford, his alma mater.
One should not be too surprised that Thesiger is such a dedicated exile. He did not leave Abyssinia for England until he was 10. At boarding school, he was branded a liar when he told the prep school boys of the tribal warriors and lion hunts. He retreated from his classmates and comforted himself at night with dreams and memories of Abyssinia.
Thesiger's family had become close to the ruling family and all his life he revered the late Emperor Haile Selassie. His new autobiography is dedicated to the memory of the "Lion of Judah." This weighty book, published in December of last year, is explicity titled "A Life of My Choice," and it gives background and context to his earlier, famous books, "The Marsh Arabs," "Sand Arabs," and "The Last Nomad."
Thesiger in his autobiography clings to the view that most of his travels have been "just in time" before the destruction of a finer, older and saner world. He is bidding farewell and good riddance, in these pages, to the 20th century and the internal combustion engine, instant communications, air travel and pollution, all of which are destroying the silence and threatening a lovely world Thesiger was fortunate enough to see "just in time."
Gavin Young, in his book "Return to the Marshes," explains Thesiger's fascination with travel this way: "He travelled - and, I am glad to say, still travels - for love. For love of remote and beautiful peoples in wild and beautiful corners of the world, and for the serene grandeur of desert, river and mountain regions and the wild animals and birds that inhabit them."