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Wilfred Thesiger
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Wilfred Thesiger

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Posted by Jan den Breejen ( on September 14, 2003 at 07:22:34:

Could he be either Adventurous Style or Idiosyncratic Style?


case text citation:
Wilfred Thesiger's desert explorations of the Middle East are a constant source of inspiration to all those who share his love for the region. If you are traveling on a Worlds Apart expedition, or are just curious about desert exploration, reading Thesiger is a must.

The last of the British eccentric explorers, Thesiger was born in 1910 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where his father headed the British Legation. As a young man he left Africa to study in Eton and Oxford, but returned in the 1930s to begin his own career in the British civil service in the Sudan.

After serving in North Africa and Syria during W.W.II, he traveled to the Arabian peninsula to gather information for a locust control project. There he first met the Bedu, the traditional nomads of the desert, who would accompany him on two historic crossings of the vast "Empty Quarter" and introduce him to their harsh way of life. His admiration for the Bedu and insight into their ways, is wonderfully captured in Arabian Sands, first of his many books.

His life since has been consumed by travel and exploration. During most of his journeys, he has lived as a nomad, travelling remote areas of the world on foot or with animal transport, living simply among the peoples he found, and writing of his experiences.

When we first traveled in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, it was Thesiger's books, more than any others, that kindled the adventurer’s spark in our contemporary, urban souls and drove us to seek the beauty and solitude of the great desert expanses. We found ourselves driven, as he describes, to "satisfy the urge to travel where others have not been."

Here are some quotes from Thesiger's books that help capture the magic of the region.


The main body of the migration was ahead and we hurried to catch up with them, passing many smaller groups. Some of them pitched small black tents when they halted; others were content with shelters of branches. The men wore round black felt caps, sleeveless white coats to their knees with a dark pattern down the back, dark long-sleeved shirts, and very wide trousers. The women wore long, loose dresses, often of red, blue or green velvet, with a kerchief attached to a small cap, hanging down behind almost to the ground. The various families we stopped with were hospitable and friendly. The route they were following was hard indeed, often a twisting track through and over piles of rock fallen from the precipice above, or along a narrow shelf across a wide limestone face with a sheer drop hundreds of feet below…From the passes we looked across successive ranges of the Zagros Mountains, their summits high in cloudless skies where ravens tumbled." Wilfred Thesiger, Desert, Marsh and Mountain

Click here to read about Thesiger, or click here to see a list of books on Iran.

Saudi Arabia

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 of the seasons, no rise and fall of sap, but empty wastes where only the changing temperature marks the passage of the year. It is a bitter, desiccated land which knows nothing of gentleness or ease. Yet men have lived there since earliest times. Passing generations have left fire-blackened stones at camping sites, a few faint tracks polished on the gravel plains. Elsewhere the winds wipe out their footprints. 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." Wilfred Thesiger, Arabian Sands

Click here to read about Thesiger, or click here to see a list of books on Saudi Arabia.


"After we drunk coffee and exchanged our news we chose a camping place near by, where low-growing bushes and a bank of drifted sand gave us a little shelter from the cold north wind. We were still unloading when a dozen Saar came racing across the low dunes; their camels, travelling at about eighteen miles an hour, were urged on by the wild yells of their riders, who rode them with effortless mastery. The camels swept forward across the undulating ground with raking, pounding strides, their necks stretched out low in front of them as they surged up to the crests, and swept down into the hollows. But there was nothing ungainly about these great beasts, which moved as gracefully as galloping horses. The lads who rode them were among the finest in the tribe, lithe, hard-bodied, and alert. They were the scouts who went out at dawn to scour the desert, alert for the tracks of strangers. Hearing shots, they had supposed that the camp was being attacked and had ridden back to help." Wilfred Thesiger, Arabian Sands

Click here to read about Thesiger, or click here to see a list of books on Yemen.


"The others were unloading their camels on a patch of hard sand when we caught up with them. From afar off they had seen the wisps of greyish grass which distinguished this hollow from other hollows they had passed on their way across the flint-strewn plain, and had turned aside to stop. Luckily, camels had grazed here years before, and their bleached droppings gave us a little fuel; but not enough to cook a proper meal. Tonight while I was warm in my sleeping-bag the others would shiver under the cold north wind. They were Bedu, and these empty spaces where there was neither shade nor shelter were their homelands." Wilfred Thesiger, Arabian Sands

Click here to read about Thesiger, or click here to see a list of books on Yemen.

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