The Last of the Great Explorers

Article excerpt





(HarperPress [pounds sterling]25)

THESE days, exotic travel is done on and by television. TV travellers, who are always placing themselves between you and what you want to see, are forever flying to the world's farthest reaches.

They are accompanied by an unmentioned, invisible army of cameramen, directors, guides and fixers, vehicles and mechanics, food and drink, radio and satellite links -- and tons of money.

Wilfred Thesiger would have scorned all of that. He went alone and he walked -- with his camels and his native helpers, whom he learned to treat as equals. He walked 100,000 miles to some of the most remote, desolate places on earth, wearing out the cartilages in both knees.

He did it purely for its own sake. He didn't even intend to write his bestselling books at the time -- they came later. But he did record his travels in photographs. And it is these striking and brilliant photographs of his African journeys that make up half of this book.

They are fascinating studies of pure humanity, unaltered by so-called civilisation, by the combustion engine or the electronic chip. But to call them uncivilised would be quite wrong. Each tribe he recorded had their distinctive customs, firm rules of conduct, family and tribal loyalty, distinctive dress and ornament and -- what strikes you most keenly -- their calm, serene dignity. They are at peace with the lives they lead. How many of us sophisticates, loaded to bursting with every gadget of communication and convenience, have that quality?

WILFRED Thesiger, who died in 2003 aged 93, was born in a round mud hut in Addis Ababa, but he was a blueblooded aristocrat.

His grandfather, Lord Chelmsford, commanded in the Zulu war. His uncle was to be Viceroy of India. His father was Britain's chief diplomat at the court of Abyssinia (not then called Ethiopia).

Wilfred's boyhood gave him a taste for its 'gorgeous barbarity' -- and the acquaintance of Ras Tafari, the Regent. Eton was followed by Oxford and as an undergraduate at 19, he received an invitation to attend Ras Tafari's coronation as Emperor Haile Selassie.

As a very small boy ill in bed, I was bowled over by a copy of the National Geographical magazine which recorded this event in colour -- the robes, the jewels, the imperial state umbrellas, the tribal chiefs doing homage in rich and riotous costume.

Alas, you cannot get that impact from the black and white photos here -- but to be there must have been mind-blowing. No wonder Thesiger was hooked by what was after all his native country.

After the coronation, he went biggame hunting and wrote: 'I was alone. If I met trouble with the tribes I could get no help. …