Magazine article Geographical

The Wanderer Retires

Magazine article Geographical

The Wanderer Retires

Article excerpt

In his youth, Sir Wilfred Thesiger travelled the world, living among tribes of Africa and the Middle East. Now in his 90s, he shares his memories with Jonnie Hughes

ALL GREAT EXPLORERS RETIRE TO SURREY" is not a proverb, but it could be. Surrey's gentle landscape and living appears to be a potent attraction to those who have spent their lives trying to avoid exactly that. Eric Newby shelters somewhere in exotic west Surrey, Sir Edmund Hilary lives in the southern uplands and over in the east is Sir Wilfred Thesiger, a man widely regarded as the greatest explorer of the last century.

Surrey is probably the last place that Thesiger imagined he'd end his days, but since he has just turned 91 and he is firmly established in a retirement home in Purley, he's accepted that this is the likely scenario. As I approach Woodcote Grove House, a colonial-style mansion secreted among fields and horse chestnut groves, Thesiger rises from his chair on the veranda and holds out a huge, welcoming hand. Despite the fact that he has spent over 60 years living with primitive people in Africa and Asia, his first words betray the education that he received at Eton and Oxford.

He leads me upstairs to his small room and I find a stool to perch on. Summer is generous outside, pouring clear daylight through his window onto his face. But even in this delicate light his features look as though they were crafted by years of unforgiving natural forces. "A great crag of a man, with an outcrop for a nose and bushy eyebrows," was Newby's description, and it fits perfectly -- you feel like you're conversing with the Dolomites.

In the corner there are gold swords and silver daggers from Arabian princes. At the foot of his bed leather walking shoes slump off duty. On the walls there are stark photographs of desert towns and exotic faces. And the bookshelf beside me is host to rows of adventure books, an ancient copy of TE Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, A Triumph and first editions of his own books.

Today he is most renowned for his travel writing and documentary photography. Arabian Sands and The Marsh Arabs are accepted as classics of travel literature, and the briefest sample of his honest, understated style will confirm this. But Thesiger the writer lives in a different era from Thesiger the explorer. The most interesting time in his life is back before the books and international attention, and no-one knows that better than Thesiger himself.

It was a time when he would periodically disappear from his Chelsea flat for months on end to explore places he'd seen on a map and live with people he'd heard existed. A time recorded only in his enigmatic black and whites and the short, sharp sentences that he has since been persuaded to write. For 30 years he crept about Asia and Africa almost unnoticed, desperate to accumulate unparalleled memories and to avoid fellow Europeans. What sent him on this relentless path of exploration? Thesiger always looks to his childhood for answers.


Born in Adis Abeba in 1910, he spent an extraordinary childhood accompanying his father, the British Minister in charge of the Legation, on many trips. "I went on a tiger shoot in India, I watched the guns shelling the Turkish forces in Aden, I witnessed priests dancing at Timkat before the Ark of the Covenant," he says. "I arrived at prep school in England, and started to tell these stories and nobody believed a word."

Eager to retain his young memories while at school in England, he read every book on Africa that he could lay his hands on, but it wasn't until his second year at Oxford that he found himself once again on Ethiopian soil. Invited to the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie, he took the opportunity to extend his stay and explore some of the country to the east of Adis Abeba.

"For a month I travelled in an arid hostile land," he wrote in Arabian Sands: "I was often tired and thirsty, sometimes frightened and lonely, but I tasted freedom and a way of life from which there could be no recall. …

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