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Last Updated: Sunday, 31 August, 2003, 10:51 GMT 11:51 UK
Memories of a veteran explorer
Frank Gardner
By Frank Gardner
Former Middle East correspondent

Sir Wilfred Thesiger, hailed as one of the 20th Century's great explorers, died this week at the age of 93. The BBC's Frank Gardner knew him well.

Squatting on a woven wool cushion, his legs tucked beneath him, Sir Wilfred Thesiger looked uncomfortable. "This infernal air-conditioning", he complained, "why can't they turn it off?"

Wilfred Thesiger in the desert
Thesiger's companions would try to pass him off as a travelling merchant
We were sitting in the lobby of a five-star hotel in Abu Dhabi, waiting to be summoned to the ruler's palace, for an audience with the sheikh.

It was four summers ago and the heat outside was so intense the windows had steamed up and the plants had wilted.

Thesiger was back in the Gulf for a book launch and a farewell visit to his old Arab friends. Now he was impatient. The man who had journeyed deep into the Empty Quarter of Arabia by camel was ill at ease in a modern hotel.

When the limousine arrived he sat scowling in the back, looking wistfully at the desert as it flashed past the tinted windows.

Then we were at the palace. Barriers lifted, men saluted, servants in white robes and curved daggers were ushering us inside. One of the world's greatest living explorers was greeted by the world's oldest living ruler.

Thesiger had gone hunting with Sheikh Zayed Al-Nahyan in the late 1940s.

Now they shared a joke about how the sheikh had shot a rabbit and thrown it to his dog, only to see Thesiger snatch it back and eat it himself. Those were lean, hungry days before the oil boom.

The Bedu tribesmen who travelled across the rippling sands with Thesiger then had few possessions save for their rifles and their camels. Life could be measured in the time it took to travel between distant wells of drinking water. Miscalculations were often fatal.


On two gruelling journeys he made half a century ago, Thesiger criss-crossed a part of Arabia so inhospitable that even today few will venture into it.

Wilfred Thesiger with a camel
Thesiger journeyed deep into the Empty Quarter of Arabia
Accompanied by small bands of loyal guides, he traversed 200-metre sand dunes and treacherous quicksands. Speaking fluent Arabic, he dressed as a Bedu with dagger and gunbelt. When travelling amongst hostile tribes Thesiger's companions used to try to pass him off as a travelling merchant.

At almost two metres tall, the story didn't always wash, and once he was caught and briefly imprisoned on the orders of the Saudi ruler, Ibn Saud.

But by the time I first met Thesiger, in the 1970s, the simple life of the desert nomads had all but vanished, and he was bitter and disillusioned.

"The Arabs have been ruined by oil," he told me, as we sat in his sitting room in London.

It's true that much of the Middle East has been changed for ever by oil. But the time-honoured Arab traits of boundless hospitality, respect for elders, and unstinting charity have all survived the whirlwind of modernisation
He complained that the qualities he'd once found in the Bedu tribesmen - those of courage, endurance and generosity - had all been corrupted by the comforts of urban life in the new oil towns of the Gulf.

I was not convinced, but what did I know? I was a teenager then, who'd never been near the Middle East. But there was something about those journeys that fascinated me. I resolved to learn Arabic and study Islam at university.

It was the best decision I ever made. In the years that followed I came to live and work in several Arab countries, including a stint in the Jordanian desert with the Bani Howaitat tribe.

It's true that much of the Middle East has been changed for ever by oil. But the time-honoured Arab traits of boundless hospitality, respect for elders, and unstinting charity have all survived the whirlwind of modernisation.


When back in London I would call in on Thesiger for advice, or simply to listen to his tales of desert life before oil. I would cook us omelettes, he would poor me a glass of stale wine - he never drank alcohol himself.

He told me how sometimes he and his Bedu guides used to sit down at the end of a day's trekking, famished with hunger, to eat a small gazelle they had shot for supper.

Wilfred Thesiger
The region ceased to have meaning for Thesiger after the advent of the oil boom
Then strangers would appear on the horizon and Bedu custom demanded that they gave up their meal to the uninvited guests.

Thesiger admitted he would sit there fuming while his Arab companions begged the guests to eat up every last scrap of food.

While I've never been in quite that situation, I have, as a journalist, known Arabs to take substantial risks on my behalf.

I'm thinking particularly here of the two Yemeni tribesmen who, within an hour of meeting me, were happy to escort me into bandit country to do a story on kidnapping.

For them it was a point of honour that I should not get kidnapped myself, or harmed in any way.

So curiously, despite my admiration for Sir Wilfred Thesiger's journeys, his literary masterpieces and his memorable black-and-white photographs, we always agreed to disagree on the Middle East.

For him, it was a region that ceased to have any meaning after the advent of the oil boom. For me, it was, is, and always will be, a place of endless fascination, a place I might never have known had I not taken tea with Thesiger one afternoon in London, all those years ago.

Sir Wilfred Thesiger: Your tributes
27 Aug 03  |  Have Your Say


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