Sir Wilfred Thesiger was born on 3 June 1910 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (then Abyssinia) into a life of privilege and aristocratic connections.
His father was the British ambassador in Addis Ababa and his uncle would become Viceroy of India. Thesiger’s education was a standard one for men with his background; Eton, where he felt out of place, followed by Oxford, where he found his place through sporting prowess.
Thesiger’s connections proved invaluable when, as a son of his now dead father, he was personally invited by Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia to his coronation and at 20 became one of the official delegation accompanying the son of King George V, the British King, to it.
In 1933 Thesiger explored remote areas of Ethiopia aged 23 and from 1935 was an assistant district commissioner in the Sudan – jointly responsible with one other British man for administering a vast area the size of England, he took every opportunity to travel with only Sudanese companions. Later he joined the military, initially in Sudan then Ethiopia and eventually joining the early SAS (Special Air Services – a British elite military unit) in North Africa.
Thesiger was ‘frustrated’ on his administrative reappointment to Sudan and resigned. Almost immediately, he found the work that would lead him to yet another vast landscape, full of non-English people. This work was to research the desert locust, for the Food and Agriculture Organisation, in Arabia, which for some time had been his ‘promised land’.
Wilfred Thesiger in Oman
He arrived into Salalah in Oman in October 1945 and was eventually supplied with a small support team from members of the tribes from the edge of the Empty Quarter, some of whom had travelled across the Empty Quarter (Rub al Khali) 14 years before with Bertram Thomas who was the 1st non-Arab to cross that desert.
On departure Thesiger changed into Arab clothes, describing how in Sudan and elsewhere he gained automatic respect as an Englishman and Government Official. Here he would travel with people who had no idea about English people in general and certainly assumed their own infinite superiority. Thesiger clearly realised he needed to fit in.
His first Empty Quarter crossing took him via Shisr and Mughshin from where he made an extended loop through the Empty Quarter, exiting the sands close to the border crossing between Saudi Arabia and Oman.
A trait of Thesiger was to grumble at length about modern methods of transport while making full use of these and his high-level connections when he travelled from Arabia to other countries.
He had no hesitation on getting Britain’s Royal Air Force to act as his personal UBER to transport a Bedu companion, bin Ghabaisha, by air from Salalah to Mukalla Yemen 600kms away, for the start of the 2nd crossing of the Empty Quarter.
This 2nd crossing journey took him from the Hadramawt to Wadi Dawasir, when after they were all imprisoned for entering Saudi Arabia without permission. They then swung south of Riyadh and onto Abu Dhabi.
Despite his contrary nature and, as recounted in Michal Asher’s biography, often sharp temper; Thesiger clearly developed a tremendous relationship with those he travelled with. It must be that it was not only the amount of time that he spent with them that helped develop this rapport, but that he clearly admired their traits and they his.
Life has changed considerably in the Arabian Peninsula since Thesiger travelled there. However what is remarkable and probably testimony to the very remoteness of the places he journeyed in is that often the places he visited would be instantly recognisable to him today, so little have they changed.
Wilfred Thesiger died on 24th August 2003 in Coulsden, a green leafy suburb in the south of London that is far removed from the lands he prefered.