Wilfred Thesiger in Africa

The name of Wilfred Thesiger is synonymous with Arab country; with his historic crossings of the Rub al-Khali, the "Empty Quarter" whose dunes spill over the borders of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, which he recorded in Arabian Sands; and with the marsh Arabs of southern and eastern Iraq whose culture Saddam Hussein almost exterminated.

We are particularly fortunate to have had the latter documented by Thesiger because, as he told David Attenborough in his sole televised interview (printed in full in this volume), he had only intended to go for a month's wild duck shooting, but "then liked it and stayed for seven years". For these alone would "Mubarak Bin London" ("the blessed one from London"), as they called him in the Emirates, be remembered, a travel writer acknowledged as a master by both his contemporaries and all who have followed.

But Thesiger was drawn equally strongly to Africa. It was there, in a mud compound in Addis Ababa, that he was born on 3 June 100 years ago. Thesiger is often called the last "gentleman explorer", somewhat inevitably, given that he was educated at Eton and Oxford and was the grandson of a British general, great-grandson of a lord chancellor and nephew of a viceroy. His father was consul general and minister plenipotentiary at the British Legation from 1909-19, a period about which Thesiger, the eldest son, later wrote: "I am certain that the first nine years of my life have influenced everything that followed."

It was a course that was swift to reward him, Abyssinia providing him with two notable "firsts" by the time he was 24. In 1930, his father's old friend Ras Tafari sent him the only private invitation to attend his coronation as Emperor Haile Selassie; and three years later he became the first European to trace the source of the Awash River into the sultanate of Aussa, close to the border with Eritrea.

Thesiger's trademark disregard for personal hardship and safety was thus already set, as the sultan's men had cut the throats of two previous European parties that had dared venture into his territory, while his Danakil tribesmen demonstrated their virility by wearing the genitals of those they had killed and castrated. It was considered rather poor form to have too few of these trophies.

“There was a young chief who'd only killed one man," Thesiger later recalled, "and they were restive at having him, saying he must go off and kill some more." When the chief duly returned adorned with five sets of genitals, Thesiger said, "he looked like an ingenuous sort of British schoolboy who'd just got his colours for cricket. We liked him enormously."

But Abyssinia, as Ethiopia was then known, was just the beginning. There was Sudan, where he worked in the political service and shot 70 lions between 1935 and 1939. ("Sounds unpardonable today," he told Attenborough. "All the same, in those days there were masses of lion and one was hunting them.") After he'd won the Distinguished Service Order by helping Haile Selassie evict the Italians from his country, there was action in North Africa with the newly formed Special Air Service during the Second World War; Morocco, where he took his mother for winter in the 1960s; Tanzania; and above all Kenya, where he settled and spent nine months of each year from 1978-94. In fact, according to the editors of this book - who should know what they're talking about, given that the substantial opening essay is by Thesiger's amanuensis and biographer, Alexander Maitland - a full five of his seven decades living and travelling abroad were spent in Africa.

Perhaps it is because his journeys there were characterised by less obvious narratives that Thesiger is not popularly associated with the continent. But he certainly still found that authenticity and nobility for which he always searched. Travelling among the Maasai of Kenya and Tanganyika in 1961, he noted: "They have scorned everything which the west has offered them, and how right they are."

And there, as wherever he went, he took photographs, 200 of which adorn this handsome volume and which can be seen in an exhibition at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, the occasion that prompted its publication. The art was not one to which he attached great significance. Asked by one of the book's essayists which photographers he most admired, he answered "none". "Photography was, he said, merely a tool for recording the reality of his own experience." Whether he considered it important or not, however, he possessed great skill in capturing landscape and in portraiture. From the fly-blown Borana elder gazing mystically to the left of the frame to his pictures of the monolithic rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, the images are as laconic and powerful as his prose.

Above all, the book conveys a simple fact: that great travel writing owes nothing to, and can owe nothing to, the technical gewgaws that clutter 21st-century life. Thesiger would not have blogged on his journeys, let alone tweeted ("Am attending circumcision ceremony. Yikes!"), even if he could. His work is about timeless cultures and observation of their "longer past", as one of the essayists puts it. "Don't go touring straight across," he said to Attenborough. "Pick an area and stay there for a bit and get to know the people. That's what I'm always telling the young people today."

Wilfred Thesiger in Africa
Edited by Christopher Morton and Philip N Grover
HarperPress, 256pp, £25

“Wilfred Thesiger: a Centenary Exhibition" is at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford until 5 June 2011. Details: prm.ox.ac.uk

Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of the New Statesman

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 12 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the mask