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Sir Wilfred Thesiger in his Chelsea, London flat, 1998.

Sir Wilfred Thesiger

It was 1991, and I was working with an aid agency in eastern Sudan. It was at this time that I was introduced to the writings of Wilfred Thesiger, explorer, photographer, writer. He was the last of that breed of adventurers who walked wherever he explored and eschewed the conveniences of modern life. Among other things, he is noted for those classics of travel writings, Arabian Sands and Marsh Arabs, as well as for his explorations in Africa (he was the first European to explore the Danakil desert in northern Ethiopia). His black and white photographs are celebrated for their classical evocation of the bedouin life, which has since passed into history with the rise of the oil states.

As a young man, I was deeply impressed by his accomplishments. In his autobiography, A Life of My Choice, he mentions being stationed as a British officer during the start of WWII in the border town of Gedaref, Sudan, which happened to be my base. A friend of mine who knew Thesiger encouraged me to write to him; he was living in Kenya at the time. I did so and expected nothing to come of it. However, to my intense pleasure, I received a letter from the old explorer in his very fine, aristocratic script thanking me for my letter and inviting me to visit him in Maralal, northwestern Kenya, whenever I passed through.

A year later, I did just that and was graciously invited, along with my traveling companion, to camp out at his homestead on the edge of town, which he was sharing with his adopted Samburu family.

Several years later, I heard that he had moved back to London. When I passed through London, I dispatched a letter to him, and once, again, he contacted me to invite me over for dinner. Along with another friend, we visited his flat located in the posh Chelsea neighborhood of London. We shared a humble fare of aluminum wrapped TV dinners. Although, he was soon to be recognized as the great explorer that he was and would be knighted by the Queen, he was still feeling unmoored from his traveling days while slowly losing his sight. The impression I got that evening was of a lonely old man looking forward to death.

The portrait you see above was caught just as he turned to face the window as the sun set over the Thames River. The more famous portrait of himself (behind his shoulder) graced the cover of his autobiography, and reminds us of a young man who set out to explore the world without any thought of celebrity or renown, but purely for his own pleasure.