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Exploration and Adventure

01/31/08 5:55PM By Bill Mares
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(HOST) The recent death of Sir Edmund Hillary reminded commentator Bill Mares - himself a writer, former teacher and legislator - of another explorer who fired his imagination as a young man.

(MARES) I was never much of a climber. The highest I ever got was 15,000 feet up Mount Kenya, above which the technical ascent began. The only passion I shared with Hillary is beekeeping. The Hillary of my dreams was an intrepid wanderer named Sir Wilfred Thesiger, who died in 2003 at the age of 92. While I was studying Middle Eastern history in college, I became fascinated with a cadre of eccentric English explorers who challenged themselves and the deserts of Saudi Arabia - St. John Philby, Bertram Thomas, Henry Doughty, T.E. Lawrence... and Thesiger.

Wilfred Thesiger was born to a comfortable life as the son of the British minister to the Ethiopian court. He was educated in Oxford, after which he mounted original expeditions in Darfur and eastern Ethiopia in his twenties. After service in World War Two - when he won Britain's second highest military decoration for bravery - he returned to his life's passion for exploration. During 45 years he walked over 40,000 miles in Africa, Arabia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He sought out one remote tribe after another to share their lives and privations. Thesiger was also a marvelous photographer whose powerful black and white images are a striking addition to the four books he wrote.

In 1971, one of my college professors, William Polk, invited me to join him and four Bedouins on a 1200-mile camel trek from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to Amman, Jordan as the journey's photographer. I jumped at the chance. For inspiration, I took along Thesiger's book Arabian Sands, an account of his trek across the forbidding Empty Quarter of southern Saudi Arabia. Our journey in the northern Arabian desert had its share of adventures - getting lost, running out of water and the like - but they were mouse meat compared to the hardships and dangers Thesiger endured in the Empty Quarter.

Indeed, in all his travels, Thesiger pushed the world's physical and ethnographic boundaries as he pushed his body to its limits. As one obituary wrote, "He was a man of extreme austerity. The harder a journey was - extreme shortages of food and water, hostility of terrain and weather - the more he enjoyed it."

But as with all of us, he had contrasting sides to his personality. In writings and interviews he bemoaned the softening effects settled civilization brought to the nomads he ennobled in words and photos; but when I met him in London for tea, he was dressed in a three piece suit, and, but for his world-weathered face, looked like any anonymous civil servant.

At the end of our desert journey, Bill Polk and I had a similar sharp jab of cultural contrast. While we congratulated ourselves for surviving the first trek by Westerners across the great Nefud in 100 years, one of our Arab companions dryly remarked, "It would have been more comfortable in a truck."

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