-The Daily Telegraph, London
"The narrative is vividly written, with a thousand little anecdotes and touches which bring back to any who have seen these countries every scene with the colour of real life."
-The Sunday Times, London
Arabian Sands is Wilfred Thesiger's record of his extraordinary journey through the parched "Empty Quarter" of Arabia. Educated at Eton and Oxford, Thesiger was repulsed by the softness and rigidity of Western life, "the machines, the calling cards, the meticulously aligned streets." In the spirit of T. E. Lawrence, he set out to explore the deserts of/i>… See more details below
Arabian Sands is Wilfred Thesiger's record of his extraordinary journey through the parched "Empty Quarter" of Arabia. Educated at Eton and Oxford, Thesiger was repulsed by the softness and rigidity of Western life, "the machines, the calling cards, the meticulously aligned streets." In the spirit of T. E. Lawrence, he set out to explore the deserts of Arabia, traveling among peoples who had never seen a European and considered it their duty to kill Christian infidels. His now-classic account is invaluable to understanding the modern Middle East.
For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.
"The narrative is vividly written, with a thousand little anecdotes and touches which bring back to any who have seen these countries every scene with the colour of real life."
-The Sunday Times, London
Abyssinia and the Sudan
A childhood in Abyssinia is followed by a journey in the Danakil country and service in the Sudan. The opportunity to travel into the Empty Quarter of Arabia comes from a wartime meeting with the head of the Middle East Locust Control.
I first realized the hold the desert had upon me when travelling in the Hajaz mountains in the summer of 1946. A few months earlier I had been down on the edge of the Empty Quarter. For a while I had lived with the Bedu a hard and merciless life, during which I was always hungry and usually thirsty. My companions had been accustomed to this life since birth, but I had been racked by the weariness of long marches through wind-whipped dunes, or across plains where monotony was emphasized by the mirages shimmering through the heat. There was always the fear of raiding parties to keep us alert and tense, even when we were dazed by lack of sleep. Always our rifles were in our hands and our eyes searching the horizon. Hunger, thirst, heat, and cold: I had tasted them in full during those six months, and had endured the strain of living among an alien people who made no allowance for weakness. Often, in weariness of body and spirit, I had longed to get away.
Now, in the Assir, I was standing on a mountain-side forested with wild olives and junipers. A stream tumbled down the slope; its water, ice-cold at 9,000 feet, was in welcome contrast with the scanty, bitter water of the sands. There were wild flowers: jasmine and honeysuckle, wild roses, pinks and primulas. There were terracedfields of wheat and barley, vines, and plots of vegetables. Far below me a yellow haze hid the desert to the east. Yet it was there that my fancies ranged, planning new journeys while I wondered at this strange compulsion which drove me back to a life that was barely possible. It would, I felt, have been understandable if I had been working in some London office, dreaming of freedom and adventure; but here, surely, I had all that I could possibly desire on much easier terms. But I knew instinctively that it was the very hardness of life in the desert which drew me back there it was the same pull which takes men back to the polar ice, to high mountains, and to the sea.
To return to the Empty Quarter would be to answer a challenge, and to remain there for long would be to test myself to the limit. Much of it was unexplored. It was one of the very few places left where I could satisfy an urge to go where others had not been. The circumstances of my life had so trained me that I was qualified to travel there. The Empty Quarter offered me the chance to win distinction as a traveller; but I believed that it could give me more than this, that in those empty wastes I could find the peace that comes with solitude, and, among the Bedu, comradeship in a hostile world. Many who venture into dangerous places have found this comradeship among members of their own race; a few find it more easily among people from other lands, the very differences which separate them binding them ever more closely. I found it among the Bedu. Without it these journeys would have been a meaningless penance.
I have often looked back into my childhood for a clue to this perverse necessity which drives me from my own land to the deserts of the East. Perhaps it lies somewhere in the background of my memory: in journeys through the deserts of Abyssinia; in the thrill of seeing my father shoot an oryx when I was only three; in vague recollections of camel herds at water-holes; in the smell of dust and of acacias under a hot sun; in the chorus of hyenas and jackals in the darkness round the camp fire. But these dim memories are almost gone, submerged by later memories of the Abyssinian highlands, for it was there that I spent my childhood until I was nearly nine.
It was an unusual childhood. My father was British Minister in Addis Ababa, and I was born there in 1910 in one of the mud huts which in those days housed the Legation. When I returned to England I had already witnessed sights such as few people had ever seen. I had watched the priests dancing at Timkat before the Ark of the Covenant to the muffled throbbing of theft silver drums; I had watched the hierarchy of the Ethiopian Church, magnificent in their many-coloured vestments, blessing the waters. I had seen the armies going forth to fight in the Great Rebellion of 1916. For days they passed across the plain in front of the Legation. I had heard the wailing when Ras Lul Seged's army was wiped out trying to check Negus Michail's advance, and had witnessed the wild rejoicing which proclaimed the final victory. I had seen the triumphant return after the battle of Sagale, where the armies of the North and the South had been locked throughout an entire day in desperate hand-to-hand fighting, only fifty miles to the north of Addis Ababa.
Each feudal lord was surrounded by levies from the province which he ruled. The simple fighting men were dressed in white, but the chiefs wore their full panoply of war, lion's-mane head-dresses, brilliant velvet cloaks stiff with silver and golden ornaments, long silk robes of many colours, and great curved swords. All carried shields, some embossed with silver or gilt, and many carried rifles. The Zulu impis parading before Chaka, or the dervishes drawn up to give battle in front of Omdurman, can have appeared no more barbaric than this frenzied tide of men which surged past the royal pavilion throughout the day, to the thunder of the war-drums and the blare of war-horns. This was no ceremonial review. These men had just returned after fighting desperately for their lives, and they were still wild with the excitement of those frantic hours. The blood on the clothes which they had stripped from the dead and draped round their horses was barely dry. They came past in waves, horsemen half concealed in dust and a great press of footmen. Screaming out their deeds of valour and brandishing their weapons, they came right up to the steps of the throne, whence the Court chamberlains beat them back with long wands. Above them, among glinting spear points, countless banners dipped and danced. I can remember one small boy who seemed little older than myself being carried past in triumph. He had killed two men. I can remember Negus Michail, the King of the North, being led past in chains with a stone upon his shoulder in token of submission, an old man in a plain black burnous, with his head wrapped in a white rag. The most moving moment of that wildly exciting day was when the drums suddenly stopped and in utter silence a few hundred men in torn, white, everyday clothes came slowly down the long avenue of waiting troops, led by a young boy. It was Ras Lul Seged's son bringing in the remnants of his father's army, which had gone into battle five thousand strong.
It is not surprising that I dreamt of Africa during the years I was at school. I read every book that I could find on African travel and adventure, by Gordon-Cumming, Baldwin, Bruce, Selous, and many others. I pored over Rowland Ward's Records of Big Game and I could easily have passed an examination on African animals, while I was failing repeatedly in Latin. During sermons in chapel I could picture again the scenes of my childhood, conjure up the mountains that had ringed my horizon, Zuquala, Fantali, Wuchacha, Furi, and Managasha. These are names which have always held a nostalgic fascination for me. Until I went to school I had hardly seen a European child other than my brothers. I found myself in a hostile and incomprehensible world. I was ignorant of the rigid conventions to which schoolboys conform and I suffered in consequence. I spoke of things which I had seen and done and was promptly called a liar. I felt little confidence in my ability to compete with my contemporaries and was often lonely. Fortunately I went on to Eton, for which I acquired a deep and lasting affection.
I returned to Abyssinia when I was twenty. Haile Selassie had never forgotten that during the critical days of the Great Rebellion my father had sheltered his infant son, the present Crown Prince, in the Legation. He sent me, as my father's eldest son, a personal invitation to attend his coronation, and I went out to Ethiopia attached to the Duke of Gloucester's mission. We landed at Jibuti. I do not think I have ever felt so intoxicatedly happy as I did that night in the train on my way to Addis Ababa. When I arrived back at the Legation more than half my life simply vanished from my mind. It needed an effort to remember even the immediate past. It was impossible to believe that eleven years had passed since I had last climbed the hill behind the Legation, watched the blue smoke rising into the cold clear air above the servants' quarters, or listened to the kites shrilling above the eucalyptus trees. I recognized every bird and plant, even the rocks themselves.
During ten hectic days I took part in processions, ceremonies, and state banquets, and finally I watched while the Patriarch crowned Halle Selassie, King of Kings of Ethiopia. Crowned, robed, and anointed, he showed himself to his people, another king in the long line that claimed descent from Solomon and Sheba. I looked on streets thronged with tribesmen from every province of his empire. I saw again the shields and brilliant robes which I remembered from my childhood. But the outside world had intruded and the writing was on the wall. I realized that traditions, customs, and rites, long cherished and revered, were soon to be discarded; that the colour and variety which distinguished this scene were to disappear from the land for ever. Already there were a few cars in the streets, harbingers of change. There were journalists, who forced themselves forward to photograph the Emperor on his throne and the priests as they danced. I was thrust aside by one of them who shouted 'Make room for the Eyes and Ears of the World.'
I had grown up dreaming of big-game shooting and exploration, and was determined, now that I was back in Africa, to get away into the wilds. I had brought a rifle out with me. One day, standing on the Legation steps during a lull in the coronation festivities, I asked Colonel Cheesman, the well-known explorer, if there was anywhere left in Abyssinia to explore. He told me that the one problem left unsolved was what happened to the Awash river, which, rising in the mountains west of Addis Ababa, flowed down into the Danakil desert and never reached the sea. This conversation turned my thoughts to the Danakil country, where the people were head-hunters who collected testicles instead of heads. I was expected back at Oxford in six weeks' time, but could at least get down to the edge of this country and have a look at it. Helped by Colonel Sandford, an old family friend, I collected my caravan. Just as I was ready to start, Sir Sydney Barton, the British Minister, said that he was unhappy about my travelling by myself in this completely unadministered and dangerous area, and suggested that, instead, I should join a shooting trip which he was arranging. I was grateful to him for this offer, but I knew that acceptance meant turning my back for ever on the realization of my boyhood dreams, and that then I should have failed even before I had started. I tried fumblingly to explain what was at stake; how I must go down there alone and get the experience which I required. He understood at once and wished me well, and added as I left the room, 'Take care of yourself. It would be awkward if you got yourself cut up by the Danakil immediately after the coronation. It would rather spoil the effect of it all.'
My first night in camp, as I sat eating sardines out of a tin and watching my Somalis driving the camels up from the river to couch them by the tent, I knew that I would not have been anywhere else for all the money in the world. For a month I travelled in an arid hostile land. I was alone; there was no one whom I could consult; if I met with trouble from the tribes I could get no help; if I were sick there was no one to doctor me. Men trusted me and obeyed my orders; I was responsible for their safety. I was often tired and thirsty, sometimes frightened and lonely, but I tasted freedom and a way of life from which there could be no recall.
This was the most decisive month in my life. When I returned to Oxford the pictures crowded back into my mind. I saw once more a group of Danakil leaning on their spears, slender graceful figures, clad only in short loin-cloths, their tousled hair daubed with butter; an encampment of small dome-shaped huts and the sun's rays slanting through the clouds of dust as the herds were brought in at sunset; the slow-flowing muddy river and a crocodile basking on a sandbank; a waterbuck stepping out of the tamarisk jungle on its way down to drink; a kudu bull with magnificent spiral horns silhouetted on a skyline against fast failing light; the scrambling rush of an oryx shot through the heart; vultures planing down on rigid wings to join others hopping clumsily about the kill; a frieze of baboons sitting on a cliff against the sky. I could feel once more the sun scorching through my shirt; the chill of the early dawn. I could taste camels' urine in water. I could hear my Somalis singing round the camp-fire; the roaring of the camels as they were loaded. I was determined to go back and to discover what happened to the Awash river; but it was the attraction of the unknown rather than any love of deserts which was luring me back. I still thought that my heart was in the Abyssinian highlands; and, certainly, if there had remained any unknown country there I should have chosen them in preference to the desert.
Three years later, accompanied by David Haig-Thomas, I returned to Abyssinia to explore the Danakil country. We travelled first with mules for two months in the Arussi mountains, for we wished to test under easy conditions the men who were going with us before we took them down into the Danakil desert. We camped high on mountain-tops, where the slopes around us were covered with giant heath, or higher still among giant lobelias where clouds formed and re-formed, allowing only glimpses of the Rift Valley seven thousand feet below. We travelled for days through forests, where black and white colobus monkeys played in the lichen-covered trees, and rode across the rolling plains near the head-waters of the Webbi Shibeli. We passed through some of the finest mountain scenery in Abyssinia. Then we dropped off the Chercher mountains to the desert's edge. Breaths of warm air played round us and rustled the dry leaves on the acacia bushes, and that night my Somali servants brought me a bowl of camel's milk from a nomad encampment near by. I was filled with a great contentment. The desert had already claimed me, though I did not know it yet.
The Danakil desert lies between the Ethiopian plateau and the Red Sea, north of the railway line connecting Addis Ababa with Jibuti on the coast. It was a grim land with a grim reputation. Somewhere in this country towards the end of the last century the three expeditions of Munzinger, Giulietti, and Bianchi had been exterminated. Nesbitt and two companions had crossed it from south to north in 1928. They were the first Europeans to return alive from the interior of the Danakil country, but three of their servants were murdered. Nesbitt later described this remarkable journey in his book Desert and Forest. He had been prevented from following the Awash river for a large part of its course by the hostility of the tribes, and he had not explored the Aussa Sultanate nor solved the problem of the river's disappearance.
The Danakil are a nomadic people akin to the Somalis. They own camels, sheep, goats, and cattle, and the richer tribes have some horses which they keep for raiding. They are nominally Muslims. Among them a man's standing depended to a very large extent on his reputation as a warrior, which was judged by the number of men he had killed and mutilated. There was no need to kill another man in fair fight; all that was required to establish a reputation was to collect the necessary number of severed genitals. Each kill entitled the warrior to wear some distinctive ornament, an ostrich feather or comb in his hair, an ear-ring, bracelet, or coloured loin-cloth. It was possible to tell at a glance how many men anyone had killed. These people buried their dead in tumuli, and erected memorials, resembling small stone pens, to the most famous, placing a line of upright stones in front of each memorial, one stone to commemorate each victim. The country was full of these sinister memorials, some of them with as many as twenty stones. I found it disconcerting to be stared at by a Danakil, feeling that he was probably assessing my value as a trophy, rather as I should study a herd of oryx in order to pick out the animal with the longest horns.
Unfortunately, David Haig-Thomas developed acute laryngitis during our journey in the mountains. As he was too ill to accompany me into the Danakil country, I left the Awash station without him on 1 December with forty Abyssinians and Somalis, all armed with rifles. We obviously could not force our way through the country ahead of us, but I hoped that we should appear too strong a force to be a tempting prey. We had eighteen camels to carry our provisions. As I planned to follow the river, I did not expect to be short of water. We started as quickly as possible since I heard that the Ethiopian Government intended to forbid my departure.
A fortnight later we were on the edge of Bahdu district, where the country was very disturbed; the village in which we stopped had been raided two days before and several people killed. The Danakil are divided into two groups, the Assaaimara and the Adaaimara. The Assaaimara, who are by far the more powerful, inhabit Bahdu and Aussa, and all the tribes through whom we had passed were terrified of the Bahdu warriors. The Adaaimara warned us that we should have no hope of escaping massacre if we entered Bahdu, which was guarded from the south by a pass between a low escarpment and some marshes. This we picketed at dawn and were through it before the Assaaimara were aware of our movements. We then halted and, using the loads and camel-saddles, quickly built a small perimeter round our camp, which was protected on one side by the river. We were soon surrounded by crowds of excited Danakils, all armed most of them with rifles. Two Greeks and their servants had been massacred here three years before. Expecting an attack we stood-to at dawn. Next day, after endless argument, we persuaded an emaciated and nearly blind old man, who possessed great influence in Bahdu, to provide us with guides and hostages. Everything seemed to be satisfactorily arranged, when just before sunset a letter arrived from the government. It had been passed on from one chief to another until it reached us. Its arrival roused great excitement among the Danakil, who collected in large numbers round their old chief. The letter was written in Amharic, and I had to have it translated, so there was no possibility of concealing its contents. It ordered me to return at once, since fighting had broken out among the tribes, and emphasized that in no circumstances must I try to enter Bahdu the very place where I now was. Half my men insisted that they were going back, the others agreed to leave the decision to me. I knew that if I ignored this order and continued my journey with a reduced party we should be attacked and wiped out. I realized that I must return, but it was bitter to have my plans wrecked, especially when we had successfully entered Bahdu, and by so doing had overcome the first great difficulty in our way.
On the way back we passed the ruins of a large Adaaimara village. The Assaaimara had sent a deputation of seven old men to this village to discuss a dispute about pasturage. The villagers had feasted them and then set upon them during the night. Only one man, whose wounds I doctored in Bahdu, had escaped. The Assaaimara then attacked the village and killed sixty-one men. It was the incident that had started the recent fighting among the tribes.
I went up to Addis Ababa and wasted six weeks before I could induce the government to let me return, and then only after I had given them a letter absolving them from all responsibility for my safety. I returned to find my men suffering from fever, which is prevalent along the banks of the Awash. They were demoralized, and a few of them insisted on being paid off. In return for the letter which I had given them, the government had agreed to release from prison an old man, Miram Muhammad, and to allow him to accompany me. He was the head chief of the Bahdu tribes. Some months before, he had visited the government and had been detained as a hostage for the good behaviour of his tribes. It was his refusal to guarantee my safety while in Bahdu which had led to my recall. His presence with me ensured us a favourable reception there and at least an introduction to the Sultan of Aussa.
While we were in Bahdu I stayed for several days in the village of a young chief called Hamdu Uga. He had a charming smile and a gentle manner and I enjoyed his company. Though little more than a boy, he had lately murdered three men on the borders of French Somaliland and was celebrating his achievement with a feast when I arrived at this village. He wore, with amusing affection, the ostrich feather to which he was now entitled. Two days after we left, his village was surprised by another tribe, and when I asked about Hamdu Uga I heard that he had been killed.
Six weeks later I was at Galifage on the borders of Aussa, camped on the edge of dense forest. The tall trees were smothered in creepers; the grass was green and rank; little sunlight penetrated to my tent. It was a different world from the tawny plains, the thirsty thorn-scrub, the cracked and blackened rocks of the land through which we had passed. It was here that Nesbitt had met Muhammad Yayu, the Sultan. Nesbitt had received permission to continue his journey but his object was to travel across the lava desert to the north, not to penetrate into the fertile plains of Aussa. Muhammad Yayu, like his father before him, feared and mistrusted all Europeans. This was natural enough. He had seen the French and the Italians occupy the entire coastline, which consists of nothing but lava-fields and salt-pans, and he naturally believed that any European power would desire to seize the rich plains of Aussa if it learnt of their existence. No European before Nesbitt had been given the Sultan's safe conduct and all had been massacred in consequence. Until I arrived in Aussa I had been faced with conditions of tribal anarchy, but now I was confronted by an autocrat whose word was law. If we died here it would be at the Sultan's order, not through some chance meeting with tribesmen in the bush.
I was ordered to remain at Galifage. The camp was full of rumours. On the evening of the third day we heard the sound of distant trumpets. The forest was sombre in the dusk, between the setting of the sun and the rising of the hall moon. Later a messenger arrived and informed me that the Sultan was waiting to receive me. We followed him deeper into the forest, along twisting paths, until we came to a large clearing. About four hundred men were massed on the far side of it. They all carried rifles, their belts were filled with cartridges. They all wore daggers, and their loin-cloths were clean vivid white in the moonlight. Not one of them spoke. Sitting a little in front of them on a stool was a small dark man, with a bearded oval face. He was dressed completely in white, in a long shirt with a shawl thrown round his shoulders. He had a silver-hilted dagger at his waist. As I greeted him in Arabic he rose, and then signed to me to be seated on another stool. He waved his men away. They drew back to the forest's edge and squatted there in silence.
I knew that everything, even our lives, depended on the result of this meeting. It was different from anything I had anticipated. The Sultan spoke very quietly; my Somali headman interpreted. We exchanged the customary compliments and he asked me about my journey. He spoke little and never smiled. There were long intervals of silence. His expression was sensitive, proud, and imperious, but not cruel. He mentioned that a European who worked for the government had recently been killed by tribesmen near the railway line. I learnt later that this was a German who was working with the Ethiopian boundary commission. After about an hour he said he would meet me again in the morning. He had asked no questions about my plans. I returned to camp without an idea of what the future held for us. We met again next morning in the same place. By daylight it was simply a clearing in the forest with none of the menace of the previous night.
The Sultan asked me where I wished to go and I told him that I wanted to follow the river to its end. He asked me what I sought, whether I worked for the government, and many other questions. It would have been difficult to explain my love of exploration to this suspicious tyrant, even without the added difficulties of interpretation. My headman was questioned, and also the Danakil who had accompanied me from Bahdu. Eventually the Sultan gave me permission to follow the river through Aussa to its end. Why he gave me this permission, which had never before been granted to a European, I do not know.
Two days later I climbed a hill and looked out over Aussa. It was strange to think that even fifty years earlier a great part of Africa had been unexplored. But since then travellers, missionaries, traders, and administrators had penetrated nearly everywhere. This was one of the last corners that remained unknown. Below me was a square plain about thirty miles across. It was shut in on all sides by dark barren mountains. To the east an unbroken precipice fell into the water of Lake Adobada, which was fifteen miles long. The northern half of the plain was covered with dense forest, but there were wide clearings where I could see sheep, goats, and cattle. Farther south was a great swamp and open sheets of water, and beyond this a line of volcanoes.
We followed the river, through the forest, past the lakes and swamps, down to the far side of Aussa. It was fascinating country, and I would gladly have remained here for weeks, but our escort hurried us on. I had permission from the Sultan to pass through this land, but not to linger. The Awash skirted the volcanoes of Jira and re-entered the desert, and there it ended in the salt lake of Abhebad. The river had come a long way from the Akaki plains to end here in this dead world, and it was this that I myself had come so far to see three hundred square miles of bitter water, on which red algae floated like stale blood. Sluggish waves slapped over the glutinous black mud which bordered the lake, and hot water seeped down into it from among the basaltic rocks. It was a place of shadows but not of shade, where the sun beat down, and the heat struck back again from the calcined rocks. Small flocks of wading birds only emphasized the desolation as they passed crying along the shore, for they were migrants free to leave at will. A few pigmy crocodiles, stunted no doubt by the salt water in which they lived, watched us with unblinking yellow eyes symbolizing, I thought, the spirit of the place. Some Danakil who were with me told me it was here that their fathers had destroyed an army of 'Turks', and thrown their guns into the lake. No doubt this was where Munzinger's expedition had been wiped out in 1875.
I crossed the border into French Somaliland and stayed with Capitaine Bernard in the fort which he commanded at Dikil. He and most of his men were to die a few months later when they were ambushed by a raiding force from Aussa. From Dikil I travelled across the lava desert to Tajura on the coast. So far it had been the tribes that had threatened us, now it was the land itself. It was without life or vegetation, a chaos of twisted riven rock, the debris of successive cataclysms, spewed forth molten to scald the surface of the earth. This dead landscape seemed to presage the final desolation of a dead world. For twelve days we struggled over the sharp rocks, across mountains, through gorges, past craters. We skirted the Assal basin four hundred feet below sea-level. The blue-black waters of the lake were surrounded by a great plain of salt, white and level as an icefield, from which the mountains rose in crowded tiers, the lava on their slopes black and rusty red. We were lucky. Some rain had fallen recently and filled the water-holes, but fourteen of my eighteen camels died of starvation before we reached Tajura.
I was restless. For three years I had been planning this journey, and now it was over and the future seemed empty. I dreaded a return to civilization, where life promised to be very dreary after the excitements of the last eight months. At Jibuti I played with the idea of buying de Monfried's dhow. I had read his Aventures de Mer and Secrets de la Mer Rouge and had talked to the Danakil who had sailed with him. I was fascinated by his accounts of a free and lawless life.
I returned, however, to England, joined the Sudan Political Service, and went to Khartoum at the beginning of 1935. I was twenty-four. I had spent nearly half my life in Africa, but it was an Africa very different from this. Khartoum seemed like the suburbs of North Oxford dumped down in the middle of the Sudan. I hated the calling and the cards, I resented the trim villas, the tarmac roads, the meticulously aligned streets in Omdurman, the signposts, and the public conveniences. I longed for the chaos, the smells, the untidiness, and the haphazard life of the market-place in Addis Ababa; I wanted colour and savagery, hardship and adventure. Had I been posted to one of the towns I have no doubt that, disgruntled, I should have left the Sudan within a few months, but Charles Dupuis, Governor of Darfur, had anticipated my reaction and had asked that I should be sent to his Province. I was posted to Kutum in northern Darfur, where I served under Guy Moore, a man of great humanity and understanding. He had come to the Sudan from the deserts of Iraq, where he had been a Political Officer at the end of the First World War. He loved talking of those days among the Arabs, and his reminiscences made a great impression on me. We were the only Englishmen in the District, which was the largest in the Sudan and covered more than 50,000 square miles. It was desert country with a small but very varied population of about 180,000. There were nomadic Arab tribes, others of Berber origin, Negro cultivators in the hills, and in the south some of the Bagara, the cattle-owning Arabs, who had won fame as the bravest fighting men in the dervish army.
I spent most of my time on trek travelling with camels. In the Danakil country I had used camels for carrying loads; here for the first time I rode them. District Commissioners usually travelled with a baggage train of four or five camels loaded with tents, camp furniture, and tinned foods. Guy Moore taught me to travel light and eat the local food. I usually travelled accompanied by three or four of the local tribesmen; I kept no servants who were not from the district. Where there were villages, the villagers fed us, otherwise we cooked a simple meal of porridge and ate together from a common dish. I slept in the open on the ground beside them and learnt to treat them as companions and not as servants. Before I left Kutum I had some of the finest riding camels in the Sudan, for I bought the best that I could find; they interested me far more than the two horses I had in my stable. On one of the camels I rode 115 miles in twenty-three hours, and a few months later I rode from Jabal Maidob to Omdurman, a distance of 450 miles, in nine days.
During my first winter in the Sudan I travelled for a month in the Libyan desert. I planned to visit the wells of Bir Natrun, one of the few places in this desert where there was water. It was not in Kutum district, not even in the same province, but as no officials ever went there, and as I had been told I should be refused if I did ask permission from Khartoum, I decided to visit it and say nothing. I started from Jabal Maidob with five companions. As we topped a rise on our first day and saw the stark emptiness before us I caught my breath. There were eight waterless days ahead of us to Bir Natrun and twelve more by the way we planned to return. For the first two days we saw occasional white oryx and a few ostriches; after that there was nothing. Hour after hour, day after day, we moved forward and nothing changed; the desert met the empty sky always the same distance ahead of us. Time and space were one. Round us was a silence in which only the winds played, and a cleanness which was infinitely remote from the world of men.
On my return I went into Fasher the Provincial Headquarters for Christmas. At dinner there was talk of the Italians having occupied Bir Natrun. Recently they had seized the small oasis of Uainat on the Sudan-Libyan frontier which had been assumed to belong to the Sudan. This incident had led to protests and the exchange of notes. Now I heard that Dongala had reported to Khartoum that some Arabs had recently seen white men at Bir Natrun, and that this was assumed to be further aggression by the Italians. 'Emergency measures' had been taken and aircraft had been moved to Wadi Halfa. I interrupted to say that I could not believe this since I had just returned from Bir Natrun, where I had only seen a few Arabs. A stunned silence followed, and then the C.O. of the Western Arab Corps said grimly, 'I suppose you are the Italians.' A little later, when I went through Khartoum on leave, it was pointed out to me firmly but sympathetically by the Civil Secretary that it was not customary to travel in someone else's district without the D.C.'s consent, and certainly not to tour in another province without the Governor's permission.
At the end of 1937 I heard that I was to be transferred to Wad Medani, the headquarters of the Blue Nile Province and the centre of the Gezira Cotton Scheme. I was appalled at the idea of spending two years or more in this African suburbia. On my way through Khartoum on leave I persuaded the Civil Secretary to let me resign from the permanent Political Service and rejoin as a contract D.C. on the understanding that I should not be asked to serve except in the wilds. This meant that I should no longer be eligible for a pension, but I doubted that I really wished to spend the rest of my active life in the Sudan. I had been happy in Darfur. I had found satisfaction in the stimulating harshness of this empty land, pleasure in the nomadic life which I had led. I had loved the hunting. It had been exciting to stalk barbary sheep among the craters of Maidob, or kudu in the Tagabo hills, or addax or oryx on the edge of the Libyan desert. It had been wildly exciting to charge with a mob of mounted tribesmen through thick bush after a galloping lion, to ride close behind it when it tired, while the Arabs waved their spears and shouted defiance, to circle round the patch of jungle in which it had come to bay, trying to make out its shape among the shadows, while the air quivered with its growls. I had grown fond of the people among whom I lived. I valued the qualities which they possessed and was jealous for the preservation of their way of life. But I knew that I was not really suited to be a D.C. as I had no faith in the changes which we were bringing about. I craved for the past, resented the present, and dreaded the future.
I was posted to the Western Nuer District of the Upper Nile Province. I went there on my return from leave, part of which I had spent in Morocco.
The Nuer are Nilotics, kin to the Dinka and Shilluk, and they live in the swamps or Sudd which borders the White Nile to the south of Malakal. A pastoral people who own great herds of cattle, they are a virile race of tall, stark-naked savages with handsome arrogant faces and long hair dyed golden with cow's urine. The District had only been administered since 1925, and there had been some fierce fighting before they had submitted, but they were a people who had exerted a fascination over nearly all Englishmen who had encountered them.
I lived on a paddle-steamer with Wedderburn Maxwell, my District Commissioner. We were left to ourselves; all that the Governor asked was that he should get an occasional letter to say that we were all right. We kept a few files for our own convenience, but were not bothered with the mass of paper which accumulated on office desks in more conventional districts. We were happily out of touch with the rest of the Sudan, for there were no roads anywhere in the district; it was only possible to get there by steamer and to travel in the district with porters. The country was full of game. I once saw a thousand elephants in one vast herd along the river's banks. There were buffalo and white rhinoceros, hippopotamus, giraffe, and many kinds of antelope, and there were leopards, and a great number of lions. I shot seventy lions during the five years I was in the Sudan.
This was the Africa which I had read about as a boy and which I had despaired of finding in the Sudan when I first saw Khartoum: the long line of naked porters winding across a plain dotted with grazing antelope; my trackers slipping through the dappled bush as we followed a herd of buffalo; the tense excitement as we closed in upon a lion at bay; the grunting cough as it charged; the reeking red shambles as we cut up a fallen elephant, a blood-caked youth grinning out from between the gaping ribs; white cattle egrets flying above the Nile against a background of papyrus, such as is depicted in the Pharaohs' tombs; Lake No and the setting sun reflected redly in water that shone like polished steel; hippopotamus grunting close by in a darkness that was alive with other sounds; smoke rising over Nuer cattle camps; the leaping, twisting forms caught up in the excitement of a war dance; the rigid figures of young men undergoing the agony of initiation. Earlier in my life this would have been all that I could have asked, but now I was troubled with memories of the desert.
In 1938 I spent my leave in the Sahara and visited the Tibesti mountains, which were unknown except to French officers who had travelled there on duty. I left Kutum early in August accompanied by a Zaghawa lad, who had been my servant since I came to the Sudan, and an elderly Badayat who knew the language of the Tibbu, having lived in Tibesti. I hired camels in Darfur to take us as far as Faya; after that we should need camels used to the mountains. We travelled light, the distances being great and the time short.
Among the Nuer I had lived in a tent apart from my men, waited on by servants; I had been an Englishman travelling in Africa, but now I could revert happily to the desert ways which I had learned at Kutum. For this was the real desert where differences of race and colour, of wealth and social standing, are almost meaningless; where coverings of pretence are stripped away and basic truths emerge. It was a place where men live close together. Here, to be alone was to feel at once the weight of fear, for the nakedness of this land was more terrifying than the darkest forest at dead of night. In the pitiless light of day we were as insignificant as the beetles I watched labouring across the sand. Only in the kindly darkness could we borrow a few square feet of desert and find homeliness within the radius of the firelight, while overhead the familiar pattern of the stars screened the awful mystery of space.
We did long marches, sometimes riding for eighteen or twenty hours. At last we saw, faint like a cloud upon the desert's edge, the dim outline of Emi Koussi, the crater summit of Tibesti. As we drew near it dominated our world, sharp blue at dawn, and black against the setting sun. We climbed it with difficulty, and stood at last upon the crater's rim, 11,125 feet above sea-level. Beneath us in the crater's floor was the vent, a great hole a thousand feet deep. To the north were range upon range of jagged peaks, rising from shadowed gorges, an awful scene of utter desolation. Everywhere the rocks were slowly crumbling away, eroded by sun and wind and storm. It was a sombre land, black and red and brown and grey. We travelled across wind-swept uplands, over passes and through narrow gorges, under precipices, past towering peaks. From Bardai we visited the great crater of Doon, 2,500 feet in depth. We camped in the Modra valley beneath Tieroko, the most magnificent of all the Tibesti mountains. When we returned to Darfur we had ridden over two thousand miles in three months.
In the desert I had found a freedom unattainable in civilization; a life unhampered by possessions, since everything that was not a necessity was an encumbrance. I had found, too, a comradeship inherent in the circumstances, and the belief that tranquillity was to be found there. I had learnt the satisfaction which comes from hardship and the pleasure which springs from abstinence: the contentment of a full belly; the richness of meat; the taste of clean water; the ecstasy of surrender when the craving for sleep becomes a torment; the warmth of a fire in the chill of dawn.
I went back to the Nuer, but I was lonely, sitting apart on a chair, among a crowd of naked savages. I wanted more than they could give me, even while I enjoyed being with them. The Danakil journey had unsuited me for life in our civilization; it had confirmed and strengthened a craving for the wilds. The Nuer country would have met this need, but three years in Darfur and my recent journey to Tibesti had taught me to ask for more than this, for something which I was to find later in the deserts of Arabia.
I had been posted back to Kutum, but was still on leave when the war started, and being without a district I was allowed to join the Sudan Defence Force in April 1940. For me the Abyssinian campaign had the quality of a crusade. Ten years earlier I had watched the Emperor Haile Selassie being crowned in Addis Ababa; six years after this I had seen him descend from the train at Victoria into exile. I am proud to have served in Abyssinia with Sandford's mission which prepared the way for Haile Selassie's restoration, and to have fought in Wingate's Gideon Force which took him back from the Sudan through Gojam to Addis Ababa. From Abyssinia I was sent to Syria, where I served in Jabal al Druze and later worked for a year among the tribes.
The deserts in which I had travelled had been blanks in time as well as space. They had no intelligible history, the nomads who inhabited them had no known past. Some bushmen paintings, a few disputed references in Herodotus and Ptolemy, and tribal legends of the recent past were all that had come down to us. But in Syria the patina of human history was thick along the edges of the desert. Damascus and Aleppo had been old before Rome was founded. Among the towns and villages, invasion after invasion had heaped ruin upon ruin, and each new conquest had imposed new conquerors upon the last. But the desert had always been inviolate. There I lived among tribes who claimed descent from Ishmael, and listened to old men who spoke of events which had occurred a thousand years ago as if they had happened in their own youth. I went there with a belief in my own racial superiority, but in their tents I felt like an uncouth, inarticulate barbarian, an intruder from a shoddy and materialistic world. Yet from them I learnt how welcoming are the Arabs and how generous is their hospitality.
From Syria I went to Egypt and then to the Western Desert, where I was with the Special Air Service Regiment. We travelled in jeeps and were divided into small parties which hid in the desert and attacked the enemy's lines of communication. We carried food, water, and fuel with us; we required nothing from our surroundings. I was in the desert, but insulated from it by the jeep in which I travelled. It was simply a surface, marked as 'good' or 'bad going' on the map. Even if we had stumbled on Zarzura, whose discovery had been the ambition of every Libyan explorer I should have felt no interest.
In the last year of the war I was again in Abyssinia, where I was Political Adviser at Dessie in the north. The country required technicians but had little use for political advisers. Frustrated and unhappy I resigned. One evening in Addis Ababa I met O. B. Lean, the Desert Locust Specialist of the Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome. He said he was looking for someone to travel in the Empty Quarter of Arabia to collect information on locust movements. I said at once that I should love to do this but that I was not an entomologist. Lean assured me that this was not nearly as important as knowledge of desert travel. I was offered the job and accepted it before we had finished dinner.
All my past had been but a prelude to the five years that lay ahead of me.
"The narrative is vividly written, with a thousand little anecdotes and touches which bring back to any who have seen these countries every scene with the colour of real life."
-The Sunday Times, London
Wilfred Thesiger (1910-2003) was a British explorer and travel writer. He was born at Addis Ababa, Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). Educated at Eton and Oxford, he worked in the Sudan Political Service and and later, for a year, as a Political Officer for the Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie. He is best known for two travel books: Arabian Sands (1959) and The Marsh Arabs (1964).
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