Wilfred Thesiger must be fed up with being hailed as the last of the great Victorian travellers, striding along behind Livingstone, Burton and Stanley. After all, he was not born until 1910, and his life of wandering started only in 1933. when he risked his neck (and other delicate parts) on a trip to the trophy-hunting Danakil of Ethiopia.
Yet he looks the part of the great Victorian explorer more than any of his nineteenth-century predecessors. At eighty-eight he is still a great hulk of a man, with a jaw like angle-iron and a nose like a broken piece of the Karakoram (he broke it boxing – at Eton). He has the pale, misty eyes of a visionary.
From the beginning he acted like a traveller from an earlier, more gentlemanly age. His idea of travel was to go alone and without fuss. Of course, ‘alone’ meant without white companions. His local companions he cut to the minimum: a guide, a driver for the donkeys or camels, or porters to carry the tent, and perhaps some armed men if the natives were reported to be unfriendly. Then he vanished, for months at a time, among the Arabs of the marshes or the Kafirs of Kafirstan, following their way of life and dressed in their flowing robes, until he re-emerged back in his London flat – suntanned and a little stiff perhaps, after striding across half the Himalayas, but still the old Thesiger, genial, modest, mysterious.
Was there some purpose in all this wandering – apart from the yearning to escape his own century and propel himself backwards in time? No doubt he was often misunderstood by the Mir, the Wali and the mullah. He seemed like a figure from Kim: noting the height of the passes across the Hindu Kush, and the way down to the Oxus, as if he was a secret agent playing his part in the Great Game. But Thesiger was always his own man – with his own income. No government hired him, no publisher paid him an advance, no editor sponsored his trips. True, he was a war hero, recruited by Wingate on a daredevil mission to restore Haile Selassie to the throne of Ethiopia. Otherwise he found that wandering was an end in itself. Of course he took pride in his discoveries. He was the first man to trace the River Awash to its source in the basalt deserts of the Red Sea, the first man to make a double crossing of the Empty Quarter of Arabia. Yet in a sense his discoveries were incidental to the journeys. It took a publisher seven years to persuade him to write Arabian Sands, the masterpiece that made him famous. And it has taken him forty years to write up the awe-inspiring diaries of travel in the Himalayas and Hindu Kush which constitute the present volume.
The volume covers the years between 1952 and 1965 when Thesiger crisscrossed the remote mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan. He tells us of the peoples and their customs, but (alas) little about himself. He writes with the impatient eye of the hunter; his descriptions are as terse and sharp-edged as his photographs. Much of the country was unexplored by Europeans. The maps were dangerously misleading. Once Thesiger miscalculated the crossing of a snow-covered pass, and became separated from the men carrying the baggage. He was lucky to escape frostbite or worse. Often he took risks – braving rock-falls, wolves and bandits – contrary to local advice. He was the first European to cross the icy pass into Hazarajat. He found the Hazaras themselves something of an anticlimax. The men, ‘despite their hardihood, toughness and honesty … [were] rather dreary’. The women he found no more entertaining. There had been a report, published in the Gazetteer of Afghanistan in 1882, that the ‘character of their women for unblushing immorality also appears to be universal … they are handsome and engaging and the opportunities offered, to strangers even, by some tribes are said to be shameless.’ No opportunities were offered to Thesiger, according to his account – though one doubts if such a confirmed bachelor would have had much use for a Hazara belle in his sleeping bag.
The highlights of this book are the journeys he made to Kafiristan (alias Nuristan) in 1956 and 1965. I have a proprietary interest in these expeditions. One day, about 1958, I presented myself at the Travellers’ Club in Pall Mall, hoping to be enrolled in a trip to Kafiristan with the great explorer. He gave a genial snort and told me some tales of everyday life in the Himalayas. A Nuristani had tried to murder one of the Tajik ponymen. Thesiger told me that he couldn’t help liking this streak of unpredictable violence in their nature. ‘Of course l threw the assailant to the ground, then forced the two men to come to terms’ (they were arguing about an old debt). I felt a little out of my depth. After lunch I decided not to press Thesiger to take me on his next expedition.
Two incidents later confirmed that my instincts were correct. l read Eric Newby’s description of encountering Thesiger in Kafiristan shortly before the attempted murder of the Tajik ponyman. It appears in Newby’s hilarious travel book, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. Newby and a friend had tried to climb the 20,000-foot peak of Mir Samir without proper porters or climbing equipment . They met Thesiger somewhere in the valley below, and they were in the last stages of exhaustion. Thesiger was reading Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma, but treated them kindly. He bawled at his cook to make them chicken and green tea. But when he saw they refused to sleep on the hard ground, and had brought inflatable airbeds, he could not conceal his disgust. ‘You must be a couple of pansies’, he said.
The second incident was more alarming still. I met Gavin Maxwell, who had been given the rare privilege of accompanying Thesiger on a trip to his private paradise among the Marsh Arabs. One day, Maxwell told me (and he added that this was a true story that Thesiger would not allow him to print in A Reed Shaken by the Wind), the two men were shooting duck in the marshes. Suddenly a wild boar appeared and made for them. Maxwell stood his ground, armed only with a light shotgun. Thesiger climbed a neighbouring tree. The boar charged, paying no attention to the birdshot, then swerved to avoid an irrigation ditch and galloped away. ‘Damn,’ said Thesiger, climbing down from the tree. ‘I had always wanted to know what the tusks of a 20- stone boar would do to a man’s belly.’