Wilfred Thesiger was an Englishman who spent the late 1940s travelling through Arabia. He wrote a book about it, named Arabian Sands, which I have just finished reading, and which is something of a classic in the world of masochistic adventure literature. It’s a fine work, full of little spatterings of detail and interest about the environment he moved through, which help to keep the book moving through several hundred pages of relatively monotonous desert travel.
Thesiger’s travels were really quite remarkable. He traveled across the Empty Quarter desert in Arabia several times with only camels for transport, being one of the first (and only) Europeans to do so. These were journeys of no small hardship – he was hungry and thirsty most of the time, roasted by the sun in the day and frozen overnight, and under constant threat of being shot by Bedouin raiding parties for months on end. He was lonely, frequently frustrated by his improvident Bedouin companions and the need to provide hospitality to passers-by, and probably constantly malnourished.
The interesting thing is that he didn’t have to do any of it. He was under no compulsion whatsoever. He chose that life.
By modern standards Thesiger was quite deranged. He actively sought out this kind of hardship time and again, and spent a lot of effort trying to convince various arms of the British government to fund yet another mission to the desert. He found the settled environment of the coast to be unsatisfactory and Britain to be actively unpleasant, spending most of his life in arid parts of the world.
Why would you do that to yourself? What went into his mental makeup that seemingly compelled him to seek out suffering? I’m sure there’s an argument waiting to be made that Thesiger, like T.E. Lawrence, sought the desert out of sublimated homosexual desire, but I honestly don’t get that feeling from his book. He reminds me a little bit of some Australians who I met in Papua New Guinea who had found the lifestyle of a wandering jackaroo in central Australia to be too restrictive. They’d gone to PNG because they simply didn’t like living in any strongly regulated environment and could only tolerate personally negotiated restrictions on their activities.
The admirable Alastair Humphreys (@al_humphreys), a modern-day British adventurer, recently followed a similar path across Arabia in tribute to Thesiger. In the splendid film that he and his travelling companion made about the journey he breaks down at one point, berating himself for feeling constantly compelled to make arduous and ultimately pointless journeys.
But I guess that’s the key question. Why do any of us travel anywhere, whether via camel or luxury coach? Why even do anything beyond the necessities of survival?
I guess because we’re human, and we have inherited genes that encourage us to explore. I suspect that everyone has a grain of Thesinger’s unusual personality within them. For some it itches worse than others, and others are driven mad by the constant scratching.