National Geographic

Thesiger’s Trail

Asaita, Ethiopia, 11°33'53" N, 41°15'48" E

Hyenas slouched through camp last night.

Their footsteps: a soft, rhythmic padding, like the slap of an index finger against the palm. They emitted deranged chuckles, terrible gurgles—a cross between a purr and a bark. I lifted my head from the ground. But I could not see them. The moon was down. The night was black. There was no fire to frighten them off: We had built no fire. Instead, we had slogged eight miles north of our route along the Awash River’s muddy banks, blundering through dense screens of thornscrub, exhausted, tormented by mosquitoes, until we threw ourselves down to sleep. Only there was no sleep. Because of yanguli, the hyena.

Ahmed Alema Hessan, my guide, blamed it all on the Issa: the Somali-speaking nomads who are the old enemies of the Afar—eternal bogeymen, cattle rustlers, “invaders” drifting up from the south and east, from the austere deserts of Djibouti and Somalia. Their raiding parties derailed our progress, forced us to march deep into the night. The Issa shoot the Afar. The Afar retaliate. How much of this ancient pastoral war is real, how much is imagined, inflated, a mere shard of larger tragedies like climate change, displacement by irrigation projects, droughts—it is impossible to say. It is all so ingrained, so implacable, so mythologized.

“At first in 1930 I had disapproved of the incessant killing by the [Afar], but fairly soon I accepted this as the way they lived, and I never felt any desire to see them brought under alien control and civilized.”

Portrait of two Afar (Asaimara Danakil) warriors, standing, wearing knives across their waists from which hang leather tassels denoting how many men each has killed. The man on the left is Hamdo Ouga, a young Asaimara chief who was killed by warriors of the rival Adoimara Danakil tribe a few days after this photograph was taken. Copyright Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

Portrait of two Afar (Asaimara Danakil) warriors, standing, wearing knives across their waists from which hang leather tassels denoting how many men each has killed. The man on the left is Hamdo Ouga, a young Asaimara chief who was killed by warriors of the rival Adoimara Danakil tribe a few days after this photograph was taken. Copyright Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

As our tiny caravan re-walks the pathways of early humans out of Africa, our trail crosses, now and again, the ghostly boot-prints of the man who wrote that chilly sentence, Sir Wilfred Thesiger—British iconoclast, writer, and photographer: a lone wolf, a man out of time, the last of the gentlemen explorers.

Thesiger, who died very old in 2003, with the cartilage in both knees worn out from walking, was a nail-thin aristocrat with a broken nose and a shock of coarse jet hair. He made his name in the middle of the last century, trekking vast distances barefooted among the Bedouin of Saudi Arabia. (He almost perished of thirst while traversing the Empty Quarter not once, but twice.) He roamed with Bakhtiari nomads in Iran. He explored the last unmapped patches of Afghanistan. Yet his legacy isn’t adventuring. It is his art.

His books on the twilight of pre-industrial societies—Arabian Sands, Marsh Arabs, Visions of a Nomad—are beautifully written without being sentimental. They offer nuanced portrayals of a now vanished world, benedictions to traditional societies at the cusp of drastic changes. And his black-and-white photos of nomadic people, some of them frankly homoerotic, glow with a tenderness that he rarely displayed in person. Thesiger chose to play the hard man. He despised modernity. Well into his 80s, he lived alone, in a rural slum, in the Kenyan desert. “An abomination” was his term for cars.

The solitary Englishman launched his extraordinary wandering career here, where khaki-colored sandstorms strip the land to the bone, in the Afar Triangle of Ethiopia. (He’d been born, the son of an English diplomat, in a mud hut in Addis Ababa.)

In 1934, at the age of 23, leading a camel train and armed bodyguards supplied by his friend, Emperor Haile Selassie, this former champion boxer at Eton set out for the Red Sea through the territory of the hostile Danakil, as the Afar were then known. Along the way, he collected birds, barricaded his tent against midnight attacks by warriors, and wrote dutiful letters to his mother. “Everything was going simply splendidly . . .  secured hostages for good behavior off each headman.”

View of Wilfred Thesiger's expedition party setting out from the Awash Station at the start of his 1933-4 Awash expedition. Copyright Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

View of Wilfred Thesiger’s expedition party setting out from the Awash Station at the start of his 1933-4 Awash expedition. Copyright Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

He also perpetuated the legend of the Afar as some of the most warlike nomads in the world:

“A man child at any age, even at the breast, counts as a kill. They invariably castrate their victim, even if still alive, if it is possible to do so.”

Thesiger’s book about that journey, The Danakil Diary, bristles with this sort of prurience. He was very young. He saw what he came to see. He largely omitted historical context: The Afar belonged to a sprawling Muslim pastoral and trading empire; they had been at bitter war, off and on, for many generations with encroaching neighbors, including Christian Orthodox Ethiopia. Thesiger was an armed and uninvited guest. He marched through a militarized culture.

“As I looked around the clearing at the squatting warriors,” he gushed some 80 years ago of his first encounter with the Sultan of Aussa, the xenophobic king of the Afars, “. . . I knew that this moonlight meeting in unknown Africa with a savage potentate who hated Europeans was the realization of my boyhood dreams.”

Thesiger would feel at home today in much of northeast Ethiopia.

Mount Ayelu, a perfect volcanic cone, still juts from the Rift Valley floor. It is the translucent blue of wood smoke. And our camels, like Thesiger’s, have acquired personalities: big Suma a’tuli is a Sufi stoic; small, bullheaded A’urta makes his unhappiness known, shaking off his loads. At night the old explorer would have been comforted by the clank of sooty cook-pots, the banter around our campfires. Miraculously, wildlife remains: ostriches glow, limned in golden light, on the sunset plains. And I, too, aim to meet the elusive king of the Afars.

So we break camp. We walk on.

Past open canopy forests of acacia. Past the domed huts of Afars who stand and stare. (“A strange feeling, being watched continuously . . .”) Past men using bronze-age-looking adzes, chopping at the dwindling trees, making charcoal. Past a sprinkle of green market gardens of corn, watermelon, onion. To fabled Asaita—once called Aussa, the traditional capital of the Afar sultanate. An oasis town. Its narrow alleyways crown a black mesa of stone on a remote bend of the Awash River. The king’s home. Almost 30 miles of walking in a single day.

“Hello? Hello?” I shout into my satellite phone, dialing the current Afar sultan “Is His Excellency in?”

His Excellency Hanfareh Ali Mirah: heir of a royal line dating back to the 1730s, grandnephew of the ruler who gave Thesiger a gift of one dozen skins of milk, two of ghee, and two bullocks. (A bribe to send the explorer on his way.) I have been trying to reach His Excellency for weeks, months. Caked in dirt, I stand on a rooftop in Asaita with the phone pressed to my ear. (This where people sleep.) My Afar sarong, or shire, is crusted with dried sweat. I stink of camel and smoke. I have been subsisting on the nomad’s unleavened barley bread. Drinking goat milk.

“Please call back tonight after eight,” a retainer says.

I do. But the sultan—a professional diplomat, a modern politician who moves about constantly in a SUV, a settler of land disputes, a donor of emergency food supplies, scholarships—is not available after eight. He is never available. There will be no ghee, no oxen for me. The last time I ring he is far away from Afar land. Where is he? He is in France. In Europe.

 

There are 30 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Raghu Nathan
    March 2, 2013

    Paul,
    Great to see you writing with links to Thesiger’s travels. I will remember the excitement after reading ‘Arabian Sands’ forever. Your notes give me the same emotions.
    Raghu

  2. Arjun
    March 2, 2013

    Priviledged to be walking vicariously with you…wish it cd turn real : ) keep walking : )

  3. Matthew MacDonald
    March 2, 2013

    What an amazing journey you are truly a masterful storyteller and writer I cant wait for your next article best of luck on the trail

  4. Linda Tucker
    March 2, 2013

    Finally signed up to Twitter to follow you- no disappointment , pure rapture.

  5. chet green
    March 2, 2013

    Paul,

    First, congrats.
    Sometimes I’ll unsheath the big “gille” Ali Mirah’s man gave me and smell the knife’s wide blade and remember. The scents of Aisaita coat it.
    Met the sultan myself at Manda in 1974 when I trekked around Cafar Baro (Afar Land) after discovering a 1965 Nat Geo magazine feature about them by a photog/writer named Engelbert and then reading an old book, “Hellhole of Creation,” Nesbitt’s account of his 1928 safari deep into and through the Danakil. Nesbitt was pretty cool, refusing to name volcanoes he found after famous white men, instead giving the volcanoes local names. By comparison, Thesiger’s trek was a cake walk.
    Good to read change hasn’t emasculated the Afar, even helped them because the AKs have to be safer to use than the old bolt actions I saw out there.

    • Paul Salopek
      March 6, 2013

      Chet: An antique bookseller in New York told me that Nesbitt’s American publisher dumped the book’s original title—the bland “Desert and Forest”—and replaced it with the more 24-hour-cable-channel-worthy “Hell Hole of Creation.” This was in 1935. Hype resists evolution. Either way, it’s a great read. Nesbitt, one of the forgotten explorers of the 20th century, apparently wrote another book, about South America, before dying in an air crash in the 1930s.

  6. Jeff Parnakian
    March 2, 2013

    Enjoy your walk. What an amazing journey!

  7. Tina Carmona
    March 2, 2013

    Love this Thank You, Sooo very interesting

  8. Bandkanon
    March 3, 2013

    Paul,

    Thank you for this excellent post. I find the contrast of low and high tech (satellite phone) especially interesting to imagine as I recreate you trying to contact the king out in the desert while he is actually in France.

  9. David Morrison
    March 3, 2013

    Wow. I will have to read a couple of those books. Fantastic stuff.

  10. Jonathan
    March 3, 2013

    Beautiful writing Paul – can almost smell the air…the Monday morning commute tomorrow doesn’t feel like a weight anymore…

  11. Annie Williams
    March 3, 2013

    I find his writing very designed for the time because of the event he is traveling through.

  12. Brucette Beitz
    March 4, 2013

    Love your writing…..something to look forward to…..safe journey!

  13. Scott Wallace
    March 5, 2013

    Wonderful writing, Paul. It’s a real treat. Good luck and stay safe.

  14. Clive Buckle
    March 5, 2013

    I wonder how Thesiger would have described the Satellite phone?

    • Paul Salopek
      March 18, 2013

      Probably as an infernal device, Clive. Or a wimp’s crutch. He didn’t truck much with modern technology.

  15. Yosef
    March 9, 2013

    What a life! I wish I accompany you. I’ll follow you for the next seven years. You do good for humanity; and for Ethiopia too. by the way, I read Thesiger’s autobiography: The life of my choice (is that vice verse?), the Addis Ababean born Englishman; well Id learned- the journey is life. Hit the road and we follow you.

  16. E. Patton
    March 18, 2013

    Good day to you Paul. I love your spirit of adventure and daring. Who knows what travails will become you in the endless miles ahead. May God guide your steps in safety. If you need another hat somewhere along the way from Texas, this Texan will do whatever necessary to sned you another.
    Onward thru the fog!!!

  17. Katherine
    March 22, 2013

    Thank you for the references to one of my heroes, Wilfred Thesiger. Travel writers are an amazing lot of people.

  18. Gabbrielle
    March 27, 2013

    nice job on the walk

  19. Gabbrielle
    March 27, 2013

    do u like to do stuff like that

  20. vma
    March 28, 2013

    My father was born in 1915 and spent early years in Africa. My Grandad died in Abadan. Dad spent many yesr in Kenya with the Massai and the Kikuyu. he was a British Army officer and a linguist. I still sing some of the songs he taught me. Wish I knew what they
    meant. My pictures of him in Africa are so like the ones in this story. Lone Englishman surrounded by
    the locals. Thanks for bringing memories of my Dad back.

  21. MIchael Jenkins
    March 28, 2013

    A “picture in the mind” story … able to visualize every detail you’ve put down in your words. Well done.

  22. Juditha
    March 28, 2013

    I Love your commentary Paul. I have been reading a book by Wilbur Smith Called “Cry Wolf”. You are travelling through the area that this book talks about. A bit scary to me.
    Stay safe!!

  23. Jordan Holtam
    March 28, 2013

    I lived and worked in EnNahud, Ethiopia in the early 90′s, many years after Thesiger had been there as a DC. He as invited to visit in 1992 by the British Embassy and I was fortunate to escort him around the Embassy grounds. I could sense his solid, compassionate personality as we shared experiences.

    • Paul Salopek
      May 3, 2013

      You are a lucky man, Jordan. It must have been remarkable, and a bit haunting, to be present as the old explorer rambled about his birthplace after a century of change.

  24. greg
    March 28, 2013

    Wilfred Thesiger was a remarkable man. I wanna be HIM when I grow up. Im 53. I consider myself an “explorer” of sorts. I adhere to the Thesiger of Arabia school of thought,re; travel. Obviously its dangerous but I love the aesthetics of “tourism” Being a foreigner affords the individual certain underlying priveleges: not much need for etiquette. A few little priveleges. It’s cool to be unusual amongst the natives. Thesiger was 1 of the original LONG RANGE DESERT GROUP: the 1st Brit special forces & forerunner to the SAS. He was pretty gay,but he could fight & was no damn sissy. Long live the memory of Thesiger of Arabia!

  25. Paul Wilhite
    March 29, 2013

    This story is only the second time I have ever read anything Arabian, and the first was “The Black Stallion”. I liked the expressions used, for instance W.Thesiger mentioned the clairboiant blue smoke from the volcano cone…

  26. Robert Mitchell
    April 19, 2013

    This article has me spellbound. I need a book to occupy my 70 y.o. mind. I am compelled to continue reading.

  27. Azucena
    February 8, 2014

    “An abomination” was his term for cars

    Had Thesiger been alive nowadays and seen the ecologic damage, he might have thought cars are the root of all evil today.

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