There’s a certain characteristic quirk that one must possess to have a deep desire for travel and adventure through incredibly lonesome and dangerous wastelands like a desert. There’s an even more curious quirk that compels a person to actually go through with the idea.
“From grand beginnings of headstrong optimism as Thesiger first sets out under the glaring sun of the Empty Quarter, to bleak, life threatening moments under threat of gunfire or starvation, this book is in itself an immersive experience into a world long gone.”
For those in the latter group, Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger, famed British explorer of the mid-20th century, satisfies that itch for experiences that only a small handful of people, usually those who fall into the second group, ever manage to have. This book follows the author’s isky treks through the Rub al Khali from 1945-1950, the largest sand desert (by volume) in the world as he sets out to be the first person to fully map it in its entirety. From grand beginnings of headstrong optimism as Thesiger first sets out under the glaring sun of the Empty Quarter, to bleak, life threatening moments under threat of gunfire or starvation, this book is in itself an immersive experience into a world long gone. As an avid traveller myself, this is why it remains my favourite book and travel companion to date.
The famous journey of which this book centres primarily around was, in truth, a mission task for the International Institute of Agriculture in Rome (now the Food and Agricultural Organization branch of the UN) on the study of locusts and their primary spawn source from within the desert, in addition to general surveying. In truth, this was just a thin veil for Thesiger’s real mission of crossing for personal achievement and in a direction no one had attempted before. Crossings by the likes of fellow Englishmen Bertram Thomas and John Philby had taken place years prior, and local Bedu tribes traveled the sands all the time. These however, primarily took place on the flank edges of the Rub al Khali without much contact with the innermost zones. Thesiger wanted to cross this zone precisely, south to north, through which temperatures hit 50c and above almost daily, powerful winds whip around sand from 160’ high sand dunes, and water sources are extremely scarce. Departing from Mughshin in 1945 with Rashid bedu, he began his journey. He encounters numerous setbacks almost immediately, from a member of his party breaking his leg before even getting near the beginning of the centre zone, to food shortages not even halfway through. Despite odds, Thesiger manages to make it through on this first famous crossing of his while still successfully finding the problem locust outbreak point.
He is enthralled by the desert. He returns a year later for his famous second crossing, which is unauthorized by then King of Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud, unlike his first go through. The allure of the desert proves too much and he gathers his party again at Manwich Well in Yemen and secretly departs. This time around, besides the usual dangers of parchedness, starvation and possible deaths of camels, he and his party find themselves not only arrested in a town in Saudi Arabia, but also caught between duelling tribes and sneaking through areas where, should he be discovered to be English, would lead to him being killed instantly. Regardless of the scenarios that fell before him, he manages to finish one more journey through the unforgiving desert and cements his status as a classic legendary explorer, and perhaps, as one of the last.
The book is a deeply immersive experience, and a window into a world not many would dare enter.
Thesiger saw what the desert really offered beyond never-ending dunes and scorching temperatures and constant hardships: “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 tranquility was to be found there,” he writes. And this is well expanded on in numerous passages on the incredible beauty that the terrain holds, so vividly described that I too felt like I was there viewing it.
Beyond also being an incredible documentation of the utmost limits of human determination and resilience, it’s also a very strong recognition of the Bedouin that continuously lived in the Rub al Khali and who made Thesiger’s trips possible.
Where other desert writers that I’ve read before often downplayed or skirted around their desert companions, Thesiger fully strove to understand the world from their point of view, mention them, give them recognition for their help and their difficult lifestyles, and adapted to their ways to better learn from them – “Whoever lives with the Bedu must accept Bedu conventions, and conform to Bedu standards. Only those who have journeyed with them can appreciate the strain of such a life.”
Admittedly, in the beginning of all his journeys, he struggled to understand why the Bedouin carried out their lives the way they did. After all, as an Eton educated, upper class Englishman, he was a definite product of his upbringings and times, only noticeably different from his fellow countrymen by his immense longing of hard travel lifestyles and places far from civilization. He does learn, however, and by the end of his trips, he writes: “…I thought once again how precarious was the existence of the Bedu. Their way of life naturally made them fatalists; so much was beyond their control. It was impossible for them to provide for a morrow when everything depended on a chance fall of rain or when raiders, sickness, or any one of a hundred change happenings might at any time leave them destitute, or end their lives. They did what they could, and no people were more self-reliant…”
Even later yet, as he leaves the Rub al Khali for what he realizes to be the last time, he expresses remorse when realizing that the desert world and ways that he had come to learn and love over the course of five years travelling with the Bedouin in the desert, was slowly but surely disappearing – simply because of the discovery of oil the resulting development there. He states:
“I realized that the Bedu with whom I had lived and traveled, and in whose company I had found contentment, and were doomed. Some people maintain that they will be better off when they have exchanged the hardship and poverty of the desert for the security of a materialistic world. This I do not believe. I shall always remember how often I was humbled by those illiterate herdsmen who possessed, in so much greater measure than I, generosity and courage, endurance, patience and lighthearted gallantry. Among no other people have I ever felt the same sense of personal inferiority.”
Arabian Sands overall stands a wonderful and highly vivid classic adventure tale that has all the characteristics of a summer blockbuster film. Very few other books offer one of the most inhospitable places on the planet up in such a manner that highlights it’s immeasurable dangers against it’s hidden beauties in such a riveting manner. No one besides Wilfred Thesiger really could anymore; the world he once knew has been gone for nearly half a century, overtaken by monetization and the inner workings of the capitalist world. Despite this, this book is one that I highly recommend to anyone else with a discerning fondness for times long past, adventure and thrill, and a heart for history.