An eccentric explorer in the tradition of T.E. Lawrence, Wilfred Thesiger (1910–2003) lived with tribal warriors in Africa, traveled on camel through the Arabian desert and journeyed to the hitherto-unknown source of the Awash river in Ethiopia.
Maitland (A Tower in the Wall: Conversations with Dame Freya Stark, 1983, etc.) relies on Thesiger's extensive publications, many of which he helped edit, and he had access to personal correspondence as well as personal conversations over the 40 years of their friendship. Thesiger spent his early years in Ethiopia, where his father served in the British diplomatic service. While his childhood was a time of idyllic freedom, his education in England at the elite St. Aubyns and then Eton and Oxford was an unhappy period, in which he was beaten by sadistic headmasters for minor infractions and isolated by his peers. After graduation, he received an appointment in the Sudan Political Service, which gave him the opportunity to hunt big game and explore the wilderness areas as well as acquaint himself with tribal customs that included the murder and castration of enemies whose genitals were preserved as trophies. During World, War II, he served with British Special Forces and participated in the liberation of Ethiopia from the Italian occupation. As a big-game hunter, he was licensed to shoot two elephants per year and sought “the heaviest-tusked animals he could find.” He also claimed to have killed 1,000 wild boar in 1958. The author quotes Thesiger's experiences living with Arab nomads, as “times of excitement and hardship, accidents, pig hunts [and] blood feuds.” The explorer’s adventures are impressive, but some of his pejorative remarks about Africans became tiresome—at certain points in the narrative, he comes across as a Colonel Blimp type character.
For those nostalgic about for the glory days of the British empire, this biography should have a certain appeal.