Explore the Desert at Home with this Recommended Armchair Travel Read

Explore the Desert at Home with this Recommended Armchair Travel Read

Monday, 26 June 2023 17:45

by Suzanne Moore, Wilkes County Librarian

Last month The Reading Trap Book Club (a Traphill Branch Library program) celebrated Wilfred Patrick Thesiger’s birthday (b. June 3, 1910), by reading his amazing travel memoir Arabian Sands.  National Geographic notes this book as one of the greatest adventure stories of all time. 

Thesiger’s trip, made entirely on camelback, spans years 1945-50, and crosses the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Peninsula.  This journey occurred before oil drilling changed the landscape.   He had a crew of natives, Bedouins, to help guide his way, and much of what he documents tells about the Bedu way of life.  I was highly impressed by the generosity of Bedouin culture.  The comfort of guests and travelers always came first as the group journeyed along.  A couple of examples come to mind . . . Once after rations were low and they were finally able to catch a rabbit for a much anticipated stew, a group of travelers showed up and they readily gave their meal away.  Another time, one of the riders gave away his only loincloth!  Thesiger, knowing how uncomfortable riding along endlessly on camelback was, insisted that he retrieve the loincloth and offered money instead.   They survived on a staple of dates, coffee, rice, and bread baked over hot desert coals.  They drank camel’s milk and killed Oryx, large antelopes with long spear-like horns. The main possession of these nomads are their camels, and encounters with dangerous raiders could be deadly.  Thesiger tells of these threats and of his own safety concerns, traveling in a Muslim country known for killing Christians.   There are some narrow escapes and a couple of instances where his group faced detention.  Thesiger describes the desert Arabs, “. . .  they were avaricious, rapacious, and predatory, born freebooters, contemptuous of all outsiders, and intolerant of restraint.” 

Thesiger’s background explains his love of the desert and the reason for this astounding quest.  He was born in Africa and spent early years there with his family, when his father Wilfred Gilbert Thesiger, was a British Consul-General in Ethiopia from 1909-19.  He loved reading about Bertram Thomas’s journey in Arabia Felix and he studied all about African animals in Roland Ward’s book, Records of Big Game.  His later schooling occurred at Oxford University in Sussex where he joined an Exploration Club.  The club supported students who wished to make original expeditions aboard.  This experience feed his appetite for adventure and planted seeds for later years.  When World War II broke out, Thesiger served as British Defense in Ethiopia.  He was well connected and following the war, there was a call to study the desert locust and track its swarming patterns.  This venture led to his famous trek across the desert.

In 2008 a film, based on Arabian Sands, recreates Thesiger’s trip.  It is mesmerizing to see the wide-open desert plain and hear about all that goes on.  Much of the dialogue, in the cinematic version, comes directly from Thesiger’s written word. In addition, his words are beautiful . . .  “The valleys when I woke at dawn were filled with eddying mist, above which the silhouettes of the dunes ran eastwards, like fantastic mountains toward the rising sun. The sky glowed softly with the colours of the opal. The world was very still, held in a fragile bowl of silence.”

Of course, the summer heat is intense in the desert, reaching temperatures as high as 130 °F.   I recommend this book as a perfect ‘staycation read’ to help you gain perspective with our own rising heat index, and for an exciting cultural experience in a far-off exotic place. 

The Reading Trap’s next selection examines the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer with the book, American Prometheus.  Checkout a copy of this Pulitzer Prize-winning biography at the library and join the conversation.   A free documentary screening about Oppenheimer, Father of the Atomic Bomb, takes place this Saturday, July 1 at 1:00 p.m. on the big screen at Two Rivers Cinema, North Wilkesboro.