In the epilogue to his 1987 autobiography, Sir Wilfred Thesiger, CBE, DSO, wrote: “I realise that my exciting and happy childhood in Abyssinia, far removed from direct contact with the Western world, implanted in me a life-long craving for adventure among untamed tribes in unknown lands.” He was born on June 3, 1910 in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, then still known as Abyssinia. A distinctly tenuous claim to kinship with the man often seen as the last of the great explorers — my great-aunt was married to his youngest brother — and the centenary of his birth this year were the inspirations or excuses for a tribute journey earlier this year in the footsteps of his first great expedition among the Afar tribes of the Danakil Desert in eastern Ethiopia.
His parents’ first child, ‘Billy’ was born in one of a cluster of airy tukuls, the local thatched huts that were the first buildings of the British Legation in Addis Ababa when his father arrived there as British minister. Ultimately a survivor of empire, Wilfred was in many ways by nature and by nurture a Victorian, weaned on the stories of adventure, patriotism and derring-do upon which the imperial fable also thrived. His uncle, Lord Chelmsford, was viceroy from 1916-21, and nine-year-old Billy had a taste of viceregal India and the greater excitement of a tiger hunt in Jaipur to add to his store of memories on his family’s return to England via India when he was nine.
The tukuls have been preserved, bedded down in the mature hilltop gardens of today’s British embassy, as permanent, seemingly, as the solid stone bungalow that was built thereafter as the first proper residency and became Wilfred’s childhood home. The old whitewashed buildings now squat among a hotchpotch of later reflections of 20th-century diplomatic architecture and are used as an information technology learning suite for embassy staff, their dichotomous history highlighted by the glass case in a passage near the coffee machine preserving his hunting rifles. Above them on the walls hang paired pictures from the latest embassy publication comparing and contrasting professional lives in Ethiopia and Britain.
Wilfred’s father died soon after his family’s move home. It was as his son that Wilfred was invited back to Addis Ababa in 1930 to the coronation of the Emperor Haile Selassie. He spent the following month hunting game beside the River Awash on the edges of the Danakil Desert, a trip that inspired his exploration of the river when he left Oxford in 1933. As he later described in The Danakil Diary, Wilfred’s goal was to find the unknown end of the river in the crocodile-ridden salt lakes of the sultanate of Aussa, in what is now the Afar region of eastern Ethiopia. His expedition was the first to survive tribal appetite for killing and castration that made any male potential prey to trophy hunters from the constantly warring Danakil.
These unfortunate prizes were the prerequisite of a man’s status and respect during an unsurprisingly abbreviated lifetime. For Wilfred, his successful expedition, made in opposition to nervous local and colonial authorities, was the start of a career spent travelling and working in distant and inhospitable country among the brave and barbaric tribespeople who were his chosen companions. Little pleased throughout his long life with the machines and conveniences of modern invention, the way of life and travel of these indefatigable walkers and camel-drivers suited a man whose unmistakable powerful physiognomy and determination masked a paradoxically emotional character jarred by the heedless speed of change in the 20th century.
The FCO still advises against travel in the Afar region, no keener on the place or its inhabitants than the contemporary authorities in Thesiger’s day. But, amid rumours of oil under the endless salt of the Danakil Depression, Chinese-built roads are encroaching fast on the hidden desert. Ethiopian tourism posters accurately promote the unique natural and cultural wealth of the country but, for the time being, the haphazard Ethiopian travel infrastructure is less conducive to flightfuls of comfort-loving vacationers and more to those in search of modest adventure. Place names along the River Awash have changed over the years; even long-term local people no longer remember those in use in the Thirties, but it remains easy enough to pick up the Thesiger trail and to add a pick and mix of other places of interest along the way.
Dipping in and out of the sites and scenes of the Danakil Diary from the main Addis-Djibouti highway, it is noticeable that the pace of change is exemplified by growing drifts of plastic waste and the wreckage of lorries by the sandy roadside. Bilen, where Wilfred camped and hunted for several days near the hot springs, is now close to the main road and offers thatched tourist lodges overlooking the impressive waterfalls. Pylons run side by side with the asphalt as straight as a die across the sand plains and the dusty acacia scrub that provides illegal raw material for charcoal, sold by the basketful along the road. The one-street towns are lined with parked lorries, their drivers patronizing roadside cafes and picking over heaps of second-hand clothing. Supplied mainly by foreign charitable donations, it now provides an uncertain livelihood for hopeful profiteers.
Semera, the new capital of the Afar region, is a bizarre Kafkaesque collection of contemporary concrete monstrosities apparently almost deserted in the middle of a dusty wasteland. The lorries on the road snaking through its centre and an occasional dog or child are the only signs of life beyond the rubbish blowing about amongst the ugly blocks. It may be hard to capture what has been lost to the asphalt but the hungry march of modern infrastructure has barely reached more isolated areas of the desert. Away from the main road much of Afar life would be recognizable to a traveller from 1933. Images photoshopped to a dateless monochrome show the same groups of hide-covered igloo-shaped huts, the dry stone walls and tower tombs that Thesiger photographed punctuating the desert landscape. Shifting nomad settlements are still dependent on their flocks of cattle, goats and the camels used to transport great tiles of cut salt from the desert to the markets of Northern Ethiopia.
The varied wildlife recorded in detailed daily hunting stories in the Diary is these days less profuse. Wilfred shot for the pot, for trophies and to provide British museums with the skins of rare and unknown birds and animals. Later in life he gave up game shooting altogether although he continued to kill for food when necessary. We were thrilled to come home with contemporary trophies, the distant snapshots of animals like the Abyssinian wolf — rare species that now need all the help they can get if they are to survive, not through the efforts of solitary and careful hunters, but from those of the increased population and through changes in human encroachment patterns on their natural habitats, something Wilfred would have deplored.
Wilfred’s quest ended in Aussa. In his day the sultanate was one of nomadic villages, and rich marshland around the salt lakes at the end of the Awash lay in an area where the town of Assaita now sprawls. For Wilfred, achieving his goal was something of an anticlimax coloured by continuing responsibility for his men and animals, and, aged only 23, by the question of what to do next.