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British Explorer Wilfred Thesiger Dies at 93 - 2003-08-27

British explorer, author and photographer Wilfred Thesiger has died in England at the age of 93. Correspondent Alex Belida met Mr. Thesiger twice - once in northern Kenya, when the explorer was living there, and later in South Africa, where he interviewed the famed traveler as he visited the famous Zulu battlefields.

Wilfred Thesiger may have lived into the 21st century. But he was a man in the mold of much earlier British explorers who set out to probe the world's uncharted territories at a time of few modern conveniences.

Born in Addis Ababa in 1910, his travels took him to the empty quarter of the Arabian desert, the marshes of Iraq, the mountains of Afghanistan and remote areas of northern Kenya and the Horn of Africa.

Like those pioneers who went before him, Mr. Thesiger traveled on foot, or on horseback and or by camel. He despised technology.

"I get no pleasure at all traveling anywhere in a car," he said. "You should go on foot, go with porters, ride on a mule ... No, I hate this speed with which we are living."

Mr. Thesiger loathed what most consider the pinnacles of scientific achievement, including the first moon landing by American astronauts, news he learned of while on safari in the remote Turkana region of northern Kenya.

"I had no interest in it, and then a naked Turkana fisherman pointed up at the moon and said 'Wazungu [whites] are on the moon' and I thought, 'What is he talking about?' and then some days later I heard that the Americans had landed on the moon and I had, my only feeling was one of desecration and despair at the deadly technical ingenuity of modern man," recalled Mr. Thesiger.

He even espoused shocking, though joking, notions of how to combat the spread of scientific knowledge.

"I think any child who shows any ability for science ought to be mentally castrated," he said.

Mr. Thesiger did make one exception to his rigid views on technology by using a camera. He used it to take the photographs that have illustrated his books, including The Last Nomad, Arabian Sands, The Marsh Arabs, and others.

But he never took a color photograph, only black and white.

When I interviewed him in South Africa in 1997, he was there to visit Isandhlwana, the site of a bloody battle in the late 19th century in which Zulu warriors wiped out a British military contingent bent on asserting control of what was then the Zulu kingdom. His grandfather, Lord Chelmsford, was the British commander.

At the time of our interview, Mr. Thesiger said he had few regrets. He would have liked to visit Tibet, but back in the 1930s, not now. He would also have loved to have crossed the desolate empty quarter of the Arabian desert with Bedouin companions one more time.

Despite his travels, he collected very little in the way of memorabilia, an exception being a curved dagger he wore on his desert journeys, another being a walking stick from Kenya. He was not really a collector - except of memories, memories that have been handed down in books that will no doubt still be cherished by readers of true life adventures in years to come.