Sunday, July 9, 2006; BW08
As a student almost 20 years ago, I made a pilgrimage to a barren hillside in northern Kenya. It was summer, and the heat was insufferable. A herd of zebra had collapsed in the shade of a thorn tree at the base of the hill. Nearby, a Samburu warrior was standing on one foot, the other propped up against a rock, as he picked his teeth with the end of a stick. I asked him in Swahili if he knew where I could find the mzungu , the white man. He pointed to a tin-roofed adobe shack encircled by low cacti, halfway up the hill. I struggled up the slope, clambered over the thorns and rapped at the tin door. Nothing. Then, suddenly, the door was yanked open, and a tall old Englishman in tweeds lurched into its frame. That was how I first met Sir Wilfred Thesiger, the world's most famous living explorer.
Standing there, I felt like Stanley finding Livingstone. My head was spinning because of the heat. "Do you have any water?" I asked pathetically. Thesiger peered down at me. Then he smiled. "I have just made some nice hot tea," he said.
During the days I spent at Thesiger's shack, he explained in a soft, aristocratic voice that we can all be explorers -- that it's a matter of enduring hardship, of observing and, most important, of seeking out people and learning from their company. Thesiger's lesson for me, a young wannabe explorer in search of a mentor, was to search for people rather than places. Find great people, he would say, and you will find great places.
Arabian Sands , by Wilfred Thesiger (E.P. Dutton, 1959). This was the book that lured me to seek out Sir Wilfred, and it tops the list of books that have influenced me to pursue a life of adventure and travel writing. Frequently described as "the last Victorian traveler" because of his willingness to endure excruciating hardship, Thesiger was born in 1910, at the British Legation in Abyssinia, modern-day Ethiopia. At age 20, the young Thesiger made an expedition into the land of the ferocious Danakil tribe, who were celebrated for their curious custom of wearing the testicles of their slaughtered foes around their necks. The journey paved the way for a life of travel in remote regions.
Thesiger made his mark with Arabian Sands by living with the Bedouin of Rub al-Qali, the "Empty Quarter" of the Arabian desert, during the 1940s. Strikingly, the author lived in the desert for years without any intention of ever writing about it. (These days, writers often wait to embark on a journey until they have a book contract securely in place.) The years of grueling hardship recounted in Arabian Sands convey a stark and harmonious simplicity, a time before the immense wealth of oil dollars had filtered down even to the remotest desert encampment. True to his advice to me, Thesiger wrote that the journeys across the high desert dunes of the Empty Quarter would have been a meaningless penance if he had been alone.
Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft , by Thor Heyerdahl (Rand McNally, 1950). The greatest journey can begin with a simple hypothesis, as it did for the Norwegian biologist and adventurer Thor Heyerdahl in 1947. He set out to prove that the South Sea Islands could have been reached and then settled in ancient times by a race of people from the Americas. Building a balsa wood raft using only materials available to ancient peoples and christening it Kon-Tiki (after a mythical Polynesian hero), Heyerdahl embarked from the coast of Peru with five colleagues on what must have been one of the great raft journeys in human history. The odyssey put the team in combat with raging storms, whales, sharks and thirst. After three months and more than 4,300 nautical miles, Kon-Tiki's crew crossed the Pacific and sighted land -- the Polynesian coral atoll of Puka Puka. Heyerdahl, who was feted both in French Polynesia and in Europe, went on to push the boundaries of exploration again and again, proving that real adventure is not dependent on fancy equipment but on putting a simple theory to the test.
The Songlines , by Bruce Chatwin (Viking Penguin, 1987). Bruce Chatwin was a born traveler and possibly the finest raconteur of his generation. He lived a tragically short life (dying in 1989 at age 48), but in that time he published a number of exquisitely crafted books. Supreme among them is The Songlines , a tale about the Australian Outback and the aboriginal notion that the Earth is overlaid with invisible pathways that tell the story of the world. The book is not so much an epic of brazen adventure as a subtle observation on humanity. Not much happens in The Songlines , but by reading it you are taught to see in a new way. In the years since Chatwin's death, some biographers and critics have suggested that much of his writing was the product of sheer invention -- most notably The Songlines . I believe that the strength of Chatwin's work is the way he blurs the line between fact and fantasy, and that his critics are missing his genius, the ability to make a statement about humanity through travel.
Seven Years in Tibet , by Heinrich Harrer (Hart-Davis, 1953). Harrer, an Australian skier and mountaineer, accidentally ended up in Tibet after crossing the Himalayas from northern India and stayed there for a full seven years. The book tells the tale of Harrer's exploration of the isolated mountain kingdom, the residents of which proved genuinely interested in Western knowledge and ideas. Harrer came to be so highly regarded for his tales of the outside world that he found himself welcomed into the court of the young Dalai Lama. Over time, Harrer became a tutor to the young monarch, a degree of intimacy that was almost uncomfortable for the religious hierarchy. With the communist Chinese invasion in 1950, Harrer found himself accompanying the Dalai Lama to India, where a temporary Tibetan spiritual home was established. Harrer, who died earlier this year, remained a close friend of the Dalai Lama throughout his life.
Danger My Ally , by F.A. Mitchell-Hedges (Little, Brown, 1955). Long before the Internet made it so easy to find any book imaginable, I spent five years trawling secondhand bookshops for this autobiography after hearing about it from a seasoned explorer one campfire night. Eventually, in a bookstore in Oxford, I found two hardback copies. The book turned out to be one of the most powerful travel reads of the 20th century. If there was ever a character to inspire a young traveler, it was Mitchell-Hedges. His journeys during the first half of the century pitted him against real-life pirates of the Caribbean, warring Amazonian tribes and mercenaries in Central America. The book's great charm lies in the deadpan, frank way it presents the incredible. Early in his career, Mitchell-Hedges claimed he was captured by the Mexican rebel Pancho Villa, shortly after which he unknowingly sheltered the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. He went on to find the lost Mayan civilization of Lubaantum in Belize, to discover several unknown sea creatures and to acquire a fabulous rock crystal skull known as the "Skull of Doom."
Touch the Top of the World: A Blind Man's Journey to Climb Farther Than the Eye Can See , by Erik Weihenmayer (Dutton, 2001). We live in a visual world where people sometimes believe that the blind are lesser people. But once in a generation there comes along a person whose example shatters such prejudice. After losing his sight in his early teens, Erik Weihenmayer decided he would never be held back by conventional expectations. He learned to use his other senses, to harness the courage that sleeps within us all and to keep going despite seemingly insurmountable odds. Touch the Top of the World recounts how Weihenmayer and his family came to terms with the gradual loss of his sight, the sad death of his mother and his extraordinary lust for an adrenaline-charged life. Weihenmayer skis and skydives, but it is as a world-class mountaineer that he has become an icon, completing a seven-year quest to scale the Seven Summits -- the highest peaks on each continent. And, yes, that included climbing Mount Everest. ?
Tahir Shah is the author of "The Caliph's House: A Year in Casablanca," "In Search of King Solomon's Mines" and "Trail of Feathers."