It was with some alarm that we later discovered that this “poet of travel” had dreamed of dying in the Himalayas, lured no doubt by the romance of a dramatic end to an unconventional life.
Thankfully for Mountain Travel, Dame Freya failed to achieve this, instead dying at her Italian home in Asola a few months after her 100th birthday in 1993. She had written no less than 24 travel books and autobiographies, and eight volumes of letters from the 1930s, most of them now out of print.
Another nearly forgotten figure of early travel literature who appreciated Nepal was Sir Wilfred Thesiger KBE, DSO, FRAS, FRSL, FRGS, the unexpectedly beguiling hero of Iraq’s Marsh Arabs and the naked warriors of Abyssinia who was most at home traversing African deserts and mapping Arabia’s empty quarter.
Sir Wilfred preferred the challenges of travel on foot, or by traditional transport, be it camel, horse, mule, donkey or canoe armed only by a compass and the locals. He was said to resent the intrusion of any technical innovation that post-dated the steam engine. Adopting traditional dress of the nomadic people with whom he travelled, he claimed to feel least comfortable in his own British culture and with his own kind. Thesiger’s classic travel books are characterised by elegant prose, disdain for fellow travellers, and sublime black and white photographs.
I had not expected to like him so much. With his purist approach to travel it was with some trepidation that I met the gentleman explorer on his return from Tiger Tops, off the Twin Otter from Meghauli amidst the dust of Kathmandu’s domestic airport. I expected scorn and contempt for the contrived tourism activities of 1980’s Royal Chitwan National Park.
nstead he was all aristocratic charm and effusive praise. The craggy features creased into a smile, the voice quintessentially Eton, Oxford and army. “Marvellous place, loved every minute of it,” he growled.
We dined at Jim’s house in Sanepa, and amidst the dal baht and clatter I wallowed in his stories and listened wrapt to his requiem for a vanished world. In the candlelight Sir Widfred’s long, lived-in face was a moonscape of craters and regret: “The wild mountains, deserts, starlit skies and fierce tribes I adore are all but dead.”
Perhaps not by choice, Thesiger lived more than another decade, dying in England aged 93 in 2003.