Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Maps in the sands

I've been spellbound by a chance reading of 'Arabian Sands' by explorer Wilfred Thesiger, of whom I knew little until I read this obituary (he died in 2003). My copy of the book published in 1959, has a linen map folded into a pocket at the back, immediately endearing it to me. It charts in red lines Thesiger's extraordinary traverses across Rub al Khali (The Empty Quarter), the vast area of dunes that seems to defy national boundaries in the Arabian Peninsula. The journeys of previous European explorers are marked on the map as dotted black lines: Philby 1932, and Thomas 1931.

Just one night spent in the Wahiba Sands of Oman in January, made me appreciate the profound effect of that landscape. When I returned home, I dreamt every night for about a fortnight of being in the desert - exposed, but thrillingly energised by it.

What comes across from Thesiger's stunning prose, is the incredible hold that the desert had on him, his hardships while travelling with Bedu tribes becoming their own reward. He was clearly compelled to go back and back, to feel the desert's 'mystery of space'. 'Here, to be alone was to feel at once the weight of fear, for the nakedness of this land was more terrifying than the darkest forest at dead of night.'

Thesiger also felt the levelling effect of the desert on his relationships with the men he lived closely alongside. He was devastated by the changes that occurred to traditional lives here not long after his journeys, and the irony of his own part in this did not escape him:
'While I was with the Arabs I wished only to live as they lived and, now that I have left them, I would gladly think that nothing in their lives was altered by my coming. Regretfully, however, I realise that the maps I made helped others, with more material aims, to visit and corrupt a people whose spirit once lit the desert like a flame.'

It's made me think about the word 'explorer' and what it means. In an article in last Saturday's Travel Guardian Has technology robbed travel of its riches? 'Explorer' Benedict Allen talks about how much of the more extreme contemporary travel doesn't count as exploration because it doesn't communicate a new picture of a place or advance knowledge.

It's also made me think about maps, which I tend to value almost intrinsically. I caught sight of a headline today which said the British populace are now so dependent on satnav that map reading skills are being lost. These skills feel ancient, and traditional, but it was pointed out to me last summer that by the time maps were being drawn, a level of geographical and language skill had already been lost. Routes would have been learnt through our own landscapes by an intricate remembered sequence of place names passed down through generations, and then these were replaced by marks on paper...