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Remembering Wilfred Thesiger - The World's Greatest Desert Explorer

24/01/2014 17:06 GMT | Updated 26/03/2014 09:59 GMT

The late Sir Wilfred Thesiger seems to be the man of the moment. Ten years after his death at the age of 93, several 're-enactions' of his journeys through the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Desert have recently taken place, including the BBC documentary featuring James Cracknell and Ben Fogle in December last year. It is an ironic accolade and tribute to the man given that, when he was alive and in an age where reality TV and celebrity adventurers didn't exist, he never quite received the recognition that he probably deserved.

Two years ago, in late 2011, I organized a Bedouin team in the same vein as Thesiger's and, wearing traditional robes and eschewing all modern communications and equipment wherever possible, embarked on a 44 day, 1000 mile expedition of discovery through part of what is the largest sand desert in the world.

Closely following his first crossing of the desert and speaking mostly in Arabic - which I was fortunate enough to learn when serving a two year secondment from the Gurkhas to the Royal Army of Oman - it was one of the most rewarding and privileged journeys I have ever undertaken.

Abyssinia born and Eton/Oxford educated Thesiger was arguably the world's greatest desert explorer. Between 1945 and 1950 he lived with the Bedouin of Southern Arabia whilst under the employment of the UN in a role searching for locust outbreak centres. During his five years in the region he embarked on two major crossings of the desert and numerous smaller journeys. Whilst not the first to explore the region - Bertram Thomas and St John Philby had ventured in parts of the desert in the 1930s - he was the first to explore it thoroughly, dressed throughout as an Arabic tribesman.

He followed his time in Arabia by spending 8 years with the, now disappeared, marsh Arabs of Southern Iraq and spent the remainder of his life in the role of an explorer, journeying tens of thousands of miles in nomadic regions of the Middle East, Asia and Africa - always travelling by foot or traditional transport such as camel, horse, mule or canoe.

But it was his time in Arabia that he treasured above all and his iconic book 'Arabian Sands', published in 1959 detailed the unique experiences of his five years with the Bedouin that remains a literary masterpiece.

I hadn't heard of him before I picked up a copy of that book in a Muscat book store in the 90s during my military posting there. The book and its stunning photographs from their time totally mesmerized me. And hooked on my own life of adventure we enjoyed in the region, I dreamt one day of carrying out a similar journey.

It took 18 years to come to fruition but between October and December 2011 we embarked on our 'Footsteps of Thesiger' expedition, crossing the wadis, villages, and desert that is now part of Oman, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

With Thesiger being an iconic figure in the Arabian Gulf, we were accorded the hugest of respect from Bedouin villagers, some of whom met and rode with him in the 1940s. We struggled through some of the harshest landscape on Earth, a terrain that is as beautiful as it is brutal, and we learned the harsh realities of attempting an authentic re-inaction expedition 65 years after his own.

Thesiger journeyed with many Bedouin tribesmen on his travels, but his two constant companions were Salim bin Kabina and Salim bin Ghubaisha of the Rashid tribe. The highlight of our own journey was meeting them both, 65 years after they crossed the desert. Now elderly men in their 80s, it was an immense privilege - and indeed a humbling experience - to meet and hear their stories.

For, make no mistake, our journey could only touch on the hardships they faced in 1946. Hardships that is impossible to comprehend in the 2000's.

The documentary Footsteps of Thesiger was broadcast on Discovery Channel last year and my self-written book of the same name - detailing his travels, the immense challenges of our expedition and the changing lives, culture and heritage of the Bedouin of the region was published the same year. Writing it was another journey of discovery - a witness to a still thriving culture and some rare good news from a region that so often harbours pain.

British record-breaking polar explorer and adventurer Adrian Hayes will be presenting 'Footsteps of Thesiger - 44 days across the Arabian Desert' at the Royal Geographical Society, London, on Thursday 30 Jan 2014. Ticket details at www.adrianhayes.com