LOST OASIS; In Search of Paradise

~ Robert Twigger (W&N, 2007)

Robert Twigger packs it all into a container and moves the family to his wife’s native Cairo where the money will go further. With previous adventures and books to his credit he soon acquaints himself with the historical and geographical treasures to be found in the Libyan Desert and sets about a new project; to track down the lost oasis of Zerzura. As a motive it may have helped hook his publishers and accounts for the corny title (here’s another ‘Lost Oasis’ book on Zerzura) but it’s really about the author’s more tangible discovery of the Sahara, and as such is much more interesting.

Our man is a candid correspondent which makes it easy to criticise him as being sometimes naive in Cairo’s shark infested streets, but this quality also draws you into the book. He tries to drum up like-minded explorers but mostly ends up with shysters who shaft him with a smile. Averse to noisy, polluting cars and the complexities of camel handling, he builds the trolley pictured on the front cover to explore the desert independently and at a natural pace. Unsure how far that will get him he also joins a tour led by the notorious Colonel Mestekawi (pseudonymed in the book) to the New Cave in the Gilf, a discovery Twigger seems oddly unimpressed by. During the trip he vividly describes the illicit satisfaction in finding Stone Age artifacts (outlawed on Mestekawi tours, along with much less controversial activities) and on a later tour neatly segues finding a long sought after fossilised shark’s tooth with ‘power objects’ and a failed attempt at networking at a literary launch in London.

Following the tour he recognises the advantage for a decent 4WD while acknowledging they can ‘get between you and the desert’. A clapped-out Toyota takes him on a weekend’s dune-bashing with some ex-pats, and later to the Djara Cave where he quickly learns the realities of desert driving.

As illuminating as his desert travels (which actually are not that far reaching but follow closely what most beginners go through) are the mind-boggling frustrations of simply dealing with life in Cairo, such as independently buying a flat (expect the place to be stripped down to the doorframes), getting a car or even just driving solo around town when you are not part of the pampered ex-pat ‘petroleum’ elite. A couple of days there must make the peace of the Western Desert all the more rewarding.

He may not have got have travelled far and long but with a boyish enthusiasm he certainly gets to the nub of the desert’s appeal while front-pointing up a steep learning curve. The whole thing comes across with a refreshing authenticity you can’t ascribe to all travelogues. The book winds up with a checkpoint-dodging test run of the water-portaging trolley out of Dakhla. After all the frustrations and false starts he answers his companion’s idle query about finding the elusive ‘Zerzura’: ~”We already have.” Well worth a read this one when it comes out in paperback.

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