By Robert Twigger
Weidenfeld and Nicholson £16.99 288 pages
FT bookshop price: £13.59
The age of Google Earth is troubling for someone born with the explorer gene. Since technology has shrunk the globe, what remains apart from feats of pointless endurance? This is a problem that Robert Twigger has grappled with entertainingly in previous books – most notably Big Snake – but never as well as in Lost Oasis.
The watering-hole of the title is ostensibly Zerzura, a kind of Saharan Atlantis, verdant and treasure-laden, that has fascinated and perplexed explorers for centuries. In the 1930s, Count Laszlo Almasy – the model for Michael Ondaatje’s English patient – claimed to have found the oasis’s location in the Gilf Kebir, a barren plateau the size of Switzerland in Egypt’s western desert.
Like any good myth, Zerzura politely declined to be resolved, and Twigger wants his share of it. Bored with life in suburban Oxfordshire and facing the “ignominious ever-present need for money”, the writer relocates with his Egyptian wife and children to Egypt.
That, at least, is the hook. The yarn Twigger hangs from it has the raggedy elegance of a well-made shaggy dog story. Before he can find a way of beginning his desert quest, he has to negotiate the urban jungle of Cairo, a city replete with suicidal drivers, dodgy car salesmen and equine expat petroleum wives. Distractions abound. He can’t find the right Land Rover. The flat is flooded. The man who lives in his building’s electricity cupboard is accused of murder. And then there’s the problem of trying to extract suitable maps from officialdom.
With his project nowhere nearer fruition, Twigger joins an Italian package tour organised by a Colonel Ghali, a monstrous egotist who looks like Marlon Brando’s Kurtz and forbids his clients to use GPS systems in case they “steal” the location of a hidden cave he has discovered. Twigger has no qualms about doing just that, plotting his co-ordinates under the cover of darkness, feeling like Van de Poel, the Nazi spy played by Anthony Quayle in Ice Cold in Alex.
Lost Oasis is very funny in places. But the jokes never obscure its wider, rather ascetic theme. This is a thoughtful book, about the desire to strip modern life bare of material accretions, even if only for a short space of time. The desert not only allows such a thing but requires it. “However man tamed it with cars and cool-boxes and GPS machines,” Twigger writes, “[the desert] still had teeth, was still a wild place where man went at his peril, had to have his wits about him.”
As the author gathers the experience necessary to make his own defiantly low-tech trip, pulling a handmade cart stacked with water, it becomes clear that the lost oasis he is searching for is not Zerzura but the sense of self-sufficiency that civilisation denies. That he happens to make a surprise discovery on the way is a bonus: the true act of exploration is internal.