Book review: Lost Oasis ~ Robert Twigger

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LOST OASIS; In Search of Paradise
Robert Twigger (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 (his Voyageur book was great), he soon acquaints himself with the historical and geographical treasures to be found in the Libyan Desert and sets about cooking up 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, 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 artefacts (their collection is outlawed on Mestekawi tours, along with other, less controversial activities). A later tour neatly segues the finding of 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 are, the mind-boggling frustrations of simply dealing with life in Cairo are more compelling. They include independently buying a flat (expect the place to be stripped down to the door frames), getting a car or even just driving solo around town when you’re not part of the pampered ex-pat elite. A couple of days there must make the peace of the Western Desert all the more rewarding.

He may not have travelled far and long into the desert with his silly trolley, but he certainly gets to the nub of the desert’s appeal. The whole thing comes across with an authenticity you can’t ascribe to all contrived 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.”

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