You either love the desert or you hate it. Those who love it invent all sorts of reasons for continually returning: geology, wildlife, finding stone tools, or in my case, looking for rock art. But all that is just an alibi, and rather a flimsy one. The real motivation is the desert itself, a place where lack of noise, clutter and useless information offers much-needed therapy in a world full of those things. The best desert is the one with the least in it. Then, what it does have hits you with the full intensity of revelation.
The Gilf Kebir ('big plateau'), tucked into the western corner of the Egyptian Sahara, is a good place to start. It is the driest place on earth: not by measured rainfall (because there is so little rain that it is hard to measure accurately), but by density of wells and water sources. In an area the size of Switzerland, there are none. Nor are there any for several hundred kilometres in each direction from the plateau's edge. In photographs it looks like a 1950s idea of Mars: all different shades of red; strange, conical hills; a kind of haze in the distance; deep, waterless canyons; the planet's surface covered in frost-cracked fragments of rock.
Thousands of years earlier, it was not so dry. We know this because of the abundance of stone tools, rock paintings and engravings its ancient inhabitants left behind. Others had been there before, but not a huge number: the threshold of exclusivity remained. So did the danger.
Everyone is safety-conscious in the desert, and none more so than the Egyptian desert explorer Colonel Ahmed Mestakawi. He takes people to the Gilf several times a year. More importantly, he brings them back. Being on the reserve army list, he operates as his own military escort. I never saw his gun, but he assured me it was within easy reach.
For 18 years, Colonel Mestakawi was a border patrol officer, feared and admired by Bedouin smugglers and drug traffickers from Libya to the Nile. I found he had an expedition going to the Gilf for three weeks with 17 adventurous Italians. There was an extra place in the Colonel's 'fox' (the Bedouin name for a Toyota 75 hardtop). I took it.
The goal of the trip was to visit a cave. In doing so we would be following in the tracks of Laszlo Almasy, the model for Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. Almasy was a homosexual Hungarian, founder of the Magyar boy scout movement, educated at Eastbourne School, a pilot and probable spy, and altogether more exotic than Ralph Fiennes. He also discovered a rock-art site, the Cave of the Swimmers, which is where Kristin Scott Thomas dies in the film. In real life, the place has graffiti from the Second World War next to ancient paintings of pot-bellied figures diving.
Almasy made his discovery while he was searching for Zerzura, the fabled lost oasis of the Egyptian desert. He claimed to have found it in the valleys, or wadis, of the Gilf Kebir. Many disagreed. Over time it was his discovery of the cave that has captivated people more " so much so that the hunt for Zerzura has given way to the hunt for new rock-art sites. This hunt took a dramatic new turn in 2002 when Mestakawi found the largest single site in Africa only 50 or so kilometres from the Cave of the Swimmers. He had teamed up with the Italian multimillionaire Massimo Foggini, who liked to travel in style. Like the English Patient he demanded a bottle of champagne each night as they made camp in the wilderness. (I had to make do with swigging from a hipflask of Egyptian whiskey). But Mestakawi insists that it was him, not Foggini, who found the cave.
One evening, after an exhausting day of searching the tiny canyons and cliffs that characterise the area, Mestakawi looked up and saw the sloping roof of an open cavern some 30 metres up. He was with Foggini's son, who raced up the sand bank to check what the colonel had seen. …