In the footsteps of Count Laszlo

Robert Twigger goes in search of rock art in the Egyptian desert, and discovers depictions of man's daily life from a time before the Pyramids were built
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The Independent Travel

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.

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. Both of them were stunned by the sight of hundreds and hundreds of paintings and handprints stretching across the huge, half-buried cavern. It was agreed that the cave should be known as the Foggini-Mestakawi cave. But the two subsequently fell out and Foggini tried to launch the discovery as his own. Mestakawi is still bitter about it. And it makes him all the more determined to find another, bigger and better cave.

We set off from Dakhla oasis and drove across a great sand plain to the Gilf. We passed through rocky canyons infrequently. Often we seemed to be doing 100kmh for hour after hour, achieving a hypnotic rhythm as we watched the cliffs of the Gilf draw nearer. "How far away are they?" I ask at one point. "About 60km," says the colonel. They look about 6km away, but the air is so clear everything looks closer. At night we camped near dunes or small rocky hills with stone circles on top.

The desert was far from empty. There were ostrich egg shells, fossilised shark's teeth, natural glass fragments and the ubiquitous stone tools. We spent every evening hunting for trophies. Finally, after five days, we found ourselves at the bottom of the steep slope of sand that leads to the cave. Cautiously, the various expedition members ventured up the slope. In the lead was Lorrenza, a 72-year-old who was still fitter than most of us, despite a dodgy hip. (She had impeccable credentials, though: she was the first Italian woman to climb Mount Kenya, back in 1953.) Further back was Franco, a 68-year-old chain-smoking urologist from Milan, who wheezed upwards barely holding his monster-lensed Leica steady.

Perhaps it is all the effort and money expended to reach this spot, but there is a definite sense of pilgrimage, of paying homage to some strange but recognisable gods of our dim human past. The Mestakawi cave is a vast overhang splattered with handprints in silhouette; strange, headless half-human beasts; giraffes and lions; skinny bushmen - irreverently, I see it as a 5,000-year-old bus stop with rather more artistic flair than any modern graffiti. Then the pictures begin to work on you, what they mean - that a few thousand years before the Pyramids were built, people were living in this ultra-dry desert with giraffes and baboons and cattle, and now there is nothing except this extraordinary arch of colours and shapes.

We visit the Cave of the Swimmers for comparison. It is much smaller and there are far fewer paintings. The figures are hard to see, but they are definitely swimming, or perhaps diving. The other pictures of people and animals are more finely rendered than in the Mestakawi cave, suggesting a different period - though they are both tentatively dated as from the end of the Bubalus to the "cattle period" (5000-2500BC).

Meanwhile, our Toyota 45 pick-up was giving us trouble. One of the wheel bearings was making a noise like broken glass in a coffee grinder. We stopped in the Great Sand Sea and tried to fix it. No luck; the wheel was about to seize. We had no choice but to hide it in a hole between dunes and hope no drug traffickers from Libya found it first. Bags and jerrycans were redistributed. Litter and some food were left behind. Then we were evacuated to Siwa oasis (still 350km away across the Great Sand Sea) in the remaining five vehicles. The colonel went straight back with a spare wheel bearing, fixed it, and returned in only a day and a half. This was an area that had never been crossed in a vehicle until the 1930s. It was a singular achievement, but something he took entirely in his stride.

On the last night, Giovanni, a former accountant, declared his love for the desert. We were all seated around the fire of olive wood, shadows flickering against the backdrop of dunes. "Ah," said the colonel. "You have the maladie. The maladie du desert. You will have this all your life."

As soon as I was back, I started to organise an expedition to the Gilf in October to search for new sites of rock art with Colonel Mestakawi. Maybe we'll find another Zerzura - who knows?

If you are fit and interested in taking part in the expedition, contact the writer at Hertwig33@yahoo.co.uk.

SURVIVAL KIT

GETTING THERE

Cairo is served from the UK by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and EgyptAir (020-7734 2395; www.egyptair.com.eg) from Heathrow. Regional departures are available with KLM (08705 074074; www.klm.com). From Cairo to the Great Oases take an "upper Egypt" bus from Ramses bus station - the 12-hour journey costs Egyptian£65 (£6). At the oases ask around for guides who will run you into the desert.

STAYING THERE

For a desert tour try Zarzora.com: the cost is around £1,000 for 17 days. For those interested in the dedicated expedition to find new rock art, the cost will be about the same, excluding flights, for a 21-day exploration - contact Hertwig33@yahoo.co.uk.

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