Earlier this year, during a 27-day crossing of the Saharan Great Sand Sea, I walked into a valley where no one had been for 6,000 years. I could hardly believe my luck. Hidden between vast dunes, the valley was strewn with Stone-age tools and bones. I looked nervously for car tracks, which can remain imprinted on desert gravel for more than 80 years. On a previous desert trip I had stumbled across the tyre tracks of Laszlo Almasy, the real-life model for the film The English Patient. Two sand-filled lines stretching into the distance, they looked as if they had been made last month rather than in 1932. The desert slows time right down by preserving everything – partly as a result of hyper-aridity but also as a function of so few people visiting certain areas, including this one.
The south-western corner of the Egyptian Sahara is the most arid place on earth in terms of groundwater. For centuries, camel caravans crossing the desert have passed either north or south of the Great Sand Sea; only with the coming of vehicles did the area begin to receive visitors again. Before the current era, people had last lived here during the wet period between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago. No car tracks now meant no visitors since then. My companions and I were the first people here for 60 centuries.
In an age when well-heeled adventurers queue to be escorted up Everest, raw youths circumnavigate the globe by sea and the polar survival struggles of celebrities are accompanied by teams of cameramen, it's neither uncommon nor unreasonable for more sedentary types to query the necessity of such endeavours. When everything has already been discovered, surely all the great explorers' adventures must already have been had?
When the relentless pursuit of outdoor achievement results in tragedies such as the death of Peter Kinloch, abandoned by despairing comrades last week scarcely 1,000 feet below the world's most famous summit, such queries become more than just academic. Can traditional exploration and adventure still be justified, when they are no longer necessary?
As someone whose life increasingly revolves around exploration, I believe that they can.
The simplest definition of exploration is that it is about being first. Being first is the ultimate travel buzz. Like all buzzes, however, it is in the mind: the intensity of the buzz is largely a matter of choice.
For example: I've been the first to a confluence point, which is nothing more than the whole-number intersection of a line of latitude and longitude – and yet to me it felt much like arriving at the South Pole circa 1912. Well, almost. There are thousands of confluence points all over the globe, some more accessible than others. The first person to arrive at one photographs their GPS and uploads the results to the excellent Degree Confluence Project website along with an "expedition report". You get the real buzz of being first even though, in my case, our "point" was only 10 kilometres from the asphalt of major road.
At the other extreme come experiences such as my adventure in the Great Sand Sea, when being first meant discovering something that might have a genuine impact on our understanding of our collective past.
All you have to do to enjoy being "first" is to create new categories in your mind to be first in: first to the North Pole riding a bike, first winter trip to the South Pole, first down the Nile on a Lilo. This can quickly become what the explorer Wilfred Thesiger scornfully called "a mere stunt" – yet the buzz is not necessarily any the less for that.
For most of us, however, it soon becomes clear that being first is not, in itself, quite enough. There needs to be a real journey too and the news you bring back must have some value.
Most recently, explorers have concentrated on bringing back scientific news; in previous eras, the news was topographical or economic. My view is that, ultimately, any kind of news will do – as long as you bring back some. (One could almost see exploration as a kind of journalism – which comes under a huge variety of subject headings but nonetheless recognises a common definition of "news".)
One fruitful area for exploration is to retrace an old explorer's route and bring back news about how the land has changed over time – or, alternatively, about things that the first explorer missed. I've done this myself: for example, by retracing Alexander Mackenzie's journey across the Rockies, from northern Canada to the Pacific, in a birch-bark canoe. I felt many things on that journey – including copious quantities of both exhilaration and fear – but one thing I never felt was the slightest sense that "everything has been explored". If you're travelling many miles a day, day after day, without encountering another human being, the chances are you're in the wilderness.
It was the same in the Sahara. At one end of our hidden valley was a dried-up lake surrounded by thousands of stone tools, including elaborate flint harpoons that had once been used for fishing (when this part of the Sahara was wetter and still fertile). It could hardly have felt more strange or thrilling if we had travelled there by time machine. Yet the strange thing was, our expedition was probably no more than five kilometres away from recent vehicle tracks.
The fact that we stumbled upon this "lost" valley was an accident, but not an entirely unpredictable one. Once we had decided to cross the Great Sand Sea entirely on foot – probably the first such crossing in the Sea's existence – there was a significant probability that we would happen on at least one discovery that would make the hairs on our necks stand up. We could predict this because, despite Google Earth and GPS, the world's remote areas are packed with discoveries waiting to be made.
The simple truth is that, contrary to received wisdom, the world is not fully explored, even in a geographical sense. The bigger topographical features have all been noted, but exploration has always been more than mere map-making.
Instead of thinking of exploration in terms of its results – the places found, the species discovered, the trade routes started – I think it is worth looking at exploration as a psychological need, something that makes us human. Exploration is the result of succumbing to the urge to explore, just as books are the result of succumbing to the urge to write, the urge to express yourself. The urge to explore is within all of us and demands an outlet. The pessimistic notion that it is not worth stirring beyond the remote control or the PlayStation – because exploration is little better than a kind of play-acting – suppresses this uniquely human activity. Instead of focusing on the results of exploration I think we should find as many ways as we can to express the urge to explore. I think we can liberate ourselves from thinking the word "explorer" is redundant, used up, best left as a description of old-time white males in pith helmets wielding whips made of hippo hide.
The urge to explore is probably rooted in our past as hunter-gatherers, where the "explorer" would be the tribe member who would be sufficiently curious to extend the limits of any hunting grounds. Later, the explorer figure would have found new trade routes with other tribal groups, and would no doubt have led raiding parties as well. The era of the "official" government-backed explorer was a long time coming and, like the plains Indians, flourished briefly and gloriously before being ignominiously superseded. Official exploration survives today only in the form of multibillion-dollar space and deep-sea research programmes. But that, for me, is not as "real" as the kind of exploration that one ordinary, dream-filled individual could participate in – the kind, in short, that is officially dead.
As we have grown more settled and civilised, we have allowed ourselves to lose sight of reality. Yet the urge to explore remains, and if we don't honour it we stunt ourselves; we limit the gloriously wild spirit of human discovery in wild places under wild skies...
Bruce Chatwin spent his wonderful book The Songlines constructing a case for human restlessness being innate. I would go further: without engaging curiosity with this restlessness, in other words, the urge to explore, we leave ourselves open to all the mental ailments of sedentary thinking and living.
Curiosity is amply rewarded by the simple prize of being first, in big matters or in small. In Kalimantan once, I was travelling through rainforest when the guide said we had come as far as the anthropologist he had brought the previous year. Naturally I wanted to go further. Only a day or so of more walking brought us to a line of menhirs, previously unrecorded. They were no more impressive than three or four uprights and cross-members of the kind you can see at Stonehenge. But being first (well, first with a notebook and camera) filled me with an incredible zest for recording, the buzz of being first to bring back news.
But, of course, you never really are first. Some member of some tribe, or a previous generation, or a bird or a beetle, has always been there before you. Being first is always an artificial construct. For some, the confluence point is as artificial as it gets – but the original confluence point is the North Pole – it has no physical distinguishing marks except as a mark on a map. Being first is really being first in a new category. First European. Oldest person to dog-sled it. First women to walk it. The youngest to climb it.
Everest is the target for many such convoluted "firsts", most recently Jordan Romero, who, on 22 May this year, became at 13 the youngest person to climb the world's highest mountain. Yet somehow, to me, that doesn't seem like proper exploration, occupying as it does a sort of hinterland where exploration history has already been made, and where athletic records are now set.
Sometimes, I think, the urge to explore can be subverted by the desire to appear as "an explorer" – that is, to do explorer-type things in places where explorers have been before. Unfortunately, through sheer weight of numbers, the scope for actual real exploration is limited in iconic areas such as the Poles. The urge to simulate exploration is harmless, but it is different from the primal urge to explore, which is often best served under humbler circumstances.
Micro-exploration covers anything from canoeing over flooded fields to retracing the probable route of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's desert crash escape. In the latter example, I used Exupéry's account of crashing close to Cairo to backtrack from his rescue point to the actual crash site – a distance of about 75 kilometres. It took only a couple of days but covered desert that is well travelled but never exactly in this fashion. I brought back news of how the desert had changed since his crash more than 80 years ago. It's easy to see that micro-exploration, with none of the pretensions of big exploring, is virtually unlimited in scope.
One form micro-exploring can take is to retrace a route taken by an explorer of a previous era. This is what we did on our recent crossing of the Saharan Great Sand Sea. The first person to make this trip was the German explorer Gerhard Rohlfs in 1874. He took 20 camels, lost 10 crossing the monstrous dunes, and considered himself lucky to have come out of the desert alive. By following Rohlfs' route and using camels, we replicated his journey, though by walking the entire distance rather than alternating walking and riding, as Rohlfs did, we tired our pack camels less. One nearly died but recovered after a day's rest – so we managed to improve on the former explorer's somewhat brutal record with beasts of burden. More importantly, we were able to add our observations to those made by Rohlfs, thus bringing back news while on a difficult journey – which is the essence of exploration.
People often assume exploration is tricky and expensive, and so they pass up the chance to honour their own urge to explore. It was this that prompted Richard Mohun and me, a few years ago, to set up the Explorer School to teach people basic skills needed to make long expeditions in remote places. We have found that the practical skills are easily learnt. What is more valuable but harder to gain is the insight that micro-exploring need be neither expensive nor particularly difficult. One way we demonstrate this for the desert is to use a hand-pulled trolley to carry water and food for up to two weeks. Dispensing with even the need for camels, the trolley – which cost less than £50 to have made in a Cairo metal shop – allows one to make unique solo desert journeys for virtually no cost at all. The Australian explorer Jon Muir has made some incredibly long journeys through Australian wilderness using a similarly stripped-down mode of carrying gear.
The urge to explore, if honoured, allows an optimistic light to shine over your life. Looking forward to seeing things rarely seen, or seen under other conditions, is exciting to contemplate. Every day on an expedition, I look forward to getting up at dawn, even when the weather is terrible, whereas when I am at home I am certainly no early riser. There is something rejuvenating and deeply satisfying even about making a micro-exploration, such as one I did a few years back when I simply floated through the back channels of the Nile in Cairo in a rubber boat more usually seen at the beach. A simple journey of 10 kilometres through one of the world's busiest cities became an act of exploration by adopting this unique method of travel. When I got out at Zamalek island I deflated the boat, put it on the roof of a taxi and was driven back to where I had started earlier that day. It was a unique and memorable day costing, in money terms, less than a fiver.
Children latch on to the idea of exploration being great fun very quickly. I think that starting explorers' clubs (somewhat different from the Scouts' version of "explorers") is a way for teachers to connect children with the primal urge to explore. Skills such as map-reading and direction-finding can be learnt alongside geographical studies of lost cities, new species found in remote jungles and the sources of famous rivers. If we can detach the notion of exploration from its association with former colonial eras of expansion, we can provide children with a real source of joy and continuing enlightenment. Who could argue against that?
Robert Twigger will be investigating rock art and other ancient remains in the Egyptian desert from December 2010 until January 2011. For more information about joining him as an expedition member go to theexplorerschool.com.