Travel special: Confluence hunting

With the North Pole strewn with rubbish and Everest little more than a £60,000 package tour, what remains for the modern-day adventurer to conquer? Author Robert Twigger discovers a new form of exploration that begins right on your doorstep: confluence hunting

It's over there," says Dave, "Somewhere." I scan the desert horizon. It is midday and the Egyptian landscape is flattened by the overhead sun. In a few minutes, maybe 10, we will be the first people ever to be at that specific point on Earth.

28N 31E to be precise. 28º 00' 00" N, 31º 00' 00" E to be very precise. There would be no distracting minutes and seconds, just the pure integers of latitude and longitude.

The going gets tougher, the desert surface gravelly and now stretching uphill. We are climbing up the humpy left side of a wadi, or dry riverbed. There is no vegetation visible anywhere - I look hard but see nothing except low dun grey hills and dry valleys. We have parked the 4x4 some way back and now I am out of breath, what with the heat and going uphill. Dave strides on manfully, pulling ahead. It is now that I suspect, like Hillary and Tenzing, only one of us will get to that sacred spot first. We both have GPS machines that check our position but Dave's is bigger, more authoritative. Plus he has a longer stride than me. It looks like I am about to assume the Tenzing position.

We are only climbing a small hill, not a mountain, and we aren't interested at all in the summit. What draws us on is the promise of bagging a confluence point. A confluence point is where a degree line of latitude and longitude meet - for example, 50N 25W - or where a whole lot of lines meet, like the North or South poles. It has to be a whole number and on land or within sight of land. There are 14,029 out there. There are 11,396 still waiting to be claimed. And Dave and I are after a point somewhere in the Egyptian desert between the Nile and the Red Sea.

Only with accurate surveying techniques could the height of mountains and their "importance" be recognised. Everest only became interesting as a summit when we were able to measure it. The current craze for scaling every peak over 8,000 metres is a continuation of this artificial exploration activity.

Even more abstract are the North and South poles. These are not places in the normal sense - they are defined by a series of numbers - yet they have become the focus of intense interest. But only with the invention of latitude and longitude, the sextant and the accurate clock could these places actually be found. Unfortunately, to be the first to the Pole isn't possible. And even being the 5,000th is a costly and difficult enterprise. Everest can be climbed - if you have £60,000 - otherwise you might consider Snowdon or Ben Nevis. But what's the point? After all, all three have been climbed by many, many people before you.

If you want to be first then you have to look elsewhere. And, as Roald Amundsen put it, "I cannot see the point in being faster or going a different way. For me there is only being first." Which is tough advice to follow in a world that, at first sight, seems pretty well explored.

Confluence hunting came into existence in 1996, thanks to the ubiquity of two new technologies: Global Positioning System satellites and the internet. At last it was possible to register the exact position of all those other confluence points apart from the poles. The race was on.

You can go confluence hunting anywhere. But the UK, USA and much of Europe are pretty well "pointed out". There are only four confluence points left in the UK and all of those require a boat journey into our chilly coastal waters. In the USA, only Alaska still has points remaining to be claimed. Though, of course, many people enjoy visiting or " collecting " points that others have already been to.

But for me, the whole point of pointing is to be first. The organising force behind it, the Degree Confluence Project, tends to play down the competitive aspect of the activity. There are no lists, as you get with twitchers, of who has the most "firsts". This is one of the many good aspects of the project. Naturally I was keen to find out, but am glad that someone has decided not to pander to this cheap desire. In fact, there is something out of the ordinary and far-sighted about the DCP. The website itself is a model of clarity, emphasising visiting and making reports from points rather than mere bagging.

I have heard about all this from my friend Dave, who works for an oil exploration company in Egypt. Dave was a bit wary when I first started probing about "confluence hunting". He's used to people scoffing and, I must admit, I was like that at first. It seemed nuts to me to spend a lot of time and money just to go to an arbitrary spot.

After I visited the DCP website I was converted. Suddenly it seemed like the most exciting thing you could do. I even got anxious that someone would rush out and do all the remaining points in Egypt that very week. What convinced me was the nature and the extent of the reports on the website. Because of the strict reporting procedure required by the DCP, the abstract point becomes real. You have to take a photograph of the scene, plus photos in all the cardinal directions and one of the "zeros": the screen of the GPS machine that shows you are bang on the criss-cross of latitude and longitude. Then you submit a written account. If you peruse the thousands of reports of visits to (omega) confluence points the world over, you begin to appreciate the grandeur of the whole thing. This is an amateur enterprise yet they, or we, will achieve something no government department, NGO, or monolithic UN organisation could ever manage: a report, both written and photographic, that covers the entire earth. These visits are self-financed, self-motivated, but over the next 50 years every point will be visited - of that I have little doubt. At the equator, confluence points are about 100km apart, and as you get to the poles they get closer. It is the last great exploration project of the planet - until the next piece of technology comes along.

Grand thoughts for a grand adventure, none of which I am thinking as we roll out of Cairo at 6.30am on our way to claim my first, and Dave's 22nd, point in Egypt. Dave, usually the model of a taciturn Scot, is surprisingly skittish and cheerful that morning. We all are (his wife and son came along too). There is nothing like the promise of even a small adventure to raise the spirits, that and leaving at the crack of dawn - just like going on holiday as a child.

It's getting harder and harder to find valid alibis, ones that stand up to more than a cursory examination, alibis to get you away from the remote control and the widescreen telly. I don't know why we need alibis to get out and about, but we do. I suppose it used to be hunting and making journeys to barter and trade, but you can do all that on the internet now. I know from my own experience that the alibi must convince oneself, even if explaining it to others is somewhat shaming. Once you "get" the idea of confluence hunting there is no better reason out there for going miles and miles, facing hardship and pain, to reach an abstract spot on the earth.

We are unlikely to suffer too much hardship and pain on our expedition. Dave has his company Landcruiser, a heavy-duty 4x4 capable of traversing the worst terrain. It is also about as good protection as you can get from the effects of a car accident. The Nile road we are driving along is notorious for accidents, but until you witness one, such information is, at best, at the back of your mind.

About 200km south of Cairo, now in the desert, we stop for coffee. Dave has a flask, which, on an expedition is always better than stopping at a petrol station or a café. Expeditions have to be self-contained otherwise they become diluted, a bit less of an adventure. Of course brewing your own tea on a hastily contrived campfire is always best but since we have Dave's flask that would have been uncalled for. Back in the Cruiser we drive for about a mile before, with the dawning sense of shock that attends such things, we arrive at a scene of devastating mechanical carnage. A giant 20-wheeler is skewed across the road, water pouring from its punctured radiator. An incredible dent in the front has pushed the engine and front wheels back under the cab, as if a giant fist has knocked its teeth in. A man with an anguished expression is still in the cab and several people, including one with a crowbar are trying to break him free.

As with any accident I am relieved there are others doing stuff already. I went on a first-aid course years ago but I'd probably only get in the way. Then, having crept around the 20-wheeler, we drive past a man cradling another man who is either dead or unconscious. Behind are the utterly destroyed remains of an ancient pick-up, the windscreen completely smashed. "Do you think he came through that?" asks Dave. A crash seems to instantly age vehicles and this pick-up, old to start with, already looks abandoned for months. The man holding the injured, or dead, man shouts something to the saloon car in front which hares off. People are already gathering - from where it is hard to tell. I had thought we were nowhere. I look back at the cradled man, gawping but not wanting to. This is not a crash in the JG Ballard sense of the word. Third World crashes are different to those of the First. They are grubby and sad and are symbols of a desperate scrabbling for resources rather than alienated excess. They also exist in a different zone of responsibility. In the Third World it is less about recovery and rescue services and more about a brush with eternity. It cuts you quicker and deeper because you know that even if an ambulance gets to the scene the level of medical care is not going to be high. Strangely, after a mile or less, we reach a roadside ambulance station and already the saloon car is up the drive and the ambulance men are coming out of their building. These ambulance buildings have sprung up recently along the most accident-filled roads, but, though better than nothing, they don't halt the rate at which decrepit trucks and overladen buses ram into each other.

Seeing the crash dampens the mood of the trip considerably. It all happened very definitely within the space of our coffee break. It could have been us, no doubt all of us are thinking, but no one says so, for fear, perhaps, of tempting fate.

The desert stretches either side. Rocky desert. The Sahara east of the Nile is rocky, riven with wadis. The Western desert is smooth by comparison, filled with dunes and sand sheets. In a moment, always a highpoint of any desert trip, we at last leave the highway and go offroad. Dave makes the symbolic gearshift to full-on four-wheel drive and rumbles over the gravel plain, following the LCD arrow on his GPS.

My own GPS is not a top-of-the-range model and I keep it more or less out of sight. Dave not only has 22 points in Egypt he has also taken the symbolic "best"point, 22N 25E, which marks the intersection of the Libyan, Egyptian and Sudanese borders. Dave, though naturally modest, is obviously the man in charge.

We lose sight of the road and head further into the desert. The point we are aiming for is the most accessible unclaimed confluence point left in Egypt, the nearest to any made-up road but still not on a road. Why it has been ignored, or missed, I can only guess is due to the lengthy drive along an accident-prone highway. The ground beneath is hard gravel and easy driving, though bumpy. We crest a low hill and see more ahead. It is a hot day, at least 30C, though in the burgeoning sense of excitement I do not notice the heat. The hill gets steeper and (omega) Dave thinks it prudent to park. I then understand another intriguing thing about confluence hunting: what if the point just happens to be halfway up a rock face or at the bottom of deep gorge? That's where the challenge and adventure kick in. I lose seconds fiddling with the white-balance knob on my camera and Dave is already ahead. He is the kind of expedition member who would consider it a bit wimpy to wait for stragglers so I hurry on, sweating in the noon heat.

Then, all of a sudden, after Dave has wandered around in a large circle, holding his GPS like someone trying to find a better signal on a mobile, he announces we have arrived. 28N 31E is exactly here. There are no car tracks or footprints where we lay the two GPSs side by side, showing the numbers on the screen. On this tiny spot on earth we are certainly the first confluence hunters, and very likely the first people, to have stood.

It is not a great feeling. It is an odd, different sort of feeling - not an anticlimax exactly, more like the feeling a gasman must feel when he has successfully read a meter right out in the countryside. Dave and I make up for the lack of natural elation by saying such things as, "Well, at least we did it," or, "Better than staying home slumped in front of the telly." It's hard to imagine one of the great explorers of yore saying these things, but who knows?

We take the photographs and everything needed for the report and, though I know once it is written up and made permanent I'll be happy, and though I definitely would do it again, there is something missing. I decide it is a view. And driving rather than walking. I think there should be an elevated category of confluence hunting where you walk from a bagged site to an unbagged one, unassisted by internal combustion engine.

As if to emphasise the superfluity of cars, we see three more crashes on the way home. All have occurred sometime before we passed, but all are nasty. Two human shapes covered in newspaper lie beside a rolled truck. Trapped on top is the truck's load of chickens in palm-leaf cages, squashed crates of squawking, bloody, dead and damaged birds. We stop commenting on the accidents; there is nothing left to say. Dave, as always, drives carefully and we are back in Cairo before nightfall.

I write up my "report" with considerable pride. It takes on the status of something semi-official, the prose a bit dry, rather dull and careful. Dave is concerned that I have missed his name off - I have, but this is easily remedied. Being named on the report is a bit like sharing authorship of an academic paper - important stuff. You can see it, along with the pictures, by typing my name into the search box at the DCP website. I have my alibi. Already it feels like a real achievement after all.

For more information, visit www.confluence.org

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