Confluence point hunting
Getting to the Point
“It’s over there,” said Dave, “Somewhere.” I scanned the desert horizon. It was midday and the Egyptian landscape was flattened by the overhead sun. In a few minutes, maybe ten, we would be the first people ever to be at that specific point on the earth’s crust. 28N 31E to be precise. 28 00 00 N 31 00 00E to be very precise. There would be no distracting minutes and seconds, just the pure integers of latitude and longitude. The going got tougher, the desert surface gravelly and now stretching uphill. We were climbing up the humpy left side of a wadi, or dry riverbed. There was no vegetation visible anywhere in a 360 degree circle- I scanned hard but saw nothing except low dun grey hills and dry valleys. The only sight that drew the eye was a rock breaking the skyline. We had parked the 4x4 some way back and now I was out of breath, what with the heat and going uphill. Dave strode on manfully, pulling ahead. It was then I suspected, that like Hillary and Tenzing, only one of us would get to that sacred spot first. We both had GPS machines that checked our position but Dave’s was bigger, more authoritative. Plus he had a longer stride than me. It looked like I was about to assume the Tenzing position.
We were only climbing a small hill not a mountain and we weren’t interested at all in the summit. What drew us on was the promise of bagging a confluence point. A confluence point is where a degree line of latitude and longitude meet like 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 were at that time 11,396 still waiting to be bagged. And Dave and I were after 28N 31E , 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 recognized. Everest only became interesting as a summit when we were able to measure it. The current craze for bagging every peak over 8000 metres is a continuation of this artificial exploration activity. Even more abstract are the North and South poles. 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 5000th is a costly and difficult enterprise. Everest can be climbed- if you have £60,000 to hand, otherwise you might consider the attractions of Snowdon or even Ben Nevis- 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.
Then in 1996 confluence hunting was invented, thanks to the ubiquity of two new technologies- Global Positioning Satellites and the internet. At last it was possible to visit 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’. At the time of writing there were only 4 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 collecting points others have already been to. But for me, the whole point of pointing, was to be first. The organizing force behind confluence hunting, 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 wanted to know who had the most firsts but was glad that someone had decided not to pander to this cheap desire. There is something out of the ordinary and far sighted about the DCP. The website itself is a model of clarity, emphasizing visiting and making reports from points rather than mere bagging. I 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, or not seeing the point, so to speak. I was like that at first. It seemed nuts to me to spend a lot of time and money just to go to an imaginary 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 degree confluence project, 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 ‘zeroes’, 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 confluence points the world over you begin to understand 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 organization could ever manage- which is- a report, both written and photographic, that covers the entire earth. These visits are self financed, self motivated, but over the coming fifty years every point will be visited- of that I have little doubt. At the equator confluence points are only 100km apart- 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 was thinking as we rolled 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, was surprisingly skittish and cheerful that morning. We all were (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 wide screen 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 were unlikely to suffer too much hardship and pain on our expedition. Dave had his company Landcruiser, a heavy duty 4x4 capable of traversing the worst terrain. It was also about as good protection as you could get from the effects of a car accident. The Nile road we were driving along was notorious for accidents, but until you witness one, such information is, at best, at the back of your mind. About two hundred kilometers south of Cairo, now in the desert, we stopped for coffee. Dave had a flask, which, on an expedition is always better than stopping at a gas 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 had Dave’s flask that would have been uncalled for.
Back in the cruiser we drove for about a mile before, with the dawning sense of shock that attends such things, we arrived at a scene of devastating mechanical carnage. A giant twenty wheeler was skewed across the road, water pouring from its punctured radiator. An incredible dent in the front pushed the engine and front wheels back under the cab, as if a giant fist had knocked its teeth in. A man with an anguished expression was still in the cab and several people, including one with a crowbar were trying to break him free. As with any accident I was relieved there were others doing stuff already. I’d been on a first aid course years ago but I’d probably only get in the way. Then, having crept around the twenty wheeler, we drove past a man cradling another man who was either dead or unconscious. Behind were the utterly destroyed remains of an ancient pickup, the windscreen completely smashed. “Do you think he came through that?” asked Dave. A crash seems to instantly age vehicles and this pick-up, old to start with, already looked abandoned for months. The man cradling the injured, or dead, man shouted something to the saloon car in front which hared off. People were already gathering from where it was hard to tell. I had thought we were nowhere. I looked back at the cradled man, gawping but not wanting to. This was 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 reached a roadside ambulance station and already the saloon car was up the drive and the ambulance men 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 dampened the mood of the trip considerably. It had all happened very definitely within the space of our coffee break. It could have been us, no doubt all of us were thinking, but no one said, for fear, perhaps, of tempting fate.
The desert stretched 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 left the highway and went offroad. Dave made the symbolic gearshift to full-on four wheel drive and rumbled over the gravel plain following the LCD arrow on his GPS. My own GPS, though good enough, was not a top of the range model. I kept it more or less out of sight. Dave not only had 22 points in Egypt he had also bagged the symbolic ‘best’ point 22N 25E which marked the intersection of the Libyan, Egyptian and Sudanese borders. Dave, though naturally modest, was obviously the man in charge. We lost sight of the road and headed further into the desert. The point we were aiming for was the most accessible unclaimed confluence left in Egypt, the nearest to any made-up road but still not on a road. Why it had been ignored, or missed, I could only guess was due to the lengthy drive along an accident prone highway. The ground beneath was hard gravel and easy driving, though bumpy. We crested a low hill and saw more ahead. It was hot day, at least thirty degrees, though in the burgeoning sense of excitement I did not notice the heat. The hill got steeper and Dave thought it prudent to park. I then understood 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 lost seconds fiddling with the white balance knob on my camera and Dave was already ahead. He was the kind of expedition member who would consider it a bit wimpy to wait for stragglers so I hurried on, sweating in the noon heat. Then, all of a sudden, after Dave had wandered around in a large circle, holding his GPS like someone trying to find a better signal on a mobile, he announced we’d arrived. 28N 31E was exactly here. There were no car tracks or footprints where we gingerly lay the two GPSs side by side showing the numbers on the screen. To this tiny spot on earth we were certainly the first confluence hunters, and very likely the first people, to have stood. It was not a great feeling. It was 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 made 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 took the photographs and everything needed for the report and though I knew once it was written up and made permanent I’d be happy, and though I definitely would go confluencing again, there was something missing. I decided it was a view. And driving rather than walking. I think there should be an elevated category of confluence bagging where you have walked from a bagged site to an unbagged one, unassisted by an internal combustion engine. As if to emphasise the superfluity of cars we saw three more crashes on the way home. All had occurred sometime before we passed, so we were merely observers, but all were nasty. Two human shapes covered in newspaper lay beside a rolled truck. Trapped on top was the truck’s load of chickens in palm leaf cages, squashed crates of squawking, bloody, dead and damaged birds. We’d stopped commenting on the accidents by then. There was nothing left to say. Dave, as always, drove carefully and we were back in Cairo before nightfall. I wrote up my ‘report’ with considerable pride. It took on the status of something semi-official, the prose a bit dry, rather dull and careful. Dave was concerned that I had missed his name off- I had, but this was 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 for degreeconfluenceproject.org. I had my alibi. Already it feels like a real achievement after all.
Confluence hunting appeals more to men than women but Dawn is one of those happy to get out there looking for a new point. She started hunting with her boyfriend Phil, who heard about confluence hunting from a radio program whilst driving in his HGV. Dawn has conquered 15 or 16 points, including some abroad. In Rumania Phil but not Dawn was arrested by border police who got one look at his google earth maps and gps and assumed he was an illegal migrant from Moldova. “We all had a good laugh in the end,” said Dawn. Another tricky call was when a point was surrounded by a herd of cattle. First they had to persuade the farmer why they wanted to get into his field and then they had to brave the cattle. Dawn visited the last confluence point left unclaimed on mainland Britain, Blakely Point. This meant a trip by boat accompanied by local press though she did concede, “Most times I go out it’s raining or I get stuck in a muddy bog.” Her job is indoors as a manager so she relishes the chance to get outside. Confluence seeking is something that fits in well with her other hobbies of hiking and camping. “It’s a nice walk at the end of the day. And you always have some kind of adventure.”
Visit Gordon Spence’s website and you get some kind of idea of what he’s like. Maths problems, computers and confluence hunting are all interests represented and arguably confluence hunting brings them all together. He is the regional coordinator for the Degree Confluence Project and, in a game that avoids competition, Britain’s top confluence hunter. He’s visited all the sites in the UK- many for the first time. The hardest point in Britain, “logistically” he added, was 55N 3W- this was the Long Pound ammo dump, Europe’s largest, home to depleted uranium missiles and the Lockerbie wreckage. It took Gordon three months to get permission to enter the camp and another three months to get permission to enter the missile store zone where the point actually was. Gordon explains he just “likes being outdoors”. And in Britain every point is outdoors. There are none in London and only one is in a building- a cowshed near Basingstoke. He’s been abroad too- in Texas he was accused of being an Iraqi spy. “But that’s Texans for you.” “I call it wandering with a purpose,” he says, “You know where you are and why you are there.”