For a couple of years now, ever since I read Lost Oasis, I’ve had an on-off arrangement to interview Robert Twigger. Only problem is, he left Oxford in 2004. These days he lives in Cairo. So time came and went; Twigger was in London, I was away; he was going to visit but got something in his eye (I know; but seriously…). And then I found myself with a girlfriend who a) hadn’t been to Egypt and b) was prepared to bankroll the trip — at least in the ‘short’ term — and suddenly it was all go, without a second thought as to whether Twigger, presumably enjoying the pace of his self-imposed exile, even wanted to be tracked down, and least of all by a journalist (I mean, did anyone actually ask Livingstone?).

Now it is 6pm sharp (plus or minus ten minutes, for what one might charitably call the ‘Cairene time-difference’) on a Friday evening, and, as per our Phileas Fogg-style arrangement, I am standing amidst the faded grandeur of the Windsor Hotel bar. As my eyes adjust to the gloom I begin the process of elimination. Two women. A gawky Russian kid with a laptop. A moustachioed Arab gentleman mopping up the bar.

Then, in one corner, a man in collarless shirt and chinos, with a side-parting and a singular spectacle (as in ‘pair of’, but minus one lens) which gives him a curious Mr-Bean-as-cartoon-villain air. Is this the 43-year-old winner of the Newdigate Prize for poetry, author of books on martial arts and endangered deer, researcher into manhood in the 21st century, hunter of the world’s longest snake, ‘walking man’ and philosopher behind the art of Zenslacking? Could be, if he’s shaved off his beard and aged a few years since his last author photo.

Throwing timidity to the winds — I have crossed Sinai for this meeting, after all — I approach, trying to recall a single quotable shibboleth from Ice Cold In Alex… PJ O’Rourke (blessings be upon him) once wrote that “good reporters don’t ask any questions because they are too busy getting drunk with the author” — forgetting only to mention that this depends rather heavily on the author in question.

By this standard, and any other, Robert Twigger is an interviewer’s dream. An infectious cocktail of schoolboy enthusiasm and surfer’s cool (he says “man” quite a lot, with varying degrees of irony), he talks unprompted for hours, dresses an encyclopaedic knowledge in a light bantering style, cares what his interlocutor thinks (dirty little interviewers’ secret, there), and knows all the best places to get a drink in a nominally abstemious nation.

Over the course of a beer or six, conversation roams around 21st-century smoking cultures (he jokingly recommends taking up smoking to make high-level contacts at publishing events); ‘bouldering’, and the putative causes of his detached retina (whence the spectacle); his early career selling life-insurance to nurses (while a chain-smoker himself); whether or not desert knowledge constitutes intellectual property; and how his Lost Oasis book launch fell flat (the invitation consisted of nothing but a set of GPS co-ordinates; but when the guests all cheated by using Google Maps — with the assorted misinformation therein — he ended up just having to tell them where the event was).

Every now and then, talk even extends to Twigger’s writing.

Dr Ragab’s Universal Language — his seventh book, and first novel — was published in July, to considerable praise. Begun seven years ago (“I should’ve started earlier!”), it concerns the diary of one Professor Hertwig, imprisoned in a German Second World War bunker (of his own devising) as narrated, many years later, by a jobbing journalist, who just happens to be a bunker nerd. To resolve his real (and metaphorical) dungeon dilemma, the imprisoned professor begins to reflect on his time as a student of Dr Ragab, a Cairene polymath of ambiguous — not to say ‘questionable’ — spiritual and intellectual powers to whom the young Hertwig apprenticed himself, in the 1920s, in the search for a more fundamental wisdom. In parallel, our present-day bunker-loving suburbanite narrator tries to follow these otherworldly teachings and apply them to his own, more-prosaic travails in West London (and, so doing, gives himself flu).

“It’s about learning, about going to the East, trying to find knowledge,” says the emigrant Twigger — and I would be remiss if I didn’t point out a certain overlap between the book’s characters and their creator (at one point, characterising Dr Ragab, Twigger actually says “Is he a charlatan or not? Is he actually teaching me something?”). What stands out, above all, is Twigger’s own insatiable lust for knowledge in all its forms, from the frameworks of his own Zen-like philosophy to the gems of trivia he dispenses so gleefully.

Twigger is a polymath for modern times. On his blog — — he writes admiringly of Lockheed’s ‘skunk works’ research facility, in which the genius-dorks were left to play unsupervised by the accountants; he called his semi-parodic Real Men Eat Puffer Fish (And 93 Other Dangerous Things to Consider) “an excursion into the kind of blue collar polymathy exhibited by both my grandfathers — men who could hunt, repair almost anything, build things and make you laugh”; he mourns (in Dr Ragab) “the always dull version of enlightenment promised by academia”; and when I enquire, perfunctorily, about his eye I get a ten-minute mini-lecture on the workings of the retina, based on his reading around the subject. If Twigger is any of his characters, he is Dr Ragab himself.

Much of our conversation (for instance, that Hitler believed Esperanto to be a Jewish plot and had the inventor’s family killed in Treblinka) corresponds directly to what I subsequently read in my advance proof of Dr Ragab. This is always fun; but it takes me several more weeks to realise that Twigger was not simply regurgitating the contents of his novel by way of a plug. Quite the reverse. Universal languages; bunkers; mind games; the Second World War; Cairo; the desert — the book exists as a repository for all this information, a mechanism enabling the author to grapple with topics that intrigue him. When he writes of Giordano Bruno, ex-monk, victim of the Inquisition, and inventor of the mind-palace mnemonic method, I can’t help but wonder if Dr Ragab isn’t a paper manifestation of Twigger’s own mental treasure house.

At dawn on Saturday, in overdue tribute to Lost Oasis, we drive out to Wadi Digla, an occasional riverbed and ancient trade route running due east from Twigger’s New Maadi home suburb (also home to the Second World War Long Range Desert Group HQ) to the Red Sea, 120km away.

A lift in Twigger’s battered short-bed LandCruiser is a treat in itself, like getting to ride Lawrence’s Ghazala. The car is famous in its own right: it previously belonged to Mido, Egypt’s champion rally driver. “I learned desert driving the way I learn everything,” says Twigger, casually: “by reading, watching videos, and hanging out with people who are doing it.” (Later, talking about his new-found experiences with fiction-writing, he laughs, “There are probably more efficient ways to learn what I’ve learned!”) Though Twigger prefers the great sands of the Western Desert — “it’s more like my idea of a classical desert” — the stony Eastern Desert, “a Biblical desert”, is a very useful pre-expeditionary training area.

Cheek-by-jowl with Cairo, abutted by construction sites (either the city sprawls or the desert does) and adjoining an army ordnance range, Digla itself is a protected nature reserve. Plenty of expats come here, to jog or for the “world-class mountain-biking terrain”. (“I loved living in Oxford, but terrain-wise it’s quite boring.”) As we wander, so, predictably, delightfully, does the conversation: Spalding Gray (the eye again), storytelling, and why writers should avoid reading their own work (Eliot, Larkin); tone-deafness and tone-dumbness (Twigger was once paid to sing on a programme demonstrating that the tone-deaf could be taught to carry a tune); the formal Arabic used on TV; Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots; a man who’s sussed how to recycle plastic bags by ironing them into tarpaulins.

By 9am it’s scorching, and we sit, drinking water, in a niche in the cliff, identifying fox-tracks and wheeling birds, and plotting an ambush on a runner 100m below.

In a couple of days he’s heading up to Dakhla to negotiate with Bedouin guides for the purchase of camels. Soon he plans to lead an expedition in the footsteps of the German desert explorer, Gerhard Rohlfs (1873: “probably spying”). “I love copying what old explorers have done. You get such an insight into how they thought.” (Typically Twigger, he’s following a failed expedition. Rohlfs attempted to travel from Dakhla to Kharga oases — at 600km the longest distance in the Sahara between water sources — but turned back.).

We walk on and, somewhere in what is literally the 11th hour of our interview, as I trot behind him, trying to take notes and photos and keep flies off my dripping face, he turns and says, grinning, “Got any more questions, then?” I don’t (have the breath for any); so he starts telling me about the new novel he’s working on, a detective story in which the detective is a cat. The cat doesn’t speak — obviously — and so begins a disquisition on feline intuition and why pets act all sheepish when you’re naked.

Robert Twigger factfile

Robert Twigger studied engineering briefly at Balliol College, Oxford, before changing to philosophy.

In the late 1980s he made several underground films and worked on the Raymond Briggs feature When the Wind Blows. He is the author of the Zenslacker Manifesto, inspired partly by Zen and other teachings.

For years, he and his family lived in Summertown, before they moved to Cairo, his wife’s home town. In addition to having written six non-fiction/autobiographical travel books, he also writes articles for newspapers and magazines such as The Daily Telegraph, Maxim and Esquire, and this area of his work has led him to train in bullfighting in Spain and report on chain gangs in Arizona, USA.

A Channel 4 documentary, entitled Big Snake, was made of his journey to Indonesia where he helped capture what was claimed to be the world's longest snake, a reticulated python, in a failed bid to win $50,000 from a New York zoo. The snake was not long enough to qualify for the prize and was killed during capture.

In 2004, he completed an epic three-year, 2,000-mile journey across North West Canada in the wake of 18th-century explorer and trapper Alexander Mackenzie. Twigger and his team were the first to successfully complete this route since 1793.

In 2005 and 2006 he spent several months in the Sahara Desert searching for lost oases.

He has published several poetry collections, including one in 2003 with Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing.

He has won the Newdigate Prize for poetry and the Somerset Maugham Award for literature.