IT is the sort of journey that only madmen or masochists should undertake. An 80-day, 1,120-kilometre trek across the barren centre of the Taklimakan desert in China, one of the world's great surviving wildernesses. It is a place of violent dust storms, buried oases, and harsh temperatures that swing from sub zero at dawn to 50 degrees Celsius at noon. To survive, its conquerors must have skills of the navigator, the scientist, the doctor and scholar, and the fitness to dig for water for hours, rein in recalcitrant camels, and endure the privations of no washing facilities or a normal diet for almost three months. Retired British Army Major Charles Blackmore, 35, however, sees it differently. The prospect of 80 days with three sand encrusted adventurers, and 30 foul smelling camels as travelling companions on the forthcoming British Taklimakan Desert Crossing 1993expedition in Xinjian province is a challenge impossible to resist. For him, it is history in the making. He and his team will be attempting to make the first complete crossing of the treacherous Taklimakan, whose name translates in the local Uygur language as: ''You go in, but you do not come out'', on a route the Chinese have been skirting for centuries. Locals always chose to go around the bottom of the bottom of the desert, on the Southern Silk Road, avoiding like the plague the centre of the desert, which Blackmore's team will attempt. The project has snowballed in recent months, and has earned, after some assiduous transcontinental negotiations, the support of the honorary expedition chairman, provincial governor and Vice-chairman of the National People's Congress, Mr Tremur Dawamat,and the Xianjiang Military Commander, Lieutenant-General Gao Haung. ''There is a saying that once you have been touched by the desert, there is no other clime'', Mr Blackmore said during a Hongkong fund-raising stop for the Sino/British trek. In Mr Blackmore's case, that laying on of the desert hands occurred in 1988, when he retraced some of the journeys of Lawrence of Arabia and published a book about the adventure, In the Footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia. With the poetry of the wasting dunes in his blood, he set about arranging the north-west China expedition which will cost HK$1.44 million. He said this week that his supporters have raised about 60 per cent of the cost of the project, which will pay the bills for the four person team, the 38 camels - there are eight with the support team - the four camel-handlers, the two Chinese liaison officers and a back up team that will be monitoring the trekkers by satellite, from the relative safety of the Silk Road, on the southern fringe of the desert. The four person support team will travel in a two-jeep convoy, which will also carry supplies for the team, that will be delivered to them, at four designated checkpoints, including Marzartagh and Tongguzbasti, along the expedition route. Planning for the Taklimakan crossing began three years, but has occasionally lost its momentum, especially during the diplomatic stand-off after the June 4 Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. Mr Blackmore took his inspiration from past explorers, although he knew that the area had been closed off to foreigners since the 20s. A Swede, Sven Hedin and Briton Sir Aurel Stein, attempted crossing at the turn of the century, where they tried to chart and classify ancient Buddhist archaeological sites along the route. A Japanese team mounted an expedition from the eastern fringe in 1991 but were unsuccessful. Team member and and former diplomat Richard Graham said this week: ''We hope to resume this research, with the studies we will do for Oxford University on the desert formations and surveying and classification of the main Buddhist sites for the British Museum and British Library.'' The list of research projects has added an urgency to the successful completion of the exhibition in an area that is under threat from progress. Sections of Taklimakan have been earmarked for oil exploration by Beijing, and in April this year, the first foreign oil companies were granted exploration rights to the Tarim Basin, in the south-eastern corner of the desert. China hopes the region will become a major source of petroleum in the next decade and has begun construction of a road and rail network, that will soon include a pipeline to carry the estimated 3.5 billion barrels of crude from the desert to refineries in eastern China. ''We wanted to get in before it is spoilt by the rigs. They have begun drilling but our route is still a desert wilderness untouched for thousands of years. The whole desert will change in a few years.'' The four person team, made up of Major Blackmore, Hongkong-based Richard Graham, American photographer Keith Sutter, and Dr Carolyn Ellis, will begin their journey in October from Markit, on the western fringe of the desert, and forge east through its heart, at a planned 16 kilometres a day. They will rise before dawn, husband their limited water supplies to make tea, and produce a form of damper bread from the embers of their overnight campfire. After breakfast, they will search for the camels, which, despite having their two front legs hobbled overnight, may have roamed up to a kilometre from the camp, as the explorers slept. ''The whole process will take about two to three hours,'' Mr Blackmore said. In the meantime, the advance party from the team will have been sent ahead, and the daily nine-hour trek will begin. ''We will break camp at six and begin digging for water. We think we will have to dig down at least two to three metres. We know we will be tired but the physical side is not that important. It's the logistics that are important. ''It is a calculated risk that is reduced by good planning. The camel guides will know the water holes,'' he said. Eighty days later, they hope to arrive in Ruoqiang, unshaven and unwashed but triumphant. ''We hope, in the process to have raised money for the Leonora Children's Cancer Fund in England, and the two Hongkong cancer foundations,'' Mr Graham said. The success of the expedition will depend on discipline, logistics and navigation, and the support of a back-up team led by Barney White-Spunner, a friend of Mr Graham. A television crew will record the expedition, which has won the support of the Scientific Exploration Society and the approval of the Royal Geographical Society. The BBC plans to make a documentary on the expedition. THIS week, Mr Blackmore, and Richard Graham, who now works for Barings in Hongkong, and Mark Kitto, who like Mr Graham, is fluent in Mandarin and may replace him after a month of the trek, discovered what China really thought about the expedition as journalists were flown in from Beijing to record the project's official launch. Xianjiang regional leaders have plans for British BBC Radio 4 to complete a documentary, and have not objected to a proposal by Britain's Channel 4 television network to film the expedition. All that needs to be done now is survive this final frontier - the infamous Desert of Death. ''I have three children, including a son that was born a month ago, and I have no intention of leaving them fatherless,'' Mr Blackmore said. The British Taklimakan Desert Crossing. October to December 1993. Interested sponsors, telephone or fax United Kingdom 071 736 3875.