Gerhard Rohlfs was born near Bremen in 1831. His career was blundering and calamitous but a dogged determination won him some remarkable achievements: he was the first to discover the Great Sand Sea though he failed to breach it; the first to visit the remote oasis of Kufra but lucky to escape with his life; the first to cross the Sahara from Tripoli to Guinea though he failed in the expedition’s goal to reach Timbuktu.
He had been an ailing child and a weak student and had refused to take up the career as a doctor that had been planned for him. Instead, he joined the Bremen Fusiliers and fought in a war between the Germans and Danes over Schleswig-Holstein. His reckless bravery earned him immediate promotion on the battlefield but failed to turn the tide of battle.
It was time for him to accede to his family’s wishes and enter medical college, but he failed as a student and dropped out after a couple of terms.
He now entered the Austrian army, deserted, sought refuge in the French Foreign Legion and was posted to Algeria where he put his precarious medical knowlege to use as the regimental pharmacist.
After six years, he abandoned the Legion and went off to explore Algeria and Morocco, disguised as an itinerant Muslim doctor. He even managed to persuade the Sultan of Morocco to take him on as his personal physician but was soon asked to leave.
An ambitious attempt to reach Timbuktu, involving the first European crossing of the anti-Atlas mountains, had to be abandoned when he was brutally attacked by the Tuareg nomads and left for dead, his leg almost severed from his body.
After a miraculous recovery, he again attempted to reach Timbuktu but was taken to be a French spy and forced back to the Mediterranean coast.
On returning to Germany, he had his notes edited and published and was able to raise funding as a scientific explorer in another expedition to reach Timbuktu. Setting out from Tripoli, he was again compelled to change his route by the hostile Tuareg and so headed south to Lake Chad and then along the River Niger to Lagos on the Gulf of Guinea. Although he had failed in his goal to reach Timbuktu, he had nevertheless succeeded in being the first to cross the Sahara from the Mediterranean coast to the Gulf of Guinea.
His newly won fame brought him to the attention of the Prussian government who sent him on missions to Abyssinia and Cyrenaica. While in Cyrenaica, he planned to travel South to the remote and mysterious oasis of Kufra, spiritual and administrative centre of the Sanussi confederation of tribes. Hostility from the Sanussis, however, forced him to abort his plans.
Instead, he headed East to Siwa in the company of a photographer who took the first photographs we have of the oasis settlements.
During the Franco-Prussian war he was sent back to Tripoli by the Prussian government to stir up the desert tribes against the French but was immediately arrested by the Ottoman Bey and deported.
Still determined to be the first foreigner to reach Kufra, he decided to approach it from the East and managed to gain the backing of the Khedive of Egypt. He set out from Dakhla, accompanied by a team of scientists and a caravan of camels. Once more the expedition had to be aborted when he discovered the barrier of the Great Sand Sea which forms a series of dunes over a 100 feet high running southwards, blocking all progress west. Neither the camels nor the men had the power to plod across them and the expedition was forced to head north along the flat valleys between the dunes until they reached Siwa. Nevertheless, he had discovered the greatest sand desert in the world and had traveled 420 miles between wells, a feat never before accomplished by any explorer or Bedouin.
Undaunted, he set out again, in 1878, this time supported by the Ottoman Sultan, aiming to travel from the North Coast of Cyreneica south to Kufra. This time he was to succeed, but the Zwaya tribesmen tried to stop him in Aujila and he was only able to move on once the Ottoman authorities had taken a few tribesmen as hostages for the safety of the expedition.
Little did it help him for he was then attacked near Kufra, all his notes and scientific equipment destroyed and only the arrival of a messenger from the Sheikh of the Senussis in Jaghbub prevented him from being killed.
Rewarded nevertheless by the Prussian government, he was thought suitable for a diplomatic mission to Abyssinia and Zanzibar, but his lack of any diplomatic flair resulted in his immediate recall.
Rising above all his calamities, Rohlfs chronicled his career in a string of writings, including the description of his extraordinary expedition across the Great Sand Sea, Three months in the Libyan Desert.