Friedrich Gerhard Rohlfs was born to a middle class family in Vegesack, now Bremen, Germany in 1831. He early life was spent trying to escape from home to become an explorer. Rohlfs was forced by his family into the field of medicine, but he decided to join the Austrian Army. Upon leaving the Austrian Army, Rohlfs joined the French Foreign Legion in 1855. While in the Foreign Legion, he was a medic and won the Légiond’honneur.
Home is Morocco
Once Rohlfs left the French Foreign Legion, he found himself in Morocco. To blend in, he learned Arabic, grew a beard, learned the cultural customs, and made up a background story of being a convert to Islam. While living there, he continued to practice medicine. With a letter of recommendation from a local governor who was also a good friend in his area of Ouezzane, he obtained rank as personal doctor to the Sultan of Morocco.
Even with protection from the Sultan, being a European was dangerous in North Africa. His first journey into the desert was a disaster. He was robbed, beaten and left for dead by his own bodyguards.
He voyaged a second time out into the Sahara in 1862, and then again in 1864. His third trip was alone across the Atlas Mountains to villages in Touat. Rohlfs focused on traveling from oasis to oasis throughout North Africa.
With that goal in mind, Rohlfs found himself at the Ghadamis Oasis, which is in the middle of the Libyan Desert. For half a year, he remained living there due to an illness.
Oasis-Hopping in Africa
Rohlfs was finally able to leave Ghadamis Oasis in 1865, and continued onward toward Murzuq. He then gathered a caravan and traveled to Lake Chad. In that area, he was welcomed by the Sultan of Bornu.
He then made a new caravan and crossed what is present day Libya. While traveling in 1868, he lingered in the Siwa Oasis, where the fabled Alexander the Great was said to have visited hundreds of years prior to that. For this trip he was awarded the Patron’s Medal by the Royal Geographical Society.
After the war in Egypt in 1873, Rohlfs was given lead to a scientific expedition to Kufrah Oasis by Ismail Pasha. His job was to track dried river beds of the Nile. Having too large a caravan, Rohlfs was forced back to Siwa when he found an impassable desert stretch between the oases. Some time later, Rohlfs attempted the push to Kufrah a second time and succeeded.
Rohlfs made several expeditions into the deserts of Africa from 1873 to 1878. His last expedition was with the German East Africa Society, with Dr. Stecker. While traveling from Tripoli to Kufra, the trip was smooth. From Kufra towards Wadai, the caravan had to deal with hostility from the Bedouin communities, as well as a freak rain storm. This forced them to retreat.
The caravan finished up the trip without reaching Wadai, and Rohlfs returned to Germany where he married. His wanderlust began again, and during the war between Europe and Africa, the Prince of Bizmark made Rohlfs consul in Zanzibar.
He was not well trained in diplomacy, and due to failures in politics with Britain, was recalled to live the rest of his life in Rungsdorf, near Bonn, Germany, where he died in 1896. Historically, he is known as the first European to cross Africa from the Mediterranean Sea to the Gulf of Guinea.