I first encountered Rosita Forbes atop a camel in the middle of the Rabiana Sand Sea in southern Libya. There was probably no finer way of making this unusual writer’s acquaintance. Here, deep in the Sahara, she was in her element, disguised as an Arab woman and with only a few camels and human companions between her and a nasty, lingering death. In fact it was worse than that. Apart from the natural dangers of the desert, she was passing through the territory of tribesmen who regarded this motley expedition of an Englishwoman and the Egyptian Olympic-fencer-cum spy-cum-explorer Ahmed Hassanein Bey with profound suspicion, if not downright hostility.
‘We posted sentinels at night, slept with our revolvers cocked beside us and by day went armed with such an array of weapons that the hostile Zouiya villagers decided we were better left alone,’ she wrote in The Secret of the Sahara: Kufara (1921). It was just as well they took such precautions. On leaving the entrancing oasis of Buzeima, she overheard a Zwaya tribesman mutter bitterly: ‘You should not escape thus; we had men enough to kill you.’
Rosita Forbes was not your average Englishwoman. Born in 1890, the daughter of a Lincolnshire squire and MP, she refused to settle for the traditional role expected of her. In an era of travel and exploration dominated by the tweedy gentlemen amateurs of the Royal Geographical Society, she held her own and bowed to no man. Beautiful, flamboyant and independent, she left school at 17, married a colonel at 21 and then during the First World War spent two years as an ambulance driver on the Western Front, winning two medals from the French government. She divorced her first colonel in 1917 (pawning her wedding ring to fund an unsuccessful expedition home on horseback from Durban) and married her second in 1921, a more successful union that lasted until his death four decades later.
Pictures of Forbes in the 1920s show a woman at the peak of her g
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