Sunday, December 4, 2011

Crossing The Heart of Africa by Julian Smith

Crossing the Heart of Africa
by Julian Smith

Can you name the first person to navigate the length of Africa, South to North? Had you ever given it any thought? Neither had I, and I venture that most people have not either, save for the continent's historians. Neither had Julian Smith, travel writer for various magazines and guidebooks, until he stumbled upon the man's story while researching the evolutions of language. In a passage discussing how far men will go to impress females, he read this:

"The young Captain Ewart Grogan walked the 4,500-mile length of Africa from the Cape of Good Hope to Cairo in 1899 to gain the hand of the woman he loved. Her family had dismissed him as a ne'er-do-well who would be unable to keep their daughter in a manner to which they thought she should be accustomed. Grogan banked on the fame (if not fortune) that a dramatic adventure would bring him to persuade them to reconsider."

Hell, that's quite something, isn't it? Smith had to know more — he tracked down a handful of biographies and Grogan's own diary/memoir, From the Cape to Cairo. "The more I read," Smith says, "the more the adventure and romance of his story captivated me."

Meanwhile, Smith had a romantic plight of his own. Though nowhere near as perilous, his seven year relationship that included job changes and a cross-country move now hinged on engagement. His girlfriend, Laura, did not want to uproot her life yet again — this time, for a move to Portland, OR — for a man who was too afraid to get married.

No one had ever retraced his route. Perhaps crossing Africa as he had would help me find peace with this radical new direction my life was about to take. Maybe some of Grogan's mojo would rub off on me.

I ordered every book and article about him I could find. I plotted his route in guidebooks and maps, tracked down and cold-called his living descendents around the world. The wedding countdown kept clicking: six months, five. If I didn't go now, I never would.

I was flabbergasted when Laura gave her blessing. She was a gut-level decision maker, with instincts that had yet to steer her wrong. She was also the last person to want to tie her partner down against his will. If this is what it took for me to settle down, she said, hell, she'd buy my plane ticket and drive me to the airport.

Grogan himself was the rebellious and smart child in a large family, a Cambridge drop-out who joined the Rhodesian colonial army (now a part of Zimbabwe) after a stint in art school. Though game for the wide-open, unpredictable terrain, his experience was a largely miserable experience filled with constant battling against native tribes. And despite the advancements in European colonialism, much of Africa remained unmapped, if not completely unknown. He was sent home after contracting malaria and amoebic dysentery, not to mention having a burst liver abscess. He swore he would never return again, and yet, as soon as the stepfather of his love, Gertrude, called him unworthy, he immediately came up with a plan to survey the entire length of the continent. British Imperialist Cecil Rhodes had always wanted to link the country's colonies by train and telegraph, and Grogan's efforts would assist with that plan. Gertrude's stepfather agreed it was a worthy (though insane) venture.

[Gertrude] assured him there would be no other suitors before he came back.

Inevitably Grogan had to return home. When he and Gertrude said goodbye, he said, "I won't hold you to your promise, of course. And I give my word you won't hear from me until I'm successful. I'll send you a cable as soon as I reach Cairo. Then, if you are able to return my love, I shall make you my wife."

"You will succeed," Gertrude said softly. "I know you will. And I will wait for you, no matter how long."

Smith weaves Grogan and his tale together seamlessly between chapters, doing an excellent job of making Grogan's experiences seem just as present as his own. Even the casual student of Africa knows that while the continent has made great strides in some ways, many of the continent's troubles of 100 years ago continue today. AIDS, tribal warfare, and crumbling infrastructure have many countries drowning in poverty. Smith notes that just about everyone he meets on his journey has something to say about how poor people are, even doing so as a conversation opener. He never knows what to say.

Still, there is plenty to see. While retracing Grogan's route, he is able to determine some of the campsites, and even a couple buildings in the more inhabited areas remain. He sees volcanoes, rare mountain gorillas, and a village of pygmies, among other unique-to-Africa things. It's a tough, long trip filled with confusing visa and permit rules, not to mention the crowded, hurry-up-and-wait transportation issues. Still, it's nothing like what Grogan experienced.

In brief, and without spoiling too many specifics, Grogan and his team of men stumble upon cannibals, a charging rhino, various other angry animals and tribes, several bouts of serious illness, and the loss of supplies. Still, he carries on northward.

Both journeys are fascinating, and I'm not sure why I waited so long to pick Crossing the Heart of Africa out of my to-read pile. I do love the romance of it all, the foolhardy and tenacious optimism of such a trek, and the descriptions of the African terrain are excellent. You can almost smell the jungle mud at times.

I've gone on before about being a character-over-concept person, how I love to hear people's individual stories over a more detached perspective. Grogan's story interests me before a research paper on African exploration and imperialism would. Still, even Grogan's story on its own might not have been enough without having Smith's journey entwined with the narrative. It's an honest, though not overly heavy read, and though we know that both parties get married in the end, it's easy to forget that during all the moments of suspense. I highly recommend Crossing's brand of informative wanderlust.


Full disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

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