In 1898, 25-year-old Ewart Grogan set off from Mozambique with the aim of completing the first crossing of Africa, south to north. This was a crazy idea. And Grogan was not new to Africa, so he knew just how crazy the idea was. He had served as a soldier in Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe), concluding that experience with the pledge never to return to the “accursed lands” of “Satan’s summer palace.” So what brought him back to the neighborhood, one year later?
Why, the motivation for some of humankind’s wildest ideas: love. After returning from battle, Grogan went on vacation to New Zealand and fell in love with a woman named Gertrude. Gertrude’s stepfather found Grogan unfit for her hand so, in an impetuous act if there ever was one, Grogan proposed that he would transect Africa in order to prove his worth. The stepfather agreed to the challenge; Gertrude promised to wait for Grogan. A few months of packing and preparations and off he went, an adventurer and a romantic — half Survivorman, half Clark Gable.
Julian Smith frames his book, Crossing the Heart of Africa, around Grogan’s compelling story. Smith is a deft writer, as was Grogan — excerpts from his memoir of the journey, From the Cape to Cairo, pepper the text. Grogan is perceptive (admiring elephants’ ability to transmit danger signals, he wonders whether they use a sense that humans once had, but lost), eloquent (“…in the shimmering haze of the northern shore, where, crisp and clear, towered the mighty mass of Mount Götzen, whose jet of smoke alone broke the steel-blue dome of sky”), and funny (“[w]hen wounded, [elephants] have a nasty knack of looking to see who did it”).
Smith writes admiringly of Grogan’s trip, where at numerous points it seemed like he would either die or be forced to turn back. Grogan is attacked by a swarm of bees, suffers recurring bouts of malaria, is charged by an angry elephant, perseveres through a monsoon, walks across a sea of lava, and escapes from cannibals, among other adventures. Gaunt and ill, he reaches his destination, and ultimately marries fair Gertrude.
Gripping stuff, with a fairy tale ending, to boot. But where Smith wanders into the malarial swamp is when he tries to interweave his own love-travel story with Grogan’s. These sections are hard to stomach. Three months before his wedding day, Smith decides to retrace Grogan’s steps. Although Smith adores Laura, his fiancé, second-guess feelings keep creeping in. There is never any question that they will, in fact, marry, and the narcissistic, Elizabeth Gilbert-style soliloquies about commitment become grating.
Smith’s journey is just two months, and he gets only as far as south Sudan, but he seems to whinge through most of it. At a mass grave in Rwanda he writes that “… Instead of hitting my stride and unmixing my feelings about the imminent wedding ceremony, I am standing on a mass grave feeling sorry for myself”. Yuck. And while Laura seems like a lovely person, her smiley-faced notes and e-mails do not belong in public. I don’t care how love-sick you are; you keep that sort of drivel to yourself. Again and again, it is the visceral narrative draw of Grogan’s two-year journey, and the love waiting at the end of it all, that save the book.
At one point in Smith’s trip, he is suffering from a vicious stomach bug while bouncing along in a cramped bus — an unenviable position, no doubt. He thinks of how his journey will never get as rough as Grogan’s, but it fails to comfort him. Then, he realizes that he needs to stop comparing the two journeys. He never should have started.