A review of Crossing the Heart of Africa, by Julian Smith, Harper Collins, NY, 2010
In this combination historical exposition and travelogue author Julian Smith recounts the life and trans-African journey of Ewart Grogan in 1899 while retracing the man’s footsteps a hundred or so years later. Grogan was a British adventurer who fell in love with Gertrude, a New Zealand beauty. However, her stepfather believed that Grogan was unsuitable. In order to prove his mettle, Grogan proposed to walk the length of Africa along the Cape to Cairo corridor proposed by Cecil Rhodes.
Author Smith had obviously combed Grogan’s chronicles and books of the era. He summarized and used this information to excellent effect in this book. Grogan was indeed a interesting character. A man of indomitable will, he persevered on this journey through amazing difficulty – tropical diseases, hostile natives, hunger, thirst, ferocious animals, lost supplies, isolation; all of which combined to wear him down. But Grogan like predecessors Livingstone and Stanley had an iron constitution and some spark in his inner core that would not bow to defeat. Although not of the first generation of explorers, nonetheless Grogan was the first to map the Ruzizi valley and the eastern shore of Lake Kivu. He plugged ahead and eventually succeeded. Of course, Gertrude waited for him. They married and settled in Kenya where he became a stalwart of the community.
Smith’s journey was a bit less arduous. He took public transportation from Beria, Mozambique through Malawi, on into Tanzania, by boat up Lake Tanganyika, onward through Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda. He then flew to Juba, Sudan where he finished his travels. As true with any budget traveler in Africa, Smith found buses and boats crowded, facilities poor, food execrable and his patience tried. He was beset by erstwhile companions who sought to play him for what he might be worth, but he was also offered hospitality by strangers in the best African tradition. Apart from the gee-whiz factor of someone experiencing this for the first time, there was nothing remarkable in Smith’s observations. However, Smith too soldiered on motivated by his own true love, Laura.
While the juxtaposition of the parallel journeys and the parallel loves made for a nice hook upon which to hang the book, I found the ruminations of Smith’s relationship and courtship of Laura to be extraneous and a distraction from the history of Grogan’s trials and the modern day travelogue.
I found two errors in the narrative that a good editor should have caught. Early on Grogan’s route was described from Cape Horn to Cairo. Of course, Cape Horn is in South America. The Cape of Good Hope is the African landmark. Secondly, Smith noted that Grogan’s travelling partner Sharpe gave up the trip in western Uganda and headed for Kampala where he could “get a train to the coast.” The railroad did not reach Kampala until 1931, some thirty years later.
Although this book has shortcomings, it is worthwhile and provides the service of recounting Ewart Grogan’s riveting tale of exploration.