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Crossing the Heart of Africa: An Odyssey of Love and Adventure Paperback – December 7, 2010
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Smith’s strong interest in the forgotten, nineteenth-century Victorian explorer Ewart Grogan compelled him to attempt a similar journey in 2007. Both walked across Africa, covering more than 4,000 miles through eight countries, though Grogan attempted to become the first person to walk across Africa. Both men had something to prove: Grogan wanted his fiancée’s family to know that he was more than a gold digger, and Smith wanted to experience the journey before his own marriage. The interwoven stories contrast an early adventure with a modern Africa, with the remnants of Burton and Speke’s search for the source of the Nile running through it. Grogan’s adventures in Africa are carefully researched: from dodging cannibals, wild animals, and multiple illnesses to his death, when he was virtually forgotten. Smith, an award-winning journalist, tells his own story nearly a century later, as well as revealing a modern continent going through constant change. --Jay Freeman
"Julian Smith, a talented travel writer...evokes Grogan, his adventures and his world with both insight and panache...and matchless skill." (Washington Post)
"The story is not only a modern-day travelogue, but also a great historical account of a charming trailblazer, and the story of a modern-day relationship." Miami Herald)
"Smoothly written chronicle that's part travelogue, part contemporary relationship commentary, and all heart." (Kirkus Reviews)
"Like David Grann's The Lost City of Z, this is two stories, of an explorer and of the author's search for him, and both are compelling. Recommended for...anyone who has ever been or wants to go on a quest." (Library Journal)
"Smith weaves a fine tale...if you love the Great Age of Adventure, you'll love this book" (Lonely Planet)
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The other story is Smith’s own attempt to retrace Grogan’s route across the length of the continent. While Smith doesn’t have to prove his worth, his motivations are more complex and tied up with his engagement to be married. Maybe Smith’s motivation is best summed up as a desire to prove to himself and / or his fiancé that he had sufficient commitment and fortitude to get him through rough times—a characteristic relevant to both marriage and crossing some of the world’s least developed countries.
Of his own admission, Smith’s journey was to be far less arduous than Grogan’s by virtue of the fact that he’d be traveling by taxis, motorcycles, buses, and ferries. Grogan and other 19th century explorers were subject to hazards far graver and more ever-present. For one thing, in Grogan’s day virtually everybody who spent any significant time in Africa got malaria. It wasn’t a question of if but when and how seriously. Even if you escaped malaria, there were myriad other tropical diseases to bring one to one’s knees. Next, there was the tribal environment in which one would travel through dozens of tribal territories, all of whose chiefs expected tribute and many of which were outright hostile. For Smith, rule of law was present in some form or fashion along most of his route, such that no one could just murder him and get off scot-free. There was also the risk of crew desertions that could cripple an expedition. Traveling parties had to carry huge amounts of goods from surveying equipment to gifts to medicines to food stuffs. Still, they had to obtain many of the party’s needs along the route. Among other things, this meant hunting animals that weren’t as docile as livestock. Anything less than an instant kill meant having to trudge into tall grass after a wounded creature that had a far greater killing capacity at close range.
This isn’t to say that Smith’s journey was adventure free. Anyone who has traveled in Africa knows that getting from place to place remains a slow and exhausting process. And many of the things that undermined Grogan’s trip also undermined Smith’s, e.g. the author suffered extended fever. But the most devastating factor for Smith’s travels was the fact that parts of Sudan were lawless and a brutal war was being fought. While Grogan barely managed to drag himself through the swampy landscape, Smith was unable to proceed overland because of the conflict. In telling of his travels, Smith discusses many of the dilemma’s that traveler’s face today (e.g. to give people money or not, how to contend with bureaucrats.) Among the travels that modern-day readers might be interested in is Smith’s visit to a gorilla sanctuary.
I enjoyed this mix of travelogue and history. The book gives one insight into the changing nature of the world and, particularly, what was once called the Dark Continent. [Note: while that may sound either racist or awash in a negativity bias, I’ve read that the reason it was called that was that when the 19th century explorers were traveling through much of the continent was unmapped, i.e. blacked out.]
I’d recommend this book for anyone who is interested in travel in Africa—past or present.
It's not too surprising. He's one of the more obscure of the 19th century African explorers. At the same time, though, his is a fascinating story. He's a first-rate character, and his trek was truly an adventure. Probably the most interesting aspect of it, though, was that he did it all for love. The whole thing came about as a way to impress his future father-in-law that Grogan wasn't just a layabout and after the man's daughter just for her money.
The author's recounting of Grogan's journey is terrific. He's able to summarize and update Grogan's 377-page, 100-year-old book very nicely. I really enjoyed this part of the book.
Unfortunately, though, Smith tries to combine Grogan's story with two others. One is not so bad - Smith's trying to redo Grogan's trek in 21st century Africa. Lots of interesting adventures, plenty of local color ... but there's just not enough of it. It skips around quite a bit, and I was really left wondering how he had got from point A to point B or why he didn't talk more about X. Rather episodic.
The other story I simply didn't care for. It's a parallel with Grogan's love story, and recounts how Smith met his wife, lived with her for 7 years, and finally decided to take the plunge and get married. The parallels are rather forced, and Smith comes across as not a particularly likable character. He has major qualms about tying the knot with what seems like an incredibly nice girl. The typical bachelor's reluctance to get hitched crosses a certain point into contrariness and neurosis. I'm not sure what was universal here and what would have been better for the therapist's couch. He's a bit of a mess. Needless to say, all the story-switching involved here gets to be a little hard to follow too.
Given all that, the Grogan story is interesting enough to give this a 4 instead of a 3.
Perhaps it's because I made the mistake of reading Crossing the Heart of Africa immediately after reading Richard Grant's Crazy River: Exploration and Folly in East Africa, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Coincidentally, Grant travels through many of the exact same locales — Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda — as Smith. Both men are contemporary writers; both books are recent, and have appeared in the past year.
Where Grant is witty, observant, insightful and clearly focused — on his inner self, as well as the world around him — Smith comes across, to me anyway, as weak-willed, aimless and maudlin. His book suffers what — for me — is sloppy structure, flashing haphazardly back-and-forth between the historical record of 19th century explorer Ewart Grogan, his own (not very interesting) romantic affair with his soon-to-be wife, and his oddly vague travels through what is, let's face it, some really compelling cultural terrain.
Other readers seem to have enjoyed this book. Speaking for myself, though, if you only have time to read one account, I would choose Crazy River over this, in a heartbeat. If you have time to read both, perhaps you'll come to some of the same conclusions I did.
I confess I was startled at how poorly written Crossing the Heart is. It is so much less detailed and nuanced than I had hoped for, with no sense of "voice." Perhaps I've been spoiled by reading too much Paul Theroux. Or Grant, for that matter.
Sorry. Didn't care for this at all.