Crossing the Heart of Africa by Julian Smith

  Men (and women too, I suppose) will sometimes do strange things for love – serenade under the beloved’s window, rent a highway billboard to publicly declare one’s affection – but none I think have been so extreme as Ewart Grogan and Julian Smith.  Smith’s travel narrative/memoir Crossing the Heart of Africa details the lengths he and Grogan went to prove themselves to the ones they loved.
   Ewart Grogan met Gertrude Watt, the sister of a school friend, and they instantly fell in love and wanted to be married.  Her stepfather, however disapproved of Grogan as a suitable (i.e. not wealthy) match for Gertrude and was reluctant to give his blessing until Grogan made an interesting proposal:  If he were to make the first crossing of Africa from south to north, then would he be deemed worthy of Gertrude’s hand?  The stepfather accepted the proposal, and Grogan set off.
   Julian Smith was intrigued by Grogan’s adventure and, three months before his wedding day, embarks on re-tracing Grogan’s route.  His book follows his odyssey through Africa, while also describing Grogan’s.  And while Grogan was trying to prove his love for Gertrude, I think Smith was also trying to prove something — that he was ready to be married and partner with someone for life.
   Each man’s journey was of course different, given that they were 100 years apart.  Grogan had an entourage of men carrying his gear, preparing his meals, Smith travelled alone.  Grogan’s journey was almost entirely on foot, while Smith used planes, buses, automobiles, and motorcycles to get around.  There was a purpose to Grogan’s expedition (outside of winning Gertrude’s hand) – to map his route for the British government; whereas Smith was able to travel more like a tourist and visit places along the way (granted, there were probably not may attractions to see in Grogan’s day anyway).  And Grogan purposely kept out of contact with the outside world, especially Gertrude, until his journey was a success; while Smith was able to periodically check in with his fiancee by e-mail and the occasional phone call.
   There were similarities too, mostly of the inconvenient kind.  Instability in regions along the route caused problems for both men.  In Smith’s case, he wanted to trace Grogan’s route into Congo, despite the tremendous risk, but after seeing one too many warnings:

That’s it.  No to the Congo – it’s just not worth it.  Years ago I probably would have tried.  The longer I follow Grogan’s trail, though, the more I can see how different our motivations are.  He came to prove himself to Gertrude’s stepfather and to make his mark in the world, and was willing to risk his life to do it.
  I’m here to prove something, too, but not to Laura’s father.  To myself.  Maybe to Laura, too.  What it is, I’m not exactly sure.  I do know that nothing else matters if I don’t get home safe.
Spoken like someone who has his priorities straight.
  The accounts of both men’s adventures are truly interesting, if at times a bit disturbing (what Grogan’s team was reduced to eating …..) and provide a picture of Africa that is not always pretty (though descriptions of some of the scenery were beautiful).  But I think that this book is ultimately two love stories, and how even Africa was not big enough to destroy them. 
(book received from the publisher, Harper Perennial)

Other reviews:  Leeswammes     Sophisticated Dorkiness

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