West on Books: Crossing the Heart of Africa
Reviewed by Richard West
Are you about to get married? Be careful what you read. In a book on language evolution, Julian Smith, soon to wed Laura, his girlfriend of seven years, ran across a paragraph about Ewart Grogan’s 4,500-mile walk in the late 19th-century from Cape Town to Cairo, the first human to traverse the length of Africa . Why? To prove to his prospective father-in-law he was worthy enough to marry daughter Gertrude, Ewart being an adventurous –but-penurious young chappie, Gertrude being wealthy and above his station.
An accomplished biologist and journalist, Smith had no in-laws worried about the merger. He was the problem. Like many a prospective groom, he fretted about…wed lock. Commitment. Life ever after preciously tempoed as a cotillion. Parenthood. So before crossing the Rubiconsciousness stream of marriage—Shazam!—why not retrace Ewart Grogan’s route through eight countries of East Africa, not only to highlight this forgotten explorer’s remarkable feat, but prove to himself life held further adventures. Thus his new book, Crossing the Heart of Africa: The Odyssey of Love and Adventure.
Goodbye Laura, hello damp-towel-smelling Beira, Mozambique’s second largest city, also the start of Grogan’s trip, though Smith had to manage without the Englishman’s 150 porters and had only two months before the wedding, not two years. From here north Smith endured the usual trials of African travelers (not tourists): days hotter than dollar chili, dust, riding buses filled to the point of metal fatigue, insectile bedding, food he despised like Beethoven would Sid Vicious.
And too many frustrating instances to count that brought to mind an acronym familiar to all African travelers: OWAWA, oh, well, Africa wins again.
But he did it with anchoritic zeal and the patience of old wallpaper while stumbling upon many kind people and earthly wonders. I’ll bet he didn’t know Lake Malawi has more species of fish (1,000+) than any other in the world; or that Lake Tanganyika, only 45 miles across, would stretch from New York to Charlotte, N.C.; or get to see, face to face in Rwanda’s Parc National Des Volcans, one of the world’s 700 remaining mountain gorillas. And he must have felt a sense of history squatting under the mango tree where Stanley famously met Livingstone in November, 1871, near the Tanganyikan lake port of Kigoma.
Like Homer’s Odysseus, Smith on his way home to his own Penelope avoided the Lotus Eaters (drugs), the Sirens (whores), a cannibalistic Cyclops (though Grogan fought his way past warlike Congolese whose tribal name translated as “ eaters of flesh”), and goddesses like Calypso urging him to stay awhile. But thanks to 21st century unpleasantness—the ongoing genocidal civil war in Sudan—he didn’t reach Cairo as did Grogan. What can’t be ended must be mended so 48 hours after reaching Juba in Southern Sedan, realizing farther travel was foolhardy, he was flying home to Penelope’s Portland, Oregon.
Grogan married his Gertrude two years after his adventure, honeymooned in Paris, and wrote his widely popular “From The Cape to Cairo: The First Traverse of Africa From South To North” before settling in Kenya. He finally died, age 92, in 1967, 24 years after his beloved Gertrude. Julian Smith married his beloved Laura 107 years and nine days after Ewart’s ceremony. To the Smiths we offer a popular toast of 19th-century Anglo explorers of Africa: “Broth to the ill, stilts to the lame.”
Richard West spent nine years as a writer and senior editor at Texas Monthly before moving to New York to write for New York and Newsweek. Since then, he’s had a distinguished career as a freelance writer. West was awarded the National Magazine Award for Reporting in 1980 and is a member of Texas Arts & Letters.