Crossing the Heart of Africa by Julian Smith

Crossing the Heart of Africa by Julian SmithIn this travelogue (2010), Julian Smith follows in the footsteps of 19th Century explorer Ewart Grogan through the East of Africa. Both men expect to marry the woman of their life at the end of the journey.

Crossing the Heart of Africa: What it was about

Ewart Grogan was a penniless university drop-out when he met the beautiful Gertrude in 1898. She was rich and her stepfather didn’t like the idea of her marrying this good-for-nothing man.

Grogan did manage to extract the promise that if he could travel from the South Cape of Africa to Cairo in the North, and come back alive, he would be allowed to marry her.

And so he went. On the way he endured the most terrible hardships and not only he. With him were his uncle and a varying number of natives. They lost people through illness, swamps, and cannibals and Grogan was ill with malaria and other diseases almost constantly.

Julian Smith, the author, heard about Grogan and, as travel writer and adventurer, wanted to undertake one last solo trip before his marriage to his long-time financee Laura.

His journey was rather easier than that of Grogan, as he traveled mainly by car, bus and bicycle, but it was still a struggle to get from one place to the next.

The book is built up with some of Grogan’s journey followed by that of Smith’s report of the same leg of the journey interspersed with the story of how Smith met his girlfriend and the struggle they had before he finally agreed to get married.

There are also some pictures (in black and white) of Grogan and his journey and photographs taken by Smith.

Crossing the Heart of Africa: What I thought

I liked it but didn’t love it. I do enjoy a good travel story but I had some problems with this one (and still enjoyed it a lot!):

First of all, Grogan’s story was fascinating: traveling through uncharted territory where wild animals lived and some of the natives reportedly cannibals! But I think Smith stayed too close to the original diary of Grogan and it never became a story that I was drawn into. It probably would need a bit of dramatizing for that to happen and Smith didn’t (want to?) do that: he stayed with the facts as he knew them.

I also thought Smith threw in a little too much background information, where the balance between interesting and that’s enough, now was sometimes towards the latter.

Thirdly, Smith’s own journey was quite a lot more high-tech than Grogan’s. He traveled with much less adversity and a lot of the troubles that he came across were to do with other people or were psychological, but not physical, like in Grogan’s story. To me, he seemed a bit of a cheat for not traveling on foot the way Grogan did.

Aw, this comes from a person that would never, ever want to travel in East Africa! It does not interest me and it sounds scary. But a book about a topic that doesn’t really interest me but still entertains me, is a book well-written.

My final problem was maybe with the romance of Smith and his girlfriend. To an outsider like me, who reads the story because of the travelogue that is promised on the cover, the story of how he met and kept his Laura isn’t all that important.

And still… Yes, I did like the book. Whereas the photographs in the center of the book didn’t do much for me, I absolutely LOVED the cover. The writing was very good and the story of Grogan was in all an interesting story of a 19th Century man traveling the length of Africa with a foldaway bath tub and several bottles of Worcestershire sauce.

Rating: 4/5

I got this book: for review from Harper Perennial

I read this in: English, the original language

Number of pages: 328

First published: 2010

Genre: travel writing, non fiction

See also: this review by hikebiketravel from a traveler’s point of view and this review by book blogger bibliosue

About Judith
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6 Responses to Crossing the Heart of Africa by Julian Smith

  1. Cindy says:

    The Worcester sauce is enough to make me read the book 🙂

    • leeswammes says:

      It’s only mentioned once or twice but it’s illustrative of the creature comforts that the Victorians expected to take with them on their travels. 🙂

  2. Suzanne says:

    I agree that there was too much background info, especially of Smith’s story.
    Yes, Smith had some more advantages than Grogan did, but at the same time Smith was alone, while Grogan had an entourage of people assisting him. Either way, the journey would not be one I would undertake; even if I was a guy!

    Nice review.

    • leeswammes says:

      Suzanne, you’re right. Grogan had lots of people. On the other hand, after his friend left, most of them weren’t people he could trust or understand. I would NEVER undertake a journay like that, so it’s good that people who do, write about it! 🙂

  3. Pingback: Julian Smith – Crossing the Heart of Africa « Fyrefly's Book Blog

  4. Pingback: Review: ‘Crossing the Heart of Africa’ by Julian Smith

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