Book review of “Crossing the Heart of Africa”


I’ve always enjoyed reading nonfiction travel adventures and Julian Smith’s book about Ewart Grogan’s monumental two-year trek from Cape Town to Cairo is a thrilling and captivating read. For, not only does Mr. Smith describe Grogan’s colossal journey from south to north, but he attempts to reenact it in our modern age.  Mix in two true love stories and Crossing the Heart of Africa grabs the reader from the first quote (see below) and never lets you go until the final word.

Ewart Grogan's route - Source:

What Ewart Grogan attempted between 1898 and 1900 was audaciously bold (and perhaps reckless) for a man in his 20s who had hardly succeeded at anything up to that point in his life. The fact that the expedition was conceived to win the hand of the woman he loved, but barely knew, makes it the story of legends, for his bravado was only exceeded by his love of Gertrude.


So, why do so few, if any of us know of Ewart Grogan? His trek, if successful (I’m not giving away the ending), would easily exceed those of both Stanley and Livingstone. Perhaps it is because his monumental journey took place at the conclusion of the golden age of exploration? Perhaps Grogan did not prefer the limelight — he only wanted Gertrude? Perhaps he ruffled some feathers? Perhaps all the above? Guess you will just have to read the book to know.

I believe that I read this superb book faster than any other in recent memory. It’s story captivated me as images of Africa rose from the text and drifted into my imagination. It brought the history,  the stunning scenic beauty, the intense geography, and the cultural diversity contained on this vast and often misunderstood continent into better focus than anything else I have read or seen before.

As a professional planner, I found the author’s poignant descriptions of African cities such as Kampala, Bujumbura, Beira, and Juba to be enlightening and educational. Both Smith’s and Grogan’s vivid description of Africa’s amazing scenery and wildlife was tempered by some of the negative environmental impacts they noted throughout the book.  As an avid bicyclist, I found the authors tales of ragged and sometimes back-breaking rides on the back of bicycles to be quite humorous.

Here are a few interesting quotes and factoids from the text, including:

“Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one…It is all these things, but one thing — it is never dull.” (quote by Beryl Markham at the beginning of Part I)

“To travel originally meant to suffer. A thousand years ago, life was dangerous, but leaving home was worse. The word itself comes from Old French ‘travailler,’ meaning to toil, as in ‘travail.’ It’s rooted in the Latin ‘tripalium,’ a torture device made of three poles tied together, to which victims would be attached and lit on fire.”  (page 101)

“In fact, global warming and decreasing rain levels have caused Lake Tanganyika to drop five feet since the late 1990s.” (page 128)

“The death of one man is a tragedy — the death of millions is a statistic.” (Erich Maria Remarque, page 167)

“Given peace, gorillas bring in currency. Gorilla tourism [unlike gorilla warfare — my comment] is Rwanda’s third-largest source of foreign revenue after coffee and tea.”  (page 204)

“I drop my bag at the hotel where a sign in the lobby reads: Lollers, loafers, and gossips are not welcome at all, nothing to do — not here.” (pages 231-232)

“The steep, smoothly rounded slopes of the Ruwenzoris make me think of hips and breasts, a reclining earth goddess in green velvet. You know you’ve been away from home too long when the scenery starts looking sexy.” (page 235)

“I’ve never understood when people say they wish a trip would never end. Coming home is almost as exciting as leaving, only sweeter. Everything familiar is new again, sometimes for an entire day or two.” (page 297)

I highly recommend Crossing the Heart of Africa to anyone who enjoys reading nonfiction, history, travel essays, love stories, or just about any other genre you can think up. Great story telling, like love transcends all.

This entry was posted in Animals, bicycling, book reviews, cities, climate change, culture, diversity, environment, history, land use, nature, planning, poverty, tourism, walking and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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