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Book: Crossing the Heart of Africa by Julian Smith (NEW December 2010)
I enjoy hearing stories about the adventurers who busily mapped the globe around the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. In Crossing the Heart of Africa, Julian Smith tells the story of a brave (or is it brash?) young man who sets out to impress the father of his lady love by walking 4500 miles from the Zambezi River in southwest Africa to Cairo in the north. The Victorian adventurer kept a journal and later published a book about the trip.
So author Julian Smith had plenty of source material although Ewart Grogan is not exactly a household name like the original Richard Burton or Dr. Livingston, despite three biographies that have been published.
Julian Smith weaves a fine tale. I liked his writing style. It was the whining I did not like.
Unfortunately, every book these days has to have an angle, and preferably one where the author either faces danger or does the travel-is-all-about-my-feelings number. Smith follows the general path of Grogan across Africa, although being a typical rushed inhabitant of the 21st century, he does not have time to walk, so he takes buses, bikes, and boats to follow the trail. Even more unfortunately, he tells us all about his own romance and his uncertainty about being tied down by his imminent marriage.
The book tells us much about the difference between Victorian society and social networking society as it does about the unflappable and handsome Grogan. Grogan and his love have no doubts that the risks he is taking will win him the prize, and that however long it takes, she will be waiting for him. Smith has nothing but doubts. Should he get married? Should he venture into the Congo?
Grogan shrugs off the most horrible problems–ill with malaria, losing nearly all his equipment to thieves, facing down headhunters, finding a track across lava fields and swamps never before crossed by a European. Smith struggles with the morality of giving coins to poor children and worries about whether the bureaucrats are going to return his passport. Grogan steadfastly refuses to drop even a postcard to his intended when he’s near civilization. Smith frets over not making daily phone calls or sending e-mails.
Ah, yes, in Victorian England, a man was expected to take on physical, even mortal, challenges and keep a stiff upper lip about it all. In the 21st century, a man is expected to soften that lip and talk about his feelings. Here are two passages that show the contrast:
Grogan’s arm was a sleeve of pain from wrist to shoulder. Even if he could have raised a rifle, he found the last box of shells were corroded and worthless. The party was reduced to eating raw hippo meat and sucking mud puddles for moisture. The diet started to turn Grogan’s hands black.
And here’s a challenge Smith faces:
An old couple climbs aboard and starts playing tease-the-mzungu[white man]. They point and ask me questions and laugh when I don’t understand. Eery culture has assholes. I’m too drained to care. Cyclic pressure clenches my guts, even though I haven’t eaten anything since lunch….Bumping along in a bus with a bad case of Montezuma’s revenge is nowhere near as bad as tramping through a monsoon with a potentially fatal fever.
Right. It’s not.
If there were two paths to follow, the Victorian adventurer would plunge into the abyss–follow the un-marked trail. Our role models today train us that it is better to think of a way to avoid danger than to throw oneself into it.
In Victorian days, love meant total devotion, not friends with privileges, and a statement of love meant you were about to devote your life to that person, not try to find excuses to avoid marriage.
Smith is a fine writer, but frequently I wished I could find a way to cut out the poor-me pages and stick with the story of the single-minded adventurer, Grogan. Smith tells that story very well. I particularly like some of his offbeat research, like this about travel:
“To travel” originally meant to “suffer.” A thousand years ago, life was dangerous, but leaving home was sorse. The word itself comes from the 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.
So now you now why we are so hot to travel!!
Despite my mixed feelings, I believe this is a good book for a traveler’s library. Smith provides plenty of geopolitical background and historical context along with stark descriptions of Africa today. And if you love the Great Age of Adventure, you’ll love this book.
The two Africa pictures are from the author’s web site, and if you click on them you can go to the site and see more of his pictures from the journey across Africa.
Some lucky person today is going to win a copy of this book, which was given to me by the publisher for review. Just leave a comment below by January 17 at 6:00 a.m., and tell me if you have been to Africa or if you like to read about Africa or if you went to Africa what you would like to see. (see all the fine print about contests here.)
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