Sunday, January 9, 2011;
Julian Smith is a gifted travel writer and author of guidebooks to El Salvador, Ecuador and similar places. He is drawn to adventures in the back-of-beyond, and he had a great idea: Why not bring back to public attention the astounding feat of Ewart Scott Grogan, a largely forgotten Victorian explorer who at the age of 24 hiked and hacked his way up the length of Africa from Capetown to Cairo for the woman he loved?
This was a worthy task, for Grogan, though little remembered today, was a household name in the English-speaking world when he finished his legendary trek in 1899. In the best tradition of an H. Rider Haggard romance, he had fallen in love almost on sight with the elegant and beautiful sister of a Cambridge University classmate. She returned his affections and agreed to marry him. But Gertrude Watt was rich and he was not, and her stuffy stepfather considered Grogan little more than a jobless vagrant. Though Grogan came from a respectable family, he had been expelled from both boarding school and university and then had done little of note other than climb mountains (he was almost lost during a fall into an Alpine crevasse) and get into scrapes. He had done some soldiering in Rhodesia for Cecil Rhodes and had killed a man in a bar fight in Zanzibar - not what you might call obvious husband material. At Cambridge he once screwed shut the door of a student he disliked, trapping the boy so securely he had to be fed for a time through the mail slot.
So what to do? Grogan decided he needed to become famous to win his woman. Africa was the great testing ground for Victorian Englishmen. Rhodes had talked with him of a Capetown-to-Cairo telegraph and railroad, but much of the proposed route was still unexplored. Grogan proposed to be the first man to make the journey. Gertrude's stepfather agreed that would be a suitable test of his character and seriousness.
The trip took Grogan two years - years during which he was stalked by lions, hippos and crocodiles, pursued by headhunters and cannibals, plagued by parasites and fevers and never far from various other forms of unpleasant extinction. At one point after the journey, doctors drained an abscess on his liver the size of a coconut. But he returned as the sensation of Britain. He was made a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, met Queen Victoria and, in four months of incredible effort, turned his notes into a 377-page volume, "From the Cape to Cairo: The First Traverse of Africa from South to North." Billed as "The Greatest Book on African Travel and Sport Ever Published," it was a huge bestseller. He married Gertrude, toured the globe with her, settled in Kenya and lived happily, with more adventures, to age 92.
So far, so good. Smith evokes Grogan, his adventures and his world with both insight and panache. So what's the problem? Well, like so many of his self-absorbed generation, Smith can't get out of his own way. His gimmick (and you can almost hear him making the pitch to his agent and publisher) is to do the same thing!!! See, Smith has this girlfriend, and they've been thinking of getting married, but he's not sure he can make the commitment. So he will duplicate Grogan's journey as much as possible to convince himself this is the right thing to do, and they'll get married when he gets back. Get it? And his book will tell his story and Grogan's story in alternate chapters! Two love stories! The same journey! The same romance, right?
Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! In the first place, Grogan had a genuine obstacle in the way of his marriage. Smith has none. He and his lady love, Laura, have been living together for several years in three cities. And Laura, though (he assures us) as admirable as Grogan's Gertrude in every way, is no unattainable princess. She's pushing the marriage, has set the date and is bombarding him with wedding details whenever he can phone home en route, something as far from Grogan's reality as a cold drink and a hot bath. In the third place, Grogan's route today, as Smith describes it, is no wilderness of hostile tribes and savage animals, but a depressing Third World sink of fly-blown grog shops, verminous hotels, bacterial contagion and crowded mini-buses overflowing with incontinent children. And while a number of the Africans he meets are wistfully charming, Smith's "expedition" isn't really much more than hiring rides on potholed roads aboard motorcycles, bicycles and other forms of gypsy conveyance, all the while whining tediously about his conflicted feelings toward the marriage waiting back home. Oh, Julian, just stop it and man up!
So while Grogan is rascally charming and even heroic in a Kiplingesque sort of way (respecting Africans, in general, he was a moderating voice against the abuses of imperialism and an early cautionary voice for wildlife conservation), Smith emerges as something of an intrusive bore. His whole journey seems senseless and irrelevant, we don't care about him and his rather adolescent anxieties, and in the end it's hard to forgive him for repeatedly putting himself in the way of Grogan's story, which Smith otherwise tells with both undisguised admiration and matchless skill.
Ken Ringle is a Washington writer and former Washington Post reporter.
CROSSING THE HEART OF AFRICA
An Odyssey of Love and Adventure
By Julian Smith
HarperPerennial. 328 pp. Paperback, $14.99