Risk­ing life and limb for love

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOKWORLD - book­world@wash­post.com 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

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-of­be­yond, 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 was­made a fel­low of the Royal Geo­graphic So­ci­ety, met Queen Vic­to­ria and, in four months of in­cred­i­ble ef­fort, turned his notes into a 377page 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 minibuses 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.


Ewart Scott Gro­gan en­coun­ters a rhi­noc­eros onMount Chiper­oni in an il­lus­tra­tion from his book, “From the Cape to Cairo.”

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