Crossing the Heart of Africa: An Extraordinary Love Story

 GoNOMAD Book Excerpt: Crossing the Heart of Africa: An Extraordinary Love Story

By Mariel Kennison

Cover art for Crossing the Heart of Africa by Julian SmithCrossing the Heart of Africa: An Odyssey of Love and Adventureir?t=gc0a7 20&l=as2&o=1&a=0061873470&camp=217145&creative=399369 is about one man’s journey to recreate a 19th century adventurer’s Africa crossing in the effort to prove to himself he can make the lifelong commitment to his beloved fiancée—if he makes it home.

The decision to get married is one that most people do not take lightly. Many are scared by the fact that is a lifelong commitment, and to one person no less, and must think long and hard about whether or not they are cut out for it. Not many people decide to recreate a 19th century adventurer’s journey for love across the continent of Africa as a way of making this decision, but Julian Smith is not your average person.

When author and world traveler Julian Smith came across the unique and unheard of journey that Ewart Grogan made to prove he was worthy of marrying the woman he loved, he knew it was what he himself had to do to figure out whether or not he could make that lifelong commitment to his own great love.

His book, Crossing the Heart of Africa, travels between the two journeys for love: his own in the present day and that of Grogan’s in the 1800’s, and he compares their dangerous and yet absolutely fascinating adventures the whole way. Despite many differences in time period and traveling methods, the two men’s paths are more than intertwined. Armed with the confidence of Grogan’s successful quest, Smith writes a captivating account of his attempt to retrace Grogan’s own route.

Walking the length of Africa was special to Julian Smith for many reasons. He had traveled to several African countries before and knew that giving himself up to such a radically different place while following Grogan’s path was the only way he would be able to face the difficult decision he had before him. That, and it could potentially be one of the last times he took such a fantastic trip as a single man.

Though he had been there before, Smith knew that Africa was a place unto itself. He describes it this way: “One of the biggest thing about being in Africa was being a racial minority. That’s not something most Westerners ever experience. For days at a time I’d be the only white person in sight. Kids would run up to me pointing and shouting “Wazungu!” which means (roughly) “white person” in Swahili. That takes some getting used to; it’s humbling in a way.”

We know that like Grogan, Julian Smith successfully completes his journey across Africa, but the lessons he learns and the incredible experiences he encounters are wonderfully detailed in his book.

Author Julian Smith
Author Julian Smith

Read an excerpt from the first chapter of Crossing the Heart of Africa:

“Damn, I’m going to miss you. I know everything’s going to be fine, but I’m going to miss you so much.”

Laura’s slim frame trembles as she speaks into my shoulder. The fine mist of a gray Pacific Northwest dawn hides the sun. The drop-off lane at the Portland airport smells like car exhaust and wet asphalt.

I wasn’t expecting this. She’d been so cool on the drive to the airport. I was quiet, still groggy from late-night packing and anxiety dreams of disasters in strange places. “Dancing with Myself” came on the radio. I turned it off—too prophetic.

I looked at her perfect profile in the driver’s seat. What was going on there? I always found Laura’s rare silences unsettling, but this was unusual.

Ewart Grogan's route
Ewart Grogan’s route

Here she was, sending her fiancé off on a solo journey through places that were more catastrophes than countries: Burundi, the Congo, Rwanda, Sudan. I’m leaving her in a city we just moved to, where she knows nobody, to follow an obsession that has peaked at the least convenient moment possible.

Less than a month after I return—if everything goes according to plan; if I’m not stricken with a strange disease, or crumpled in a bus accident or plane crash; if nothing changes between us while I’m gone—we’re getting married.

This will be the longest time we’ve spent apart since we became a couple a couple seven years ago.

So where are the emotional fireworks? For weeks I’ve been a knot of nervous energy, trying to plan and pack for thousands of miles of public transportation through backcountry Africa: ancient buses, decrepit minivans, homemade bicycles, and boats dating to World War I.

Laura kept her composure all the way to the airport. But that’s her way: happy face forward, smile through the sadness.

In our time together we have already survived two cross-country moves, a simultaneous leap into full-time freelancing, reappearing exes, and one dead pet. We know each other’s stories, answer each other’s cell phones, finish each other’s sentences. I love her like no one else I’ve ever met, and I know I’d have to be a drooling idiot to let her get away.

Ewart Grogan
Ewart Grogan

I don’t plan to. But the thought of making an eternal commitment is terrifying. As an introverted only child, independence is a pillar of my identity. No matter how compatible Laura and I are—and we are, wondrously—every argument we have leaves behind tiny splinters of uncertainty. Sometimes we seem too alike to ever coexist peacefully, both of us too headstrong, too self-reliant.

And of course, I’m a guy. The concept of being married appeals, but the reality keeps me up at night. I’ve always found ways to justify my hesitations. Am I ready to consign myself to one person, completely, forever? Do I even deserve Laura?

The months before the wedding seemed like a window inching closed. I could see the domino line of Major Life Changes start to tumble: house, kids, PTA, retirement. It was clear that something drastic still needed to happen before I could make this lifetime promise with all my heart. I needed inspiration. I needed a kick in the ass.

One day I was reading a book about the evolution of language. In among the graphs of primate mating success versus testicle diameter and descriptions of how far males will go to impress females, I read this:

The young Captain Ewart Grogan walked the 4,500-mile length of Africa from the Cape of Good Hope to Cairo in 1899 to gain the hand of the woman he loved. Her family had dismissed him as a ne’er-do-well who would be unable to keep their daughter in the manner to which they thought she should be accustomed. Grogan banked on the fame (if not the fortune) that a dramatic adventure would bring him to persuade them to reconsider.

Gertrude Watt
Gertrude Watt

That was it: three sentences, nothing more. But I had to know more. I tracked down the few biographies of Grogan and his firsthand account of the journey, From the Cape to Cairo. The more I read, the more adventure and romance of his story captivated me.

The proud tradition of men doing crazy things for love goes back at least to the Trojan War, triggered when Paris eloped with Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world (and someone else’s wife). A seventeenth-century Mughal emperor built the Taj Mahal as a memorial to his favorite wife, who had died in childbirth. In 1936, King Edward VIII did the unthinkable and gave up the British throne to marry an American divorcée.

Grogan’s story was just as astonishing, but nobody seemed to have heard of him. I became convinced I could sense a lesson in there: some insight into the wisdom, courage, and conviction it took to go to such extremes just to be with someone else, to make a life-changing leap and follow through to the end, no matter what.

Even though our personalities, our lives and times were vastly different, Grogan and I were really after the same thing: lifelong happiness with an incredible woman. There was the challenge and, yes, the buzz of danger; he certainly felt that, too. One final taste of true autonomy. But in the end it was about love.

No one had ever retraced his route. Perhaps crossing Africa as he had would me find peace with this radical new direction my life was about to take. Maybe some of Grogan’s mojo would rub off on me.
I ordered every book and article about him I could find. I plotted his route in guidebooks and maps, tracked down and cold-called his living descendents around the world. The wedding countdown kept clicking; six months, five. If I didn’t go now, I never would.

Julian and Laura getting married in the snow in Sundance, Utah
Julian and Laura getting married in the snow in Sundance, Utah

I was flabbergasted when Laura gave her blessing. She was a gut-level decision maker, with instincts that had yet to steer her wrong. She was also the last person to want to tie her partner down against his will. If this is what it took for me to settle down, she said, hell, she’d buy my plane ticket and drive me to the airport.

Now her eyes are inches from mine, swimming above a wrinkled grin. A hazel ring surrounds each pupil like a reef around a tropical island. She runs her hand across my newly shaved scalp. “You look like someone else,” she said.

Behind us a sleepy-looking skycap in a baggy black jacket pushes a cart full of suitcases. A 737 howls overhead and the months apart hit me like a heavy door. We’re both crying now. All the gates are down.

The things we don’t say outnumber the ones we do.

“Be safe.”

“Don’t worry.”

“Stay in touch.”

Don’t be sad.

Don’t get hurt.

Don’t meet someone else.

Don’t have second thoughts.

She presses a packet of red envelopes into my hand. “Open one a week.”

Then I’m lifting my bag and all I can see is a blur of blond hair in the car getting smaller and disappearing in the drizzle.

Mariel Kennison Robertson, Director of Content at Mazama Media

Mariel Kennison is a student at the University of Massachusetts and a travel intern with

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to Top
Skip to content