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Book Review: Crossing The Heart Of Africa By Julian Smith

Book Review: Crossing the Heart of Africa by Julian Smith

I contacted Julian Smith and asked if there was any way I could get hold of Crossing the Heart of Africa: An Odyssey of Love and Adventure before it was released. Indeed I could and did 24 hours later.

Crossing the Heart of Africa weaves the true story of 19th century explorer Ewart Grogan with Julian’s own journey following Grogan’s footsteps. Grogan’s two year adventure from Cape Town to Cairo in 1898-99 was done for love and the right to win the hand of Gertrude, a woman from an upper class family. To prove his mettle to Gertrude’s stepfather and receive his blessing to marry her, Grogan proposed to cross the length of Africa on foot to earn the title of first person ever to cross the African continent. Grogan succeeds despite recurring malaria attacks, close calls with wild animals, cannibal attacks, desertion of porters and low stocks of food. And in the end, just like in a fairy tale, he marries his true love. They are together until she dies in 1943.

"Crossing the Heart of Africa by Julian Smith"

Crossing the Heart of Africa by Julian Smith

Enter Julian, the author, 35 years old and just months away from tying the knot with his longtime girlfriend. His considerable angst at getting married is ” one reason Grogan’s story hooked me so deeply. When it comes to love, Grogan’s decisiveness intrigued me and spooked me – and I have to admit made me a little jealous. ” (Grogan knew Gertrude for mere months before heading off to Africa; Julian had been in a relationship for 6 years.)

So off Julian goes with the blessing of his fiancee on an unforgettable ride in Grogan’s footsteps through beautiful but undeveloped parts of Africa. His journey takes him on bus rides so bumpy that he plays “vertical crack-the-whip“; he rides bicycles, motorcycles and takes overnight ferries. He “marinates in stress”. Nothing is easy. And I would concur. Africa is beguiling but difficult. Julian poses the following questions. “Can it be that hard to grade a road every so often, even out there? Is there some specific reason the music is always blaring to distortion? How can anybody stand it?” You can relate if you’ve been to a developing country.

I can connect to Julian on many levels, partly because I’ve been to Africa four times now, through many of the countries he traversed. When he says “Peace of mind is proportional to giving up control; things happen when they happen or don’t often for no discernible reason” I understand. Africa time. It takes getting used to.

I love the way Julian throws in plenty of facts to keep the reading interesting.

Here are some of the winners.

  • Lake Malawi has more species of fish than any other lake in the world estimated at 1000 or more. It’s famous for cichlids, perchlike fish that can fetch $150 each in the aquarium markets.
  • Puff adders are the most dangerous snakes on the continent and they still cause more deaths than all other snakes in Africa, put together.
  • Pythons like to be scratched like a cat.
  • The Dinka strategy to keep the insects away – smearing themselves with a mix of ash and cow’s urine and burning cow dung inside their huts at night.
  • Gorilla tourism is Rwanda’s third-largest source of revenue after tea and coffee.

And I agree with Julian about the following statements:

  • But being out of touch, feeling remote and at least somewhat cut off will always be an essential part of what it means to travel.
  • It’s amazing how admitting your own helplessness and ignorance can bring out the best in people.
  • I miss the clean, cool efficient world I left behind, the one that eventually bores me to tears after too long.

The 320 page book, with a middle section filled with photographs, gets better with every chapter. But there are times I just want Julian to get over the whole notion of eternal commitment as terrifying. I’m with his then fiance, Laura – enough already. Let’s just move forward.

Although the ‘follow the route of a famous explorer’ theme may be popular now – it doesn’t take away from how difficult the journey can be. So my hat goes off to Julian for baring his soul, his angst, his dreams. It’s a whole lot more than what most of us would feel comfortable sharing. He’s brought Grogan’s amazing life to light again. At he’s provided valuable insights into life in present day Africa and just how difficult the journey of love can be.

Thank you Julian for the book. I thoroughly enjoyed the read.

Leigh McAdam


Leigh McAdam is a Calgary based writer, author, photographer and social media enthusiast with over 57,000 followers. Her blog: HikeBikeTravel is frequently cited as one of the top travel and outdoor adventure blogs in Canada.

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta

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