Travel literature is increasingly looking at the past for inspiration. Both Walking the Woods and the Water and The Footloose American come to mind as recent books published with a young male author seeking to follow in the footsteps of a legend. The former focuses on the great travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor’s journey on foot through Europe while the latter traces Hunter S. Thompson’s path around South America as a reporter. Both books are engrossing reads and I was happy to find a similar book in Crossing the Heart of Africa: An Odyssey of Love and Adventure—written by another young author named Julian Smith and equally inspired by a past adventurer.
The book is equal parts love story and travel narrative. Smith follows the trail of nineteenth-century Victorian explorer Ewart Grogan from Cape Town to Cairo—a trip spanning over 4,000 miles—and deftly switches back and forth between a detailed account of journeys past and present. What makes Crossing the Heart of Africa different from many others in its sub-genre, however, is the element of a third storyline; Smith is set to be married a month after returning from the trip and traces his relationship in an attempt to peel back the layers of commitment issues and the struggle of balancing a desire for freedom with the idea of marriage.
The third storyline technically makes sense within the context of the bigger story because Grogan set out on his own journey over 100 years earlier to win the hand of his own love. Without money and the prospects of marrying into a richer family seemingly grim, Grogan—defying all odds—became the first man to literally cross the heart of Africa in a successful attempt to win the approval of his future wife’s father. While the author doesn’t need to win approval, he still feels compelled to complete the journey as one final act of being a bachelor with Grogan’s path serving as guidance and inspiration.
Smith’s writing is sharp and tinged with humor in dealing with many of the trials and tribulations accompanying most trips through under-developed countries. His research and information on Grogan’s journey is also fascinating and makes the book a worthy read even for those willing to speed past Smith’s own journey. It’s easy to see many of the parallels and also the differences a century makes in terms of conveniences like transportation. Small quirks and cannibals aside, the overarching idea behind both stories is a continent full of contrasts and I personally loved both storylines.
Like many other reviewers, however, I felt the inclusion of Smith’s own love story to be overly emphasized and a bit dull. The amount of time devoted to tracing his own relationship went beyond simply giving readers an avenue to connect to the author and became a diary of sorts that hindered the progress of the real story. I found myself wanting to hear more about Grogan and Smith’s own adventures. Many readers and people in general will relate to his commitment issues and relationship history, yet providing the information as context and spending close to a third of the book on the topic are two different approaches—one in which the author chose the latter.
A travel writer is certainly allowed to write about any topic and love did serve as the driving factor in Grogan’s original journey. Smith’s writing about his own relationship was deeply personal at times; the choice just made for a slightly less compelling travel narrative and keeps the book below my all-time favorites in the genre.