In 1898 the dashing British adventurer Ewart Grogan was head-over-heels in love—but he needed the approval of his beloved’s skeptical, aristocratic stepfather. To prove his worth, Grogan set out on an epic quest to become the first person to walk the length of Africa.
A little over a century later, American journalist Julian Smith also found himself madly in love with his girlfriend of seven years, yet terrified by the prospect of marriage. Inspired by Grogan’s story, he decided to face his fears of commitment by retracing the explorer’s amazing—and nearly forgotten—two-year, 4,500-mile journey for love and glory “from the Cape to Cairo.”
In his book Crossing the Heart of Africa (Harper Perennial), Smith interweaves his own contemporary journey with Grogan’s larger-than-life tale of charging elephants, cannibal attacks, deadly jungles, and romantic triumph. The book has won the American Society of Journalists and Authors 2011 Outstanding Book Award and was a 2011 Banff Book Competition Special Jury Mention.
In this special guest post for National Geographic News Watch, Julian Smith recounts his journey in a photo essay:
1. Ewart Grogan
In 1896, at age 22, Ewart Scott Grogan had already been kicked out of Cambridge for playing destructive pranks, elected the youngest member of the prestigious London-based Alpine Club, and served as a soldier in Rhodesia in southern Africa, where he had fallen so sick he had almost been buried alive.
2. Gertrude Watt
New Zealand beauty Gertrude Watt was the reason for Grogan’s trek. As a direct descendant of James Watt, the Scottish inventor of the steam engine, she was rich enough that her step-father viewed all suitors with a skeptic eye. To prove himself worthy of Gertrude’s affections—they were head-over-heels within weeks of meeting each other—Grogan proposed becoming the first person to travel the entire length of Africa, south to north—from “the Cape [of Good Hope] to Cairo.” The stepfather accepted the challenge, sure that Grogan was signing his own death warrant.
3. Map of Grogan’s Route
The official explanation for Grogan’s journey was to survey a potential route to link Britain’s African colonies by train and telegraph. It followed the western branch of the Great Rift Valley that curved through central Africa, a curving progression of great lakes, volcanoes and rivers. It would be the last great journey of the Golden Age of African Exploration.
4. Map of Author’s Route
I tried to follow Grogan’s route as closely as I could, but in 2007, when I went, a few of the places he went are still as dangerous as they were when he passed through–in particular, eastern Congo and southern Sudan. While planning my itinerary day to day, I had to make
some tough decisions about the risks I was willing to take.
5. Textiles for Sale in Beira, Mozambique
Since Grogan counted his time as a soldier in Rhodesia as the first part of his trek, I followed his lead, flying to Johannesburg and starting my real journey—like him—in the city of Beira, Mozambique, on the shore of the Indian Ocean. On his first visit, as a soldier, he had accidentally killed a man in self-defense in a bar fight and had to flee the city under cover of darkness. He had sworn he would never return to the “accursed sands” of “Satan’s summer palace,” but less than a year later, on February 28, 1989, he was back to begin his trek.
Grogan traveled by foot and boat, and had no time limit. My fiancée Laura insisted I come home at least a month before our wedding, which gave me two months, so I traveled by every form of public transportation available: trucks, boats, motorcycles, bicycles, but mostly buses like this.
7. MV Liemba Ferry, Lake Tanganyika
The oldest continually operating ferry in the world got her start as a German troop transport called the Graf von Götzen during WWI. She was scuttled, refloated, and turned into a passenger and cargo ferry that still plies Lake Tanganyika weekly. She also served as inspiration for the German ship in The African Queen. It was one of Grogan’s childhood
dreams to see Lake Tanganyika, the second-deepest and second-largest lake in the world.
8. Public boat loading area, Kigoma, Tanzania
The only way to reach Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania is by boat, including public ones like this. The tiny park, barely twice the size of the National Mall in Washington, was where primatologist Jane Goodall conducted her groundbreaking research on chimpanzee behavior in the 1960s. Grogan marched up this side of the lake in April 1899, 14 months into his trek, with a fever that hit 106.9° F at one point.
9. Beach at Ujiji, Tanzania
Once a hub for the East African slave trade, this village on Lake Tanganyika’s northeastern shore was made famous as the place where journalist Henry Morton Stanley found David Livingstone in October 1871. The famous Scottish missionary and explorer had been lost to the outside world for six years. By the way, there is no historic record that Stanley actually asked his famous question “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”
10. Hair salon, Kigoma, Tanzania
Today Grogan’s route offers a glimpse of everyday life in Africa far off the tourist track. Kigoma is one of the busiest ports on Lake Tanganyika, since it’s connected by train to Dar-es-Salaam on the Indian Ocean, Tanzania’s largest city.
11. Children, Mweya, Uganda
With very few exceptions, I found people were friendly the entire way, inviting me into their homes and asking about my life and family back home. Children especially loved mugging for the camera. One of the most common questions—“Where is your wife?”—meant I had to explain repeatedly the motives for my own journey, which only gradually became clear as I made it: to see how this cross-section of Africa had changed, or not, in the century since Grogan’s trek, but also to help come to terms with my own anxieties about making a lifetime commitment.
Unlike other European explorers, Grogan made it a policy never to take supplies by force from Africans, but instead to pay or trade for everything. As a result, the locals usually let his party pass through without conflict. In the Ruwenzori mountains, he marveled at the indigenous pygmies’ communication network, writing, “These people must
have a wonderful code of signs and signals, as, despite their isolated and nomadic existence, they always know exactly what is happening everywhere.”
12. Under attack (illustration from From the Cape to Cairo)
Despite Grogan’s best efforts, sometimes his small party had no option but to defend themselves with force. Warriors attacked them in Rwanda and southern Sudan, and during a detour into eastern Congo they had to flee for their lives for days from a party of cannibals who had already devastated local villages.
14. Silverback Mountain Gorilla, Sabinyo Volcano, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda
Grogan came across the skeleton of a mountain gorilla on his journey through the Ruwenzori mountains at the modern intersection of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He never spotted a live one, although the locals assured him they were “a great source of annoyance to the villages, being in the habit of carrying off stray women,” as he wrote later. Just three years later a German officer became the first European to see a mountain gorilla. He shot two.
Today, thanks to deforestation, hunting, poaching and war, there are only about 700 mountain gorillas left, making them one of the ten most endangered species on Earth. They don’t breed in captivity, and in the wild, females bear just one infant every four to eight years. Only half make it to their first birthday. Visitation is strictly controlled—and expensive—but it may be crucial to preserving the species.
16. Bus Station, Kampala, Uganda
The ubiquitous Toyota Hi-Ace is the backbone of public transportation in sub-Saharan Africa. Whatever they’re called—matatus in Uganda, chapas in Mozambique, daladalas (or just “hiaces”) in Tanzania—these minibuses are relatively inexpensive, easy to fix, rugged and reliable. Depending on how determined the driver is, one can hold up to two dozen people, plus luggage. The front passenger seat (and its all-important seat belt) is an honor usually reserved for pretty girls and the elderly.
17. Grogan later in life, Nairobi, Kenya
After his two-year trek, Grogan returned to London to marry Gertrude Watt, who had waited patiently despite her stepfather’s advice to forget him. He met Queen Victoria and became the youngest person to ever address the Royal Geographical Society. The newlyweds traveled to America, where Grogan met John D. Rockefeller, Woodrow Wilson, Mark Twain, and the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Alexander Graham Bell presided over Grogan’s address to the National Geographic Society, and National Geographic ran a brief mention of his trek “without comment” (i.e., take his claims at face value). Grogan and Gertrude later settled in the British colony of Kenya, raised a family and spent the rest of their lives together.
Julian Smith is an award-winning writer specializing in travel and science. His articles and photographs have appeared in Smithsonian, Wired, Outside, National Geographic Traveler, National Geographic Adventure, New Scientist, and the Washington Post. He is the author of travel guidebooks to El Salvador, Ecuador, Virginia and the Four Corners, and helped launch and edit Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, an international peer-reviewed scientific journal. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and daughter. (website: www.juliansmith.com)
David Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.
He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.
Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship.