Book Review: “Crossing the Heart of Africa” by Julian Smith

categories: africa travel


“The Nile slides thick and silent beyond a grid of barbed wire. I slump in a plastic chair that’s soft from the heat and watch a cloud of tiny silver fish leap from the water with a hiss like rain. In the next chair, a young Sudanese woman holds a baby in her lap. She croons to it to the tune of Frere Jacques.”

The descriptions in Crossing the Heart of Africa: An Odyssey of Love and Adventure are saturated in rich details that will have you hooked from the very first paragraph. If you have never traveled within Africa, Julian Smith will take you on a vicarious journey, deep into the raw continent. You will feel as if you are personally clinging onto the back of a rickety bicycle in rural Malawi or like you are actually hauling yourself up a steep hill with a jungle vine in Uganda.

You often hear the phrase, “don’t judge a book by its cover”. In this case-DO judge the book by its cover. It’s crisp, clean and a crouching leopard will look you in the eye, with a gaze that is both mysterious and intriguing. The Cape Town to Cairo journey is mapped out in the black background, and the title design fits perfectly into the unique shape of the African continent. The detail and creativity in the book’s cover represent an emulation of what is inside the book itself.

In the book, there are a number of story lines happening at once; each of them relating to the other. The pauses between story lines become a welcomed change of pace and allow you to keep a sharp focus, without becoming tired of one subject.

I enjoyed the way that the storyline hopped from one setting to another, although I have to admit that it had me somewhat confused at times. It took me a few sentences to realize which story was currently being told, in the beginning of a new section. Were we on Grogan’s quest in Tanzania, or at Julian and Laura’s home in Santa Fe? Once I figured it out, I happily continued reading along.

“Traveling can be the ultimate alone time, which is probably why I ended up doing it for a living. Away from home and surrounded by strangers, you can be anyone or no one, anonymous or camouflaged.”

Smith would always surprise me with many thoughtful and intriguing statements. If you have spent any time traveling, you will often find yourself setting the book on your lap and wandering off into the corners of your mind. Smith really gives you a lot to think about, and keeps his quips with the theme of travel.

Contrast would always arise between the different story lines, shedding light on the time setting and posing old against new. Simple references, such as a telegraph versus a cell phone, allow you to put yourself in that time period.

Another great aspect of the book, is that it featured a small section of black and white photographs in the middle of the pages. It certainly won’t be hard to imagine all of the scenes on your own, given his wonderful descriptions, but it is nice to have a little visual reference. To top it off-you get to have a look at an adorable baby gorilla!

Crossing the Heart of Africa is a great read on an even better subject. Julian Smith does a wonderful job in telling not only his life changing journey, but the heroic tale of Ewart Grogan and his legendary trek across the African continent. You will not be displeased if you get the chance to read this exhilarating novel, and you might even learn a thing or two about travel and Africa while you do it.

“To travel originally meant to “suffer”. A thousand years ago, life was dangerous, but leaving home was worse. The word itself comes from the Old French travailler, meaning to toil, as in travail. It’s rooted in the Latin tripalium, a torture device made of three poles tied together, to which victims would be attached and lit on fire.”

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Chris Christensen

by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast. He has been a travel creator since 2005 and has won awards including being named the "Best Independent Travel Journalist" by Travel+Leisure Magazine.

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