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Crossing the heart of Africa for love

By A. Pawlowski, CNN
Author Julian Smith, here in Rwanda, traveled across Africa for two months as a way to deal with his fears of marriage.
Author Julian Smith, here in Rwanda, traveled across Africa for two months as a way to deal with his fears of marriage.
  • Julian Smith wanted to retrace the route of the first person to trek across the length of Africa
  • Writer traveled to Africa to take "one last deep breath" before marriage
  • "Rwanda was a real surprise to me," Smith says, calling the country spectacularly gorgeous
  • Smith says journey reminded him of how lucky he is to have what he does

(CNN) -- A month before his wedding, Julian Smith sat exhausted in one of the most dangerous countries in the world, chasing a ghost and wondering what to do next.

He'd just spent weeks retracing the route of Ewart Grogan, a young British swashbuckler who became the first person to trek across the length of Africa -- from south to north -- in 1900.

It was both a mission impossible and a mission of love: Grogan was desperate to accomplish the feat to impress the family of the woman he wanted to marry.

More than a century later, marriage was also on Smith's mind, but not exactly in the same way.

He'd come to Africa to follow Grogan's trail for "one last deep breath" before exchanging vows with Laura, his fiancée.

With her blessing, Smith flew to South Africa and traveled north on creaky buses, sputtering motorcycles and crowded ferries, sorting out his feelings about making a lifelong commitment as his fiancée planned the ceremony in Portland, Oregon.

The goal? To immerse himself in the romance of Grogan's mission and prove his love to his bride in this unique way.

Grogan made it all the way to Cairo, Egypt, but Smith had to stop in Juba, Sudan -- unrest and floods in the region simply made it too dangerous to continue.

Smith, who is now a husband and father and chronicles his 2007 journey in his new book, "Crossing the Heart of Africa: An Odyssey of Love and Adventure," recently talked with about his quest. The following is an edited version of that interview:

CNN: You had been to Africa twice before this journey. What draws you there?

Bananas are for sale in Tanzania.
Bananas are for sale in Tanzania.

Julian Smith: It's just such a unique place. Obviously, it's hard to talk about the entire continent as a whole, but southern and East Africa, where I've been -- it's so different from what we have here. You really realize how much we take for granted. You realize how little so many people are getting by on and actually not doing too bad.

It's not necessarily the endless sob stories that you hear in the media. People are living on very little -- probably almost (incomprehensibly) little to most people in the U.S. -- but they're getting by, and they're relatively happy and they're friendly. In a lot of other places in the world, you just really don't see that; it's almost on a whole other level in Africa.

CNN: What was the most memorable part of your journey?

Smith: There's a lot of them, but I would say the overnight trip up Lake Tanganyika was really special on the ferry, the Liemba, which has an amazing history and having a cabin on that boat really helped. But just seeing what life is like on one of these kind of traveling villages, basically, that these ferries are.

Rwanda was a real surprise to me. I had never been there before, and you hear so many terrible things, but it was actually one of the most together, I'd say, countries on the whole trip. They've had a lot of development recently; their roads are good. The people -- you can still tell they're getting over a lot of trauma. (But) it's just a spectacularly gorgeous country.

CNN: When was the most you felt in danger?

Smith: I wouldn't say I ever actually felt in danger. I felt kind of on the edge of being in danger quite a few times. I had to make some tough decisions on the route, whether or not I was going to keep going.

I never actually felt that "right at this second something really bad might happen to me," aside from every time you climb onto a bus or ferry in a place like Africa you're kind of taking your life into your hands. But if you can get past that -- I would say it was almost disappointingly uneventful, from a writer's perspective.

CNN: Did you ever feel like this was crazy and ask yourself, "What am I doing?"

Supplies get loaded onto the Liemba on Lake Tanganyika.
Supplies get loaded onto the Liemba on Lake Tanganyika.

Smith: Oh, yeah. Absolutely, many times.

Not knowing where you're going to sleep from night to night really wears you down after a while, especially after spending all day on a bus.

Being stared at is very tiring, so I found a lot of times I wondered what am I doing exactly? Why did I leave my fiancée behind and travel halfway around the world to follow this crazy guy?

CNN: You remark on the kindness of strangers while traveling and note that admitting helplessness brings out the best in people on the road. How so?

Smith: When you're traveling, a lot of times people say you've got to act tough and act like you know what you're doing so people don't think they can take advantage of you or rob you, which is definitely true, I think, in big cities.

But I think a lot of times that can actually be counterproductive. When you just say, "I have no idea where I am or where I'm going," people are always happy to help because you're a guest in their country and they want you to have a good experience; they're just curious about you, too.

CNN: What kind of food did you eat on your trip?

Smith: I don't think there were many memorable meals. It was definitely not a gourmet experience. There was a lot of starch and fried things and pretty much chicken or meat and rice was the big dish, or occasionally fish. Maybe a really good cup of coffee or two when I actually found a place in a big city and could have a real cup of coffee for the first time in three weeks. That was definitely memorable.

(There was) a lot of -- I call it bus food -- where you're on a truck or a minibus and people crowd around selling you little buns or hard boiled eggs, bags of popcorn or something, so a lot of that through the window bus food was a staple, too.

I lost weight, let me put it that way.

CNN: What was it like to be a "gorilla tourist" in Rwanda?

A silverback mountain gorilla checks out visitors in Rwanda.
A silverback mountain gorilla checks out visitors in Rwanda.

Smith: That's an amazing, amazing experience. Definitely one of the top wildlife experiences I've had ever. It takes a little sweat and effort to do it, it's not for the unfit. You're hiking uphill through the jungle for an hour or two, but the scenery is just spectacular.

Then seeing these gorillas -- it's a thrill to see them in the zoo; you can imagine what it's like to see them in the wild. Basically, you're on their turf, and they're just sitting there, ignoring you, really, just kind of keeping an eye on you, making sure you're not a threat. But other than that, they're just going about their business, chomping trees and the babies are playing. It's amazing.

CNN: Was there ever an element of danger to that?

Smith: No, not really. You see them yawn every once in a while, and they have these horrendous teeth. You definitely realize they could do you a lot of damage if they wanted to, but it's not really their nature if you're not a threat to them.

CNN: Do you recommend an extreme trip for men or women who are hesitant about marriage, like you were?

Smith: Good question. Well, it worked for me (laughs).

Depending on your personality, yeah, I think it's good in a way to either get something out of your system or have an amazing experience that you can then come back and share with somebody, have a lot of stories to tell. And also, maybe it's just me but having the time and space just to think and absorb the idea, get used to the idea. That's just kind of how my brain works, and if that's how your brain works, too, definitely I would recommend it.

CNN: What did your wife think about the journey?

On the road in Uganda: Writer's travels remind him of his luck.
On the road in Uganda: Writer's travels remind him of his luck.

Smith: She wasn't thrilled obviously that I was taking two of the last three months before we got married, and I was just basically vanishing off the face of the Earth. But at the same time, I think she realized that it would do me good, and it would do both of us good in the long-term sense for our relationship.

CNN: What do you think this trip accomplished for you?

  • Africa
  • Travel and Tourism
  • Rwanda

Smith: It really reminded me of how lucky I am to have what I have, and maybe I had to leave it behind and go far away to realize that.

CNN: What do you notice about the U.S. when you come back from a trip like that?

Smith: Not to be too indelicate about it, but the people are really tall and really big here. Everything is really clean. One thing that's always for me an interesting shock is the lack of smells when you come home. When you go to other countries, there's always something burning or there's bus exhaust or new food that you smell you're not used to. When you come back, it's almost like a blank slate.