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.”
“Bay-bee Jesus, Bay-bee Jesus, I love you. I love you. Yoo-hoo are my savior, yoo-hoo are my savior, every day, every day.”
Clumps of vegetation the size of refrigerators drift downstream toward Cairo, 1,700 miles north. The air is like a wet wool blanket. My focus blurs, and I envision a boat that floated past this same spot, 108 years ago. At the helm is a twenty-five-year-old Cambridge University dropout named Ewart Grogan, a man whose story has taken over my life.
In the past two months, I have followed Grogan’s trail over four thousand miles through eight countries in Africa. My fixation has led me here, the city of Juba in the pseudo-state of Southern Sudan, one of the most desolate and impoverished places on the planet.
I had no idea this would happen when I first heard about him. It was an amazing story, for sure: after almost two years of unimaginable hardship, Grogan was close to becoming the first person to travel the length of Africa, south to north. Even more astonishing was that he had been virtually forgotten.
What really grabbed me, though, was that his true goal was even loftier. The five-thousand-mile trek was merely the means to an end. Grogan was in love. Her name was Gertrude, and she was waiting for him in London. She had long dark hair, a radiant smile, and a suspicious stepfather who wouldn’t let her marry until her beloved had proved himself worthy.
Like Grogan, I’m here because of a woman. Her name is Laura; she’s my fiancé and the love of my life. She’s also waiting for me on the other side of the world: Portland, Oregon, to be exact.
I am retracing Grogan’s journey to see how much this cross section of Africa has changed—and how little—in the past century. I’m also doing it because Laura and I are planning to marry less than a month after I get home, and as much as I’m thrilled at the thought, it also scares the hell out of me. Her father has no problem with it; any hurdles are purely my own. I left home hoping to find some answers in Grogan’s footsteps, some kind of equanimity in the tangle of self-doubt and hesitation I’ve woven in my head.
But I’ve never felt this far away from home, or from Laura. And I don’t know how much farther it makes sense to go.
Two hours in Juba and already it’s starting to look like the end of the line. To the north, native groups are fighting with machine guns left over from the country’s fifty-year civil war, and heavy flooding has closed the roads. Too dangerous, not enough time. It kills me to think of turning back so close to the finish.
Grogan kept going north, through trials that made his struggles up to this point—charging elephants, hungry cannibals—seem like parlor games.
Should I? How far is it worth it to push?
The sun sags toward the forest on the far side of the river. Frogs start to chirp among the plastic bottles on the riverbank as the light turns amber.
Coarse electric melodies split the silence. The woman is holding a cell phone to her baby’s ear, pressing buttons to cycle through the different rings. The child’s eyes are open wide.
When Ewart Grogan pushed off into the White Nile five days before Christmas, 1899, the sun over southern Sudan fell on his back like a hot sheet of metal, and his diseased liver hurt so badly he couldn’t stand up straight.
His open boat groaned with supplies and sweating bodies: a dozen native soldiers, a small boy, a tall man from the Dinka tribe, an elderly Egyptian prisoner with a broken leg, and a mad criminal in chains.
At full height, Grogan was six feet tall and strikingly handsome. He had a strong jaw, a narrow nose, and startling yellow-green eyes, which seemed to spark with intelligence and humor. It was because of that piercing gaze, and his almost superhuman determination and endurance, that Africans had nicknamed him Bwana Chui: the Leopard.
On that day, however, he was nearly unrecognizable: haggard, hunched, half starved, and baked brown by the sun. He had been traveling through Africa for almost two years. His route wound from the salty breezes of the Indian Ocean to the indigo lakes and smoking volcanoes of the Great Rift Valley, where the steep jungles teemed with pygmies and gigantic apes.
Naked cannibals had pursued him for days near the lava beds of Mushari, and just a few weeks ago he had celebrated his twenty-fifth birthday by fleeing a bull hippo for half a mile. Abscesses on his liver burst in blooms of agony and a recurring malarial fever threatened to bake his brain.
His only European companion had left for home nine months earlier. For most of the journey his only company had been a handful of African soldiers and porters who tended to desert at every opportunity, when they weren’t busy plotting mutiny.
And the worst was still ahead. Between him and his goal, a remote British outpost hundreds of miles downstream to the north, lay the most godforsaken swamp on earth. The Sudd was tens of thousands of square miles of clotted vegetation and miasmatic air, home to the fierce giants of the Dinka tribe and cloud banks of insatiable mosquitoes. Hippos lurked in the black water, ready to snap canoes in half, and six-foot Marabou storks stalked across floating islands of green like reanimated corpses.
If he made it to the outpost, and then descended the Nile to Cairo, Grogan would join the ranks of legendary explorers like Sir Richard Burton, David Livingstone, and Henry Stanley. If he didn’t, well, no one would ever know what happened. The swamp would swallow him without a trace.
As the prow sliced the blood-warm water and high grasses hissed against the sides, Grogan was filled with uncertainty.
He had no idea how far he still had to go, or whether Dinka warriors would ignore his tiny party or slaughter them. He didn’t know if his band of reluctant volunteers would remain by his side, shoot him in the back, or abandon him to shrivel and starve in the sun.
He was sure of one thing, though. He had to make it. Because Gertrude was waiting.
At age twenty-two, three years before he pushed off into the Nile, Ewart Grogan was already a war veteran and world traveler who thought he knew his way around women. He knew the barmaids of Melbourne were the most beautiful in the world. He’d seen how difficult it was to tell the men from the women in Sri Lanka, and he had once killed a man barehanded in a bar fight over a Portuguese beauty.
Grogan had just returned to England after serving as a soldier in Rhodesia, where he had fought in a bloody native uprising and fallen so sick he had almost been buried alive. His doctors advised a long rest to convalesce—an extended sea voyage would be perfect—so when his friend Eddie Watt from Cambridge invited him to stay with his family in Napier on New Zealand’s North Island, Grogan accepted.
There, on the Watt family estate, Grogan met Gertrude, the oldest of Eddie’s three sisters. A year younger than Grogan, she was almost as tall as he was, with luminous skin and kind blue eyes. She was shy, but her calm elegance erupted frequently into a booming, infectious laugh. More than anything it was her laugh, and Gertrude’s tender heart, that made her irresistible to Grogan. He was instantly infatuated.
Gertrude saw how people were drawn to the eloquent Englishman’s overflowing confidence and wit. He could talk for hours on just about any subject, with a well of jokes and stories that never ran dry. Grogan had it all, or so it seemed—looks, brains, ambition, passion—and she found herself falling for him as well.
Within days of their meeting, Grogan brought up the idea of marriage, and Gertrude agreed. But there was a problem: she was rich and he was not.
In the late nineteenth century, the concept of marriage was shifting from purely practical to one that was more romantic. But among the upper classes of Victorian England (and her colonies, such as New Zealand), marriage was still more akin to a business merger than a starry-eyed union of hearts.
Gertrude was a direct descendant of James Watt, the Scottish inventor of the steam engine. She lived in a forty-room Mediterranean-style villa overlooking the Pacific Ocean, with double tennis courts and a retinue of servants.
Grogan came from a respectable family, but after being kicked out of Cambridge and serving in the army, he was painfully aware of how little he had to offer a wife except “a skinful of amoeba, malaria germs and similar parasitic mementoes”…[and]…“a head full of vagrant ideas.” He couldn’t offer Gertrude a fraction of what she already possessed.
It didn’t matter to her, but it did to her stepfather, James Coleman, a stern, arrogant man with a thick waist and a white walrus mustache. At the death of her father, Gertrude and her fat inheritance had become his responsibility. When he looked at Grogan, Coleman saw not a charming suitor, but a cocksure young man with questionable prospects, one more overconfident cad after Gertrude’s fortune.
One afternoon the two men were alone in one of the estate’s many drawing rooms. A squall spit across the ocean and the popping fireplace made the room stuffy and close. Grogan took a deep breath and told Coleman he was in love with his stepdaughter and wanted to make her his wife—with his blessing, of course.
“My dear sir, do you consider yourself in a position to marry?” Coleman said. “Sent down from Cambridge! No job! Forgive me, sir, if I say that I do not consider you worthy of my stepdaughter. You appear to be drifting down the river of life without a rudder. A girl in the position of my ward can expect to marry an outstanding man.” He huffed and stood up, ready to stride from the room.
Grogan swallowed and asked him to wait. His guts were churning but his voice was steady.
“You say I am unworthy?” he said. “Very well. Now suppose I were to make the first crossing of Africa from south to north, from the Cape [of Good Hope) to Cairo. Would you consider that worthwhile?”
Only a madman would consider such a thing. “The Dark Continent,” as it was known in the popular press, defeated the toughest and smartest men in the world, chewed them up and spit them out, broken for life, or else swallowed them forever.
Vicious animals, biblical weather, ferocious native tribes, incurable diseases unknown to science. There were more ways to die in Africa than there were crocodiles in her rivers or lions on her savannas. Grogan might as well have proposed something as impossible as climbing Mount Everest or trekking to the North Pole.
“I can only presume that you are trying to be funny,” Coleman replied. “If so, I do not appreciate it.”
“I am quite serious,” Grogan said. “Never more so.”
“You mean to say that you really contemplate crossing the entire continent? My good man, do you realize what that would mean?”
During his army career, Grogan had served under the legendary British imperialist Cecil Rhodes, founder of Rhodesia and the De Beers diamond mining company. As Coleman listened in disbelief, he explained the man’s grand plan to link British colonies from one end of the continent to the other by train and telegraph. One potential route followed the western branch of , the Great Rift Valley, which curved through central Africa in a progression of great lakes and volcanoes.
Grogan would survey the route, and in the process would become the first person in history to transect the continent from end to end.
He’d survived Africa before, he said. (Barely, he didn’t say.) In fact, as far as he was concerned, he had already done the first leg of the trip, from the Cape to the coast of Portuguese East Africa, while he was a soldier.
Coleman asked how he would cross the impenetrable jungles of central Africa, the ones that Henry Stanley had needed a small army to bludgeon through during his descent of the Congo River two decades ago.
Grogan said he would travel light and fast, with a minimum of native soldiers and porters. A large expedition would only attract attention. He could sense Coleman’s scorn and disbelief. But arguing logistics was a good sign.
“Anyhow, I mean to try.” Grogan’s confidence was back. “After all, if I fail, nothing is lost. On the other hand, if I succeed— well, I shall hope to have proved worthy of your stepdaughter.”
Coleman was a successful entrepreneur himself, having made his own fortune in sheep and cattle ranching. He could respect a bold plan. Perhaps he saw a bit of his younger self in the ambitious young man. Maybe, in his own pompous way, he could even appreciate the romance of the gesture.
Regardless, Grogan probably wouldn’t even make it back alive. Coleman accepted the challenge.
Later Gertrude found Grogan, still trembling with adrenaline. She looked confused.
“What’s this about crossing Africa?”
He explained his plan and the agreement with Coleman. The thought of Grogan alone in Africa terrified her, to say nothing of how long it would keep them apart. But she knew that only a feat like this could convince her stepfather to give his blessing.
And even though she had only known Grogan a matter of weeks, she knew it was something he had to do — for her, for them, for himself. She assured him there would be no other suitors before he came back.
Inevitably Grogan had to return home. When he and Gertrude said goodbye, he said, “I won’t hold you to your promise, of course. And I give my word you won’t hear from me until I’m successful. I’ll send you a cable as soon as I reach Cairo. Then, if you are still able to return my love, I shall make you my wife.”
“You will succeed,” Gertrude said softly. “I know you will. And I will wait for you, no matter how long.”
“Damn, I’m going to miss you. I know everything’s going to be fine, but I’m going to miss you so much.”
Laura’s slim frame trembles as she speaks into my shoulder. The fine mist of a gray Pacific Northwest dawn hides the sun. The drop-off lane at the Portland airport smells like car exhaust and wet asphalt.
I wasn’t expecting this. She’d been so cool on the drive to the airport. I was quiet, still groggy from late-night packing and anxiety dreams of disasters in strange places. “Dancing with Myself” came on the radio. I turned it off — too prophetic.
I looked at her perfect profile in the driver’s seat. What was going on in there? I always found Laura’s rare silences unsettling, but this was unusual.
Here she was, sending her fiancé off on a solo journey through places that were more catastrophes than countries: Burundi, the Congo, Sudan. I’m leaving her in a city we just moved to, where she knows nobody, to follow an obsession that has peaked at the least convenient moment possible. Less than a month after I return—if everything goes according to plan; if I’m not stricken with a strange disease, or crumpled in a bus accident or plane crash; if nothing changes between us while I’m gone—we’re getting married.
This will be the longest time we’ve spent apart since we became a couple seven years ago.
So where are the emotional fireworks? For weeks I’ve been a knot of nervous energy, trying to plan and pack for thousands of miles of public transportation through backcountry Africa: ancient buses, decrepit minivans, homemade bicycles, and boats dating to World War I.
Laura kept her composure all the way to the airport. But that’s her way: happy face forward, smile through the sadness.
In our time together we have already survived two cross-country moves, a simultaneous leap into full-time freelancing, reappearing exes, and one dead pet. We know each other’s stories, answer each other’s cell phones, finish each other’s sentences. I love her like no one else I’ve ever met, and I know I’d have to be a drooling idiot to let her get away.
I don’t plan to. But the thought of making an eternal commitment is terrifying. As an introverted only child, independence is a pillar of my identity. No matter how compatible Laura and I are—and we are, incredibly—every argument we have leaves behind tiny splinters of uncertainty. Sometimes we seem too alike to ever exist peacefully, both of us too headstrong, too self-reliant.
And of course, I’m a guy. The concept of being married appeals, but the reality keeps me up at night. I’ve always found ways to justify my hesitations. Am I ready to consign myself to one person, completely, forever? Do I even deserve Laura?
The months before the wedding seemed like a window inching closed. I could see the domino line of Major Life Changes start to tumble: house, kids, PTA, retirement. It was clear that something drastic still needed to happen before I could make this lifetime promise with all my heart. I needed inspiration. I needed a kick in the ass.
One day 1 was reading a book about the evolution of language. In among the graphs of primate mating success versus testicle diameter and descriptions of how far males will go to impress females, I read this:
The young Captain Ewart Grogan walked the 4,500-mile length of Africa from the Cape of Good Hope to Cairo in 1899 to gain the hand of the woman he loved. Her family had dismissed him as a ne’er-do-well who would be unable to keep their daughter in the manner to which they thought she should be accustomed. Grogan banked on the fame (if not the fortune) that a dramatic adventure would bring him to persuade them to reconsider.
That was it: Three sentences, nothing more. But I had to know more. I tracked down the few biographies of Grogan and his firsthand account of the journey, From the Cape to Cairo. The more I read, the more the adventure and romance of his story captivated me.
The proud tradition of men doing crazy things for love goes back at least to the Trojan War, triggered when Paris eloped with Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world (and someone else’s wife). A seventeenth-century Mughal emperor built the Taj Mahal as a memorial to his favorite wife, who had died in childbirth. In 1936, King Edward VIII did the unthinkable and gave up the British throne to marry an American divorcee.
Grogan’s story was just as astonishing, but nobody seemed to have heard of him. I became convinced I could sense a lesson in there: some insight into the wisdom, courage, and conviction it took to go to such extremes just to be with someone else, to make a life-changing leap and follow through to the end, no matter what.
Even though our personalities, our lives, and times were vastly different, Grogan and I were really after the same thing: lifelong happiness with an incredible woman. There was the challenge and, yes, the buzz of danger; he certainly felt that, too. One final taste of true autonomy. But in the end it was about love.
No one had ever retraced his route. Perhaps crossing Africa like him would help me find peace with this radical new direction my life was about to take. Maybe some of Grogan’s mojo would rub off on me.
I ordered every book and article about him I could find. I plotted his route in guidebooks and maps, tracked down and cold-called his living descendants around the world. The wedding countdown kept clicking: six months, five. If I didn’t go now, I never would.
I was flabbergasted when Laura gave her blessing. She was a gut-level decision maker, with instincts that had yet to steer her wrong. She was also the last person to want to tie her partner down against his will. If this is what it took for me to settle down, she said, hell, she’d buy my plane ticket and drive me to the airport.
Now her eyes are inches from mine, swimming above a wrinkled grin. A hazel ring surrounds each pupil like a reef around a tropical island. She runs her hand across my newly shaved scalp. “You look like someone else,” she said.
Behind us a sleepy-looking skycap in a baggy black jacket pushes a cart full of suitcases. A 737 howls overhead and the months apart hit me like a heavy door. We’re both crying now. All the gates are down.
The things we don’t say outnumber the ones we do.
“Stay in touch.”
Don’t be sad.
Don’t get hurt.
Don’t meet someone else.
Don’t have second thoughts.
She presses a packet of red envelopes into my hand. “Open one a week.”
Then I’m lifting my bag and all I can see is a blur of blond hair in the car getting smaller and disappearing in the drizzle.