In A Nutshell
In 1898, Ewart Grogan set out to make history. He would walk across the entire African continent, from Cape Town to Cairo. Only he wasn’t interested in setting records or becoming a Victorian-era celebrity. Instead, he was walking across Africa for love.
The Whole Bushel
Throughout history, guys have done some crazy things in the name of love. Eric Clapton wrote “Layla” to impress Pattie Boyd, King Edward VIII gave up the crown for his mistress, and Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal to honor his dead wife. But those stunts pale in comparison to Ewart Grogan’s epic trek across Africa.
The story begins in 1896 when Grogan was kicked out of Cambridge for sneaking a bunch of sheep into his professor’s bedroom. Once he was expelled, the 22-year-old Brit headed to Africa and served in the Second Matabele War, helping the British South Africa Company fight the Ndebele people in Rhodesia.
During the war, Grogan was reduced to eating vultures to survive, and once grew so ill he was mistaken for dead and nearly buried alive. Fortunately, Grogan made it through, only to end up killing a Portuguese soldier in self-defense . . . in Portuguese-controlled Mozambique. Fearing for his life, Grogan snuck out of town in the middle of the night, but he eventually returned to England after contracting a nasty fever.
And here’s where the love story starts. Hoping the sea air would help him recuperate, Grogan visited a friend in New Zealand where he fell in love with his buddy’s sister, a woman named Gertrude Watt. Gertrude was equally twitterpatted, but her protective stepfather didn’t approve. Sure, Grogan came from a good family—his godfather was the British prime minister—but he was kind of a scoundrel who hadn’t really achieved anything.
Plus, Gertrude was related to James Watt, the guy who invented the steam engine, so whoever slipped a ring on her finger was marrying into some pretty serious money. Her stepdad couldn’t let a gold digger make off with Gertrude’s inheritance, so he shot down Grogan’s proposal. But Ewart wasn’t interested in the money. He was head over heels for Gertrude, and that’s when he made a wild wager. He’d prove his love by walking from Cape Town to Cairo, from the tip of Africa to the top, and then he’d return to New Zealand for Gertrude’s hand.
Unsurprisingly, the stepdad thought Grogan was nuts. After all, no one had ever traversed the entire African continent before. But Ewart wasn’t backing down, and in 1898, the 24-year-old set out with a small party to walk across Africa. Of course, we should probably clarify two things. In addition to winning his ladylove, Grogan was also doing some surveying for British businessman Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes wanted to build a railway and telegraph system that spanned the continent and hired Grogan to check out a possible route. (Spoiler alert: They never built the railway or the telegraph line.)
Secondly, Grogan didn’t make the journey in one attempt. During his time in the military, he’d marched from South Africa to Mozambique, so he decided to start his quest where he’d left off. Of course, Grogan had legitimately made the hike, and he still had 6,500–8,000 kilometers (4,000–5,000 mi) ahead so we’ll cut him some slack.
Trekking through the Great Rift Valley, Grogan and his porters marched around giant lakes, maneuvered around volcanoes, and chopped their way through jungles. On a few occasions, they were forced to use canoes or steamships, but for the most part, the journey was on foot. Along the way, they ran into all sorts of wild creatures, from lions to crocodiles. They battled malaria and dysentery, and at one point, Grogan came down with a fever of 41.6 degrees Celsius (106.9° F).
Wanting to steer clear of any human danger, Grogan chose to pay people for supplies instead of just stealing them (which, unfortunately, plenty of other explorers had done). For the most part, his policy worked, and people were willing to let this crazy adventurer go his own way. However, while walking through Rwanda and southern Sudan, he fought off a few angry warriors, and during his hike through the Congo, he claimed to have narrowly escaped hungry cannibals.
Two years later, after running out of supplies and surviving on pelicans, Grogan made his way into Egypt where he stumbled into a startled medical officer named Captain Dunn. The Englishman, who was exploring the Nile, was shocked to see a fellow countryman so far from home. Upon spying Ewart, Dunn politely asked, “How do you do?” Grogan, starving and dirty, responded with, “Oh, very fit thanks; how are you?”
It was 1900, and Grogan had just become the first man to walk across Africa.
After sailing up the Nile, Grogan telegraphed Gertrude and asked if she was still interested in getting married. Soon, the two were hitched, and Ewart became an international celebrity. He published a book about his adventures, met Queen Victoria, and became the youngest person to address the Royal Geographical Society. After touring Great Britain, he visited America, where he gave a speech to the National Geographic Society and met the likes of John D. Rockefeller and Mark Twain.
When the excitement died down, the Grogans moved to Kenya where Ewart became a big-time mover and shaker. He built a port in Mombasa, a hotel in Nairobi, and the best children’s hospital in the whole country. He even served in World War I where he was promoted to lieutenant-colonel. The Grogans remained married until Gertrude passed away over 40 years later, and as for Ewart, he finally kicked the bucket in 1967, at the ripe old age of 92.
Now, in fairness, we should mention that Ewart Grogan also had a major dark side. In addition to cheating on his wife with two separate women, Grogan was a pretty horrible racist. He believed it was okay to seize land from native Africans and force them into servitude. After all, they were “fundamentally inferior in mental development and ethical possibilities . . . to the white man.” He even beat three rickshaw drivers for being “impudent” to his sister, a crime so vicious that he served a month in jail.
It seems Ewart Grogan was a racist and romantic, a hero to some and a villain to others. He was an incredibly complex person who achieved some awesome feats and committed some unforgivable crimes. But still, you’ve got to admit, walking across the second-biggest continent is pretty darn impressive.
Show Me The Proof
Futility Closet: Crossing Africa for Love
The Telegraph: A man who did derring-do
National Geographic: For Love and Glory, Crossing the Heart of Africa
The Second British Empire: In the Crucible of the Twentieth Century, by Timothy H. Parsons