“Oh yes, we have Ciprofloxacin,” says the woman behind the drugstore counter. “You have typhoid?”
“Not yet. There’s always hope.”
I’m a little cranky after a bone-cracking day in the back seat of a bus crossing southern Tanzania, followed by 11 hours shuffling between bed and toilet in my hotel room. Catching typhoid fever would be just perfect. It’s 200 miles from the northern end of Lake Malawi to the southern end of Lake Tanganyika. But when you’re lonely, sick, and behind schedule—not to mention taking public transportation—it feels more like 2,000.
Of course, it could be worse. The British explorer Ewart Grogan, whose trail I’m following from South Africa to Sudan, took a month to march from lake to lake in 1899, averaging less than seven miles a day.
He and his party of 150 African porters endured Biblical monsoon downpours, struggling to light fires at night and sleeping in sodden blankets. The local tribe, the Awemba, were fond of mutilation. People everywhere were missing lips, ears, hands, sometimes all of the above. Men were castrated and women had their breasts cut off for little or no reason.
Grogan heard of one practice in which a mask attached to a large antelope horn would be placed over a victim’s head and his throat would be cut with a blunt knife.“The blood spurting forth into the horn rang a bell,” he wrote, “a performance that gave general satisfaction, with, I suppose, one exception.”
By the end, his recurring fever was so bad he had to be carried in a hammock slung on a pole, eking out “a precarious existence on Worcester sauce and limes” in between bouts of delirium.
I’m retracing his journey because of why he did it: to win the hand of the woman he loved. His beloved, New Zealand beauty Gertrude Watt, had a suspicious stepfather who thought Grogan was just another cad after her fat inheritance. She was a direct descendant of James Watt, the engineer who gave us the steam engine, the Industrial Revolution, and the word we use to measure light bulbs. By becoming the first person to talk the length of Africa, Grogan hoped to prove himself worthy of marriage. It worked—he survived, barely, and they lived happily ever after.
The story grabbed my attention because I’m getting married this fall, and even though I love my beautiful, very patient fiancée to death, the idea of making a lifetime commitment still scares the piss out of me. I’m hoping some of Grogan’s mojo will rub off on me.
Reading his story usually helps put my own experiences into perspective. Sometimes it doesn’t, though, like when I’m playing vertical crack-the-whip in a stifling metal box, trying to keep my forehead from smacking the ceiling every time we hit a pothole. The ominous gurgle that bloomed in my intestines yesterday erupted into an all-out China Syndrome last night, and my dreams flickered with dark colors and scenes of strange violence.
I down the pills and catch the next bus to Kasonga, where Grogan first set eyes on Lake Tanganyika, one of his childhood goals. That’s where I should catch the next overnight ferry up the longest lake in Africa. I haven’t been able to confirm the schedule, or whether it’s even running. As far as I can tell, it leaves Kasonga heading north every other Sunday.
If I miss it, my only other option is another 500 unimaginable miles on a bus to Burundi, the next country north, which I don’t have time for anyway.
The bus seems to stop every few minutes all afternoon and into the night. Fires smolder in fields of stubble along the road. Two hours after sunset, we halt for the hundredth time and a little boy and a woman stand up behind me to get off. He stumbles over the luggage and limbs that clog the aisle, reaches my seat and turns and dumps something warm and wet in my lap.
I glimpse a horrified look and two small hands full of vomit before his mother yanks him off the bus and into the darkness. Then I’m standing in the glare of headlights, wiping chunks of a child’s lunch off my pants.
We hit Kasonga, where the only guesthouse in town is attached to a liquor store, where a raucous group crowds around a TV blasting screams and evil laughter.
The owner shows me the shower—a bucket—and the toilet, a shit-smeared hole in the floor. The filthy white walls of my room end raggedly two feet below the roof like they’ve been gnawed by a huge rodent. There are bars on the window, and on the inside of one green shutter someone has scrawled, “Please use condoms correctly.”
The next day I’m walking along the lake shore when I find a group of boat builders working on a beach. One ropy, shirtless man is painting a hull in vivid orange and blue. I can’t resist sneaking a picture when no one’s looking.
I forgot my camera’s shutter sounds like a shotgun being cocked, and is almost as loud. He stalks over and starts yelling at me. He seems particularly pissed I caught him without a shirt, probably because he thinks it makes him look poor. Playing dumb is futile, as is showing him the photo.
Any sympathy I have evaporates after the first few minutes of tirade. When he makes the universal give-me-money sign, rubbing thumbs and fingertips, I know it’s time to leave.
Behind me I can hear the men laughing and whistling. Come back mzungu [East African slang for “white boy”] We were just yanking your chain! Maybe I could go back and laugh things off, but I just don’t have it in me.
Kasanga slowly comes alive at dusk. Radios start to play and children dart under palm trees as the air cools. Two Germans arrive at the guesthouse and I ask them if they know when the ferry arrives.
“It is here, at the dock,” one says. “They are about to leave. You should be on board already.” Shit, shit, shit.
Stars are the only light as I sprint for the dock—across a bridge, through a plowed field, stumbling over invisible stones and furrows. At the dock I see spotlights on concrete, pyramids of crates, and a ship that looks straight out of Heart of Darkness. It’s the ferry. Maybe my luck is turning.
I vault on board, panting and drenched with sweat. The air horn sounds a long blast as the ship pulls away from the dock and starts picking up speed.
Heading south. —Julian Smith
Julian Smith’s Crossing the Heart of Africa will be published by Harper Perennial on December 7, 2010. For excerpts, reviews, photos, maps and more, visit his website, www.juliansmith.com.