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THE RECUMBENT VOYAGER

by Winnie Chrzanowski

The Cruelest Journey: Six Hundred Miles to Timbuktu By Kira Salak National Geographic Society, 230 pages ISBN 0-7922-7457-1 $26.00

“In the beginning, my journeys feel . . . ludicrous . . . insane. This one is no exception. The idea is to paddle nearly 600 miles on the Niger River in a kayak, alone, from the Malian town of Old Segou to Timbuktu.” So begins Kira Salak’s physical and literary journey to Timbuktu along the Niger, a river more than 2,600 miles from beginning to end. She describes the Niger as “a kind of faith” because it twists and turns its way “through one of the hottest, most desolate regions of the world . . . surging through the sun baked lands, giving people . . . crops and livestock and fish . . . It humbles all who see it.”

Salak was inspired by the travels of the 18th-century Scottish explorer, Mungo Park, who is credited as being the first Westerner to discover the Niger River. Park’s account of his expedition, Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa, published in 1799 was her constant companion on the trip. Park’s account served as her travel guide and helped her learn how to relate to the various tribal people she met along the way. In many ways, says Salak, little had changed in the 200 years separating their travels.

A lone white woman (tubab) paddling a red inflatable kayak (an Innova Helios 380EX 12.5’ boat) down the

Niger all the way to Timbuktu is an awesome sight.

“At each village . . . people greet me with waves

and exclamations . . . “ The women cheer women). Village children stroke the kayak

her and

on, yelling out accolades for stare. Although several men

“les femmes fortes” (strong are hostile to her, most are

helpful and carry her kayak into the villages for her. who is expected to dole out gifts of money along the

Nevertheless, she is a curiosity on the river, a tubab way, and one who can’t accustom herself to the long

streams of onlookers she accumulates each time she enters a village.

She’s doing this trip under the sponsorship of National Geographic Adventure

.

She’s accompanied by a

photographer who rents a motor-driven river barge and meets up with her every few days to take photos of her as she paddles the Niger. Salak does not rely on him for provisions or transport and lives off what she can pack in her kayak and on the kindness of strangers. Generous gifts (thanks to National Geographic expense money) to the various villages’ grand bubus (chiefs) help to assure their kindness and allow her to sleep in little adobe huts with local families and eat the local foods—millet, rice, cow’s milk straight from the udder. The villages have no electricity, no running water, no roads—no signs of Western civilization anywhere.

During her 600-mile paddle, she amuses the village women with her lack of cooking skills and amazes them by her lack of a husband. She encounters storms, hunger, sickness, injury, potentially dangerous hippos, Dogon sorceresses, a hot and grueling crossing of huge Lake Debo, despair, disappointment, triumph, the peace and silence of the river, and anti-climactic Timbuktu.

The Cruelest Journey is not just another travel book even though it provides a terrific geography lesson and insight into Malian culture. It’s a first-class adventure not only into Mali but also into the mind of a woman who wants to live an extraordinary life. “If a journey doesn’t have something to teach you about yourself,

then what kind of journey is it?” she asks.

The Cruelest Journey was unputdownable

. It is a study in endurance and self-mastery. The writing is as

exhilarating as the trip. Was the journey worth it? For me it was. Read this book and see for yourself.

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