Kira Salak became the first person in the world to kayak alone 600 miles on the Niger River of Mali to Timbuktu, retracing the fatal journey of the great Scottish explorer Mungo Park. Enduring tropical storms, hippos, rapids, the unrelenting heat of the Sahara desert, and the mercurial moods of this notorious river, Kira Salak traveled solo through one of the most desolate and dangerous regions in Africa, where little had changed since Mungo Park was taken captive by Moors in 1797.
Dependent on locals for food and shelter each night, Salak stayed in remote mud-hut villages on the banks of the Niger, meeting Dogan sorceresses and tribes who alternately revered and reviled her--so remarkable was the sight of an unaccompanied white woman paddling all the way to Timbuktu. Indeed, on one harrowing stretch she barely escaped with her life from men chasing after her in canoes. Finally, weak with dysentery but triumphant, she arrived in the fabled city of Timbuktu and fulfilled her ultimate goal: buying the freedom of two Bella slave women. The Cruelest Journey is both an unputdownable story and a meditation on courage and self-mastery by a young adventuress without equal, whose writing is as thrilling as her life.
Praise for The Cruelest Journey
"A deeply personal travel memoir, Salak is not merely a traveller, she is an explorer, and her voyage is an expedition of self-discovery. She sets off in ominously stormy weather 206 years to the day after Park did, and shares in cutting detail the encounters of the Niger 'like a mercurial god, meting out punishment and benediction on a whim.' Salak seduces us with an honest audacious story of the splendour and austerity of a journey through a far-off land."
–Kirkus Reviews UK
"Salak's second travel memoir takes her down the Niger River to Timbuktu, following the trail of Scottish explorer Mungo Park, who more than 200 years before he attempted the same journey. Salak decides to take the journey alone on a kayak, hoping to recapture Park's sense of wonder and determination. Salak's trip is deeply personal, and she shares her fears, her triumphs, and her thoughts along the way with the reader, making it an accessible, involving journey for her audience."
About the Author
Kira Salak won the PEN Award for journalism for her reporting on the war in Congo, and she has appeared five times in Best American Travel Writing. A National Geographic Emerging Explorer and contributing editor for National Geographic Adventure magazine, she was the first woman to traverse Papua New Guinea and the first person to kayak solo 600 miles to Timbuktu. She is the author of three booksâ€”the critically acclaimed work of fiction, The White Mary, and two works of nonfiction: Four Corners: A Journey into the Heart of Papua New Guinea (a New York Times Notable Travel Book) and The Cruelest Journey: Six Hundred Miles to Timbuktu. She has a Ph.D. in English, her fiction appearing in Best New American Voices and other anthologies. Her nonfiction has been published in National Geographic, National Geographic Adventure, Washington Post, New York Times Magazine, Travel & Leisure, The Week, Best Women's Travel Writing, The Guardian, and elsewhere. Salak has appeared on TV programs like CBS Evening News, ABC's Good Morning America, and CBC's The Hour. She lives with her husband and daughter in Germany.
As she begins her harrowing solo kayaking journey 600 miles down the Niger River, Salak writes, "Though we may think we chose our journeys, they chose us." This sensitive notion is representative of most of Salak's account of her quest to follow the same route that doomed Scottish explorer Mungo Park paddled 206 years ago, hoping to reach Timbuktu. The book juxtaposes Salak's physical strength with delicate prose. Just as readers might expect from someone who prepared her parents for the chance that she might not return, Salak seems ready for, or at least accepting of, all obstacles, whether a ripped muscle in her arm or kayak thieves. Though tough as nails, she's easy with her feelings, especially her constant fear of not knowing if the villagers near where she camps will be like the friendly Fulani herders, who embrace her as a wayward traveler, or like the Bozos, "young toughs" who mock and threaten her. Few things have changed on the Niger since Park's time, and Salak is open-minded as she accepts the traditions of the villagers' lifestyle and appalled by their practices of mutilation and slavery. After reaching Timbuktu, Salak tries to free two women from slavery; this final act spotlights her best qualities: courage and compassion. Photos, map.