“The Cruellest Journey”, by Kira Salak, Bantam

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“In the beginning, my journeys feel at best ludicrous, at worst 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 Ségou to Timbuktu.”

I love to choose my books from the very first lines I read; it’s a sort of acid test to see whether the book will keep me enthralled, a test to see how hard it is to put it back on its shelf.

In this case these first words made it impossible to put Kira Salak’s Cruellest Journey back on the shelf of the Oxfam book shop I sometimes visit. I mean, Niger river? Mali? Timbuktu? For all the exotic images these names gave me – Tuaregs, the desert, Tamikrest and Tinariwen – I could find many more that weren’t as exotic at all, you just had to open a random newspaper. François Holland hadn’t send the legionnaires down there just because he’d dreamt of being De Gaulle after all.

Yet, Kira Salak went there and paddled there. Her plan was to replicate a journey made by Scottish explorer Mungo Park, who had set sail on the Niger river in the early 19th century with the aim of understanding where this odd river, whose springs lie a short distance from the sea but instead flows north, ended. It is worth noting that Mungo Park died on his second journey, after having experienced diseases, shipwrecks and encounters with friendly locals and not-so-welcoming ones.

Undeterred by her predecessor’s end, Kira Salak decided to follow his path from the city of Ségou, not far off downstream from Bamako, and to paddle on a kayak up to Timbuktu. Alone, with sporadic encounters with a photographer on a National Geographic boat. In a kayak, alone, may I repeat, in a country not renown for female freedoms and down a river where hippos and crocodiles roam free. If that doesn’t sound badass, I don’t really know what it is.

And if this isn’t enough to make you prefer this book over Bear Grylls’ next episode of Man vs Wild, there’s the book itself. Kira Salak has an intimate, poetic way of writing. She has plenty of reasons to be boastful, attempting as she is to do something that no man has succeeded into doing, but she isn’t. Her writing is intimate, and remarkably open. There she is, on the bank of the river at Segou, with the characteristic clutch of fear in hear guts. Or there she is, tired senseless, floating downstream under a ferocious sun, wondering why she’s submitting herself to all this. It’s possible to feel her emotions, to sense her exhaustion.

What I particularly appreciated about the book is Kira’s approach to people. Kira’s plan is to paddle through the day and to spend the nights on shore, in order to avoid running into hippos and other riverine creatures. This implies putting her trust into local villagers, who might have never seen a white person, let alone a woman, travelling alone. You can easily understand how this could end badly, and how it takes some serious amount of courage to do it every night. The reports of each encounter vary wildly, from heart-warming receptions to scary mobs; each one is narrated vividly and with great detail and each leaves the reader about how humans can be so different and, at the same time, so similar. And, personally, it has also made me think about the role of our Western society and the impact it has even on the remotest outposts of humanity, far away from our TVs or Internet.

I won’t tell the reader if Kira’s inflatable kayak led her all the way to Timbuktu or not; what I will tell, though, is that this book is truly a surprise and that Kira Salak deserves, for this and other books, to be considered one of the greatest travel writers around.

Kira Salak, “The Cruellest Journey: 600 miles by canoe to the legendary city of Timbuktu”, Bantam Press

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