More than two hundred years ago, the Scottish explorer Mungo Park set off on a journey to try to discover where the Niger River ends up. At the time, it was not known whether the Niger comes out in the Mediterranean, joins with the Nile, or does something else. (It does–curves back out into the Atlantic.) Park made it as far as Timbuktu, but after he left, he was never seen again. Later he was reported to have been murdered.
In The Cruelest Journey: Six Hundred Miles to Timbuktu, Kira Salak relates her attempt to re-create Park’s journey by kayaking alone up the Niger River from Old Segou in Mali to Timbuktu. Although modern readers might believe that there are much fewer dangers in this journey than the one taken by Mungo Park, it is still one of the most desolate regions in Africa. She states that she is the first person and only Caucasian woman to travel alone in the region after one was murdered in the 30s.
Taking only what she can carry in her little kayak, Salak is forced to come ashore for food and shelter, sometimes when she would prefer not to. She encounters friendly people, hostile people, and people who are threatening, including some men who chase after her down the river to demand money. Although the river seems to be mostly slow moving, she runs into stormy weather and worries about being attacked by hippos. She has to keep paddling despite injuring her arm on the first day, and later she has an attack of dysentary after eating spoiled food fed to her by some villagers.
Although she is certainly alone for much of the time, she periodically meets up with a larger craft containing a National Geographic photographer and his crew. They have a deal that he is not to interfere in her trip, but simply to take pictures. I feel it was unfortunate that none of the photos were included in the book except on the cover. Instead an address is given to the National Geographic web site.
The book is well written and interesting, although it contains a lot more of her musings and fewer descriptions of what she saw than I would have preferred. She also appears to have made this journey without much preparation, including understanding the customs of the people she will be visiting, as she finds when she attempts to buy the freedom of some slaves.
As she approaches Timbuktu, she is struck by how much more the villagers seem to be changed by tourism than earlier on the river, increasingly hostile or begging for money as she passes by. Considering that she knew in advance that Timbuktu is no longer the legendary city it used to be, I was surprised by how disappointed she is when she reaches it. It is hard to decide which she is more disappointed about, that there is no sign of the legendary city built by the gold and salt trades or that she can’t stay in a nice hotel as she planned because the town is packed with tourists (or maybe that the town IS packed with tourists).
Although perhaps it was part of her sense of adventure to be relatively unprepared, I felt that more research before she made the trip would have been in order. I couldn’t help feeling at times that her reactions to a few events or sights were uninformed. (As one Amazon reviewer points out, she mistakes a pile of rubble for the National Museum in Bamako.) Nevertheless, it is an interesting story. I couldn’t help feeling that Salak combines in herself both courage and foolhardiness.