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Cruelest Journey: Six Hundred Miles To Timbuktu Hardcover – November 1, 2004

4.7 out of 5 stars 30 customer reviews

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Salak's second travel memoir--her first, Four Corners (2001), chronicled her trip deep into Papua New Guinea--takes her down the Niger River to Timbuktu, following the trail of Scottish explorer Mungo Park, who more than 200 years before attempted the same journey. Salak decides to take the journey alone on a kayak, hoping to recapture Park's sense of wonder and determination. Her journey gets off to an inauspicious start when she injures her arm on the very first day of her journey. But Salak preseveres, and spends day in and day out paddling down the river. Along the way, she encounters various tribes, some friendlier than others, and grapples with her own reactions to some of their traditions, such as female genital mutilation. She also muses on Park's two difficult journeys down the river, seeking the elusive golden city of Timbuktu. 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. Kristine Huntley
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

About the Author

Kira Salak has won the PEN award for journalism and appeared five times in Best American Travel Writing. She is a contributing editor for National Geographic Adventure magazine and was the first woman to traverse Papua New Guinea; her nonfiction account of that trip, Four Corners, was a New York Times Notable Travel Book of 2001. Her fiction has appeared in Best New American Voices and other publications. The White Mary is her first novel. She lives in Montana.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: National Geographic; First Edition edition (November 1, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0792274571
  • ISBN-13: 978-0792274575
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 0.9 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #190,770 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Friederike Knabe VINE VOICE on July 24, 2005
Format: Hardcover
What "makes" an adventure traveler? Is in their genes or do experiences of early childhood create this urge to be on the move? For Kira Salak, these and other questions form the backdrop to her kayak trips into out-of-the-way places such as Borneo, Mozambique or Papa New Guinea. The trips allow her to "unearth parts of myself that I've long since buried as dead... They are, in many respects, processes of rebirth."

The 600 miles solo kayak trip on the Niger River in Mali, West Africa - from Segou to Timbuktu - stands out for her as the "cruellest journey" she has undertaken so far. Some people have called her crazy to attempt this project and, at times, she wonders about it herself. But the drive to finish the challenge and to see the fabled city at the edge of the Sahara provides her with levels of endurance and strengths that are difficult to imagine. She lives off what she can pack into her little red kayak. She has to rely on villagers along the way for food and shelter... The obstacles are enormous. Traveling the Niger is hazardous even to the locals - and their long dugout boats are better designed to cope with the changes in currents and wind patterns, hippos and more. Then, traveling as a white woman alone in a country full of traditions that don't take necessarily kindly to Western tourists, least to a single boat-woman. "Tu-bab! Cadeau!" (White! Present!) follows her like a constant echo, the intonation and accompanying gestures reflecting the level of kindness or hostility.

Still, Kira faces each hindrance with skill, sometimes luck, and an increasing sensitivity for what is safe and what is not. Her description of the adventure makes fascinating reading, her fluid style engaging.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is many things. It's an adventure story. It's a geography lesson. It's a study in anthropology. It's an exposition on the mindset of an explorer.

Mostly, it's a well-written tale of an American woman, Kira Salak, and her quest to continue living an extraordinary life. "If a journey doesn't have something to teach you about yourself, then what kind of journey is it?" she writes. This book takes us along for the ride. The tone is conversational, very readable, honest, and refreshing.

The Cruelest Journey is aptly named. Indeed, Salak recounts a grueling journey inside an inflatable red kyak, 600 miles along the Niger River in the West African country, Mali. She encounters both friendly and hostile villagers, calm and stormy weather, hunger, injury, sickness, potentially dangerous hippos, and incredible uncertainty. Using the Scottish explorer, Mungo Park, as a mentor of sorts, she attempts to reenact his adventure some 200 years earlier. She finds that not a lot has changed from what she read in his memoirs, which she holds close throughout the trip and quotes often.

Before I picked up this book, I didn't know where to point on a map to tell anyone the location of Timbuktu. It's a mysterious place, often used to describe the outskirts of the world. Salak's journey doesn't dispel this myth.

I found this story fascinating and highly recommend it.

Michele Cozzens, Author of A Line Between Friends and The Things I Wish I'd Said.
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By Mike on March 16, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Salak not only takes the reader on a journey into the interior of Africa, but also into the jungles of the mind as she deals with her own feelings and impressions of what she sees and experiences during these many miles. Such writing - and sharing - is what makes for a travelogue more revealing and pleasurable than just words and pictures.

While in this instance, the publisher chose not to include pictures, photos were taken and can be found at [...]

The National Geographic photographer, Rémi Bénali, had this to say about the experience:

"Kira and I made a deal that I would not interfere with her adventure-I had a big boat, with a crew. She had to experience Africa by herself. So we would only meet for a few hours every four days.

"As you can see, everybody's on the banks of the river, looking at her leaving. It's so interesting for them-it's the first time they've seen such a kayak. The first time I saw it, I thought, She's not going to make it! It's too small, like a toy."


I'm glad Kira Salak made it.

And I'm glad National Geographic at least made those photos available on-line, if not in the book. It was nice to be able to glimpse some of the scenes she described in her compelling writing.
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Format: Hardcover
Salak does an admirable job of recreating the sometimes-tense atmosphere of solitary travel. She has a fine way with words and is very expressive of the emotional travails often found in a lone journey through inhospitable lands and sometimes-hostile locals.

The short section on Salak's efforts to free a pair of slaves, while interesting, does not seem to connect with the theme of the manuscript, that is her 600-mile journey on the Niger.

The major fault with this book, as with many contemporary travel books, is the lack of photos. The publishers were kind enough to include a map, and apparently, there were photos scheduled for the manuscript but they never made it to print. A book of this nature demands illustration. Mungo Park's original work Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa, upon which Salak based her journey, was illustrated with maps, charts, and engravings. Salak's publisher is the National Geographic, known for high quality photography. A photographer met the author at various points along the Niger for photo opportunities and yet there is not a single photograph in the book. This reviewer has visited Mali and Timbuktu and has a sense of what travel on the Niger involves, what the villages are like, the local architecture, the Dogon country and general sense of the locale. Alas, many readers will only have a vague idea of the land and most readers will be left adrift. Salak must feel let down by her publishers.
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