THE CRUELEST JOURNEY: Six Hundred Miles to Timbuktu

Kira Salak, Author . National Geographic $26 (256p) ISBN 0-7922-9790-3

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. (Nov.)

Forecast: National Geographic Adventure magazine sponsored Salak's journey; they'll back her book with a feature in their pages and national print publicity, which could boost sales.

Reviewed on: 10/18/2004
Release date: 00/00/0000
Genre: Nonfiction
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