Gustato spiritu, desipit omnis caro.
Gloria in excelsis Deo.

Excerpts from "The Cruelest Journey"

by Kira Salak

Excerpt from Chapter 1

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. And now, at the very hour when I have decided to leave, a thunderstorm bursts open the skies, sending down apocalyptic rain, washing away the very ground beneath my feet. It is the rainy season in Mali, for which there can be no comparison in the world. Lightning pierces trees, slices across houses. Thunder racks the skies and pounds the earth like mortar fire, and every living thing huddles in tenuous shelter, expecting the world to end. Which it doesn’t. At least not this time. So that we all give a collective sigh to the salvation of the passing storm as it rumbles its way east, and I survey the river I’m to leave on this morning. Rain or no rain, today is the day for the journey to begin. And no one, not even the oldest in the village, can say for certain whether I’ll get to the end.

“Let’s do it,” I say, leaving the shelter of an adobe hut. My guide from town, Modibo, points to the north, to further storms. He says he will pray for me. It’s the best he can do. To his knowledge, no man has ever completed such a trip, though a few have tried. And certainly no woman has done such a thing. This morning he took me aside and told me he thinks I’m crazy, which I understood as concern and thanked him. He told me that the people of Old Ségou think I’m crazy too, and that only uncanny good luck will keep me safe.

What he doesn’t know is that the worst thing a person can do is tell me that I can’t do something, because then I’ll want to do it all the more. It may be a failing of mine. I carry my inflatable kayak through the narrow passageways of Old Ségou, past the small adobe huts melting in the rains, past the huddling goats and smoke of cooking fires, people peering out at me from the dark entranceways. It is a labyrinth of ancient homes, built and rebuilt after each storm, plastered with the very earth people walk upon. Old Ségou must look much the same as it did in Scottish explorer Mungo Park’s time when, exactly 206 years ago to the day, he left on the first of his two river journeys down the Niger to Timbuktu, the first such trip by a Westerner. It is no coincidence that I’ve planned to leave on the same day and from the same spot. Park is my benefactor of sorts, my guarantee. If he could travel down the Niger, then so can I. And it is all the guarantee I have for this trip—that an obsessed nineteenth-century adventurer did what I would like to do. Of course Park also died on this river, but I’ve so far managed to overlook that.

Hobbled donkeys cower under a new onslaught of rain, ears back, necks craned. Little naked children dare each other to touch me, and I make it easy for them, stopping and holding out my arm. They stroke my white skin as if it were velvet, using only the pads of their fingers, then stare at their hands for wet paint.

Thunder again. More rain falls. I stop on the shore, near a centuries-old kapok tree under which I imagine Park once took shade. I open my bag, spread out my little red kayak, and start to pump it up. A couple of women nearby, with colorful cloth wraps called pagnes tied tightly about their breasts, gaze at me cryptically, as if to ask: Who are you and what do you think you’re doing? The Niger churns and slaps the shore, in a surly mood. I don’t pretend to know what I’m doing. Just one thing at a time now, kayak inflated, kayak loaded with my gear. Paddles fitted together and ready. Modibo is standing on the shore, watching me.

“I’ll pray for you,” he reminds me.

I balance my gear, adjust the straps, get in. And, finally, irrevocably, I paddle away.

When Mungo Park left on his second trip, he never admitted that he was scared. It is what fascinates me about his writing—his insistence on maintaining an illusion that all was well, even as he began a journey that he knew from previous experience could only beget tragedy. Hostile peoples, unknown rapids, malarial fevers. Hippos and crocodiles. The giant Lake Debo to cross, like being set adrift on an inland sea, no sight of land, no way of knowing where the river starts again. Forty of his forty-four men dead from sickness, Park himself afflicted with dysentery when he left on this ill-fated trip. And it can boggle the mind, what drives some people to risk their lives for the mute promises of success. It boggles my mind, at least, as I am caught up in the same affliction. Already, I fear the irrationality of my journey. I fear the very stubbornness which drives me forward.

The Niger erupts in a new storm. Torrential rains. Waves higher than my kayak, trying to capsize me. But my boat is self-bailing and I stay afloat. The wind drives the current in reverse, tearing and ripping at the shores, sending spray into my face. I paddle madly, crashing and driving forward. I travel inch by inch, or so it seems, arm muscles smarting and rebelling against this journey.

A popping feeling now and a screech of pain. My right arm lurches from a ripped muscle. But this is no time and place for such an injury, and I won’t tolerate it, stuck as I am in a storm. I try to get used to the metronome-like pulses of pain as I fight the river. There is only one direction to go: forward.

I wonder what we look for when we embark on these kinds of trips. There is the pat answer that you tell the people you don’t know: that you’re interested in seeing a place, learning about its people. But then the trip begins and the hardship comes, and hardship is more honest: it tells us that we don’t have enough patience yet, nor humility, nor gratitude. And we thought that we had. Hardship brings us closer to truth, and thus is more difficult to bear, but from it alone comes compassion. And so I already discover one important reason why I’m here on this river, and I’ve told the world that it can do what it wants with me if only, by the end, I have learned something further. A bargain, then. The journey, my teacher.

And where is the river of just this morning, with its whitecaps that would have liked to drown me, with its current flowing backwards against the wind? Gone to this: a river of smoothest glass, a placidity unbroken by wave or eddy, with islands of lush greenery awaiting me like distant Xanadus.

I know there is no turning back now. The journey to Timbuktu binds me, it kidnaps and drugs me. It deceives me with images of the end, reached at long last. The late afternoon sun settles complacently over the hills to the west. Paddling becomes a sort of meditation now, a gentle trespassing over a river that slumbers. The Niger gives me its beauty almost in apology for the violence of the earlier storms, and I’m treated to the peace and silence of this wide river, the sun on me, a breeze licking my toes when I lay back to rest, the current as negligible as a faint breath.

Somono fishermen, casting out their nets, puzzle over me as I float by.

Ça va, madame?” they yell.

Each fisherman carries a young son perched in the back of his pointed canoe to do the paddling. The boys stare at me, transfixed; they have never seen such a thing. A white woman. Alone. In a red, inflatable boat. Using a two-sided paddle.

I’m an even greater novelty because Malian women don’t paddle here, not ever. It is a man’s job. So there is no good explanation for me, and the people want to understand. They gather on the shore in front of their villages to watch me pass, the kids screaming and jumping in excitement, the adults yelling out questions in Bambarra which by now I know to mean: “Where did you come from? Where’s your husband?” And of course they will always ask: “Where are you going?”

“Timbuktu!” I yell out to the last question and paddle on.

Excerpt from Chapter 13

I wake up with dysentery. Still, I won’t give up. Hunched over and faint, I get in my kayak, paddling off down the hottest, most forbidding stretch of the Niger to date. My thermometer reads 112 degrees. The sun burns in a cloudless sky that offers up no hint of a breeze. Great white dunes rise on either side of the river, pulsing with heat waves, little adobe villages half-buried beneath them. I am amazed by the Niger’s tenacity as it cuts through the Sahara, a gloriously stubborn and incongruous river.

At every turn, entire villages gather on shore to yell angrily at me. It is the land of the Tuareg and Moor now, fierce nomadic peoples who crouch down close to shore and stare out at me from their indigo wrappings. Gone are the waves of greeting and friendship from local tribes that I’d experienced at the beginning of my trip. Inexplicably, the entire tone of this country has changed.

I stick to the very middle of the Niger. An island splits the river, creating a narrow channel on either side. The narrower the river, the more vulnerable I am. There is less opportunity for escape. All I can do is paddle as hard as I can, following my new guideline: don’t get out of the boat—for anything. Some men onshore leap into their canoes and chase after me, demanding money. One man comes close enough to hit my kayak with the front of his canoe, nearly grabbing my lead rope with his hand. I’m able to see his face and his wild eyes as I strain to get away. I know one of us will have to give up—him or me. I pace my strokes as if it were a long distance race, and he falls behind.

Exhausted and nauseous, I squint at the Niger trailing off into the distance, looking as if it’s being swallowed by the Sahara. I don’t know how much farther I can go on like this..