on 15 January 2006
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. We follow her daily paddling routine, her reflections and self-analysis during slow periods in the midday sun and heat on the water, and her observations of her surroundings. Also, we discover with her glimpses of the different peoples who eke out a living in villages along the mighty river. Her reception by the villagers varies enormously. Some offer food and shelter with a smile, in others she depends on the village chief to provide protection – and in still other villages she repacks her kayak as fast as she can to escape. The different ethnic groups sharing the land along the river vary in the treatment of Tubabs and single women in particular.
Two hundred years ago Mungo Park undertook his travels into the interior of West Africa. On his second attempt to reach the end of the Niger, he did make it to Timbuktu and beyond, but did not survive to fulfill his goal. Salak has studied Park’s journals and follows his advice closely. He is her only companion and her travel guide. Reading “some books” about Mali prior to travelling, she admits that she was not well prepared for what she encountered. This is probably the major weakness of the book.
While adventure travel books are not intended to give in-depth information on the region or country, once the author presents facts and generalized analysis, we expect solid grounding. For this book, it would have been advisable to complement Mungo Park with some solid research on Mali by approaching some of the many experts around. As somebody who spent time in Mali and has visited many of the places on her route, though not by boat, I was interested in her descriptions of her encounters with people. Nevertheless, some sweeping statements were not appropriate and some of her conclusions misleading. For example, the pile of rubble, suggested by a passer-by as the spot of the National Museum in Bamako, the capital, suggests to her a country “still struggling to find its footing amid the idealism and corruption of post-independence days”. In fact, the Museum, established in colonial times, has remained to this day a jewel among museums with extensive collections from pre-historic to modern times.
A sense of history and cultural pride is visible all over Mali, in particular among the Dogon people. While there are black market traders selling off artefacts, a deeper exposure to the culture would have informed Salak of the efforts, in particular by women, to preserve and collect them in their community centres. Women are generally depicted as passively accepting their role in life as subservient and second-class. This may look this way to the superficial observer – it does not represent the underlying reality of many women in Mali. A better understanding of the societal complexities of this country, rich in history and traditions, would have protected the author from some disappointments and ill-advised initiatives, such as the attempt to buy the freedom of two Bella “slaves”.
Despite these weaknesses, the story is a fascinating read and an absorbing account of endurance and pleasure of discovery. It is helpful to complement the reading with a visit to the photo collection on the website of National Geographic Adventures. Unfortunately, Salak does not provide a reading list to pursue the discovery of the various topics that she touches on. Further reading on Mali, starting with the numerous websites on the country, its history and cultures, or its famous music and musicians, will be valuable and enriching. [Friederike Knabe]