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The Cruelest Journey by Kira Salak

Book cover for The Cruelest Journey
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Salak is a young woman with a history of seeking impossible challenges. She grew up relishing the exploits of the great Scottish explorer Mungo Park and set herself the daunting goal of retracing his fatal journey down West Africa's Niger river for 600 miles to Timbuktu. In so doing she became the first person to travel alone from Mali's Old Segou to "the golden city of the Middle Ages," and, legend has it, the doorway to the end of the world. In the face of the hardships she knew were to come, it is amazing that she could have been so sanguine about her journey's beginning: "I have the peace and silence of the wide river, the sun on me, a breeze licking my toes, the current as negligible as a faint breath. Timbuktu seems distant and unimaginable." Enduring tropical storms, hippos, rapids, the unrelenting heat of the Sahara desert and the mercurial moods of this notorious river, she traveled solo through one of the most desolate regions in Africa where little had changed since Mungo Park was taken captive by Moors in 1797. Dependent on locals for food and shelter, each night she came ashore to stay in remote mud-hut villages on the banks of the Niger, meeting Dogan sorceresses and tribes who alternately revered and reviled her- so remarkable was the sight of an unaccompanied white woman paddling all the way to Timbuktu. Indeed, on one harrowing stretch she barely escaped harm from men who chased her in wooden canoes, but she finally arrived, weak with dysentery, but triumphant, at her destination. There, she fulfilled her ultimate goal by buying the freedom of two Bella slaves with gold. This unputdownable story is also a meditation on self-mastery by a young adventuress withoutequal, whose writing is as thrilling as her life.

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