'In the beginning, my journeys feel at best ludicrous, at worst insane. This one is no exception.' Kira Salak recently became the first person to successfully canoe 600 miles down the River Niger from Old Segou to Timbuktu - the golden city of the Middle Ages, and, legend has it, the doorway to the end of the world - in Mali, West Africa. Enduring tropical storms, hippos, rapids, the unrelenting heat of the Sahara desert and the mercurial moods of this notorious river, she travelled alone through one of the most desolate regions in Africa where little had changed since British explorer Mungo Park was taken captive by Moors in 1797. Dependent on local people for food and shelter, each night she came ashore to stay in remote mud-hut villages on the Niger's banks, meeting Dogon 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. In one instance she barely escaped from men who chased after her in wooden canoes, but she finally arrived, weak but triumphant, at her fabled destination. There, she fulfilled her ultimate goal by buying the freedom of two Bella slaves with gold.
"The Cruellest Journey" is a compelling adventure story and a meditation on self-will by a young adventurer without equal, whose writing is as thrilling as her life.
Kira Salak was born in Illinois in 1971. She has a PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Missouri at Columbia, and frequently travels to the world's furthest-flung places on assignment for National Geographic. She also writes for National Geographic Adventure, New York Times Magazine and a host of literary travel journals. Her first book, Four Corners: A Journey to the Heart of Papua New Guinea, was chosen by the New York Times Book Review as a Notable Travel Book of the Year. In 2004 she was awarded the PEN Literary Award in Journalism and the Lowell Thomas Gold Award for Travel Journalism. Her work has appeared in Best New American Voices and Best American Travel Writing 2002, 2003 and 2004. Kira Salak lives in Montana.