600 Miles to Timbuktu in an Innova Safari

Called a "real-life Lara Croft" by the New York Times, Kira Salak is the first documented person to kayak solo 600 miles down West Africa's Niger River.

Below are excerpts From the Print Edition of National Geographic Adventure Magazine
December 2002/January 2003 issue

(click here to read the article)

(click here for a National Geographic video on Kira Salak)

(click here for a CBS Evening News interview with Kira Salak)

(click here for more excerpts)

Mungo Made Me Do It—Rafting to Timbuktu

Writer KIRA SALAK's aim was audacious: To paddle nearly 600 miles [966 kilometers] down the Niger River, a hazardous journey, inspired by legendary Scottish explorer Mungo Park, that no person had ever completed solo. She was slightly crazy, people thought; highly determined, she knew; and completely alone: in a little red boat, en route to Timbuktu.

In the beginning, all 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 town of Old Ségou to Timbuktu.

And now, at the very hour I have decided to leave, a thunderstorm bursts open the skies, sending down apocalyptic rain, washing away the 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 wracks the skies and pounds the Earth like mortar fire, and every living thing huddles in its tenuous shelter, expecting the world to end. Which it doesn't. At least not this time.

So we all give a collective sigh to the salvation from the passing storm as it rumbles east, and I survey the river I'm to depart on this morning. Rain or no rain, today is the day for the journey to begin.

"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.

Earlier this morning he took me aside and told me he thinks I'm crazy, which I understood as concern, and so I 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 to tell me 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 labyrinthine alleys of Old Ségou, past the huts melting in the rain, past the huddling goats and the smoke of cooking fires, past people peering out at me from dark entranceways.

Old Ségou must have looked much the same to Scottish explorer Mungo Park, who left here on the first of his two river journeys 206 years ago to the day. It is no coincidence that I've picked this date, July 22, and this spot to begin my journey.

Park is my guarantee of sorts. If he could travel down the Niger, then so can I. Of course, Park also died on the river, but so far I've managed to overlook that.

Thunder again. Hobbled donkeys cower under a new onslaught of rain, ears back, necks craned. Naked children dare one another 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, looking for wet paint.

I stop on the banks of the river 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 photographer, who will check in on me from time to time in his motorized boat, feverishly snaps pictures.

A couple of women nearby, with colorful cloth wraps called pagnes tied tightly about their breasts, gaze at me as if to ask: Who are you, and what do you think you're doing?

The Niger, in a surly mood, churns and slaps the shore.

I don't pretend to know what I'm doing. Just one thing at a time now: kayak inflated, kayak loaded, paddles fitted together. Modibo watches me.

"I'll pray for you," he reminds me.

I balance my gear and get in. Finally, irrevocably, I paddle away.

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