I suddenly realised that the finishing date for the Non-Fiction Five challenge, being hosted by Trish's Reading Nook, was rapidly approaching and I still only had four books read. So I took a quick look at the pile and chose The Cruellest Journey by Kira Salak to read.
Kira Salak is an American woman who apparently likes to go on crazy journeys. Her friends and family all think she's mad and even she admits to being a little bit insane. This book sees her deciding to follow in the footsteps of Mungo Park who, in 1795, set out on the first of his two journeys to chart the course of the river Niger in West Africa. Her plan is to do the bit from Ségou to Timbuktu in Mali, a trip of about 600 miles, by kayak. She knows full well how dangerous this journey will be. She's a white woman travelling alone in a Muslim country where, if the truth be known, things haven't changed much since Park undertook his trip. Added to that she has a pathological fear of hippos, of which there are a great many on this river.
Interesting stuff this one. I love a good travel book and this was a good one *except* I did wonder at times whether she wasn't just a trifle foolhardy. As she travels up river the various tribes she encounters become less and less friendly. Men seem to make a beeline for her, either for money or other, rather more obvious, reasons. She sees young men sporting T shirts bearing the image of Osama Bin Laden and it dawns on her that this is not just for fun. I understand wanting a challenge but to willingly put yourself into so much danger seems strange. Towards the end of the journey she makes this observation:
I decide to ignore the man and paddle as hard as I can. He runs after me for a while but finally gives up. So much for my fifteen minutes of in-the-moment bliss. The fear is back, sitting like a bad meal in my gut. Every time the river curves, I look ahead for sight of men lying in wait for me in canoes, the river getting more and more narrow. I realise, but without surprise, that I've lived with constant fear on this trip. Fear of being chased, assaulted, robbed. Fear of bad weather and waves that might capsize my boat. Lots of fear. Fear of the wind, of harsh storms. Fear of hippos, crocodiles. Fear of being harassed by young men in passing boats, or of having my things stolen if I stop at villages. Endless fear.
I understand the fascination with parts of Africa that are still a mystery but to put up with the things she did for not much of a reason, and not to even get much enjoyment or satisfaction out of it - I find that questionable. She did redeem herself at the end with certain actions and I did find her stance on the treatment of women and slaves in Mali laudable. I learnt a fair bit and I must say that the writing was beautiful. It was an interesting book all told, and I own Travels in the Interior of Africa by Mungo Park and plan to read that at some stage because Salak's book has made me curious about it. Plus Salak has written another travel book: Four Corners: A Journey into the Heart of Papua New Guinea although, judging by one of the Amazon reviews, she was just as foolhardy on that trip too! I'll probably see if the library has that.
So, that was my fifth and final book for the Non-Fiction Five challenge. The books I read were:
Birds, Beasts and Relatives by Gerald Durrell (memoirs, nat. history)
Solomon Time by Will Randall (travel)
Trains and Buttered Toast by John Betjeman (essays)
On Hitler's Mountain by Irmgard Hunt (memoirs, history)
The Cruellest Journey by Kira Salak (travel)
I've enjoyed each and every one but if I had to choose a favourite it would be On Hitler's Mountain by Irmgard Hunt. Many thanks to Trish of Trish's Reading Nook for hosting the challenge and making me read some non-fiction!