Five years ago Anne had a second cataract operation. In the waiting room at Kenepuru hospital I finished reading Kira Salak’s The Cruellest Journey, a fascinating travel book, about kayaking 600 miles down the Niger to Timbuktu. It had a lot of meditation about journeys and their point. Or lack of it, which can be a satisfactory reason. Salak quoted interesting snippets from Mungo Park’s diary as she followed the famous Scottish explorer’s two trips along that river.
An arm-chair traveller I found myself caught between two feelings, immensely impressed in her bravery in travelling on her own through misogynist Mali and at the same time struck by her foolhardiness. She described well the world’s narrowing down to just the physical repetition of paddling and deciding where to sleep in the evenings.
The title is a variation on Cherry-Garrard’s Worst Journey with its account of the repetition of step by step man-hauling a sledge across the snow. Something satisfying about travel books is that they have a definitive ending. There is a journey’s end. Arrival is the goal and it is usually achieved. I love a good biography. But often there is a little disappointment when it is finished. The main character has departed but what happened to the supporting cast – children, lovers, friends, rivals. I want to know about the continuity, the vast seamlessness of people affecting one another, interacting, drifting apart, suddenly co-inciding.
Salak continually made the point about the clutter and cares of our ordinary way of life. (A line from Auden springs to mind, “in headaches and in worry life leaks away”). Saints and sages down the centuries have pointed out that not having possessions gives us freedom. We believe them, but not for us thanks. Salak’s senses became more acute, learning to judge weather, and noting the way the landscape changed as the river left the trees to go through the desert.
And behind her judgements is the knowledge that if she survives there will be warm baths and perfume and cavair again. (That sentence is my addition, she did not mention such things). What her experience reveals, however, is the few basic things a person really needs to exist. The poor villagers with whom she stayed nightly had few except maybe time. The hospitality she was offered reflected a way of life that we have long lost.
As a boy when asked why I read, I replied it gave me a chance to read about things I could not do or have. My questioner said “that’s a very sophisticated answer.” I remember the comment because I looked up the word “sophisticated” in the dictionary. I had to ask Mum how it was spelt. I was looking at ‘sof’. Living on my own piece of earth I can explore the world through the eyes and experiences of others.
Salak’s journey on her own in a canoe on a mighty river is not one I’d like to undertake myself. But I feel the richer for having read about her adventures and reflections about them. Human beings have always connected through traveller’s tales. Mali is the fourth poorest country in the world. Wealth is relative but I am extremely rich in my existence compared to the inhabitants of that nation. Salak’s experiences highlight the pleasures of simplicity.
Salak became seriously ill as her journey neared its end. At one stage it looked like she wasn’t going to make it. Sitting in the waiting room, surrounded by all the paraphernalia of modern medicine reading about a poverty-stricken country and so identified with the narrator I was concerned about her predicament. My mind, miles away from my body, was jubilant when she finally staggered on to finish the journey under her own steam.
She described Timbuktu as the world’s greatest anti-climax. It’s full glory was about the time that Maori began arriving in New Zealand, when its grandeur became the stuff of European legends. It’s certainly a name that carries a whiff of romance. I remember once getting all excited when there was a possibility I would be asked to do some education work in Samarkand. It’s a place I’d always dreamt of visiting, one of those places that again carries that sense of grandeur. Web-sites reveal the drab concrete world of Soviet realism rather than the historic mosques that are portrayed in the books on our shelves. It was not to be. I didn’t go.
Anne's operation was successful