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To Timbuktu, by Mark Jenkins

To Timbuktu: A journey down the Niger. By Mark Jenkins

Announcing a new book on

Jenkins and three friends, with the aid of a remarkably intuitive African guide, set out to attempt the first descent of the Niger River, the legendary city of Timbuktu their final goal. Along the way, they are attacked by killer bees, charged by hippos, stalked by crocodiles, stumble upon blind men living in the bush, dance with a hundred naked women. Jenkins reaches Timbuktu by riding alone across the Sahara on a motorcycle. This Digital 1.0 PDF edition features 19 color photos. $9.95


Below is John Harlin’s review of To Timbuktu, originally published in The Explorers Journal:

Timbuktu. It’s more than a mere place name, of course. More, even, than a metaphor. It’s an entire one-word allegory. Most of us know this even if we don’t quite know why. In To Timbuktu, Mark Jenkins reveals that this plain, dusty town is, like the summit of a mountain, no more interesting than countless other geographical points. But the pursuit of the summit: Therein lies the journey of life.

Grand quests are as old as humankind and as profound as literature itself. Jenkins has enriched both—our species and its literature—first with Off the Map, the tale of his 7,000-mile trans-Russian bike ride, and now with To Timbuktu. The latter masterfully weaves a triptych of adventure stories into a seamless artwork: Jenkins’ first-descent of the headwaters of the Niger by kayak with three friends–an expedition that later transmogrifies into a solo overland journey by motorcycle; his teenage African wanderings with lifelong adventure-partner Mike Moe, also in pursuit of Timbuktu; and the fascinating tales of historical attempts to reach the mysterious city and its mythical gold. These olden travels add more than historical depth to Jenkins’ story. The bravura of these explorers, who almost universally died during or as a result of their journeys, provides context for the distinctly primal urges pulsing through the hearts of Jenkins and Moe.

For this duo exploration is adventure, and risks sometimes are taken for the boyish joy of risking. Readers unwilling to be swept up by such imprudent passions are sometimes repelled by Mark and Mike’s excellent adventuring. The rest of us shake our heads and wonder if we’re even capable of filling our life-cups this full.

High in the Niger’s headwaters the four kayakers find the river sweeps through dangerous walls of brush, at which Jenkins gleefully flings himself. “Without thinking I begin hauling myself forward through the maze, my bow cleaving curtains of interlaced leaves, the keel rocking, the hull scraping, black water catching me and throwing me and it’s hell and I love it and the web is spreading and my boat shudders and I give one final heave-ho and I’m out, gliding over open water in dazzling sunshine.” When all four boaters emerge downstream, two are furious. “This isn’t boating!” they exclaim in a fear-induced rage. “Nope,” reply Moe and Jenkins, “This is exploring.”

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