BOSTON — To Timbuktu:
A Journey Down the Niger
By Mark Jenkins
224 pp., $25
One reason why films about cranky dinosaurs, super-snakes, and Yugo-sized insects have been underwhelming audiences lately is that they trivialize the mind of the adventurer.
In the movies, protagonists cross the Valley of Doom to save the Old Professor and capture the treasure. They may wear safari jackets and muddy boots, but they are as goal-oriented as desk-bound executives. If giant centipedes were to trample the expedition, the creatures would be regarded as pesky impediments to the real goal.
In life, as Mark Jenkins reveals in his riveting tale of travel to the legendary city of Timbuktu in Mali, Africa, adventurers hope for giant centipedes. Platoons of them. The object is the journey and its surprises, even hungry hundred-footed ones. "To Timbuktu: A Journey Down the Niger," is not one story, but three. It interweaves the history of West Africa's tenacious and foolhardy European explorers with a split-level account of two Wyoming boys, author Mark Jenkins and his best friend, Mike Moe.
At 18, Jenkins and Moe left a tepid European vacation and went to Africa, seeking the legendary city of Timbuktu. Robbed of all their earthly goods in Morocco, the friends persisted on foot across the bleached-tan Sahara, but gave up when they recognized that they had become "two tiny insects out in the middle of an immense aluminum frypan." Fifteen years later, they return to West Africa and try again to reach Timbuktu.
Now they are no longer boys, but men with adult responsibilities and wives, each of whom is six-months pregnant. These worthy women see their men leave, knowing that they may not return in time for the birth of their first child.
Is the spell of Timbuktu that strong? Not really. Jenkins and Moe crave risk. They want to hear the bugs gnaw at the mosquito nets, whining for blood. They want not to know how the story will end: "Ignorance is the root of adventure," they chorus.
Their goal is pleasingly unclear: a kayak trip on a remote, wild river, preferably one whose source is unknown. Bureaucratic obstacles prevent them from their initial choices of rivers in China, Afghanistan, and Burma.
Along with Wyoming pals Rick Smith and John Haines, they set their sites on the Niger, Africa's third-largest river, which the ancients thought flowed in two directions. From a hidden source called Tembakounda, the Niger gains volume, eventually passing the fabled Timbuktu.
With an eager ear for language, a cold eye for his own foibles, and descriptive talent as piquant as the peppers of West Africa, Jenkins relates the trek to the source of the Niger and the subsequent voyage on its more isolated sections.
There's a lot of not-knowing to be done on the Niger. They do not know where they are on maps, because the most recent charts available were hand-drawn in the 1930s. They do not know if they will have to use their guns on the 15-foot rippling wedges of crocodile who co-own the Niger with hippos. They do not know what to make of the relics of Western imperialism, which litter the one-well villages along their passage.
When the going gets smooth, these tough guys get going - right off the river. Though Haines and Smith continue on the wide, tame stretches of the Niger, Moe is bored. Missing his wife, he grabs a plane back to Wyoming. Jenkins sets out overland to complete the trip to Timbuktu started years earlier.
By bus, motorcycle, and finally river boat, Jenkins meanders toward Timbuktu. He is in his element where the pavement ends. The austerity of solo rambling is nourishingly meditative for him. When he gets to Timbuktu, it is just another dusty village, a seven-page pause in his journal.
It would disfigure the well-wrought contours of the fast-paced story to reveal its trenchant coda. Suffice it to say, with Jenkins and Moe, "there are only certain times in your life when you can do certain things. If you don't do them that very moment, they pass you by forever and you and your life become something else."
* Mary Warner Marien teaches art history at the University of Syracuse in Syracuse, N.Y.