Kira Salak


Emerging Explorers

Photo: Kira Salak, writer, adventurer

Photograph by Remi Benali

Kira Salak doesn't want to tell you what you already know. Her daring journeys and the articles and books that emerge from them reveal people, places, and situations most people will never see.

"I want to travel in a way that lets me have a really intimate experience with local people," she explained.

Called a "real-life Lara Croft" by the New York Times, Salak has traveled solo to almost every continent, visiting some of the world's most remote places, including locations in Madagascar, Mozambique, Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea, and Borneo. She was the first documented person to kayak solo 600 miles down West Africa's Niger River. She was also the first woman to traverse Papua New Guinea. And a 700-milencycling trip carried her across Alaska to the Arctic Ocean. Next she's eager to cross Mongolia on horseback. "The freedom and sheer beauty of riding ponies across a huge country with five time zones is very appealing," she says.

Her penchant for low-tech solo travel hearkens to an earlier era of exploration. "I have so much respect for those old explorers—the hardships they endured and the extraordinary things they were able to accomplish given their circumstances. It may be more frightening to travel alone, but by going into my fear I come out feeling so much more empowered."

Although her travel history has broken one gender stereotype after another, Salak still encounters resistance to the idea of a woman traveling alone through remote and dangerous regions. "I get a lot of raised eyebrows from the men. But on my trip down the Niger River, the village women crowded on the shore and raised their hands in a cheer. They yelled out, 'Femme forte' [strong woman] and cheered for me as I paddled by."

Salak's first forays to exotic lands were made inside her mind. These imaginative journeys were expressed in her first short story at the age of six and the nonstop writing that continued throughout her childhood. She made her first real trip alone at 19, driven to find "what was utterly new, the most unfamiliar places, things I had never even imagined."

By 20, Salak was backpacking through Africa and heading for a pivotal event that would dramatically change her attitude toward travel. Alone in Mozambique at the height of a brutal civil war, she was kidnapped by marauding soldiers and forced to make a terrifying escape.

"It took the blinders off and gave me a very sobering view of the world," she says. "Since then I've sought out countries that are dangerous in order to reveal situations no one else is covering, like slavery in Timbuktu and genocide in eastern Congo. These tragedies are very emotionally difficult to witness, but if by shedding light on them I can improve even one person's life, I feel it's worth the risk."

Although now familiar with the horrific, Salak remains hopeful. "From Libya to Borneo to New Guinea—where, for example, most villagers I met had never seen a white person before—I always find common ground. When you get beyond politics and superficial cultural differences, people all want the same things: peace, happiness, success for their children, and the best standard of life."

Between adventures Salak has found time to earn a Ph.D. in English literature and creative writing from the University of Missouri in Columbia. She still holds the Wisconsin state track and field record for the women's mile. Tae kwon do, kickboxing, primitive camping, and scaling mountains without climbing equipment are among her favorite pastimes.

"Ever since I was a child," she says, "when someone tells me I can't do something, it just empowers me all the more. People's doubts in my ability only strengthen my resolve. When they say I can't accomplish a challenge, I just eat that up."

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I want to travel in a way that lets me have a really intimate experience with local people.

—Kira Salak


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