Living Life On The Edge

The barren and endless sands of Central Libya are not on most vacation lists. But for author and adventurer Kira Salak, who's been called a "real life Lara Croft," it's the obscure destinations that have made her life an incredible journey.

"I'm attracted to places that people don't go to and don't want to go to," said Salak.

In Libya, Salak set out to climb Devil's Mountain.

"The local people believe that these hills are inhabited by 'genie' - by evil spirits that can possess a person and cause them to go crazy," she said in a video chronicling her trip.

Some have suggested that Salak, herself, may be a bit crazy.

She's kayaked the Niger River to Timbuktu, reported on genocide in central Africa and paddled alone down a jungle river in Myanmar that's been closed to Westerners for decades.

But her journeys have their rewards. The panorama atop Devil's Mountain is one few Americans, or Arabs, have ever seen. But Salak's taste for adventure doesn't mean she's completely fearless.

"I would say I'm afraid to take risks, but I do it anyway," she said, laughing.

One of Salak's earliest adventures almost became her last. At age 20, hitchhiking across Mozambique, she was abducted at gunpoint by a gang of young rebels.

"They basically, from the gestures they made … were gonna have like basically a rape fest," she recalled.

Salak asked to use the toilet.

"And I just ran into the dark. And I just ran literally for my life. And they chased after me," she said. "I can still remember the sound of the gravel crunching as they were chasing after me."

Salak says her desire to challenge her fears comes from growing up as a "really shy child and very scared of things."

She idolized her older brother Marc, who was also an adventurer.

"He was swimming across a river to Angola and the current caught him and pulled him under and he drowned," she said.

At the age of 35, Salak's world turned upside down and made her rethink what she does.

"I mean my brother was probably the greatest explorer I've ever known," she said. "He was literally following his passion and doing what he loved to do. And he died doing that. I almost envy that. I mean, what a way to go. On the other hand, though, it's made me reevaluate everything."

Salak worked through her grief and guilt the only way she knew how - through her work. The result is "The White Mary," - her first work of fiction - about a female journalist searching the jungle for a missing man.

"It's ultimately a story about how I was able to pull myself out of my own feelings of despair," said Salak, "and ultimately come to a place of light and happiness and salvation in a way."

Salak's next adventure will take her to Mongolia.



(The following is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of "The White Mary," by Kira Salak. It was released Aug. 5, 2008 by publisher Henry Holt & Company)

The black waters of Elobi Creek show no sign of a current. It is another dead waterway, Marika tells herself, one that will breed only mosquitoes and crocodiles. Another waterway that somehow reflects-in the darkness of the water, in its stillness-all of her failings. These waters, this breathless heat, seem to be waiting for a response from her, a call to action. But she has no answers. And if she's to be honest with herself, she never had any. Things will unravel. They will fall apart.

If she is to be honest with herself-and the pain from self-honesty, but the duty of it, too-she must admit that this time she seems to have started something that is beyond her ability to stop. It is as if the dominoes of her life have begun to fall, and she can only watch each moment disappearing in the futile fractions of a second. She is still looking for her ghost. Nearly three months spent in Papua New Guinea, and no sign of him. Does Robert Lewis know she has given up everything to find him? More to the point, would he care? She ought to go home. Go back. Call this for
what it is: a failure.

Beauty intrudes upon her. Flocks of red and green parrots. Butterflies of blue and gold dancing over the black waters. Crowned pigeons with their regal headdresses of gray plumage. She would like to know this beauty, not just see it. In the same way, walking down a city street, she might gaze at the featureless crowds and catch sight of a face that awakens something vital in her. A longing, perhaps. A burst of compassion. She looks at the thick, ripe jungle around her: squat sago palms nesting beside the riverbanks; ancient trees rising toward darkening clouds. It should not be so hard, she tells herself, to know this beauty.

Thomas, the lanky young man driving their dugout canoe, stops the outboard motor. The intense heat never seems to bother him, his green T-shirt saturated, his exposed black skin glistening from sweat. He picks up his bow and a bamboo arrow ending in four prongs, and aims at a crowned pigeon. Releasing the arrow, he watches it cascade into the rain forest, just missing the bird. As the pigeon flees for the sky, Thomas speaks sharply in a tribal language, putting down the bow and starting up the outboard motor. The jungle didn't seem to notice. The butterflies continue whirling. The parrots chatter. A white cockatoo fluffs out its feathers and relaxes them. As the sun disappearsbehind a large gray cloud, Marika yanks down her hat's brim, staring into the tangled greenery around her. She wants a sign. She would like to know that all the events of her life have conspired to bring her to this exact instant in time, with nothing - none of it - being a mistake.

But this world of Papua New Guinea won't tell her anything. It will just burn her white skin a deeper red. It will suck all the remaining moisture from her, stinging her, biting her, keeping her from sound sleep. The jungle rises thick on either side of the narrowing waterway, interconnecting overhead as if she were entering the bowels of a giant green serpent. Miraculously - or so it seems to her - she actually arrives somewhere at the end of each day, alive.

And closer, she hopes, to Robert Lewis.
  • Anthony Mason

    CBS News senior business and economics correspondent; Co-host, "CBS This Morning: Saturday"

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