Richard Starks and Miriam Murcutt - Along the River that Flows Uphill: From the Orinoco to the Amazon (4 stars)

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Richard Starks and Miriam Murcutt - Along the River that Flows Uphill: From the Orinoco to the Amazon

(Haus)

The title of this neat little book does little to give away its contents, other than delivering the expectation of a jungle and an enigmatic black river. However it is well introduced by the authors and the reader is soon involved in planning a trip, commissioned by the Royal Geographic Society, to explore the peculiarities of the Casiquiare River – which apparently flows uphill – linking the Orinoco to the Amazon.

Reading about great explorers such as Livingstone and Humboldt imbues one with a sense of regret that there is so little left to discover in the modern day, but treading the less-frequented path can still elicit a satisfaction and may even throw up a few surprises. The way in which Starks and Murcutt embark on their adventure is nothing if not that pursuit of the unexpected – there is a sense of the unknown and more than a little excitement from the outset when they step off the plane in Caracas. The fact that the book is written with more than a little humour warms the reader to the author's partnership, and sets the scene for later events.

The easy-flowing prose is scattered with information about the history and people of the areas they visit, and there is a nod to social conscience along with details of the rather suspect scientific practices of the late 1960s. One of the main focuses of the book is the Yanomami tribes of the Amazon Basin; their history of ferocity and relatively unchanged nature makes them one of the few peoples still following a life that was once common to many in the Americas. A high point is the description of the Yanomami folklore of the world and the heavens, and the recounting of Stark's close encounter with the end of a poison-tipped arrow whilst in the pursuit of a rather unwise photograph.

Along the River That Flows Uphill is a pocket-sized delight, full of characters so complex and delightful that they almost seem unreal, whilst also being an insightful social commentary. Resolutions to explore the area are made, then abandoned, then remade by the reader as they are exposed to the wonders and dangers of this raw terrain. A climactic encounter on the edge of Colombia reminds us of the very real threat to those travelling off the beaten track, and an explanation of the strangest of all things – a river flowing uphill – is happily delivered before the duo return to the relative safety of Colorado.

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