On a Wing and a Prayer – One Woman’s Adventure into the Heart of the Rainforest

By Sarah Woods | Bloomsbury | Hardback | May 2015 | I 280 Pages | 8 Colour Plates | ISBN: 9781472912138

The Publisher’s View: When writer and intrepid traveler Sarah Woods set about discovering the jungles of Central and South America, her quest took her into some of the most remote tangles of vine-knotted jungles on the planet. In Panama’s rain-soaked Chiriquí highlands, she navigated seemingly impassable trails with a machete to reach quetzals with resplendent jewel-tone plumage.

Sarah sought the native wisdom of the indigenous Embera, deep in the Darien Jungle, in order to encounter the world’s largest and most powerful birds of prey-the elusive harpy eagle. Using razor-sharp talons to hunt and kill sloths and monkeys with deadly precision, these mammoth, winged dinosaurs hide a lesser-known, softer side: devoting great care to raising their young for the first two years of their lives. Seldom seen in the wild, Sarah struggled to demystify the fear-riddled legends and superstitions that earned the harpy eagle its name from early explorers.

Her voyage taught her much about the rich glories and mesmerizing spectacle of the natural world and also its challenges and dangers. She met the albino ‘moon children’ of Kuna Yala, swam in the Panama Canal, encountered left-wing guerrillas at the heart of Colombia’s five-decade conflict, and witnessed Amazonian beliefs and customs surrounding shape-shifting and the jungle afterlife. Sarah survived landslides, crash landings, mammoth floods, and culture clashes in mysterious untrodden lands, learning much about aspects of herself from the incredible wildlife and tribal peoples she encountered-arguably her biggest journey.

Other Views: I don’t think I’ll ever go to the jungles of South America – they seem hot, sweaty and full of biting things, but I was very glad to read this excellent account of people, places and wildlife, including, perhaps, a Harpy Eagle – Mark Avery

The Author: For two decades Sarah Woods has traveled nonstop, circumnavigating the globe in several directions and clocking up over six hundred thousand miles along the way. Now based in the UK again, Sarah is a regular travel expert/contributor to daytime TV and BBC radio, and she has written extensively for more than seventy magazines worldwide.

Fatbirder View: This is the most well-written birder’s book this year! I’m not surprised to learn that the author has earned her living as a journalist as she writes fluidly and, most important of all very accessibly. I think that the book has also had a very sensitive editor as the everyday language remains, which I think is vital to the flow. Its not quite ‘stream of consciousness’ but you do feel that you are privy to the thoughts, emotions, excitement and even fears of the writer, not outside looking in but inside her mind looking out and going through what she experiences. It’s a pleasure to read!

Being able to convey your delight is a skill in itself… ask yourself why David Attenborough is so hard an act to follow and the answer will surely be that his wide-eyed wonder and smile of pure joy when up close to gorillas or watching a bird-of-paradise display cannot be imitated… you have to feel it to show it. Sarah Woods does it on paper the way that Attenborough or entomologist George McGavin does it on film. What is more she does it from page one of the prologue by immersing you in the sounds and smells, thrills and visions of a crowded ethnic street scene or the calls and feel of a solitary sojourn in the rainforest. After a couple of decades travelling the world and seeing some of the most special places and wildlife it must be rather tame to be working for the good old RSPB. This one is a keeper; a book that will undergo that rarest of events, a second visit.

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