Chapters and universe

Brazil
Michael Palin
(Weidenfeld & Nicolson, RRP $45)

All roads lead to Rio. This is self- described travel addict Michael Palin's assessment of Brazil, a new global superpower – and it is impossible to disagree. As the host of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, interest in the vast, vibrant country is at an all-time high and Palin is an entertaining, open-minded guide. And he can write.

We begin in Demini, in the remote rainforest of north-west Brazil, where Palin and his crew – the accompanying TV series has already screened here – visit the Yanomami, one of the 200 or so remaining indigenous tribes who haven't been wiped out by ''the depredations of slavery, disease and loss of land to loggers, farmers and miners''. The tribe lives in a large, circular dwelling that has a central, sand-covered plaza. Everyone sleeps in hammocks and there are no dividing walls. This is just one of many eye-opening encounters during Palin's journey, which happens over four stages, each months long.

Palin has ''complicated feelings'' about some of his exchanges with the diverse people he meets, particularly the isolated tribes. ''Ihave no motive other than curiosity about how these people live, but I feel I have nothing to offer them in return.'' He resolves that the one thing he can offer is the opportunity to increase awareness about the plight of Brazilian Indians.

Departing the dense rainforests of the Amazon, Palin visits the melting pot that is urban Brazil – from Salvador, with its strong African roots, to Rio's southern side,where ''you're never far from the arms of Christ or the sight of thecable car looping up to Sugarloaf Mountain''.

In Rio, he tries hard to grasp what it means to be a cariocan, the term used by residents to describe themselves (''cari'' meaning ''white man'' and ''oca'' meaning ''home''). The urban ''tribes'' are just as intriguing as the Indians, with their passionate loyalties and unique characteristics. Cariocans are sun- and fun-loving; when it rains, they ''evaporate from the street'' according to a local.

Palin's relentless curiosity is appealing. He is perceptive, appropriately witty and engaging. You certainly shouldn't judge this hardcover by its uninteresting, cheesy cover (the inside title page is far more eye-catching).

Brazil stands out from the many TV tie-ins that merely recount a pre-arranged and carefully managed itinerary. The photography is wonderful, too.

The Coast: A Journey Along Australia's Eastern Shores

Chris Hammer
(MUP, $29.99)

Chris Hammer has done what many of us dream of doing, especially at this time of year. The former Dateline correspondent has packed a bag and travelled the length of Australia's east coast, from the Torres Strait to  Tasmania, with a focus on the ever-changing seascape.

His narrative is part travelogue and part assessment of the impact of climate change on our precious, vulnerable coastline. Beginning at Heron Island, ''glowing gem-green on the wide and shallow reef'', he witnesses turtles hatching and the stunning underwater coral display.

He also spends time with researchers and gains insight into the devastation of coral bleaching, and there are many moments of contrast like this –  stunning natural beauty up against rising sea levels and temperatures.

Hammer also includes threads of his own life throughout his narrative, including the death of his father. He is reflective as he visits the Torres Strait, with its scattered islands already experiencing the adverse effects of climate change. The Coast is as much a warning call as it is inspiration for making that trip.

Great Adventures
Lonely Planet
(Lonely Planet, $49.99)

While it is lovely to linger over the stunning photos, there is a lot more to this sumptuously designed title – a follow-up to Great Journeys – than meets the eye. Aiming to inspire intrepid travellers, the 75adventures are divided into categories depending on what type of action you are seeking, be it ''ice and snow'', ''water'', ''hike'', ''bike'', ''dive'' or ''climb''.

There are  basics such as maps and details about the best and right amount of time to take for each journey – all essential if you are planning a significant and costly once-in-a-lifetime trip, and there are added extras.

Fancy climbing the frozen Louise Falls in Canada's Banff National Park? There's  information about the grading system for climbs in the Rockies. Want to hike in Patagonia? There is a suggested reading list including Bruce Chatwin's classic, award-winning account.

And if you enjoy diving, have you considered a midnight dive in the summer sun along a dramatic rift in the sea floor in Iceland's Pingvellir National Park?

This is a perfect  gift for the traveller in your life who might be tempted to ride the Tour de France high passes or paraglide from Mont Blanc's pearly  summit.

Outback Survival
Bob Cooper
(Hachette, $24.99)

Bob Cooper has been a bush survival instructor and outback guide for more than 30 years and it definitely shows.

This  plain-covered guide is dense with no-nonsense detail about how to get the most from Australia's more isolated destinations.

Cooper, a  one-time pearl diver, writes of his own scrapes with near-death as a young man keen on adventure in Western Australia.

He learnt the hard way the value of preparation, commonsense and a good fire. ''No fire equals low morale, an increased sense of loneliness and little control over the 'now','' he writes.

Throughout his narrative and the textbook-style section are key pointers entitled ''owl wisdom'' and they can be adapted for many different settings (even for the officeenvironment).

But it is the practical information that is the most valuable. Cooper covers everything: what to pack in a survival kit, how to make fire, how to find water (using the airconditioner overflow pipe in your car is one tip that could assist stranded travellers) and how to create shelter.

He appeals to anyone planning to get off the beaten track to consider the ''big five'': water, warmth, shelter, signals and food. Cooper explains how to achieve the lot.

Ghosts of Spain
Giles Tremlett
(Faber, $24.99)

First published in 2006, this evocative and insightful exploration of Spain has been updated with a new chapter that takes in that country's 2011 election, as well as the crushing economic crisis.

Tremlett is The Guardian's Madrid correspondent and has lived in the country for 20 years.

He knows his stuff and as a journalist is determined to look beyond ''toros, terroristas and tonterias''  – bulls, terrorists and silliness – which have so often been the focus of media accounts.

Instead, he confronts the ''ghosts of the past'', particularly the complicated and shameful legacy of General Franco and the civil war.  He meets Emilio Silva, who becomes adriving force in the push to exhume Francoist victims after DNA tests confirm  his grandfather had been buried in a mass grave in the country's north-west. The forensic expertise was developed in the aftermath of the Bosnian war.
Tremlett sensitively traverses history, politics and culture and while he does not shirk away from tragedy, he has a finely honed sense of humour and relishes opportunities to revel in the lighter, brighter aspects of Spanish life.

The story Chapters and universe first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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