|Photo by Hadi Zaher via flickr|
Juliet Rix, The Daily Telegraph, July 1, 2015
There was a rustling in the trees and a glimpse of creamy-white feathers, lacelike through the leaves. A flash of metallic green and a beak. A louder rustle and “There!”: Wallace’s standardwing bird of paradise is parachuting through the air, feathers fanned, “standards” flying, in full display.
It is rare to see a bird of paradise so easily. We were just 10 minutes’ walk from the road on the Indonesian “Spice Island” of Halmahera. We were travelling in the footsteps of Alfred Russel Wallace, the British naturalist who first described this extraordinary bird and who, here on Halmahera, formulated the theory of evolution by natural selection.
The letter he wrote to Charles Darwin on the subject was read at the first public presentation of the theory (which was then credited to both men) at the Royal Society in London in 1858. Wallace’s theory was the culmination of eight years’ travelling in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, observing wildlife and collecting 125,000 specimens (thousands of them new species), many of which are now in London’s Natural History Museum.
In his thoroughly readable book The Malay Archipelago, Wallace describes the region as: “to the ordinary Englishman… perhaps the least known part of the globe”. Today it is of course much more accessible and I joined a new tour led by Wallace scholar Dr George Beccaloni and his arachnologist wife, Jan.
David Attenborough said of Wallace: “There is no more admirable character in the history of science,” and our trip had something of the Attenborough epic about it. We started, like Wallace, in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo. Wallace spent many months here and much admired the local Dayak tribes. He found them scrupulously honest and non-violent… apart from their ritual headhunting.
Our excellent local guide, Rives, told us that he remembers when the last fresh head arrived in his village – which gave an extra frisson to our visit to a still inhabited local longhouse. In the community headhouse, a metal cage swung gently from the ceiling as its contents of smoked human heads stared emptily out.
I was grateful that we would not be spending the night beneath these macabre talismans, as Wallace once did. The Dayaks retain many traditional beliefs, including fear of the rafflesia, the world’s largest flower. Antonia, our jungle guide at Gunung Gading National Park, was robust about such things and lead us to this rare stemless flower in full bloom. Its weird fleshy petals, like great lumps of knobbled orange rubber, surrounded a cavernous flytrap giving off a whiff of rotten meat. No wonder the Dayaks believe it can steal your spirit away.
Antonia was Attenborough in disguise. She pointed out a handsome spiky-backed Borneo anglehead lizard watching us through bright blue eyes, and a flying lizard so perfectly camouflaged that when I looked away I could not find him again without help. We saw termite nests and colourful lantern bugs; strangler fig trees, sandpaper leaves (“don’t use them as toilet paper”) and rattan, known as the “wait-a-minute” plant for its tendency to catch on clothing.
Just as most people had set off back to base, Antonia swung her laser pointer into the canopy, where to my delight a patch of reddish fur morphed into a giant squirrel stepping lightly along a branch. There was more activity in the trees at Bako National Park, an area of mangrove, beach and cliff forest at the end of a pleasant boat ride. We were welcomed by proboscis monkeys, sitting in the trees peacefully munching.
They are known in Malay as orang Belanda (Dutchmen) and the association with Westerners is unfortunately obvious: the monkeys have large noses in white faces above pot bellies and knobbly knees. Bako was the perfect place for lazy wildlife watchers. “It is no good being a good trekker here,” we were warned, “the farther you go from HQ, the less wildlife you’ll see.”
So we wandered in a radius of a couple of hundred metres finding wild bearded pigs, skink, a foot-long millipede, an Asian leaf turtle in a swampy pool, a horned spider… and, stars of the show, two furry flying lemurs who had hung themselves on a tree trunk to sleep.
Among Wallace’s most prized Sarawak specimens were orangutans. The Malays made the connection between these great apes and man long before evolutionary theory: orang-utan means “man of the forest”. We stood in a jungle clearing in Semonggoh Orang-utan Centre as a local man hooted and cooed.
Nothing happened. We had almost given up when the orangs were suddenly right above us: a female and a baby hanging laconically from a branch. The viewing seemed distinctly two-way and it was heartbreaking to think of Wallace having to shoot and skin these fabulous beasts to gain his specimens. On one occasion he killed an orang only to find its month-old baby, which clung tightly to Wallace’s beard. For months he cared for “the most wonderful baby I ever saw” until it finally died.
Our only shots, thank goodness, were from our cameras. It was in Sarawak that Wallace wrote his first essay on the origin of species, published in London in 1855. It would be a few more years before he alighted on the mechanism of natural selection, but in the meantime he made his other most enduring discovery. Then as now, Singapore was the regional hub of trade and transport, but Wallace could not find a boat direct to Sulawesi (eastern Indonesia) and was forced to island hop.
He stopped first in Bali, which, even then, he considered too developed to be of interest, a view he regretted the moment he arrived on neighbouring Lombok. The islands are separated by a mere 22 miles but Wallace found that the wildlife “differed as much as those of South America and Africa”. In Bali (and to its west) the animals are typically south-east Asian with copious monkeys and squirrels, while on Lombok (and east) they are Australasian, rich in marsupials and cockatoos.
The divide is still known as The Wallace Line. We flew over this invisible boundary (now understood to be the border between two tectonic plates) to Sulawesi, and thence to the Moluccas, the “Spice Isles”. We landed on Wallace’s “earthquake tortured island of Ternate”, a conical volcano with cloves and nutmeg drying in the sun. In the congested strip of coastal habitation, we visited a large graffito of Wallace’s bearded visage on the local football stadium and George posed on a tiny street named after his hero, before crossing the water to Halmahera.
At our first stop by the side of the road, three perfect white cockatoos swooped past and settled in a tree to feed. There could now be no doubt that we had crossed the line. Hornbills followed, a long-billed crow and a stunning endemic blue-and-white kingfisher – and that was just the first five minutes. Halmahera was the place on our itinerary least changed since Wallace’s day. It has no industry, little tourism and significant primary forest in which new species – mammals and reptiles as well as insects – are still discovered.
Some of this forest is owned and protected by Rob Sinke, a Dutchman married to a local. It was to his eco-friendly Weda Resort that we headed. Weda Resort’s handful of houses are built just as Wallace describes his own Halmahera home – a base of stone followed by bamboo and sago palm. We spent three days doing much as Wallace did, watching spectacular birds and staring at extraordinary bugs. Some of us pushed through jungle unbreached for months or years, Rob’s guides hacking out the way. George held up praying mantises and handed me huge stick insects. He and Jan found Technicolor spiders and vast day-flying moths that – to their delight – they could not immediately identify.
At Weda, the food was delicious, the mosquito nets effective and we were all in good health. Wallace was not so lucky, though you could say his illness was a boon to science. It was while confined to bed in Halmahera that he had his epiphany; as soon as the fever lifted he wrote to Charles Darwin. It was this letter that prompted Darwin to publish his own theory – and the rest is history.
In Wallace’s Footsteps in the Malay Archipelago is a 2½-week tour run by Jon Baines Tours (020 7223 9485; jonbainestours.co.uk ). The tour includes all accommodation and transport through Singapore, Sarawak, Sulawesi, Bali, Ternate and Halmahera, national park entrance fees and almost all meals for £3,720 or £4,278, with international flights from London.
Weda Bay Resort, Halmahera (0062 812 443 3754; wedaresort.com ). Six one and two-bedroom environmentally friendly bungalows on a remote seashore, plus an open-sided communal lounge/restaurant. Private bungalow with three excellent meals and laundry from £120 a night.
Park Regis Hotel, Singapore (0065 6818 8888; parkregissingapore.com ). Smart, well-designed four-star hotel conveniently located in the central business district, minutes’ walk from China Town and across the road from the Quays. Doubles from £85.
The Bulakan, Ubud, Bali (0062 361 849 3377; bulakanboutiqueresortubud.com ). A boutique resort on the edge of Ubud with 24 large and comfortable rooms overlooking a very pleasant central pool. Small spa. Friendly, helpful staff. Doubles from £50.
Wallace’s iconic animals
Wallace’s standardwing bird of paradise
One of the thousands of species first described by Wallace, this remarkable bird of paradise is endemic to just three islands in the North Moluccas.
This large, comical monkey, right, is endangered and endemic to Borneo.
Wallace prized the orang-utan very highly and called it mostly by its Dayak name, Mias. There are two species, the Sumatran and the Bornean orang-utan.
This endangered species, endemic to the North Moluccas, is typical of the Australasian wildlife to the east of the Wallace Line.
Wallace’s golden birdwing butterfly
First described by Wallace, who calls it “one of the most gorgeously coloured butterflies in the world”. We saw many stunning butterflies and moths, but this large endangered species eluded us. "
This article was written by Juliet Rix from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.