Hornbill Watercolor by Alfred Russel Wallace. 1855. Courtesy A.R. Wallace Fund
Pilgrimage to Mount Santubong. Malaysian Borneo

“When upon the subject of plants I may here mention a few of the more striking vegetable productions of Borneo. The wonderful Pitcher-plants, forming the genus Nepenthes of botanists, here reach their greatest development. Every mountain-top abounds with them, running along the ground, or climbing over shrubs and stunted trees; their elegant pitchers hanging in every direction…”

“Ferns are abundant, but are not so varied as on the volcanic mountain of Java; and Tree-Ferns are neither so plentiful nor so large as in that island. They grow, however, quite down to the level of the sea, and are generally slender and graceful plants from eight to fifteen feet high. Without devoting much time to the search I collected fifty species of Ferns in Borneo, and I have no doubt a good botanist would have obtained twice the number…”

“The forests abound with gigantic trees with cylindrical, buttressed, or furrowed stems, while occasionally the traveler comes upon a wonderful fig-tree, whose trunk is itself a forest of stems and aerial roots. Still more rarely are found trees which appear to have begun growing in mid-air, and from the same point send out wide-spreading branches above and a complicated pyramid of roots descending for seventy or eighty feet to the ground below, and so spreading on every side, that one can stand in the very centre of the trunk of the tree immediately overhead.”

~ Alfred Russel Wallace, Borneo 1855

The wet, heavy heat of Borneo seems to belch in indigestion with gutteral growls of thunder that burp and ricochet in the pensive air. Overhead a barrage of storm clouds scrape over the jungle itself – so low they can almost be touched. And in the background, behind it all, the incessant hum of an incomprehensible number of insects drones and hums an eternity of frenetic sounds.

We have come to make a pilgrimage up Mount Santubong – a place that should be remembered and visited by all good naturalists. While Darwin made the Galapagos famous for his discoveries that helped shape evolutionary theory decades later in England, Mount Santubong, like Wallace, remains largely forgotten by history. It was here though on the slopes of this tropical mountain by the South China Sea that Wallace penned his own theory of evolution on the spot before Darwin had even put his ideas together. Instead of being conserved like the Galapagos though, Santubong is increasingly being cut up into Malay resorts, golf courses, and shrimp farms. Talk persists of buying up the remaining land around the mountain, but funds can never be found…

And so Santubong remains forgotten. Its mystery kept hidden, like its summit obscured in perennial storm clouds. For me, hiking up here is a pilgrimage into the mystery of Wallace the man – the discoveries he made in the name of science and exploration, and the love he had of wild places and wild nature. Sweating up Santubong’s steep and muddy slopes it is also a fitting final adventure after almost four months chasing his ghost across South East Asia. Tomorrow I will return to Singapore to catch an onward flight back home. Today though a mountain remains to be climbed….

It is slow going hiking through air that feels like a sauna. With every few steps I have to wipe away a fresh stream of sweat that sops down my forehead. Everything feels damp, dank and organic. On the lower slopes towering strangler fig trees and rocky vine covered boulders bring Wallace’s descriptions of Borneo alive. It seems some giants do indeed remain here. In the coiled recesses of their buttressed roots I expect to see vipers, but find only mushrooms and seedlings reaching towards the light. Occasionally we hear the sounds of birds or monkeys trapezing through the canopy, but mostly the forest remains still and expectant.

On the higher slopes it gets steeper and our hiking turns into climbing. A long and elaborate chain of rope ladders continues on to the summit, but it only adds to the adventure. We take a breather near the top and meet a trio of older Malay woman making the same hike. They do this hike every weekend they say jokingly and suddenly us 20 somethings feel more than a little embarrassed. I can’t help but grin at the comedy of the situation, and wave them on with a laugh.

Near the summit I spot strange and unusual plants that give evidence to the unique microclimates these tropical peaks provide. Huge tree ferns, pitcher plants, and mountain rhododendrum bring Wallace’s collecting journals alive. It is also cooler here, whispering relief from the heat with drafty breezes on damp foreheads. Mist surrounds us as we stumble to the summit and a great sense of space pervades the air. Beside a rustic shelter surrounded by trampled down grass and snack wrappers it seems rather un-climatic. My wonder and enthusiasm begins to dim – does Wallace’s spirit still linger here?

But just then the mist clears for a moment and the sun comes out…Below the Sarawak river snakes through the lowlands of Borneo and beyond the enormous silvery expanse of the South China Sea comes into focus full of possibility. A gleam of color catches my eye and a big colorful butterfly wafts over the summit and disappears in the undergrowth below. I just have to chase after it…

Borneo Tom. Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo

“Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely-allied species.” ~ Alfred Russel Wallace from “On the Law which has regulated the Introduction of New Species, or the Sarawak Law”, 1855

“One of the most curious and interesting reptiles which I met with in Borneo was a large tree-frog, which was brought me by one of the Chinese workmen. He assured me that he had seen it come down, in a slanting direction, from a high tree, as if it flew. On examining it, I found the toes very long and fully webbed to their very extremity, so that when expanded they offered a surface much larger than that of the body…This is, I believe, the first instance known of a “flying frog, and it is very interesting to Darwinians as showing that the variability of the toes, which have already been modified for purposes of swimming and adhesive climbing, have been taken advantage of to enable an allied species to pass through the air like a flying lizard.”

~ Alfred Russel Wallace, Borneo 1855

Just across the South China Sea from Singapore lies the third largest island in the world, Borneo. It was here that Wallace first saw orangutans, hornbills, flying frogs, and carnivorous plants, and it was here that Wallace struck upon an important epiphany in his struggle to piece together the riddle of evolution. The important piece in that puzzle is now known as the Sarawak Law. It states that, “every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely-allied species.” This may sound rather self evident now but during Wallace’s time this idea would have been hearsay, scandalous. The collective “evolutionary” ideas of thinkers like Malthus, LaMarcke, Charles Lyell, and Darwin all contributed to Wallace’s own careful observations from collecting both in the Amazon and in Asia. Only by observing the minute differences not just between species, but within species could Wallace definitively make this claim, stating evolution in so many words.

But why here? Why in Borneo and not the Amazon or countless other places he visited? Perhaps it is the unique draw of this place, the special magic of Borneo. For me, visiting Borneo is like living out a childhood dream. Just the name itself is charged with associations of wildness, isolation, thick jungles, unusual creatures, and exotic tribal cultures. Flying in on the plane I feel giddy as big brown rivers come into view, huge expanses of green that make the provincial capital look small, and towering karst mountains rising in the distance. We’ve come here to the city of Kuching in Sarawak, a semi-autonomous state of Malaysian Borneo to see if Wallace’s descriptions of Borneo still exist and to interview a modern-day Wallace figure, and Wallace fan named Borneo Tom.

Borneo Tom, otherwise known as Tom McLaughlin is an interesting character. Like Wallace he has a rich and interesting history. And like Wallace he is drawn to biology and tropical culture. His first affair with Borneo began as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 70′s. Decades later after living as a conventional family man and biology teacher in suburban Maryland Borneo called him back. Something whispered in his ear to return to the heady memories of his youth and begin a new life. Now Tom once again lives in Sarawak and to his utter surprise has a new life, and family in Kuching. We were put in touch with Tom through the indefatigable and endlessly helpful Dr. George Beccaloni of the Natural History Museum London and founder of the Wallace Fund and website.

The capital of Sarawak is Kuching, divided through by the muddy Sarawak River. It combines a balanced mix of modern buildings with historical charm left over from the days of the Raja Brooke, the revered British governor of Sarawak during Wallace’s time. It is here by the pretty waterfront that we met Tom, eager to introduce us to this place he and Wallace have both called home. Along the waterfront small vendors sell snacks and trinkets to couples and tourists, while closer into town small shops and eating houses line narrow streets punctuated by old colonial buildings. On this side of the river it is quite developed with an abundance of Chinese merchants and families, while a short boat ferry across the river Muslim Malays still cling to the kampung, or village ways. It was here across the river that Tom took us on our first introductions for a delicious meal of spicy chicken satay, bowls of steaming noodles, and fresh fruit drinks.

Tom tells us about his life in Borneo and about Wallace’s visit here back in the mid 1800′s. During that time Sarawak was the entryway to the vast and little explored interior of Borneo. Ruled by Sir. James Brooke, the so called “White Raja”, Sarawak would have been like a bastion of British colonial influence at the edge of a vast and wild frontier. In other words, it was the perfect place for Wallace to base himself for natural history collecting expeditions. Wallace writes about his stay at a little cottage near the base of Mount Santubong, not far from Kuching. It was here that he tended his specimens and waited out the long rainy season as a guest of the Raja. And it was here that he pieced together his famous Sarawak Law. Surely, he must have had a lot of time to think out there during those long monsoon rains…

We came to visit what some scholars believe is that site, the ruins of the Raja Brooke’s old bungalow – a well known place situated between the foot of Santubong and the sea. According to Tom though this site doesn’t fit with the facts of Wallace’s descriptions. He believes the true site of Wallace’s cabin lies further away inland on a little hill and he aims to take us there. In fact he has brought along his entire biology class! Visiting the old ruins Tom incorporates our project into an excellent teaching lesson on evolution and the history of science. Doing his own explorations and research, as well as talking to village elders with generations of history in the area Tom shows us a different site that he believes is the true location of Wallace’s camp in Borneo and true origin of his Sarawak Law.

And so away we went, from old Raja’s ruins to mangrove beaches to a quite and unassuming little knoll. At the top was a small clearing in the bush and the faint traces of a foundation. Nearby is also a stream, an essential characteristic for a collector like Wallace with so many specimens to clean. Incredibly, the local people still speak of a white man who stayed here long ago, and of ghosts. At over 150 years it amazes me to think that this knowledge has been passed down that long! Letting this sink in we wandered in the nearby forests and filmed Tom orating the amazing story of Darwin, Wallace, and the race towards the theory of evolution. Down in the leaf litter looking for beetles Tom looks back with a mad glint in his eye as if possessed. I recognize the look – it is that same possessed spirit of wonder that comes across me every time I step foot into a tropical forest…

Interviews at Singapore National University

It is for such inquiries that the modern naturalist collects his materials; it is for this that he still wants to add to the apparently boundless treasures of our national museums, and will never rest satisfied as long as the native country, the geographical distribution, and the amount of variation of any living thing remains imperfectly known. He looks upon every species of animal and plant now living as the individual letters which go to make up one of the volumes of our earth’s history; and, as a few lost letters may make a sentence unintelligible, so the extinction of numerous forms of life which the progress of cultivation invariably entails will necessarily obscure this invaluable record of the past.”

“If this (scientific inquiry and collecting) is not done, future ages will certainly look back upon us as a people so immersed in the pursuit of wealth as to be blind to higher considerations. They will charge us with having culpably allowed the destruction of some of those records of Creation which we had it in our power to preserve; and while professing to regard every living thing as the direct handiwork and best evidence of a Creator, yet, with a strange inconsistency, seeing many of them perish irrecoverably from the face of the earth, uncared for and unknown.” ~ A.R.W, 1863

We’ve come to Singapore National University to visit with scientists and historians of science  to learn more about Wallace’s legacy in SE Asia in the modern day. Taking a bus from our guesthouse in Chinatown to the University we were warmly greeted by Dr. Leo Tan at the Raffles Biodiversity Museum. Dr. Tan is a first rate scientist, conservationist, and environmental educator with decades of experience and public service. His specialty is marine ecology and conservation. Touring the Raffles Museum with Dr. Tan he took us on a visual tour of the rich natural history of SE Asia on display in shells, seeds, and stuffed specimens all around us. According to Tan, despite the eclipse of Wallace in popular science his contributions remain vividly remembered and alive in the Malay Archipelago. His scientific discoveries and humble reverence for the peoples he encountered across the Malay Archipelago endear him to conservationists working in the region today, as I can attest from my own experiences chasing his ghost across this vast sprawling chain of equatorial islands…

Later in the afternoon we met with Dr. Peter Van Wyhe, a historian of science from Cambridge responsible for the Darwin Correspondence Project. Dr. Van Wyhe has a mind boggling list of publications and accomplishments in the History of Science. His specialty is Darwin and the history of evolution, though he was brought to SNU to begin a new Wallace Correspondence Project centered on Wallace’s contributions to evolution from the Malay Archipelago expeditions. As a man who has staked his career on the details of Darwin’s life and works I couldn’t help feeling Dr. Van Wyhe was expectedly a little biased, though he had many great insights on the contributions of Wallace. Asked what role social class in Victorian England played in the prominence of Darwin over Wallace Van Wyhe concluded that contrary to assumptions he felt Darwin and Wallace both enjoyed the privileges of the upper class, though Darwin more so enabling him to exert a much broader sphere of influence in the elite scientific community of Victorian England. Asked about priority and Wallace’s famous Ternate Letter elucidating the theory of evolution to Darwin Van Wyhe commented that even if Wallace’s original letter had been published outright instead of being sent to Darwin to be published jointly his “outsider” status would have made him easy to dismiss. Rather, for the idea of evolution to take hold it needed the prominence of a respected insider in the scientific community. So, rather than thinking of great discoveries as eureka moments, perhaps instead they can be better thought of as gradual, collective endeavors that eventually ripen to burst forth when the timing is right – as it was during the heyday of scientific discovery Darwin and Wallace both lived in.

Before we left Singapore we were fortunate enough to also meet the busy and charismatic Dr. Peter Ng Kee Lin, the Director of the Raffles Biodiversity Museum and an expert on biodiversity. His specialty is crustacean taxonomy and systematics. Waiting for him in his office we are surrounded by crabs! Hanging from the doorways, on the walls, and on book shelfs everywhere little knick knacks appear. This quirky, eclectic passion for biology always makes me marvel and smile in wonder. There is something special about the way some people can take even the most unassuming life forms – like beetles or crabs – and make them fascinating and cool. As a scientist involved in expeditions and conservation work throughout remote parts of SE Asia and the world I was interested to hear Dr. Ng Kee Lin’s perspective on the role of wonder in conserving the natural world today. What can we learn from Wallace to help us situate ourselves in nature and conserve biodiversity?

According to Dr. Ng Kee Lin there is much we can learn from Wallace. Wallace was a master field naturalist. His direct experience and observationa collecting on a daily basis enabled him to notice the subtle and minute differences in form, shape, and pattern that underpin natural selection actively working in nature. Without his keen observations in the field he would never have arrived towards the theory of evolution. Likewise, for us to be more effective stewards of the natural world we must situate ourselves in it. Me must get outside, get out in the field and re-attenuate our senses in other words. Only by re-establishing this perceptual link between ourselves and the ecological community of life that surrounds us can we begin to see, feel, and act on the global changes taking place all around us.

Before we left Dr. Ng Kee Lin conspiratorially offered to show us a live giant coconut crab from a recent expedition to Christmas Island, a remote Pacific Island off the coast of Sumatra. Armored like a tank and weighing perhaps 20lbs it was a monster! Like one of the tiny hermit crabs I collected as a child come to life in giant size. I felt like a kid all over again, grinning in wide-eyed wonder…

In the Concrete Jungle. Singapore

“There are always a few tigers roaming about Singapore, and they kill on an average a Chinaman every day, principally those who work in the gambir plantations, which are always made in newly-cleared jungle. We heard a tiger roar once or twice in the evening, and it was rather nervous work hunting for insects among the fallen trunks and old sawpits when one of these savage animals might be lurking close by, waiting an opportunity to spring upon us.”

~ Alfred Russel Wallace. Singapore. 1854-1862

The sweat rolls down your temples in the heavy heat and the humming of the cicadas blocks out the urban sounds of the city. Here in Bukit Timah it is easy to imagine Wallace’s fear of tigers in Singapore. Nervous business collecting insects indeed…

From swampy pepper plantations to hyper-modern city – Singapore today is one of the busiest ports in the world and a truly urban jungle. There is some wildness left though and I’ve come to see it with biologist Lena Chan from the National Parks Board of Singapore. Lena accompanied myself and some visiting film makers to Bukit Timah National Park where Wallace used to collect beetles. Nestled in the middle of this metropolis are the last remnant forests that Wallace saw the sawyers busily working on back in 1854. During our visit today Lena helped bring Bukit Timah alive as it must have been during the 1800′s when it was still just a swampy jungle port…

Away from the busy trails full of joggers Wallace’s Singapore does indeed come alive. Droopy elephantine palm fronds and wild durian trees dim the forest understory. Small forest birds burst through the gloom in a flash of color. Above a troop of macque monkeys slowly rustles through the low branches chirping to one another as they go. And below a monitor lizard slinks through the leaf litter in search of a meal while giant butterflies waft lazily overhead.With a little imagination it is possible to imagine tigers lying in wait behind every shadow as Wallace did collecting beetles here in 1854. It’s really a surprise to find such an impressively representative assortment of southeast Asian lowland rainforest in the middle of Singapore.

Later that afternoon we visited a new Wallace exhibit in the middle of the park. A plaque and storyline details Wallace’s important visit here, paying homage to his contributions to natural history and evolution. Not far away and just outside the park we also visited the same missionary church Wallace was so impressed by during his collecting forays here. Founded by French Jesuits Wallace was impressed by the selfless work of the missionaries to the Chinese communities here. He writes:

“No wonder they make converts, for it must be a great blessing to the poor people among whom they labour to have a man among them to whom they can go in any trouble or distress, who will comfort and advise them, who devotes his whole life to their instruction and welfare.”

The church is certainly bigger and more modern today. Many people come and go up the steps for an afternoon sermon in the fading tropical sun. Then as now it is a community meeting point enjoying bustling foot traffic. Of all the places I have visited along Wallace’s route I thought Singapore would be the most changed and yet I’m delightfully surprised by what does remain from Wallace’s journals so long ago. Wilderness, memory, and nostalgia wrapped up in the middle of the urban jungle….


Baba Nyonya. Old Malacca, Malaysia

“The old and picturesque town of Malacca is crowded along the banks of the small river, and consists of narrow streets of shops and dwelling-houses, occupied by the descendants of the Portuguese, and by Chinamen….The old fort, the large Government House, and the ruins of a cathedral, attest the former wealth and importance of this place, which was once the centre of Eastern trade as Singapore is now.”

~ Alfred Russel Wallace. Malacca and Mount Ophir. 1854

After the muddy rice fields and exotic funeral ceremonies of Torajaland, arriving into Kuala Lumpur was like stepping onto another planet. Fast food outlets dot the airport and hyper modern high speed rails whisk you away to the city center. Meanwhile, colorful head scarves, the spicy aromas of sizzling woks on the street, and the heavy tropical air all remind me I’m still in Southeast Asia. In Malaysia east meets west with one foot firmly planted in the past and one foot in the future.

In Kuala Lumpur I met my friend Michel, he has been cycling down the Thai-Malay panhandle while I have been chasing Wallace in Indonesia. After only one sweaty night in the city, we hopped on a bus south to the historic port city of Malacca. Wallace began his journey’s in the Malay Archipelago here and I want to see what remains of his descriptions. When he visited in 1854 Malacca was still one of the most important port cities in all of Southeast Asia, second only to Singapore. The streets teemed with merchants from all over the world, including Chinese, Malays, Indians, and the English colonial rulers of his time. Wallace found the variety of dress here as colorful as the characters themselves. He writes:

“The population of Malacca consists of several races…In costume these several peoples are as varied as in their speech. The English preserve the tight fitting coat, waistcoat, and trousers and the abominable hat and cravat; the Portuguese patronize a lighter jacket, or more frequently, shirt and trousers only; the Malays wear their national jacket and sarong (a kind of kilt), with loose drawers; while the Chinese never depart in the least from their national dress, which, indeed, it is impossible to improve for a tropical climate, whether as regards comfort or appearance. The loosely-hanging trousers, and neat white half-shirt half-jacket, are exactly what a dress should be in this low latitude.”

Indeed, during the few days Michel and I spent in Malacca the heat was like a suana. I tried to take Wallace’s advice by dressing lite in loose fitting Thai fishermen pants with a tea shirt. Like him we saw scores of different kinds of people. Chinese, Malay, Indian, Sikh, and European all mixed together in the historic streets of the old city, now a UNESCO world heritage site. Here tiny shops still cling to their specialized artisan industries, delicious eating houses lie behind every doorway, and the architecture mirrors the waves of the cities occupation from the Chinese to the Portuguese to the British.

Malacca’s one time ascent to greatness was all about location. During the 15th century the great trading empires of China, India, and Arabia intermixed and traded by sea. At the tip of the Malay Peninsula between these great empires Malacca grew from a sleepy fishing village to the most powerful trade center of the time. Zheng He’s famous trading fleets even called to port here in the 1400’s. So valuable was Malacca for trade to the Ming emperor that he sent the princess Han Li Po to marry sultan Sanshar Shah, thereby solidifying a powerful trade alliance and a long history of Chinese influence. Princess Han Li Po along with her 500(!) attendants began a distinct Chinese-Malay cultural tradition in Malacca. This unique Chinese-Malay culture is known as Baba Nyonya – best represented in arts, architecture, and the delicious cuisine this city is famous for.

What I’ll remember the most from my trip here is sampling delicious Nyonya delicacies with Michel – laksa fish soup, chicken rice balls, and a one of a kind icey-bean-rice flour desert called cendol. No matter where we went the food was out of this world and taking a long lunch was the best way to pass the heat of the day anyway. Since Malacca’s UNESCO designation in 2008 there has been a big boost in development, instead of historic restoration though most of it seems to go towards tourist hotels and shopping malls. I wonder – Is today’s Malacca a far cry from the great trading center of long ago, or just perfectly in tune with the modern trade of the 21st century?

Maybe a little bit of both….

Land of the water buffalo. Torajaland, Sulawesi

“I have rarely enjoyed myself more than during my residence here. As I sat taking my coffee at six in the morning, rare birds would often be seen on some tree close by, when I would hastily sally out in my slippers, and perhaps secure a prize I had been seeking after weeks. The great hornbills of Sulawesi (Buceros cassidix) would often come with loud-flapping-wings, and perch upon a lofty tree just in front of me; and the black baboon monkeys, Cynopithecus nigrescens, often stared down in astonishment at such an intrusion into their domains; while at night herds of wild pigs roamed about the house, devouring refuse, and obliging us to put away everything eatable or breakable from our little cooking-house. A few minutes’ search on the fallen trees around my house at sunrise and sunset would often produce me more beetles than I would meet with in a day’s collecting, and odd moments could be made valuable which when living in villages or at a distance from the forest are inevitably wasted. Where the sugar-palms were dripping with sap, flies congregated in immense numbers, and it was by spending half an hour at these when I had the time to spare that I obtained the finest and most remarkable collection of this group of insects that I have ever made.”

~ Alfred Russel Wallace. Sulawesi 1857

Passages like this one capture my imagination….

Enlightened, and a little deflated from the transformations I saw in Makassar and Maros I decided to head into the interior of Sulawesi. Perhaps in the mountains of Torajaland I could catch a glimpse of what Wallace once saw. If it still exists…

After a long overnight bus on wretched roads that snaked up into the mountains I arrived in the cool dawn light of Rantepao, the biggest town in Torajaland. I want to capture the rolling hills, wildlife, and rural feel that Wallace so enjoyed during his collecting trips in Sulawesi. I also want to learn more about the Toraja people.

As I’m finding out in Indonesia, exotic cultures are almost as numerous as the exotic species that thrive here. That being said Torajan culture is truly unique. Living in the interior people in upland Sulawesi often grew up in isolation from one another and developed close familial clans and belief systems. People cultivated rice fields, wealth was centered on buffalo, a caste system prevailed, and animism beliefs focused on ancestor worship, or aluk. With a wave of Dutch missionaries in the early part of the 20th century, and waves of tourism in the latter part of the century Torajan cultural has gone through some transformations. Today churches and funky tongkonan houses decorated with buffalo horns stand side by side. Tourist hotels have popped up in Rantepao, but just outside of town you can get lost in ancient mazes of rice fields. Essentially, the rituals of the past swirl together with those of the present.

Torajan culture is probably still most famous for its elaborate funeral ceremonies. These are giant social events that can go on for days where the entire village and community usually attends. Often the family of the deceased will save up money for years to pay for these funeral ceremonies. Needless to say it is quite a party, complete with dancing, chanting, poetry, and lots of animal sacrifice and subsequent feasting. At the one I attended dozens of water buffalo were sacrificed and hundreds of squealing pigs! It is not for the faint of heart, though sitting around with local Torajan families watching the festivities for a while it started to feel oddly like a family reunion of sorts. Minus the visceral animal sacrificing and colorful and exotic ceremonies the Torajans were just being social and paying tribute to their family elders as the rest of us. Perhaps after so much travel the superficial differences we have fall away easier and we’re free to see all our commonalities come into focus.

Later that day I visited some of the famous cliff cemeteries of Torajaland with new friends Adam and Kate, from the UK. We had seen enough poor water buffalos and piggies get slaughtered! We were curious to know where the deceased were taken after all the ceremonies ended. In Torajaland the dead are put into stone graves carved out of the numerous karst stone formations, buried in caves, or hung in hanging graves from the cliff walls. For the higher status deceased wooden effigies called “tau tau” are put up near the grave. Often many generations worth of tau tau sit shoulder to shoulder, looking eerily down on trespassers. Spooky, like stepping into another world entirely.

The world I liked the most though was that of the countryside. Hiking through Torajaland with Adam and Kate we met the local people wandering through rice fields and villages- playing with school kids, chatting with farmers, and staying the night in home-stays. We also saw lots of wildlife – huge butterflies, colorful birds flitting through the coffee gardens, and hawks hovering over the valley. The wild setting bore an uncanny resemblance to Wallace’s own observations in rural Sulawesi so long ago.

“Every bit of flat land was cleared and used as rice-fields, and on the lower slopes of many of the hills tobacco and vegetables were grown. Most of the slopes are covered with huge blocks of rock, very fatiguing to scramble over, while a number of the hills are so precipitous as to be quite inaccessible.”

For me hiking in Torajaland was like picking through a sort of eden. Rice fields march up the hillside in terraced snaking designs. Ducks and pigs wander between the paddies. Stands of coffee, cacao, banana, cassava and tall bamboo border the trails and jut out like islands from the rice fields. The vaulted roofs of tangkonan rice barns jut over the villages like the hulls of boats. And many a lazy water buffalo with a rope through the nose lolled in the mud beside each house. It was a lovely place, full of the beauty and nostalgia that Wallace so loved about rural Sulawesi…

Giant Butterflies & Monsoon Rain. Maros, Sulawesi

“It was along the path between the lower and upper falls, and about the margin of  the upper pool, that I found most insects. The large semi-transparent butterfly, Idea tondana, flew lazily along by dozens, and it was here that I at length obtained an insect which I had hoped but hardly expected to meet with – the magnificent Papilio androcles, one of the largest and rarest known swallow-tailed butterflies.”

~ Alfred Russel Wallace 1857. Maros District. Sulawesi

After reading his old journal entries from Maros I just had to visit…

Leaving the small islands of Muluku, I now find myself on a strangely-shaped island that looks a little like someone squished a big spider on the map. Wallace knew this island as Celebes, better known as Sulawesi today. Here the monsoon season should be over by this time of the year, yet it continues. So I here I am perched on the back of my young guide’s motorbike thinking how inconvenient this is as we speed right into a storm heading towards Maros…

Swerving through the mad outgoing city traffic in torrential monsoon rain was half the adventure. We wore ponchos but it made little difference. We both got completely soaked to the bone. Instead of dwelling on the ample near-death experiences of the journey though, I tried to view it as a sort of giant car wash ride! It helped.

Eventually leaving the main highway, we passed long, sweeping rice fields similar to Wallace’s descriptions so long ago in this region. In the distance tall, craggy karst ridges rise up above the plain. Below, the small figures of families in straw hats were everywhere working the rice fields. Maybe things haven’t changed so much here as when Wallace visited in 1857. Back then Wallace stayed here collecting specimens and made quite an impression on the local people. In The Malay Archipelago he writes:

“Not a single person in the village could speak more than a few words of Malay, and hardly any of the people appeared to have seen a European before. One most disagreeable result of this was that I excited terror alike in man and beast. Wherever I went, dogs barked, children screamed, and women ran away, and men stared as though I were some strange and terrible cannibal monster.”

Poor Wallace! When we finally arrived in Maros I stuck out awkwardly too. Instead of fleeing in terror though, the locals tried to cajole me over to their snack stands and souvenir shops. I’m a bule, a foreigner after all. I must want to BUY things. As it turns out Maros is a local weekend getaway spot from Makassar these days. Snack shops, little resturants, and kitschy butterfly souvenir stands ring a large parking lot near the famous falls. Admission is a few dollar apiece. Despite the fact that the smack of rain on the pavement is deafening and the river looks near flash flood stages, there are people everywhere!

The water was roaring like Niagra. It was a little terrifying to look at, especially from the old concrete stairs beside the falls – they looked like they could be swept away at any moment. From the top a walkway followed the river through dripping green jungle wedged in a karst canyon. It all looks as Wallace described- just replace sunbeams and butterflies with mud puddles and discarded trash. The walkway ends at a cave that plunge deep into the canyon walls.

It would be nice to explore this area  on a clear day and search for the wonderful butterflies that Wallace made this place famous for  long ago. Unfortunately the only butterflies we saw were boxes of dead specimens lining the park entrance – souvenirs for tourists. Leaving behind the falls of Maros, a huge blue and black butterfly about three stories tall straddles the entrance road. Behind this an equally large and scary looking concrete monkey statue looms with gorilla-like mopey arms.

I wonder – would Wallace be pleased at the attention he inspired, or rolling in his grave?

Edge of the World. Kai Islands, Indonesia

“This has been a day of thorough enjoyment. I have wandered in the forests of an island rarely seen by Europeans. Before daybreak we left our anchorage, and in an hour reached the village of Har, where we were to stay three or four days. The range of hills here receded so as to form a small bay, backed by a mass of coconut palms, among which the huts were concealed, and surmounted by a dense and varied growth of timber. Canoes and boats of various sizes were drawn up on the beach, and one or two idlers, with a few children and a dog, gazed at our prau as we came to an anchor.”

~ Alfred Russel Wallace. Kai – January 1st, 1857

On a map the Kai Islands appear like a swirling particle of dust on the empty outskirts of the Banda Sea. Approaching them by boat they are flat, formed from the rising up of coral sea beds, unlike the volcanic Banda Islands. Because of this these islands are sandy and poor in nutrients for growing food, but have the most gorgeous powder sand beaches I have ever seen. Situated just south of Papua New Guinea and North of Australia, the Kai Islands are remote and far removed in many ways from distant mainland Asia. Just thinking of all the small plane and boats it took to get here makes me feel tired. But make no mistake — these islands are a paradise and worth all the difficulties to reach.

When Wallace came here in 1857 he stayed only briefly using the islands as a supply base on his onward journey to Aru. Reading through his old journal entries from The Malay Archipelago, Wallace was enamored of the cultural and biological differences he found here. Wherever he went he observed and compared. Visiting Kai he enthusiastically noted that the people here were more similar in features and custom to Papua than to Malay people. Biologically speaking, Wallace observed Kai’s flora and fauna to be more similar to Papua than to Asia. Among the species Wallace observed and collected here were fruit pigeons, huge butterflies, many beetles, and the shy and nocturnal cuscus, one of the only mammals found here.

After my long journey and chaotic midnight arrival the previous night, waking up to the long ribbon of sand wrapping around this shallow bay is like emerging from a dream. Think of a crescent palm- fringed bay, long white tidal sand flats, dreamy aquamarine water, and a pleasant sea breeze accompanied by the sound of swooping curlews. This is what the bay at Ohuidertawun feels like. It is a place to wind down a few notches and let the enormity of the sea and skyscapes begin a conversation with you.

During my visit to the Kai Islands I tried to do just that by staying at a funky little guesthouse run by an eccentric Dutch-Muluku expat and his dog. I rested, read a book, and wrote in my own journal. I watched as the tide slowly crept up the sand flats and the clouds colored the transparent waters in pastel hues like a watercolor painting. And in the evening at low tide, I wandered the sand flats barefoot collecting clams with the villagers and watching the shorebirds. The dreaminess of this place was narcotic.

One day I walked across the peninsula to a place called Pasir Pajang, the most famously beautiful beach on the island. With my friends Guenther and Stevie we made a day of beach combing and lying in the sands on what is surely the most lovely beach in the world. Miles of white flour- dusted sand fringed by palms and long limitless expanses of shallow tropical water made this place unforgettable. Children splash and play in the shallow waters and local families occasionly stroll by from the village, but otherwise there is no one. Anywhere else in the world beauty like this would soon be defiled by hotels, resturants, and tourist trinket shops. The remoteness and isolation of this place though leaves it largely unscathed from the ravages of the 20th century. It feels like walking back in time, back to Wallace’s time where his descriptions over 150 years ago remain alive  today.

That evening we decided to just sleep on the beach. My Indonesian has gotten decent and chatting with a local family they arranged to bring us dinner. As the sun set we played in the shallow waters with the local kids who couldn’t get enough of us. Guenther launched the boys in soaring cannonballs and Stevie intrigued all the little girls with her pretty looks. While we were playing, a group of young men in a dugout canoe came in from a day of spear fishing on the reef. We went to investigate their catch — beautiful multicolored reef fish, spiny lobsters, and clams with wild pearls. The fish don’t get any fresher  and before you know it we had picked up a polka dot yellow and black beauty straight from the reef. The husband of the local family soon made a fire from coconut husks and grilled the whole fish over the coals right there for us. With mie goreng and rice it was a delicious meal. Salty and satisfied we washed it all down with local palm wine, called tuak.

After eating I walked the beach under the light of a bright full moon. Walking in the moonlight under the palms was intoxicating. Everything about this place feels magical, down to the ghostly shadows of fruit bats drifting over the palms sihoutted by the full moon. It feels like the edge of the world — here be dragons.

Across the Empty Quarter. Muluku, Indonesia

“The native boats that had come to meet us were three or four in number, containing in all about fifty men. They were long canoes, with the bow and stern rising up into a peak six or eight feet high, decorated with shells and waving plumes of cassowaries’ hair.”

“These Kai men came up singing and shouting, dipping their paddles deep in the water and throwing up clouds of spray; as they approached nearer they stood up in their canoes and increased their noise and gesticulations; and on coming alongside, without asking leave, and without a moment’s hesitation, the greater part of them scrambled up on our deck just as if they were come to take possession of a captured vessel. Then commenced a scene of indescribable confusion.”

~Alfred Russel Wallace. Kai Islands, January 1857

Boy was it hard to unattach myself from the beautiful Banda Islands. With my visa running out and transport on and off the islands scarce I decided to take my chances on the next boat East to the distant Kai Islands where planes stop on their way back to Ambon. Going in with some other young fellow adventures we bought tickets on the Kelimutu Pelni to Kai stopping through the Tanimbar Islands en route. The big government ferry boats that ply the distant extremities of the archipelago are called Pelnis. They are huge boats and serve as the main form of transport for people and goods throughout the archipelago. They vary in size, speed, and quality with local reputations amongst the islands. We weren’t optimistic for the two day journey ahead on the Kelimutu. You know it is a bag sign when even the locals tell you it is the worst pelni boat in all of Indonesia. Gulp…

In the dim hours of dawn the huge boat arrived in Banda’s tiny harbor and I made the fateful choice to jump on it. We had to run in haste to catch it and I was the last one up as the captain hoisted up the gang walk. Arriving on board breathless with my bags I said farewell to beautiful Banda and got ready for a long and memorable sea journey across the empty quarter of the Banda Sea. The boat was packed shoulder to shoulder with Indonesians, many eying us curiosly as the only bule, or foreigners out here. Every space inside and along the decks was taken up by people or bags of good. Trash overflowed from the corners, roaches scurried on the walls, and the bathrooms were like something out of your nightmares. Families slept on the floor on card board box tops, bags of rice and bunches of bananas sagged against the railing, and the men smoked endless clove cigarettes on the side decks gazing out to sea.

Amongst us bules are myself, Lari from Finland, Coen from Holland, and Stevie and Gunther from French Gaudalupe and Germany respectively, on a holiday from study in China. We are a ragtag group of young adventures. Some of us managed to nudge into a small spot on a side deck where I promptly hung up my travel hammock. My hammock was one of the smartest things I could have brought along for this voyage and many a local eyed my dangling bed wistfully. It seemed to serve as a good starting point for many conversations and Indonesian lessons to come with the locals.

Time passes slow on a boat at sea. The minutes and hours seem to hang drowsy and suspended, like the heavy equatorial air. Gazing over this eerily calm sea I thought about Wallace. Early sailors called these latitudes the doldrums because of the stagnating calm they would find themselves in after days of no wind. In an era when wind power was the only way to propel boats across the ocean the absence of winds in this hot and humid climate could mean death. Today many boats still avoid these waters because of their alternating calms and tempestous storms. Wallace spoke of both in his journals and nearly lost his life a number of times on such journeys.

Wallace’s most famous sea disaster occurred before he ever came to the Malay Archipelago. Traveling back to England after four years of collecting in the Amazon  the boat he boarded caught fire and sank. Wallace had to watch as his four years of collectiong sank beneath the waves. He barely escaped with his life, and yet even after what he endured and lost at sea, he returned to the seas and to adventure – this time in the Malay Archipelago, a world of islands. Standing in his shoes now 150 years later I cannot help but think of what he must have went through.  The long hours, lonliness, boredom, sickness, and unnerving island voyages in a time when this was truly the wild edge of the world. The further I chase Wallace’s ghost across the Malay Archipelago the more admiration I have for him. What an amazing man!

In the pre-dawn darkness of our second day at sea the boat arrived at port in the Tanimbar Islands, a group of islands just north of Australia. The scene of chaos that followed at port was reminiscent of Wallace’s descriptions. As the boat docked shouting, pushing, selling and buying organically commenced from a steady stream of passengers arriving and departing. We watched from the decks as impromptu table markets were set up, family members embraced, and new arrivals hauled their goods aboard and jostled for space all around us. Soon my hammock was stuffed on both sides with huge bunches of green bananas!

As the days rolled by I wrote, practiced my Indonesian with locals, and searched the sea for marine life. One day I spotted dolphins far off the stern, but otherwise the only thing to break the placid water were flying fish startled by the boat. They seemed to appear like magic, radiating outward from the bow like stones skipped from invisible hands. Late that night we finally arrived in the Kai Islands and quickly bartered a ride to the distant village of Ohoidurtawun, famous for its dreamy white sand bay. We fell asleep exhuasted and woke up to a beautiful new world…

Coral Triangle. Muluku Indonesia

“Passing up the harbor, in appearance like a fine river, the clearness of the water afforded me one of the most astonishing and beautiful sights I have ever beheld. The bottom was absolutely hidden by a continuous series of corals, sponges, actiniae, and other marine productions, of magnificent productions, of magnificent dimensions, varied forms, and brilliant colours. The depth varied from about twenty to fifty feet, and the bottom was very uneven, rocks and chasms, and little hills and valleys, offering a variety of stations for the growth of the animal forests. In and out among them moved numbers of blue and yellow fishes, spotted and banded and striped in the most striking manner, while great orange or rosy transparent medusa floated along near the surface. It was a sight to gaze at for hours, and no description can do justice to its surpassing beauty and interest. For once, the reality exceeded the most glowing accounts I had ever read of the wonders of a coral sea. There is perhaps no spot in the world richer in marine productions, corals, shells and fishes, than the harbor of Ambon.”

~ Alfred Russel Wallace. December 1557, October 1859, February 1860 – Ambon Harbor

In the mornings I like to go to the harbor, hang my feet off the dock, and see what apparitions appear. With the wane and ebb of the tide come fantastic creatures. Long speckled pipefish, other-wordly mantis shrimp, bright green mandarin fish, and cryptic octopus slink along the rubble of the harbor bottom.

Although the coral wonder world Wallace described in Ambon’s harbor has long since disappeared, in Banda’s waters his words are still alive. All around these islands a rich marine ecosystem flourishes encrusted in bumpy reefs, coral gardens, and shoals of tropical fish. Snorkeling the island rim I see kaleidoscopic corals sway in the warm waters shelter ing an unbelievable assortment of creatures – dozens of species of shrimp, crab, sponges, medusa, and reef  fish. Further out where the reefs drop off, I glimpse bigger creatures – lumbering Napolean fish migrate near the coral edge, shy reef sharks hover just beyond visibility, bold parrotfish audibly munch the corals, and the odd sea turtle patrols the deep drop-offs hovering like ghosts in the depths.
The Banda Islands sit in the heart of what is known as the coral triangle. Bounded by the Celebes Sea in the West to the shores of Papua New Guinea in the east and north to the Philippine Islands, the coral triangle is the marine equivalent of the Amazonian Rainforest. Within these shallow, warm water seas, a mind- boggling assortment of marine life thrives. The greatest diversity of iridescent corals, fish, mollusks, and marine plants in the world are  found here.
Snorkeling these coral gardens is to get lost in a beautiful dream.
My last day in the islands exploring the dreamy coral gardens is the memory that lingers the most.  Snorkeling off Banda Besar I came face to face with a school of hundreds of dolphins. They slowly migrated between the islands in small family groups. Below the surface they babbled in their eerie sea song language. Swimming closer a group of adults with a young baby gazed back at me silently. I was touched and shaken. Looking these wild creatures in the eye was like gazing at another human, an intelligent being. They swam under me looking back like beautiful silky ghosts before disappearing into the deep blue. It was a moment I will never forget.

As I say farewell to Banda’s beautiful reefs, I wonder: If Wallace had been given a snorkel and fins what would he have said of this undersea world? Would he have observed the same differences in marine species that led to his theories of evolution by natural selection on land? Probably, but we will never know…

To learn more about conservation efforts in the coral triangle, take a look at the World Wildlife Federations’ (WWF) work in the region: http://www.worldwildlife.org/what/wherewework/coraltriangle/index.html