The Archipelago Journal: Ternate to Sorong

Colours hops on a cruise in eastern Indonesia to trace the travels of Victorian British explorer Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer with Charles Darwin of the theory of evolution through natural selection.

Words by Dr Tony Whitten Photography by Edmund Lowe


“Oh, how I wish I had known Alfred Russel Wallace.” That was my overwhelming feeling after first reading The Malay Archipelago, the book he wrote about his travels through Indonesia and Malaysia between 1854 and 1862.

It was first published in 1869 and has never been out of print. The book is a delightful travelogue of the eight years Wallace spent collecting specimens of mammals, birds, butterflies, beetles and snails, which were sold to private Victorian collectors and to museums. He travelled a total of some 65,000km in 60–70 separate journeys, either alone or with an assistant; collected over 100,000 insects and many thousands of mammals and birds; had numerous fevers; wrote sympathetically about the communities with which he interacted; and faced both sea storms and rogue currents. I still feel the same way about Wallace; the more I learn about him and visit the places he describes, the more I would love to sit with him on a forest log, chat about his ideas, enthuse over the beauty of the region’s exuberant wildlife and swap travel tales.


Wallace was a very humble and largely self-educated man who held Charles Darwin in high regard. In contrast, Darwin had studied at Cambridge, was part of an intellectual elite, and never had employment. Wallace had a flash of inspiration while he was in a fever on Halmahera that finally answered his question of what drove evolution. He wrote a succinct letter to Darwin detailing his ideas, and it was years before he understood what a profound impact this had on Darwin, who was unintentionally goaded by Wallace into writing his famous and world-changing book On the Origin of Species.


It was Wallace’s observations of the birds and mammals on his wide-ranging travels around Indonesia which caused him to reflect that there was a major difference between the species found in the east and west of the country. In the west, there was an Asian fauna with rhinos, primates, woodpeckers, squirrels and pheasants; and in the east, an Australian fauna with marsupials, birds-ofparadise and cassowaries. He determined that, for mammals and birds, there was a line between Bali and Lombok and between Kalimantan and Sulawesi which marked the divide between these two faunas. This became known as Wallace’s Line.

It was the inspiration for the owners of Seatrek Sailing Adventures in Bali to run cruises based on the life and travels of Wallace, and they asked me to lead them. We sail in great comfort aboard the Ombak Putih, a beautiful white traditional pinisi or double-masted ketch.


The guests get a chance to find and identify bugs, and to spend time with everything from jelly-like plankton in the dining-table aquarium to birds-of-paradise, from snails to giant coconut crabs, from stingless jellyfish to screeching parrots, from anemonefish to whale sharks, and from pitcher plants to giant forest trees – a veritable natural history smorgasbord! Sometimes I set camera traps overnight in the forests so that later we can see if any creatures have passed by while we have been sleeping. Some of the activities cause a degree of consternation before we start, such as wading in guano in a bat-filled cave to see a very rare crab, walking through a night-clothed rainforest, or swimming through a pitch-black cave; but with the encouragement of others, many tell me, they have just done the most exciting and awesome thing in their lives.

Two of the bird-of-paradise species we watch are on Waigeo Island in Raja Ampat, where my conservation NGO, Fauna & Flora International (FFI), is working with several villages to conserve the forests and the animals within them. We’re 114 years old this year and have worked in Indonesia for 20 years, majoring in community-based approaches.


We go snorkelling at least once each day and have the time and space to do this over a range of coastal habitats, each of which has its own enchantment. The fringes of mangrove swamps and extensive white-sand flats may not have the mind-stretching diversity of a good reef, but the animals and plants are different, and it’s possible to focus longer on fewer species while you swim by. Wallace waxed lyrical about the colours and abundance of life on coral reefs when he visited Ambon Bay, but I feel sorry that he never snorkelled. I’m convinced he would have loved it!

We go ashore on small, perfect little sandfringed forested islands excitedly pretending (briefly) that we are castaways. Wallace would often face disappointment when he went ashore at such places because he would have been looking for fresh water and often there is none. We have the luxury of returning to the boat when we want for ice-cold refreshment.


In some places we see sights that appear unchanged from the detailed descriptions given in Wallace’s book from over 150 years ago. For example, we can watch the red birds-of-paradise displaying and can compare what we see to his first-ever descriptions of the remarkable mating displays. I hope that in 150 years’ time, visitors to the same places will be able to discover that the wild beauty of Indonesia is still intact, and will still be tucking Wallace’s book under their arm as they travel.

Jakarta to Ternate

Flight Time 3 hours 20 minutes

Frequency 7 flights per week

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From Colours April 2017


5 Senses – Sound

When we sit on a wooden bench in the tropical rainforests of Waigeo Island, we know we are waiting for the birds-ofparadise to start singing. If you’ve never seen one, you might expect such gorgeous animals to have a mellifluous song. Think again. The red bird-of-paradise sounds more like an excited crow. When the males dance wildly in front of the rather drab females, the sounds of the cicadas, katydids, frogs and other birds are drowned out by the cacophony of these birds-of-paradise.