In Wallace’s Wake: Part Two ~ Penis Gourds and Birds of Paradise 2

Our journey aboard the Ombak Putih began in Sorong, in West Papua, or Irian Jaya, as it is known today. A bush town that services the resources grab currently taking place in Irian Jaya, Sorong felt like a place straight out of a Joseph Conrad novel. In an arts and crafts store, I even found penis gourds for sale. All shapes and sizes. Some of them rather strange. But it’s not often you get the chance to buy a penis gourd, so I snapped up six. One for me, one for my son and the others as gifts for friends. Then, on the afternoon of January 9th, we boarded the Ombak Putih (see the photo below), which would be our floating home for the next twelve days. And as the sun began to set, we raised anchor and began what would be a journey of a lifetime.
First stop was the island of Waigeo, where Alfred Russell Wallace, the great 19th century naturalist, spent six months in a straw hut, surviving on stewed cockatoo and pigeon, sago and rice, while he scoured the area for the creature that was his lifelong obsession: the red bird of paradise. They are extremely rare, even today. But at dawn, on a display tree above the village of Sawinggrai, near where Wallace had collected twenty-four examples in 1860, we were treated to one of ornithology’s high-five moments ( see photo, below).

A Red Bird of Paradise

Wallace was an exotic bird himself: tall, gangly, with a bushy, white beard and gruff voice, I think deep down he probably preferred the company of beetles to men. He was ill at ease in society; and though he did eventually marry on his return to England, women were one species that remained forever beyond his understanding. While in Indonesia, he suffered extraordinary hardships: malaria, malnutrition, infected feet, chronic headaches,indigestion,insomnia, shipwreck – a veritable catalogue of Job-like trials. In the face of such adversity, he showed extraordinary tenacity. Wallace never whined. Only towards the end of his time in Indonesia, having been away from home for five years, did he get homesick for England. Joseph Conrad called Wallace’s classic account of his travels, The Malay Archipelago, his favourite bedside companion. For a modern reader, his description of shooting Orangoutan in Borneo is distressing, to say the least. But it would be unfair to judge Wallace by today’s standards. Though he made his living by killing animals and shipping their carcasses to museums and collectors in England, he had a profound respect for nature and a poet’s eye for beauty. The David Attenborough of his day, he was also one of the forerunners of conservation. His greatest claim to fame, however, was that he elaborated the theory of evolution at the same time, using almost exactly the same terms, as Charles Darwin, though the two men were separated by thousands of miles. Synchronicity? The Jungian collective unconscious?
From Waigeo, we sailed south to the islands of Misool, another Wallace site, then north to the wonderfully named Boo Islands. From there, we had a long, stormy sea-passage to Halmahera. Our journey in Wallace’s wake ended on the volcanic island of Ternate. Here, we saw the house where Wallace is believed to have penned what would become known as ‘The Letter From Ternate.” In it, Wallace outlined to Darwin his own version of the theory of evolution. On the way, we had sailed hundreds of miles through empty, turqouise seas; seen dolphins and rare birds; visited sea-gypsy communities and snorkelled among clouds of irridescent fish on the staggeringly beautiful, coral reefs of the Raja Ampat Islands.

Our home on the waves ..

I will be broadcasting a short piece about this extraordinary journey in Wallace’s wake on the BBC Radio 4’s “From Our Own Correspondent” sometime in the next few weeks. I will give you a link to their website when it is up. I will also be writing a full account for a travel magazine and will let you know when it is published. So, please, stay tuned.

If you are interested in making this journey, too, please contact:

About sworrall

Writer with @Natgeo; author of The Poet and The Murderer; and the forthcoming Starcrossed: A Romeo And Juliet Story in Hitler's Paris (2022)

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2 thoughts on “In Wallace’s Wake: Part Two ~ Penis Gourds and Birds of Paradise

  • duan

    Hi 🙂
    was a great fun reading your blog. I am an Indoensia Biologist planning to do a very short biodiversity assessment in Gag, one of the tiny islands of Raja Ampat. Feel so pity (and upset) that some people in LIPI (Indonesian National Science Foundation) don’t even bother to publish / make it available online of some of very important data about Gag Island’s Flora and fauna.. 🙁

    duan dee (in Bogor, west Java)

  • sworrall Post author

    Hi Duan – thanks for contacting me. Your work sounds fascinating. Perhaps you would like to contact Seatrek’s Wallace expert, Tony Whitten, the Director of Floara and Fauna International? His email address is:

    Best wishes,