Our journey aboard the Ombak Putih began in Sorong, in West Papua, a bush town that still feels 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. 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 Wallace spent six months in a straw-hut, surviving on stewed cockatoo, sago and rice, while he scoured the area for the red bird of paradise, which was his lifelong obsession. They are extremely rare, even today. But at dawn, on a display tree above the village of Bessir, where Wallace had lived, we were lucky enough to see two of them ( see photo, below).
Wallace was tall and gangly, with a bushy white beard. He was a strange bird in many ways, preferring the company of beetles to most human beings. He suffered extraordinary hardships: malaria, malnutrition, infected feet, chronic headaches,indigestion,insomnia, shipwreck – you name it, he had it. But he never gave up. Only towards the end of his time in Indonesia did he get homesick for England. Joseph Conrad called his book, The Malay Archipelago, his favourite bedside companion. For a modern reader his description of hunting Orangoutan in Borneo is shocking. 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. Wallace’s greatest claim to fame was that he elaborated the theory of evolution at the same time 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. 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, he outlined to Darwin his own version of the theory of evolution. 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 coral reefs of the Rajah Ampat Islands.
I will be broadcasting a short piece about this extraordinary journey 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 and where it will be published. So, please, stay tuned.