1 February, 2024

Alfred Russel Wallace endured shipwreck and starvation on the eight-year voyage that led to the idea of natural selection. 150 years on—and in rather more comfort—Mike Carter retraces his steps. 

By Mike Carter 

It was 3:30am and we were in a small boat trying to find the entrance to a tiny creek on a moonless night. Bioluminescence trailed behind us but ahead there was only a wall of black, the occasional spark of lightning revealing a row of jagged pinnacles. Creek found, we left the boat and waded through the mangrove swamp in single file. Somebody mentioned pythons. 

Back on land, in cloying mud, a man at the head of the line hacked his way through the rainforest with a machete. Huge flying beetles aimed for the beam of my headtorch and smacked me in the face. That same beam found giant spider webs and, in their middle, giant spiders. It was 30 degrees, with 95 per cent humidity, and I was as wet as if I’d had a bath fully clothed. 

Word came down the line to be quiet. Nobody had given the forest the memo. It sounded like an old dial-up modem, the cicadas pulsing like static; unseen, in the blackness, a hornbill flew past, its vast wings going whump, whump, like a glant’s heartbeat. 

It felt like a commando raid but it was nothing of the sort. We were here on the island of Misool, eastern Indonesia, to see a bird. Not just any bird, but a bird of paradise and its dawn courtship rituals. This was the rare, exotic creature that Alfred Russel Wallace called, in his 1869 book The Malay Archipelago, “one of the most beautiful and wonderful of living things”. Starting in 1854, the young naturalist had spent eight years travelling these islands, enduring unimaginable hardships-malaria, shipwreck, starvation, headhunters. Our early start seemed a small price to pay. 

“There,” whispered the man next to me, pointing up. He was Dr George Beccaloni, an evolutionary biologist, world authority on Wallace and our expert guide for this trip arranged by SeaTrek to celebrate the upcoming 150th anniversary of the publication of Wallace’s most famous book. I followed his finger up to the top of the tree; this was a lek site, George, 51, explained, where the male birds display their fantastical plumage to the females. 

I could see one male bird, then another, then another. These were Lesser Birds of Paradise, one of the 39 known species, with flank plumes of brilliant white and yellow, twice as long as their bodies, so that when they leapt between branches they looked like comets and their tails. They danced, strutted and hopped, tails and wings held high, calls exquisite. The females bounced around excitedly. The whole tree was alive with the displays. “It’s as close as an animal gets to creating art,” whispered a fellow guest. 

A few days earlier, we had set sail from Ambon, one of the more than 17,000 islands that make up the Indonesian archipelago, which runs along the equator for more than 3,000 miles. We were aboard the Ombak Putih (Indonesian for “white wave”), a stunning 42- metre, 12-cabin gaff-rigged pinisi sailing ship, built from ironwood in 1995 in Borneo along lines so traditional that the process is Unesco-listed. Along with her sister ship, Katharina, she offers expert- led cruises all over the archipelago. In this instance, she was to be our floating luxury home for the 12 days of the tour around remote eastern Indonesia, Raja Ampat and New Guinea following in the wake of Wallace. 

From Ambon we’d headed east, the crew sailing through the night, as was to become the pattern, so that when we awoke in the morning we’d find ourselves in a new world awaiting exploration. At Manipa Island, we went ashore, walking across the mud flats on a narrow jetty, beneath us millions of fiddler crabs, all waving their one big red claw, which looked to me like a welcome, but to George like the mating ritual it was. The village houses were made from bamboo poles and palm leaves. Many of the women wore turmeric and rice flour on their faces as protection against the equatorial sun so that they looked like they were in a Chinese opera. 

We walked into the forest and in a clearing came across two men sieving the pulp of the sago palm through mesh into a trough made from the tree trunk. It was a scene utterly unchanged from a drawing by Wallace in The Malay Archipelago. The sago paste is dried into cakes to make the staple carbohydrate for these remote fishing communities. Wallace had lived on them for years. “With the addition of a little sugar and grated cocoa-nut, [they] are quite a delicacy,” he wrote. 

We made our way along the north coast of Seram, stopping off at little stilt villages–the boat is often the only contact they will have with the outside world to buy fish for dinner. At Sawai, we went ashore and, picking up local guides, trekked into the dense and pristine forest of rattan and banana palms, durian and nutmeg trees, festooned with epiphytes and bird’s nest ferns. George went at the head of the line, turning over leaves and rummaging through rotting wood, finding beetles and scorpions, giant stick insects and praying mantis, huge spiders and centipedes, all deposited in plastic viewing beakers and passed back for the rest of us to see. “I’ve never seen one like this before,” said George. “Wouldn’t be surprised if this isn’t a new species”; “Look at this jumping spider mimicking an ant!”; “Listen to the noise this beetle makes if I tap its head…” He was as happy as I’ve ever seen a human being. 

The forest was full of huge butterflies, too, and George whipped out his net and waved it around, bagging first a butterfly with two large eyes on its wings so that it looked like an angry owl – “Deflection marks,” said George, “so a bird would focus on them and bite the wing but the butterfly survives. A theory first proposed by Wallace.” And then a glorious black and yellow bird- wing, among the largest butterflies in the world, with a wingspan of up to 25cm. On capturing one, Wallace had written “my heart began to beat violently, the blood rushed to my head and I felt…like fainting”. 

That night, after a dinner of chicken soup with quails’ eggs, followed by traditional Indonesian gado-gado salad and snapper bought in Sawai-for us, none of the hardships that once saw Wallace make a small parakeet last for two meals in his leaking, ant-infested hut- the anchor was raised and we headed north. Across the Seram Sea from us was Ternate. It was there in 1858 that, laid up with a malarial fever, and having concluded that the relationships between species were “as intricate as the twigs of a gnarled oak”, Wallace conceived the theory of natural selection independently of Charles Darwin and sent the great naturalist a letter to his home in Kent. “All my originality…,” wrote Darwin, who had been working on the theory for 20 years, to a colleague, “will be smashed.” 

Darwin was spurred into action and in 1859 published On the Origin of Species. To this day, Darwin is venerated; Wallace, who died in 1913, largely for gotten. George believes that here we see something of the English class system at work. Wallace was self-educated, from a humble background, an early socialist; Darwin was privileged, highly educated, establishment to the core. “History has a Darwinocentric view,” said George, who tracked down Wallace’s overgrown monument in a Dorset graveyard in 1998 (Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey) and helped raise the funds for it to be restored. “Wallace deserves to be acknowledged too.” 

We navigated on through the Raja Ampat archipelago, comprising about 1,000 steep, jungle-covered limestone karst islands, many with little stilt fishing villages clinging on to them, the water as clear as cut glass, the channels dotted with small mushroom-shaped islets balanced on slender columns that looked as if they were going to topple over with the slightest touch of the Ombak Putih’s wake. We took to the tenders and bobbed about under a rock overhang, where ochre cave paintings- fish, turtles, dolphins, the age of which nobody knows-sat alongside the hand- prints one often finds at ancient art sites, like greetings from the dead. 

At Tomolol, we swam for half a mile through a Stygian cave, dripping with stalactites. Then nearby (after paying a fee to Sama-Bajau sea gypsies who turned up, armed with bows and arrows, on a covered bamboo raft that was their floating home) we swam in a little lagoon crammed full of giant golden medusa jellyfish. Their tentacles were stingless, their isolated home predator-free, their gelatinous bodies pulsing like beating hearts as they enveloped me. “This is the closest you can get to experiencing what a swim in Pre-Cambrian seas would have been like,” said George. 

And then, as we did every day of the cruise, the tenders dropped us off to snorkel on a fabulous remote reef off a classic desert island that we had, as we always did, to ourselves. Raja Ampat has been dubbed a “species factory” by conservationists, who claim the vast, pristine coral gardens and marine life have the greatest density and variety on Earth – 1,459 fish species and more than 550 hard corals (more than 75 per cent of the world’s total). That day, I swam with a rare and critically endangered Hawksbill turtle, the look from its ancient, hooded eyes somehow feeling like a rebuke. I watched reef sharks flit past, saw enormous bump-head parrot fish, lionfish and giant puffers, and lost myself in vast shoals, thousands strong, of yellowtail fusiliers and moorish idols, batfish and surgeon fish. I met a sea snake in a narrow gully and flew over enormous table, fan and brain corals, giant clams and barrel sponges. I couldn’t imagine what Wallace would have made of the weird and wonderful adaptations of this undersea world had he been able to visit it. 

Afterwards, we sat on the deck with margaritas as the sea swallowed the sun. A column of 100,000 giant fruit bats rose from their nearby island roost and turned the amber sky black as they went to feed, sea eagles picking off the stragglers – survival of the fittest in vivid action. 

On one of our last days, we had another 3:30am start, this time to track down the Wilson’s bird-of-paradise. Of this highly embellished species, each with unique adaptations, the Wilson’s was among the most stunning. Even Wallace never got to see one. 

After a couple of hours, we arrived at a spot in the jungle where a grey tarpaulin had been erected with a few slits cut in it. Just feet in front of us was a male Wilson’s, the size of a thrush, leaping around on the ground, crazy iridescent curly tail feathers like a handlebar moustache, a bright turquoise skullcap on his head, feet of sapphire blue and slashes of primary colour-brilliant yellow and red-across its body, like a child had gone mad with the paintbox. The bird was busy tidying his “display court” of leaves and twigs. 

Without any natural predators or competition for the abundant nuts and berries, female birds of paradise select a mate not on the usual efficiency criteria -strength, foraging ability, speed–but effectively on how sexy they are. Think the court of Louis XIV. 

The female, drab in comparison, turned up for the show. The male went into his routine – only filmed for the first time in 1996-dancing, spinning. calling to her, urgently, longingly, flexing his fluorescent green collar so that his whole body became a brilliant viridescent disc, the inside of his mouth now fluorescent as well, so that he would look to her like an explosion of light and colour. Just feet away, George and I could hardly breathe. 

“This is one of the most astonishing natural history things I have ever seen,” whispered George. “Perhaps it’s a good job Wallace never saw it. He might have had a heart attack.” 

*Financial Times Weekend – January 2019