Planning my Indonesian travels

When I took a took a course in conservation biology during my year at the University of Victoria in 2000, a book titled “The Song of the Dodo” by David Quammen was highly recommended to complement the lecture material. It was a book about island biogeography in an age of extinction, a thick volume about patterns in natural history, evolution and species distribution in the world. I must admit: it took me quite a long time to finish reading the book, as it was so intense. However, I became immediately intrigued by one of the “main actors” portrayed in the book, an extraordinary naturalist named Alfred Russel Wallace, whose name and influential works were mentioned repeatedly in the course of the book. Wallace had extensively travelled through the Indonesian islands 150 years ago and – by concentrating on the distribution of beetles and birds, and independent of Charles Darwin – had discovered the process of natural selection, through which evolution happened. He also found that the fauna of the eastern islands of Indonesia was more closely related to that of the Australian region, while the animals on the western islands were more similar to those on the Asian mainland. The imaginative Wallace Line between Bali and Lombok as well as between Sulawesi and Borneo is still valid today and indicates the border between the Asian and Australian biological realms. Interestingly, Wallace was not only an enthusiastic naturalist but also a culturally sensitive anthropologist, who had a wonderful talent for describing the peculiarities of the many different peoples in the many different islands.

I was hooked. I also wanted to get to know some of the animals, plants, landscapes and peoples that Wallace had seen 150 years ago, and I wanted to see how much had changed since then. Two months of free time were all I had – compared to his seven or eight years of exploring the natural wonders in the archipelago a tiny fraction. But a start! Instead of trying to cover a huge area, though, I decided to concentrate on a few regions only and leave room for later discoveries. My previous travels had taught me that, to get the full experience of a place, it was better to spend as much time there as possible, absorbing the smells, tastes, sounds, local stories etc. With enough time for a great holiday at hand, I was happy to just take it easy, not to plan too many details, and to be able to change routes according to the weather, other travellers’ recommendations and my own instinct. Komodo and Sulawesi were on the short list of islands that I really wanted to visit, with the option of going to Borneo, if time allowed. But options I had plenty of:

“There are, in round figures, 17,500 Indonesian islands – making up 1.3 percent of the total land area of the earth – with more than ten thousand species of trees, about a tenth of the world’s flowering plant species, about an eighth of all mammal species, nearly a sixth of all reptile and amphibian species, a sixth of all bird species, and about a third of all fish species. In almost all plant and animal taxa, Indonesia has levels of species diversity and endemism that rank with the highest in the world. And among humans, Indonesia has the world’s greatest ethnic, linguistic, and cultural diversity.”

Before leaving for my summer holidays, I had read a beautiful nature and photography book called “Archipelago: the Islands of Indonesia” by Daws and Fujita, which was a great inspiration for my own photography and from which the above quote stems. My constant travel companions, however, were the following books:
“The Malay Archipelago” by Alfred Russel Wallace, apparently still one of the best travel books on the region
“The Song of the Dodo” by David Quammen
“Indonesia” in the Lonely Planet series

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