This year marks the 150th anniversary of Alfred Russel Wallace’s classic book The Malay Archipelago. A cruise onboard a traditional Indonesian schooner explores the archipelago that has changed little since Wallace’s time. Text & Photographs by Mark Eveleigh
As we set sail in a luxurious 51-metre superyacht, I sipped my glass of champagne and hoped that our own voyage would be infinitely more fortunate than Wallace’s. The great timber pinisi (a traditional Indonesian schooner) was called Dunia Baru— meaning ‘new world’. As we sailed away from the spice-scented volcanic island of Ternate and passed the sturdy battlements of the Portuguese fort that has stood here for almost 500 years, it was hard to imagine that there was anything new about the scene at all.
Wallace had sailed these waters in far less salubrious style in his own locally built fishing boat. His little skiff was so unlucky that it was assumed to be cursed and his first crew ran away. When he finally got another crew together, his first voyage was fraught with disaster: “Two men were lost for a month on a desert island,” he wrote, “we were 10 times aground on coral reefs; we lost four anchors; the sails were devoured by rats… In 78 days of sailing we had not one single day of fair wind.”
Wallace’s classic book The Malay Archipelago was published in 1869. It was famous because it outlined Wallace’s theory of evolution and has been seen as the catalyst that goaded his contemporary Charles Darwin (who had by then returned from his Galápagos voyage) into formulating his theory on the origin of the species. Unlike the fairly monotonous prose of Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle, Wallace’s lively words make for exciting reading even now and still inspire travellers with an ambition to get to know the world’s greatest island nation. Indonesia boasts an estimated 17,500 islands, of which more than 6,000 are said to be uninhabited. It is a country that remains largely unexplored and The Malay Archipelago probably remains the best travel book ever written about the Indonesian islands. The Welsh naturalist spent eight years travelling about 22,000 kilometres around virtually unexplored islands, in what would much later become Indonesia. Despite only having six years of schooling, he became one of the greatest naturalists the world has ever known. He discovered more than 5,000 new species yet history has portrayed him as ‘the man who wasn’t Darwin’.
Ternate Island (Wallace’s base) was now falling back in our wake, as a small pod of dolphins began to leap in Dunia Baru’s bow wave. These days just a sleepy provincial town, this settlement was once a powerful sultanate. Its forests of nutmeg made it one of the richest places on the planet, and in the Middle Ages, inspired a sort of global super-race as the major European superpowers (Dutch, Portuguese, and British) vied for control over a crop that was literally worth more than its weight in gold and was reputed to offer a cure for the black plague.
During our first afternoon onboard Dunia Baru, we sailed southwards, dining on imported Australian steak and sipping Spanish reserva wine at the great timber table that stretches across Dunia Baru’s 11-metre beam. As the sun began to set behind a series of volcanic islands we entered the straits that early Portuguese explorers—in the age of exploration—called ‘Selat Patientie’, or the Strait of Patience.
Indonesia has been described as the world’s most invisible country. Ten per cent of the world’s languages come from these islands, and one in every 29 humans is Indonesian—yet most people would have trouble finding the country on the map. Even to people who know Indonesia well, the islands we were sailing through remain a mystery. To our east was the great craggy volcanic ridge of Halmahera, an island I’d explored on assignment the year before. Despite being more than three times the size of Bali, Halmahera remains almost totally unknown.
But it was Bacan Island, lying off the southeastern coast of Halmahera and at the bottom of the Strait of Patience, that had captured my imagination. Wallace knew it as ‘Batchian’ and spent about six months here collecting many of the estimated 5,000 new species he recorded for science.
An hour after dawn, I was woken by the rattle of Dunia Baru’s anchor chain and went up on deck for my first view of the legendary Bacan Island. We’d anchored in a sheltered bay on the island’s northern tip, and from the ship’s elegantly tilted bowsprit, I scanned the jungle-clad beach-line through binoculars looking for some signs of human habitation. When Wallace lived here, Bacan was a virtually uninhabited rainforest-covered wilderness that had been visited by few outsiders. A century and a half after the great naturalist’s visit, this island (about a third the size of Bali) appeared barely to have changed at all. There was a tiny hamlet in the distance, a collection of just about a dozen thatched roofs and a ramshackle timber jetty, so I decided to make that my landing point.
Dunia Baru is equipped with ample water-toys—windsurfers, SUPs, ribs, a sailing dingy, snorkelling gear, and a dive centre—but I rejected the use of powerful jet-skis and opted for a simple kayak as a low-key approach to the island. After several decades exploring some of Indonesia’s remotest islands, I was well aware that there’s a nationwide tradition of hospitality in what I’ve come to think of as one of the world’s friendliest countries. Bacan was no exception, and like so many places in this nation of voyagers, even the tiny hamlet turned out to be home to a more diverse community than I could ever have guessed.
“There are men from several different tribes here,” a young man who introduced himself as Opi Ibunya explained when I hauled my kayak onto the beach. “From Ternate, Galela tribesmen from Halmahera, Bugis men from Sulawesi… people from all over these islands.”
Ibunya explained that his village was formed only of men—workers who made a living producing copra oil from coconuts in an industry that dates back to before Europeans first saw these islands. Only he and one other man were left in the village because the entire workforce had paddled over to a neighbouring island to celebrate a wedding. As far as Ibunya knew, I was the first foreigner to visit his village. Moreover, he’d never even heard of the famous naturalist, and like much of the world, had no idea of the important part his home had played in the early science of natural history, or of its place as a catalyst for the theory of the evolution of our species.
Squatting under a shady tree I etched a drawing in the sand, trying to depict a rare bird—now called the Wallace’s standardwing—which is found only on Bacan, Halmahera, and neighbouring Morotai. The standardwing is a spectacular bird with its emerald green breast-shield and flowing white plumes, but it wasn’t surprising that Opi failed to recognise it from my clumsy portrait. It was on the little island of Bacan where Wallace collected some of his finest specimens, and on his last day, he came across a specimen of what is known as the world’s largest bee. Despite being about four times the size of a European honeybee, Wallace’s giant bee remained hidden for almost 40 years until it was rediscovered in early 2019. Bacan is notable for another little known fact: Wallace recognised this island as the most easterly point on the globe where monkeys can be found.
“A large black baboon monkey (cynopithecus nigrescens) is abundant in some parts of the forest,” he wrote. Opi confirmed that they still survive here in large troops: “There are lots of monkeys here if you go deeper into the hills,” he told me excitedly. “Maybe come back later, when I’ve finished work, and we can take my gun and shoot one!”
I declined my new friend’s offer as politely as I could, thinking that perhaps the island tradition retains a memory of my countryman’s historic visit here: after all, during his six months camping on the island, Wallace shot dozens of specimens to skin for museums and private collectors. The naturalist reasoned that the monkeys must have been introduced here by man, perhaps as pets among the fleets of pirate ships that periodically sailed through these islands on raids following the monsoon trade-winds. The pirates were from the Bugis tribe, and they became so feared that their name travelled around the world, corrupted into the myth of the ‘Boogie Man’ of countless childhood nightmares. The ships they travelled on were built according to one of the great seafaring traditions of the Middle Ages, and even today, in their shipbuilding communities on the southern coast of Sulawesi, ancient rituals are performed that are believed to bring these statuesque vessels literally to life. It was in the Konjo community (a branch of the Bugis) of Ara, Sulawesi, that Dunia Baru was built.
“This is the greatest Indonesian traditional timber pinisi that was ever built,” Mark Robba, the ship’s owner, told me as we stood on the teak deck later that day watching the 17-strong crew hauling on lanyards to raise the mainsails into a promising trade wind. “The hull alone took three years to hand-craft and the entire project—resulting in a traditional Indonesian pinisi that conforms to international superyacht standards—took seven years to complete.”
Robba, an American businessman who has now become an Indonesian citizen, had built the ship primarily as a holiday home for his family, but now charters it out to discerning travellers who want to explore some of the most enchanting islands on the planet. I’d sailed on Dunia Baru on several assignments in the past—exploring the dragon-infested islands of Komodo, and Indonesia’s fabled Alor Archipelago, where warriors welcomed us with the traditional dances of their headhunter grandfathers and fearless whale-hunters harpoon The ancient pinisi shipwright tradition has recently been recognised by UNESCO as part of ‘mankind’s intangible heritage’. Under a full head of sail and with an experienced crew—often including Bugis but made up of a cross-section of cultures from the world’s biggest island nation—it’s possible to experience what it must have been like to see remote islands through the eyes of the first explorers.
The sails were now bulging powerfully in a steady breeze, and as if in homage to a more romantic age of ocean-going travel, a pod of dolphins kept pace with the slicing keel and a small flock of frigate birds wheeled above the masts. Then, as we rounded the southern tip of Halmahera, a whale breached just 100 metres off our starboard bow and everyone on deck cheered in sheer childish excitement.
We set a course for the coral atolls around Weda Island, and that afternoon, I jumped overboard to swim with dolphins. We made a landfall on tiny Daga Island where we feasted on giant landcrabs, which live almost entirely on coconut. These creatures are said to exist only in this region, and with meat that is more succulent even than lobster, they are staple fare for the remote fishing community who welcomed us to their island.
We still had a long way to sail and soon slipped into the restful habits of life on a superyacht—reading, sunbathing, and watching the islands slip past. Occasionally, we stopped to anchor and dive a reef wall or snorkel in some unexplored lagoon.
Our voyage took us past 100 uninhabited islands before we made our final landfall on the island of New Guinea. This island (half of which belongs to Indonesia) is 12 times the size of Sri Lanka. When I looked back at the charts at the landfalls we’d made since leaving Ternate 10 days before, however, I realised that in the great scale of the world’s greatest island nation, we’d merely brushed a corner of the country.
“My charter company is called ‘Dunia Baru Adventures’ for a reason,” Mark Robba smiled, as we stood on the bridge panning our binoculars along yet another tantalisingly wild coastline. “Our first focus is adventures and expeditions into new and remote areas. There are so many new places to go, and even now, Indonesia remains a land of new frontiers.”
SET SAIL IN INDONESIA
Immerse yourself in the bounties of the archipelago’s lesser known islands, on a sea voyage inspired by naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace.
HOW TO VISIT
Dunia Baru boasts six spacious en-suite double cabins below deck and a wonderfully sumptuous full-beam master-suite on the aft upper- deck. Her fully-equipped dive centre is operated by a PADI-certified dive instructor, and she boasts a gourmet eat-in galley (plus prep room and walk-in refrigerator) where an experienced chef creates works of art in Indonesian, Asian, and Continental cuisine. All-inclusive rates to charter the entire yacht— including an impressive selection of water-toys (sailing dingy, jet skis, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, three powerful RIBs, etc.)—from INR 9,31,386 per day. For more information, contact [email protected].