Virtual Holiday in the Spice Islands

I need a holiday but that’s not going to happen while this global lockdown is in place. So I though I would take a virtual or pretend holiday and write a blog post about it.

Where to? I decided on Banda Neira in the Malaku Islands (Moluccas) of Indonesia, about midway between Sulawesi and Papua. It’s a place I’ve been meaning to go to for some time. Thanks to the internet and having already visited many Indonesian islands I can have a pretty good idea of what to expect so I’m writing this blog as if I have actually been there.

My Journey to Banda

I decided to take a ferry to reach Banda. There is an airstrip with scheduled flights from Ambon, Jakarta,Surabaya and Makassar, but the runway looks rather short and some of the smaller airlines in Indonesia do not have the best safety record and flights are always being cancelled or delayed so I thought a ferry might be a better option. A fast ferry leaves Ambon for Banda Neira twice a week at this time of year when the sea is calm but only if there are enough passengers. It normally takes 6 hours but this time it was cancelled. So I was left with the only other option which was to take a slow ferry Government-owned ferry called the Pelni which stops at Banda about twice a month from Ambon. The journey time was 12 hours but can take 19 hours depending on sea conditions. Basic meals were included in the IDR 100k ticket price (£5) consisting of rice, vegetables and tempeh.

Conditions on board were better in Alfred Russel Wallace‘s time when he travelled to Banda in 1857 by Dutch mail steamer. His meals were as follows:

6 a.m. tea or coffee
8 a.m. light breakfast of tea, eggs, sardines etc
10 a.m. aperitifs on deck; Madeira, gin and bitters
11 a.m. substantial brunch
3 p.m. tea and coffee
5 p.m. aperitifs again
6.30 p.m. a good dinner with beer and claret
8 p.m. tea and coffee
free-flowing beer and soda water between meals.

My arduous journey was rewarded when I clapped eyes on Banda which comprises three beautiful islands enclosing a tranquil harbour with crystal clear water overlooked by a classical shaped volcano and jungle clad hills.

During the Dutch colonial era these islands were the chief nutmeg garden in the world at a time when nutmeg was more highly prized than gold. The spice trade brought prosperity to the Dutch merchants living here who were so rich they didn’t know what to do with their money so they built fancy marble-clad houses with wide verandas. There’s not much evidence of wealth these days and the few Dutch houses which still survive are very much faded. Nutmeg is still cultivated here and you can catch a whiff of nutmeg, cinnamon and pepper in the air, along with the ever-present fragrance of Indonesia’s clove cigarettes.

My Accommodation

I decided to stay at the Mutiara Guesthouse in the centre of town for its cosy feel, its convenient location and its reasonable reviews. Breakfast was particularly good, banana pancakes, scrambled eggs, fried eggs or omelette, tasty coffee and fresh tropical fruits.

Better than in Somerset Maugham’s day. This is his description of breakfast in the 1932 novel The Narrow Corner which was set in Banda Neira (he called it Kanda-Meria):

Breakfast in the little hotels in the Dutch East Indies is served at a very early hour. It never varies. Papaia, oeufs sur le plat, cold meat and Edam cheese. However punctually you appear, the eggs are cold … the coffee is an essence to which you add Nestlé’s Swiss Milk … the toast is dry, sodden and burnt. Such was the breakfast served in the dining room of the hotel at Kanda and hurriedly eaten by silent Dutchmen, who had their offices to go to.

DAY 1. Sightseeing – Fort Belgica

After checking in the hotel and freshening up I set out to explore the sights of Banda. My first stop was Fort Belgica, a grey stone castle built on a low hill immediately behind the guesthouse. It was one of several forts built by the Dutch on the Banda islands to protect their grip on the world’s nutmeg trade. It replaced an earlier 16th century Portuguese fort.

The Dutch began their construction in 1611 and it was expanded, strengthened and rebuilt several times since with the current pentagonal design completed in 1673. It survived several earthquakes and volcanic eruptions but surrendered to the British without firing a shot in 1796 and again in 1810, having been handed back to the Dutch in 1803. The fort was comprehensively restored in 1991 and is now a tourist destination.

Fort Nassau

Next I took the short walk to Fort Nassau which was an earlier fort completed in 1609. It was rectangular shaped with four stone bastions and had a moat. It is now mostly dilapidated and overgrown. As you can see from this old photo it was overlooked by Fort Belgica.

Nutmeg Café

Feeling thirsty and hungry by now I took a break at the Nutmeg Café and filled up with some nasi goreng and nutmeg jam pancake washed down with iced nutmeg juice. To tell you the truth I’m not mad about the taste of nutmeg but the juice was refreshing.

Parigi Rante

This is an old well and monument listing the names of 40 Banda fighters and chiefs who were among the many killed in 1621 during Dutch Admiral Simon Janszoon Coen’s conquest of the islands. The names of 20th century Indonesian freedom fighters are also commemorated here.

Rumah Pengasingan Bung Hatta

This small, simple house is where Bung Hatta was exiled from 1936-42 as a political prisoner by the Dutch colonial authorities. Bung Hatta is the affectionate nickname for Mohammad Hatta (1902-1980) who is an Indonesian national hero and was one of the leaders in its struggle for independence from Dutch rule. During his exile he ran school classes on the terrace of the house which is now a cultural heritage monument and museum containing a few items of furniture and possessions of Bung Hatta.

Istana Mini

Just 100 metres away from Bung Hatta’s house is the Istana Mini, an elegant colonial mansion built in 1820 as residence for the Dutch Contrôleur or inspector/governor. The grounds of the residence face the sea and lead out to a small pier where the Contrôleur and his guests would have disembarked. The main building consists of six rooms, all sparsely furnished, in fact, empty. Off to one side is a statue of King Willem III (1817-1890).

Gereja Tua Banda

Heading back to the town centre somewhat I passed Gereja Tua Banda, an old church built in 1873. Inside, the floors are paved with a number of tombstones, mostly of Dutch but some British, many of which predate the church. Many of the tombstones are large in size and elaborately carved, similar to the Dutch graves found inside the ruined church on St. Paul’s Hill in Melaka.

Rumah Budaya Banda Neira

Just along the street, Rumah Budaya Banda Neira is a small local history museum. There are a few interesting exhibits here including a gory painting of Dutch atrocities against the Banda islanders using Japanese mercenaries to do their dirty work. Certainly the Dutch used harsh measures in order to gain monopoly control of the nutmeg trade and some scholars estimate that 90 percent of the local population was killed, enslaved or deported during the campaign.

San Tien Kong Chinese Temple

To round off the day I wandered through the main commercial streets, such as they are. There was not a lot going on. Most of the shops were shuttered for the day, or forever, and they were few in number anyway. The entire population of the Banda islands is probably less than 20,000 so I didn’t expect huge shopping malls. The Chinese population, who always add vibrancy to south east Asian towns and were once numerous on Banda, have largely moved on elsewhere and only a handful of families remain. The Chinese temple was locked up and looked abandoned. Christians too have mostly migrated to other islands following sectarian conflicts in the late 1990s.

I had a quick look at the fish market, all closed for the day but still reeking with dried fish being left out in the open on the waterfront. Then I watched the boats at Banda Neira Harbour overlooked by Gunung Api which is my destination for tomorrow.

DAY 2. Hiking Gunung Api

Early the next day I arranged through my hotel for a boatman to ferry me over the short stretch of water from Banda Neira market jetty to the trailhead of Gunung Api, the perfect cone-shaped volcano whose name means ‘fire mountain’.

The volcano is 640 metres high and is still active with the last major eruption being in 1988, spewing a river of lava into the sea, luckily not in the direction of Banda Neira town. This day there was just a wisp of smoke rising from the summit, merging with low clouds.

The hike started with a sweaty but pleasant climb through spice gardens, bamboo glades and jungle before emerging onto a steep, bare slope covered in loose volcanic scree. This part was exhausting but from around 500 metres above sea level the path became firmer underfoot. With no shade, I was glad of my long sleeves, hat, sunblock and plenty of water.

The view from the crater rim was great, especially looking back over Banda Neira. I could see the airport where the runway looked worryingly short from this height.

I descended without incident and managed to find a boatman to take me back. The whole hike took me about 4 hours up and down. Younger, fitter people can do it in 3 hours.

Peter Piper Picked A Peck Of Pickled Peppers

Since I still had nearly half a day I asked the boatman to drop me at the third of the Banda islands, Banda Besar. As the name suggests it is the largest of the three but thinly populated and mostly covered in jungle.

Above the village of Lonthoir, reached by a 313 step staircase, is Kelly Plantation where I could see nutmeg trees up close.

In the early 1600s nutmeg was more valuable than gold. A small sackful could fetch enough money in London to last a lifetime. Why was nutmeg so valuable? During the black death it was believed to be able to ward off bubonic plague, perhaps because fleas dislike the smell of nutmeg. (Would it work for coronavirus? Probably not). It was also an efficient preservative enabling meat to be kept for longer periods without going off.

As mentioned the Dutch tried every trick in the book to hang on to their nutmeg monopoly, even going so far as to produce deliberately misleading maps to hide the islands’ location. But eventually nutmeg plants were smuggled out and successfully transplanted elsewhere. One man who is often credited with doing this was Pierre Poivre, an 18th century French missionary, trader and adventurer who went on to to become Governor of Mauritius where he established botanical gardens for propagating his smuggled nutmeg, cloves and other spices. This man, whose name literally translates as Peter Pepper, is often thought to be the origin of the Peter Piper tongue-twister.

Benteng Hollandia

Close to Kelly Plantation is another old Dutch fort, Benteng Hollandia.

This fort was built of coral stone in 1624 to guard the sea approaches to Neira and to monitor the activities of the nutmeg and mace trade in the area.

The fort was devastated by an earthquake in 1743. It was later repaired but neglected again from 1811 onwards and today is in ruins. Its hill top position means that it has excellent views towards Gunung Api.

DAY 3. Snorkelling

My hotel manager recommended the best spots for snorkelling in the sparking, clear waters around Banda. The area where lava flowed from Gunung Api’s 1988 eruption is particularly rich in coral and diverse marine life. The lava initially killed off the coral but it has since recovered and regenerated into a beautiful underwater landscape.

I spent a pleasant day relaxing on the beach and snorkelling above the coral. Remembering the fortune-teller’s prophecy in which I am to be eaten by a shark (see here) I didn’t go looking for reef sharks.

That completes my virtual holiday. Having spent some time researching this post I think I now know the Banda Islands quite well and there’s no need for me to visit in real life. That’s saved me quite a lot of money. Thrifty Traveller!

In Search Of Wallace – Part 7: East Java


Continuing with my In Search Of Wallace series, last week I travelled to Surabaya in Indonesia to try to retrace Alfred Russel Wallace’s footsteps in East Java which he visited in the summer of 1861.


In italics below are extracts from The Malay Archipelago in which he describes the area.

“The Dutch mail steamer brought me from Ternate to Sourabaya, the chief town and port in the eastern part of Java, and after a fortnight spent in packing up and sending off my last collections, I started on a short journey into the interior. Travelling in Java is very luxurious but very expensive, the only way being to hire or borrow a carriage, and then pay half a crown a mile for post-horses…”

Mr Yudha, my driver for this trip. Oddly enough, I found travelling here expensive too. I had to rent a car with driver in order to visit all the places mentioned in Wallace’s book. Instead of half a crown, I paid Rupiah 1,155,000 for six hours rental which sounds a lot (USD 88) but is probably cheaper than Wallace’s cost in today’s equivalent value.

“As this kind of travelling world not suit my means, I determined on making only a short journey to the district at the foot of Mount Arjuna, where I was told there were extensive forests, and where I hoped to be able to make some good collections.”

The extensive forests are mostly no more, replaced with paddy fields, housing and industrial estates. Gunung Arjuna is a dormant volcano (3,339m) connected by a saddle to its active neighbour, Gunung Welirang (3,156m).

“I stopped at Modjokerto, a small town about forty miles south of Sourabaya, and the nearest point on the high road to the district I wished to visit. I had a letter of introduction to Mr. Ball, an Englishman, long resident in Java and married to a Dutch lady; and he kindly invited me to stay with him until I could fix on a place to suit me. A Dutch Assistant Resident as well as a Regent or native Javanese prince lived here. The town was neat, and had a nice open grassy space like a village green, on which stood a magnificent fig-tree (allied to the Banyan of India, but more lofty), under whose shade a kind of market is continually held, and where the inhabitants meet together to lounge and chat.”

Mojokerto today is still fairly neat though its narrow streets are clogged with cars and motorbikes.This colonial era house could perhaps have been home for the Dutch Assistant Resident, though not the same one that Wallace saw, since the date on the gable is 1912.

This is probably the open grassy space that Wallace mentioned, now called Alun-Alun Mojokerto. The magnificent fig-tree has gone and is replaced with a monument bearing the text to Indonesia’s declaration of independence.

“The day after my arrival, Mr. Ball drove me over to the village of Modjo-agong. On our way we stayed to look at a fragment of the ruins of the ancient city of Modjo-pahit, consisting of two lofty brick masses, apparently the sides of a gateway.”

Almost certainly, Wallace was referring to this famous gateway, known as Gapura Wringin Lawang and one of many Majapahit Empire archaeological remains in this area.

“The extreme perfection and beauty of the brickwork astonished me. The bricks are exceedingly fine and hard, with sharp angles and true surfaces. They are laid with great exactness, without visible mortar or cement, yet somehow fastened together so that the joints are hardly perceptible, and sometimes the two surfaces coalesce in a most incomprehensible manner. Such admirable brickwork I have never seen before or since. There was no sculpture here, but an abundance of bold projections and finely-worked mouldings.”

This close up of a restored section of the gateway is an example of the fine brickwork which Wallace admired so much. Earthquakes and 155 years of exposure to the elements have taken their toll on the structure since Wallace’s day.

“Traces of buildings exist for many miles in every direction, and almost every road and pathway shows a foundation of brickwork beneath it–the paved roads of the old city.”

Relief map at the museum with white markers showing the locations of Majapahit remains in the vicinity of Trowulan.

“It is much to be regretted that the Dutch Government does not take vigorous steps for the preservation of these ruins from the destroying agency of tropical vegetation; and for the collection of the fine sculptures which are everywhere scattered over the land.”

There is now a museum (Majapahit Museum, Trowulan) where hundreds of statues, sculptures and other stone works are displayed. The museum was closed for renovation but an accommodating security guard allowed me to view the outdoor exhibits.

“In the house of the Waidono or district chief at Modjo- agong, I saw a beautiful figure carved in high relief out of a block of lava, and which had been found buried in the ground near the village. On my expressing a wish to obtain some such specimen, Mr. B. asked the chief for it, and much to my surprise he immediately gave it me. It represented the Hindu goddess Durga, called in Java, Lora Jonggrang (the exalted virgin).”

According to The Alfred Russel Wallace Website this carving found its way into the Charterhouse School Museum in Godalming, Surrey, probably donated to the school by Wallace who live nearby. The carving was subsequently auctioned off by Charterhouse and somebody paid £2629 for it at Sotheby’s in 2002. Presumably it is now in private hands somewhere. If you would like your own deity sculpture there are a number of roadside studios close to Wringin Lawang where skilled craftsmen could probably knock you up a copy for a reasonable cost.

“The road to Wonosalem led through a magnificent forest in the depths of which we passed a fine ruin of what appeared to have been a royal tomb or mausoleum. It is formed entirely of stone, and elaborately carved. Near the base is a course of boldly projecting blocks, sculptured in high relief, with a series of scenes which are probably incidents in the life of the defunct. These are all beautifully executed, some of the figures of animals in particular, being easily recognisable and very accurate. The general design, as far as the ruined state of the upper part will permit of its being seen, is very good, effect being given by an immense number and variety of projecting or retreating courses of squared stones in place of mouldings. The size of this structure is about thirty feet square by twenty high, and as the traveller comes suddenly upon it on a small elevation by the roadside, overshadowed by gigantic trees, overrun with plants and creepers, and closely backed by the gloomy forest, he is struck by the solemnity and picturesque beauty of the scene, and is led to ponder on the strange law of progress, which looks so like retrogression, and which in so many distant parts of the world has exterminated or driven out a highly artistic and constructive race, to make room for one which, as far as we can judge, is very far its inferior.”

Here are some other historic sites which I visited in this area which Wallace may also have seen:

Pendopo Agung (a recent construction but on an ancient sacred site).

Bajang Ratu Temple.

Candi Tikus.

“Wonosalem is situated about a thousand feet above the sea, but unfortunately it is at a distance from the forest, and is surrounded by coffee plantations, thickets of bamboo, and coarse grasses. It was too far to walk back daily to the forest, and in other directions I could find no collecting ground for insects. The place was, however, famous for peacocks, and my boy soon shot several of these magnificent birds, whose flesh we found to be tender, white, and delicate, and similar to that of a turkey.”


“The Java peacock is a different species from that of India, the neck being covered with scale-like green feathers, and the crest of a different form; but the eyed train is equally large and equally beautiful.”

This is a view of modern day Wonosalem. Not likely to find many wild peacocks here these days.

“After a week at Wonosalem, I returned to the foot of the mountain, to a village named Djapannan, which was surrounded by several patches of forest, and seemed altogether pretty well spited to my pursuits. The chief of the village had prepared two small bamboo rooms on one side of his own courtyard to accommodate me, and seemed inclined to assist me as much as he could.”

This is how Japanan looks today. Wallace might well have stayed right here, in the Village Head’s Office, though of course the compound has been modernised since.

“The weather was exceedingly hot and dry, no rain having fallen for several months, and there was, in consequence, a great scarcity of insects, and especially of beetles. I therefore devoted myself chiefly to obtaining a good set of the birds, and succeeded in making a tolerable collection. I also obtained here a specimen of the rare green jungle-fowl (Gallus furcatus), whose back and neck are beautifully scaled with bronzy feathers, and whose smooth-edged oval comb is of a violet purple colour, changing to green at the base. It is also remarkable in possessing a single large wattle beneath its throat, brightly coloured in three patches of red, yellow, and blue.”

Gallus Furcatus

“The common jungle-cock (Gallus bankiva) was also obtained here. It is almost exactly like a common game-cock, but the voice is different, being much shorter and more abrupt; hence its native name is Bekeko.”

Gallus Bankiva

Six different kinds of woodpeckers and four kingfishers were found here, the fine hornbill, Buceros lunatus, more than four feet long, and the pretty little lorikeet, Loriculus pusillus, scarcely more than as many inches.

Javan Rhinoceros Hornbill

Javan Parakeet

“In a month’s collecting at Wonosalem and Djapannan I accumulated ninety-eight species of birds, but a most miserable lot of insects. I then determined to leave East Java and try the more moist and luxuriant districts at the western extremity of the island. “

I don’t know if it was there during Wallace’s time, but, if it was, he could have saved himself a lot of trouble if he had travelled on further to Malang where there is an extensive bird market selling many beautiful species such as rainbow lorikeets, oriental bay owls, canaries, Indonesian songbirds and this kingfisher.

In Search Of Wallace – Part 6: Peninjau, Borneo


After spending 9 months at Simunjan (see last post), Alfred Russel Wallace made a shorter exploration of Bukit Peninjau, a small hill (1,646 feet high) some 20 km, as the bird flies, from Kuching town centre. He was initially accompanied by Sir James Brooke, the Rajah of Sarawak, whom he had met in Singapore and who maintained a small cottage on this hill. ‘Rajah’ was a grand job title, but Brooke had only been granted the role by the Sultan of Brunei some 14 years earlier and Sarawak was still in its rudimentary stage of development. As such, think of the cottage as more of a wooden shack than a palace. Wallace stayed at the cottage from 13–20 December 1855 and between 31 December 1855 and 19 January 1856.

White Rajahs of Sarawak. James Brooke is the one of the left. He ruled from 1841 until his death in 1868. Two of his successors and descendants were Charles Johnson Brooke (1868 – 1917), right, and Charles Vyner Brooke (1917-1946), centre.

Wallace described the hill as follows:

“On reaching Sarawak early in December, I found there would not be an opportunity of returning to Singapore until the latter end of January. I therefore accepted Sir James Brooke’s invitation to spend a week with him and Mr. St. John at his cottage on Peninjauh. This is a very steep pyramidal mountain of crystalline basaltic rock, about a thousand feet high, and covered with luxuriant forest. There are three Dyak villages upon it, and on a little platform near the summit is the rude wooden lodge where the English Rajah was accustomed to go for relaxation and cool fresh air.”

Wallace would have approached the hill by river, disembarking at the jetty where the village of Siniawan now stands.

The quaint village of Siniawan, with its single street of old wooden shophouses, holds a night market every weekend drawing tourists and locals from nearby Kuching. The wooden houses look old enough to have been around in Wallace’s time but are apparently only 60 or so years old.

Wallace continues:

“It is only twenty miles up the river, but the road up the mountain is a succession of ladders on the face of precipices, bamboo bridges over gullies and chasms, and slippery paths over rocks and tree-trunks and huge boulders as big as houses. A cool spring under an overhanging rock just below the cottage furnished us with refreshing baths and delicious drinking water, and the Dyaks brought us daily heaped-up baskets of Mangosteens and Lansats, two of the most delicious of the subacid tropical fruits.”

Langsats are tasty fruit but will make your hands very sticky as I found out once while eating them in a cinema in Hong Kong.

Local government officials announced a few years back an intention to promote Bukit Peninjau  (also known as Bung Muan and Gunung Serumbu) as a tourist destination and at least the place is signposted.

Sign pointing the way to Bukit Peninjau, the hill in the background, which is considered sacred to the Bidayuh community.

My trip to the hill was unfortunately a bit of a wash-out.


The sky looked fairly bright as I approached the foot of the hill.


But as soon as I parked my rental car the heavens opened and the hill disappeared behind the clouds.


I took shelter under the eaves of the Tourist Information Centre. Here you are supposed to be able to hire a local guide for RM50 to take you up the Wallace Trail but the place was locked and there was nobody around. Visitors are advised not to go alone but having no other choice, I dropped my contribution into the donations box and set off up the hill once the rain had eased off somewhat.


There is a map with estimated climb times. According to their estimates it should take nearly 4 hours to reach the peak.


There were quite a lot of arrows pointing the way which was reassuring but the path itself was overgrown with dense foliage which I dislike (I would make a very poor Wallace being scared of snakes, spiders and other creepy crawlies!).

Bamboo Bridge
Bamboo Bridge. Illustration from The Malay Archipelago.

Wallace was impressed with the versatile qualities of bamboo and the ingenious ways in which the local tribesmen put it to good use. In this chapter of The Malay Archipelago he wrote about bamboo bridges and I was pleased to see this example of one at Bukit Peninjau.


The wooden hut here is similar to ones I have seen in Peninsular Malaysia used as watch houses to guard over valuable durian trees during the ripening season. It might perform the same purpose here.

He was also fascinated by ladders made by driving bamboo pegs into a tree trunk:

“I was exceedingly struck by the ingenuity of this mode of climbing, and the admirable manner in which the peculiar properties of the bamboo were made available. The ladder itself was perfectly safe, since if any one peg were loose or faulty, and gave way, the strain would be thrown on several others above and below it. I now understood the use of the line of bamboo pegs sticking in trees, which I had often seen, and wondered for what purpose they could have been put there.”


I was amazed to see a similar ladder in almost the same location 160 years after Wallace’s time, the only difference being that they now use blue plastic twine to secure the pegs instead of strips of wood bark.


By the time I reached Batu Tikopog, a rock with an unusually smooth cleft, the rain started to intensify with thunder and lightning in the air. I decided to abandon my trek to the peak since visibility would have been zero. It’s a shame I didn’t manage to see the site of Brooke’s cottage either. Nothing remains of the cottage now except an indistinct clearing in the jungle. Plans to rebuild the cottage were announced a few years ago but nothing yet seems to have happened. Perhaps I’ll revisit one day once the cottage has been rebuilt.

My faithful Malay boy Ali. Source: Wallace Autobiography 1905 Vol.1

After Christmas in Kuching, Wallace returned to Bukit Peninjau, this time accompanied by his English assistant and a Malay servant.

“A few days afterwards I returned to the mountain with Charles and a Malay boy named Ali and stayed there three weeks for the purpose of making a collection of land-shells, butterflies and moths, ferns and orchids. On the hill itself ferns were tolerably plentiful, and I made a collection of about forty species. But what occupied me most was the great abundance of moths which on certain occasions I was able to capture. …during the whole of my eight years’ wanderings in the East I never found another spot where these insects were at all plentiful,…It thus appears that on twenty-six nights I collected 1,386 moths.”


The hill is still teeming with insects. Most of Wallace’s moth collecting took place at night but even during the daytime this place has some of the noisiest bugs I’ve ever heard as this ten-second video attempts to show.

“When I returned to Singapore I took with me the Malay lad named Ali, who subsequently accompanied me all over the Archipelago. Charles Allen preferred staying at the Mission-house, and afterwards obtained employment in Sarawak and in Singapore, until he again joined me four years later at Amboyna in the Moluccas.”

Writing in his autobiography many years later, Wallace wrote about Ali:

When I was at Sarawak in 1855 I engaged a Malay boy named Ali as a personal servant, and also to help me to learn the Malay language by the necessity of constant communication with him. He was attentive and clean, and could cook very well. He soon learnt to shoot birds, to skin them properly, and latterly even to put up the skins very neatly. Of course he was a good boatman, as are all Malays, and in all the difficulties or dangers of our journeys he was quite undisturbed and ready to do anything required of him. He accompanied me through all my travels, sometimes alone, but more frequently with several others, and was then very useful in teaching them their duties, as he soon became well acquainted with my wants and habits.

He was less glowing about Charles Martin Allen who was just a teenager when Wallace took him to South East Asia as his collecting assistant. In his letters , Wallace complained about Allen’s carelessness and inability to learn.

Of all the Wallace trails I have visited so far this one is perhaps the most interesting and is fairly easy to access from Kuching. Pity about the weather though! Try to go on a dry day and see if you can get hold of a guide.

A map showing the location of Bukit Peninjau appears on my previous post about Wallace.

To read about another trip up Bukit Serumbu in Wallace’s footsteps, this one in 1912, see here.

In Search Of Wallace – Part 5: Simunjan, Borneo


Alfred Russel Wallace spent 15 months in Borneo from November 1854 to January 1856. After exploring in the vicinity of Sarawak town (Kuching) he made a journey into ‘a part of the interior seldom visited by Europeans’.

This is how he described the area in The Malay Archipelago:

“In March 1865 I determined to go to the coalworks which were being opened near the Simunjon River, a small branch of the Sadong, a river east of Sarawak and between it and the Batang- Lupar. The Simunjon enters the Sadong River about twenty miles up. It is very narrow and very winding, and much overshadowed by the lofty forest, which sometimes almost meets over it. The whole country between it and the sea is a perfectly level forest-covered swamp, out of which rise a few isolated hills, at the foot of one of which the works are situated. On the slope of the hill near its foot a patch of forest had been cleared away, and several rule houses erected, in which were residing Mr. Coulson the engineer, and a number of Chinese workmen. I was at first kindly accommodated in Mr. Coulson’s house, but finding the spot very suitable for me and offering great facilities for collecting, I had a small house of two rooms and a verandah built for myself. Here I remained nearly nine months, and made an immense collection of insects.”

Click on the expand map symbol in the top right corner to view a larger map.

I thought I would have little chance of tracing this location based on such a scanty description but I found on the map the small town of Simunjan where the Simunjan River meets the Sadong River. A couple of miles from the town is the only hill for miles around which is today known as Gunung Ngeli (though it is more of a Bukit than a Gunung given its modest height).

Further internet searches revealed that this hill was once a coal mining area and this was indeed the place where Wallace spent nine months in 1865.

It is a 170km drive (each way) from Kuching and it took me about 3 hours to get there in my Perodua hire car. But the trip was worth it as Gunung Ngeli was, a few years back, converted into a recreational park with a trail and steps all the way to the top, so I was able to have a good look around.

I made this short video to show how Gunung Ngeli looks today.

Wallace stayed such a long time here because it was so rich in insect life. He adopted the practice of paying locals one cent for each insect brought to him and this yielded great results:

“I obtained from the Dyaks and the Chinamen many fine locusts and Phasmidae (stick insects) as well as numbers of handsome beetles.”

Stick Insects On Display at Putrajaya Natural History Museum.

“When I arrived at the mines, on the 14th of March, I had collected in the four preceding months, 320 different kinds of beetles. In less than a fortnight I had doubled this number, an average of about 24 new species every day. On one day I collected 76 different kinds, of which 34 were new to me. By the end of April I had more than a thousand species, and they then went on increasing at a slower rate, so that I obtained altogether in Borneo about two thousand distinct kinds, of which all but about a hundred were collected at this place, and on scarcely more than a square mile of ground. The most numerous and most interesting groups of beetles were the Longicorns and Rhynchophora, both pre- eminently wood-feeders.”

Remarkable Beetles Found At Simunjon, Borneo. Image from The Malay Archipelago.

Beetles in Putrajaya Natural History Museum.

“My collection of butterflies was not large; but I obtained some rare and very handsome insects, the most remarkable being the Ornithoptera Brookeana, one of the most elegant species known. This beautiful creature has very long and pointed wings, almost resembling a sphinx moth in shape. It is deep velvety black, with a curved band of spots of a brilliant metallic-green colour extending across the wings from tip to tip, each spot being shaped exactly like a small triangular feather, and having very much the effect of a row of the wing coverts of the Mexican trogon, laid upon black velvet. The only other marks are a broad neck-collar of vivid crimson, and a few delicate white touches on the outer margins of the hind wings. This species, which was then quite new and which I named after Sir James Brooke, was very rare. It was seen occasionally flying swiftly in the clearings, and now and then settling for an instant at puddles and muddy places, so that I only succeeded in capturing two or three specimens.”


It was while Wallace was at Gunung Ngeli that he hunted and killed more than a dozen orang-utans, which nowadays would be a despicable thing to do but in his era would have been the only way to study the species in detail and besides, he financed his trip by selling skins and specimens to museums and collectors.

FEMALE ORANG-UTAN The Malay Archipelago

He describes these encounters in considerable detail. Here is one such excerpt:

“On the 12th of May I found another, which behaved in a very similar manner, howling and hooting with rage, and throwing down branches. I shot at it five times, and it remained dead on the top of the tree, supported in a fork in such a manner that it would evidently not fall. I therefore returned home, and luckily found some Dyaks, who came back with me, and climbed up the tree for the animal. This was the first full-grown specimen I had obtained; but it was a female, and not nearly so large or remarkable as the full-grown males. It was, however, 3 ft. 6 in. high, and its arms stretched out to a width of 6 ft. 6 in. I preserved the skin of this specimen in a cask of arrack, and prepared a perfect skeleton, which was afterwards purchased for the Derby Museum.”

I enquired with Derby Museum to see whether they still held any of Wallace’s specimens as I though it would be interesting to visit next time I am in UK. This  was their response:

“Derby Museums do not hold any orang-utan specimens collected by Alfred Russel Wallace. This is despite his book, ‘The Malay Archipelago’ (1869), clearly referring to material being killed and collected for Derby Museum. We now know these specimens are in the World Museum Liverpool which was then known as the Derby Museum, named after the main donor, the 13th Earl of Derby (resident of the nearby Knowsley Hall), whose bequeathed natural history collection formed the basis of their collections.”

Once stuffed and mounted at the museum, Wallace’s orang-utan skins might have looked something like this sorry specimen on display at Putrajaya National History Museum.

After my climb up and down Gunung Ngeli, which took about 90 minutes, I drove on to the small town of Simunjan. which was probably non-existent or just getting established in Wallace’s time. No old buildings survive as the town is situated on a bend in the river and is prone to erosion. The earliest structures were washed away and the present town of around 60 shophouses dates mainly from the 1960s.

Simunjan Town Centre, May 2016

There are various theories as to how Simunjan got its name. The most plausible, and the one which Wallace might have found interesting, is that it was named after a bird called the Munjan as shown on this billboard.


There was not a lot to see in the town but I had a light lunch and was warmly greeted by the friendly inhabitants.

School kids playing in a beached boat at Simunjan.

Next Instalment: Bukit Peninjau

In Search Of Wallace – Part 4: Palembang, Sumatra


Alfred Russel Wallace visited Sumatra only once and stayed a relatively short time, from November 1861 to January 1862, which is perhaps surprising given that the island is massive (more than double the area of Great Britain) with, at that time, vast swathes of barely explored rain forest.

Wallace's Route from Batavia to Palembang

This is how he described his journey to Palembang:

“The mail steamer from Batavia to Singapore took me to Muntok (or as on English maps, “Minto”), the chief town and port of Banca. Here I stayed a day or two, until I could obtain a boat to take me across the straits, and all the river to Palembang.”

The tin mining island of Bangka was for a time annexed by the British and it was Stamford Raffles, in a blatant act of sycophancy, who renamed Muntok after his East India Company boss Lord Minto, Governor General of India. When the Dutch resumed control of Bangka the name Minto was quietly dropped.

On his voyage, Wallace would have passed by the island of Billiton (now Belitung), another former tin mining centre whose name lives on in the giant mining company BHP Billiton.

The Musi River at Palembang.

“A good-sized open sailing-boat took me across to the mouth of the Palembang river where, at a fishing village, a rowing-boat was hired to take me up to Palembang–a distance of nearly a hundred miles by water.”

That’s a long way in a rowing boat!

Map of Palembang in 1885.

“The city is a large one, extending for three or four miles along a fine curve of the river, which is as wide as the Thames at Greenwich. The stream is, however, much narrowed by the houses which project into it upon piles.”

Palembang is a much bigger city now with an area of 142 square miles and a population of over 1.7 million. The Musi River is still the life blood of the city and its banks are lined with houses, mosques and shops on stilts.

“Palembang is built on a patch of elevated ground, a few miles in extent, on the north bank of the river. At a spot about three miles from the town this turns into a little hill, the top of which is held sacred by the natives, shaded by some fine trees,and inhabited by a colony of squirrels which have become half-tame.”

Wallace may have been referring to Bukit Siguntang, an archaeological site and the highest point in the city (just 37 metres above sea level). Didn’t see any squirrels though.

Wallace found little to collect in the vicinity of Palembang and went further inland for 50 miles or more to the south west on the road towards Bencoolen. He spent time near the villages of Lorok, Moera-dua (Muara Dua), Lobo Raman (Lubuk Raman) in search of specimens.

I decided not to try to replicate Wallace’s journey to these villages since I thought it would be irksome for little reward. Instead I flew on to Bencoolen (Bengkulu) which I’ll write about in a later blog.  However you can read the account of someone who did make the journey to Lobo Raman in 2012 here:

While staying in the interior Wallace found time to write a letter to Charles Darwin expressing his frustration with the poor collecting conditions:

Sumatra, 100 miles E. of Bencoolen

Here I have had to come 100 miles inland (by Palembang) and even here in the very centre of E. Sumatra the forest is only in patches and it is the height of the rains so I get nothing – a longicorn is a rarity and I suppose I shall not get as many species in 2 months as I have in 4 days in a good place. I am however getting some sweet little Lycaenidae (gossamer winged butterflies) which is the only thing that keeps my spirits up.

long- tailed parroquet
Long Tailed Parroquet. Source: Gould, John, 1804-1881

While in Lorok he obtained a parroquet:

“The only bird new to me which I obtained at Lorok was the fine long- tailed parroquet (Palaeornis longicauda)”

These dried mounted Papilio Memnon butterflies at Putrajaya Natural History Museum appear to have lost their ashy blue markings.

“During a month’s collecting, I added only three or four new species to my list of birds.In butterflies I was rather more successful, obtaining several fine species quite new to me, and a considerable number of very rare and beautiful insects. The first is the handsome Papilio memnon, a splendid butterfly of a deep black colour, dotted over with lines and groups of scales of a clear ashy blue.”

Leaf Butterfly
Leaf Butterfly Kallima Paralekta. Photo: D. Gordon E Robertson

He was amazed by the leaf butterfly:

“In its position of repose it so closely resembled a dead leaf attached to a twig as almost certainly to deceive the eye even when gazing full upon it. I captured several specimens on the wing, and was able fully to understand the way in which this wonderful resemblance is produced.”

CHIEF’S HOUSE AND RICE SHED IN A SUMATRAN VILLAGE. Illustration from The Malay Archipelago

Wallace described the decorative Sumatran village houses.

“The houses are raised about six feet on posts, the best being entirely built of planks, others of bamboo. The former are always more or less ornamented with carving and have high-pitched roofs and overhanging eaves. The gable ends and all the chief posts and beams are sometimes covered with exceedingly tasteful carved work, and this is still more the case in the district of Menangkabo, further west.”

Minangkabau Style architecture at Bukit Tinggi, West Sumatra

I didn’t see any of this type of building in Palembang but here is one I photographed in Bukit Tinggi near Padang in 2013.

“In all these Sumatran villages I found considerable difficulty in getting anything to eat…. fruit was reduced to one of the poorest kinds of banana. The natives (during the wet season at least) live exclusively on rice. A pot of rice cooked very dry and eaten with salt and red peppers, twice a day, forms their entire food during a large part of the year.”

Happily things have improved and there is a wide variety of fruits on sale nowadays, at least in Palembang. And there’s always Pizza Hut.

The Siamang. Engraving from J G Wood's Illustrated Natural History (c 1850).
The Siamang. Engraving from J G Wood’s Illustrated Natural History (c 1850).

“A very curious ape, the Siamang, was also rather abundant. I purchased a small one, which had been caught by the natives and tied up so tightly as to hurt it. It was rather savage at first, and tried to bite; but when we had released it and given it two poles under the verandah to hang upon, securing it by a short cord, running along the pole with a ring so that it could move easily, it became more contented, and would swing itself about with great rapidity. It ate almost any kind of fruit and rice, and I was in hopes to have brought it to England, but it died just before I started. It took a dislike to me at first, which I tried to get over by feeding it constantly myself. One day, however, it bit me so sharply while giving it food, that I lost patience and gave it rather a severe beating, which I regretted afterwards, as from that time it disliked me more than ever.”

In recent years here have been sightings of Siamangs on sale at Palembang’s main market Pasar 16 (sold illegally for meat/brains) but thankfully I did not see any.

“Another curious animal, which I had met with in Singapore and in Borneo, but which was more abundant here, is the Galeopithecus, or flying lemur. This creature has a broad membrane extending all around its body to the extremities of the toes, and to the point of the rather long tail. This enables it to pass obliquely through the air from one tree to another.”

This stuffed Flying Lemur specimen is on display at Putrajaya Natural History Museum.

I would have to conclude that Palembang is not the best place to go in search of Wallace. There is little sense of him in this built-up city with few green spaces but there are a few tourist attractions in Palembang and I will write about these in my next post.

In Search Of Wallace – Part 3: Singapore


Singapore was Wallace’s first point of call on his Malay Archipelago odyssey and he returned there a number of times during the following eight years. Singapore was then, as now, a convenient base for travels within the region.

His short chapter on Singapore provides a colourful summary of the hustle and bustle of the bazaar and the waterfront and a description of the different races and their occupations. His various letters written upon arrival in Singapore give more details of his early days there:

“I landed at Singapore on the 20th of April [1854], after a 46 days’ passage from England without any incident out of the common.”

paddle Steamer Euxine
Paddle Steamer Euxine

He travelled as far as Alexandria on the P&O paddle steamer Euxine. From Suez he took the Bengal as far as Ceylon before transferring to a smaller paddle steamer, the Pottinger . He would have been relieved that the trip was without incident. On his previous ocean voyage returning from the Amazon in 1852 his ship caught fire and sank and he spent ten days in a lifeboat before being rescued.

“For a week I was obliged to remain in the town at an hotel, not finding it easy to obtain any residence or lodging in the country.”

Wallace probably stayed in this hotel. In a letter to his mother he complained that it was too expensive. Nothing has changed – Singapore hotels are still pricey.

It is thought that he stayed at the London Hotel, overlooking the Padang. Formerly the private residence of Edward Boustead, the London Hotel was renamed Hotel de l’Esperance and again in 1865 as Hotel de L’Europe. It was demolished in 1900 and a new Grand Hotel de l’Europe took its place.

L-R    St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Armenian Church, Caldwell House.

Few of the buildings that were around in Wallace’s time survive today but St. Andrew’s Cathedral (1861), the Armenian Church (1835) and Caldwell House (1841) are three Singapore landmarks that he might recognise.

“During this time I examined the suburbs, and soon came to the conclusion that it was impossible to do anything there in the way of insects, for the virgin forests have been entirely cleared away for four or five miles round (scarcely a tree being left).”

Singapore 1856
Singapore from Mount Wallich at Sunrise (1856) by Percy Carpenter

Only a few decades had passed since the founding of Singapore by Raffles but already Wallace could foresee that this was a city destined for rapid expansion.

“It is apparent that but few years can elapse before the whole island will be denuded of its indigenous vegetation, when its climate will no doubt be materially altered (probably for the worse), and countless tribes of interesting insects become extinct.”

Wasting no time, Wallace proceeded to Bukit Timah in the interior of the island to hunt for his specimens.

“In the interior of the island the Chinese cut down forest trees in the jungle, and saw them up into planks; they cultivate vegetables, which they bring to market; and they grow pepper and gambir, which form important articles of export. French Jesuits have established missions among these inland Chinese, which seem very successful. I lived for several weeks at a time with the missionary at Bukit-tima, about the centre of the island.”

This is St Joseph’s as it looks today. This area is quite built up these days and the only trees nearby are those in the cemetery behind the church.

I visited the area last week. The mission house where he stayed is now known as St Joseph’s Church.

This could be the actual mission house where Wallace stayed for six weeks.

In the entrance of St Joseph’s I found this old photo with the caption ‘St. Joseph Church during the 1800s.’

Headstone of Rev. Anatolius Mauduit.

Wallace’s host and friend at the mission house was the French parish priest Rev. Fr. Anatolius Mauduit and Wallace spoke highly of him in The Malay Archipelago. Mauduit’s tombstone used to be embedded in the aisle of the old St. Joseph’s church but, since the church’s demolition, it is now propped up rather indecorously on an embankment in the cemetery.

Longicorns (Cerambycidae)

“The mission-house at Bukit-tima was surrounded by several of these wood-topped hills, which were much frequented by woodcutters and sawyers, and offered me an excellent collecting ground for insects. In about two months I obtained no less than 700 species of beetles, a large proportion of which were quite new, and among them were 130 distinct kinds of the elegant Longicorns (Cerambycidae), so much esteemed by collectors. Almost all these were collected in one patch of jungle, not more than a square mile in extent, and in all my subsequent travels in the East I rarely if ever met with so productive a spot.”

Wallace described the taste of durian as ‘a rich custard highly flavoured with almonds’. Others have been less complimentary.

Singapore National Parks Board set up the Wallace Education Centre and a short 1km Wallace Trail in 2009 within the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, one of Singapore’s last remaining green spaces. A signboard on the trail tells how Wallace was fond of durians. This is something I have in common with the great man.

“The more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop.” – letter from Wallace to Sir William Jackson Hookay. 


The Wallace Education Centre, which occupies a former dairy farm building, contains information about Wallace, including this photo of him taken in Singapore in 1862, just as he was about to return to UK for good. It was the only known photo of him during his whole Malay Archipelago trip. He looks remarkably well considering his eight years of privations and frequent bouts of fever.

What would Wallace think of modern Singapore’s man-made super-trees and giant glass conservatories at the Gardens by the Bay complex?

How has Bukit Timah Nature Reserve changed since Wallace’s day? Well there are no tigers anymore, something which Wallace was most concerned about during his hours in the forest. Insect life too would have changed, since the logging and sawmill activity, which was such a good source of insects, is no more. But there are still reckoned to be 10,000 species of beetle here, more than enough to keep him busy for a few days.

Next Instalment: Palembang, Sumatra (in April).

In Search of Wallace – Gading & Ayer Panas


A few months ago I was reading The Malay Archipelago by famous British naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace. This work chronicles his eight years spent criss-crossing modern day Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea from 1852 – 1862 while collecting some 125,000 specimens of natural history, mainly birds, butterflies, moths, beetles and other insects but also mammals and reptiles. He financed his trip by selling specimens to museums and private collectors in an age when there was a strong demand for dried bugs and skinned birds and primates.


His book not only records his scientific research and collecting work but is also a descriptive travelogue through one of the world’s most attractive regions, including a number of spectacular and remote islands and beaches.


To give a theme to some of my travels this year I thought it would be fun to journey to a few of the more accessible places mentioned in his book, particularly as some of them, such as Sulawesi, have long been on my ‘must visit’ list.


To start off, I tried to retrace Wallace’s steps in Malacca, the only place on the Malay Peninsular that gets a mention in his book. This is how he described his first foray into the interior of Malacca State in 1854:

“ I engaged two Portuguese to accompany me into the interior; one as a cook, the other to shoot and skin birds, which is quite a trade in Malacca. I stayed a fortnight at a village called Gading, where I was accommodated in the house of some Christian converts, to whom I was recommended by the Jesuit missionaries. The house was a mere shed, but it was kept clean, and I made myself sufficiently comfortable. My hosts were forming a pepper and gambir plantation, and in the immediate neighbourhood were extensive tin-washings, employing over a thousand Chinese.”

My search ran into an immediate snag as there no longer appears to be a village called Gading though a Google search threw up a St. Martin De Porres Chapel, Gading with an address on Jalan Simpang Gading near Durian Tinggal. This may in the right vicinity as there are a number of former tin mining lakes nearby.


I visited the small chapel where a friendly volunteer called Gregory was putting up decorations for Chinese New Year. He described himself as ‘Straits born,’ meaning mixed Peranakan race.

Of course it is impossible to find a ‘mere shed’ from 162 years ago  but it might have looked something like this place, located at Kesang Pajak, a few kilometres from the chapel:

Wallace describes how he was at once introduced to the rich ornithological treasures of Gading:

“ The very first time I fired my gun I brought down one of the most curious and beautiful of the Malacca birds, the blue-billed gaper (Cymbirhynchus macrorhynchus), called by the Malays the Rainbird.”

Source: Malayan Paradise Blogspot

A shame to kill such a lovely bird but, as already mentioned, that was how he made his living and it would have been the only way to study the bird up close. During his fortnight at Gading his hunter also shot a green gaper, woodpeckers, kingfishers, green and brown cuckoos, red-breasted doves and metallic honeysuckers.

Unfortunately I did not spot any exciting birdlife during my brief visit to Gading.

Ayer Panas

After recovering from a bout of malaria Wallace next went to stay at the Government bungalow at Ayer Panas as described in this excerpt:

“At Ayer-panas we had a comfortable house to stay in and plenty of room to dry and preserve our specimens. I was one afternoon walking along a favourite road through the forest when I saw a butterfly on the ground. It was large, handsome and quite new to me and I got close to it before it flew away. I then observed that it had been settling on the dung of some carnivorous animal. Thinking that it might return to the same spot, I next day took my net, and as I approached the place was delighted to see the same butterfly sitting on the same piece of dung, and succeeded in capturing it. It was an entirely new species of great beauty, and has been named by Mr. Hewitson – Nymphalis calydona. I never saw another specimen of it, and it was only after twelve years had elapsed that a second individual reached this country from the north-western part of Borneo.”

nymphalis calydonia

Kampung Ayer Panas still exists and is where Jasin Hot Spring is located. I could find no trace or record of the Government resthouse bungalow. In 1854 it would likely have been a rudimentary wooden construction and was probably eaten by termites long ago.

Most of the ‘forest’ mentioned by Wallace has now been turned over to oil palm plantations so the chances of finding his rare butterfly there today are, I would imagine, slim. I did see a beautiful blue kingfisher amidst the oil palms.

Next Instalment: Mt. Ophir.