In Search of Wallace – Part 9: Celebes – Macassar


Last week, after a break of several months, I resumed my efforts to retrace Alfred Russel Wallace’s footsteps in the Malay Archipelago, this time by visiting the area around Makassar in southern Sulawesi. (I’ll use the old spellings of Macassar and Celebes for the purpose of this post.)

Wallace reached Macassar in August 1856 on board the schooner Alma, brimming with optimism. He wrote:

I left Lombock on the 30th of August, and reached Macassar in three days. It was with great satisfaction that I stepped on a shore which I had been vainly trying to reach since February, and where I expected to meet with so much that was new and interesting.


His first impressions of the town were positive:

Macassar was the first Dutch town I had visited, and I found it prettier and cleaner than any I had yet seen in the East. The Dutch have some admirable local regulations. All European houses must be kept well white-washed, and every person must, at four in the afternoon, water the road in front of his house. The streets are kept clear of refuse, and covered drains carry away all impurities into large open sewers, into which the tide is admitted at high-water and allowed to flow out when it has ebbed, carrying all the sewage with it into the sea.

Today Macassar is a city of around 1.5 million but in Wallace’s time it was a lot smaller:

The town consists chiefly of one long narrow street along the seaside, devoted to business, and principally occupied by the Dutch and Chinese merchants’ offices and warehouses, and the native shops or bazaars. This extends northwards for more than a mile, gradually merging into native houses often of a most miserable description, but made to have a neat appearance by being all built up exactly to the straight line of the street, and being generally backed by fruit trees. Parallel to this street run two short ones which form the old Dutch town, and are enclosed by gates. These consist of private houses, and at their southern end is the fort, the church, and a road at right angles to the beach, containing the houses of the Governor and of the principal officials. Beyond the fort, again along the beach, is another long street of native huts and many country-houses of the tradesmen and merchants.


The fort, called Fort Rotterdam, still survives and is one of the town’s top tourist attractions. This, together with the church, the adjacent vicarage, and a handful of other colonial-era buildings are all that remain of the old Dutch town.

societeit de harmonie

There was no hotel in Macassar so Wallace stayed initially at the Dutch club, known as the Sociëteit De Harmonie, located close to the fort. The building still stands, though much altered in appearance, with a sign showing it has been used as an art centre.

Wallace slept here.

Wallace’s initial optimism soon turned to disappointment and by September he was writing to a friend:

At length I am in Celebes! I have been here about three weeks, and as yet have not done much, except explored the nakedness of the land,–and it is indeed naked,–I have never seen a more uninteresting country than the neighbourhood of Macassar: for miles around there is nothing but flat land, which, for half the year, is covered with water, and the other half is an expanse of baked mud (its present state), with scarcely an apology for vegetation…. Insects, in fact, in all this district there are absolutely none.

Wallace wanted to widen his search:

Before I could move to any more promising district it was necessary to obtain permission from the Rajah of Goa, whose territories approach to within two miles of the town of Macassar. My friend Mr. Mesman kindly lent me a horse, and accompanied me on my visit to the Rajah, with whom he was great friends. We found his Majesty seated out of doors, watching the erection of a new house.

The Gowa Regency was abolished by the Dutch after Wallace’s visit but the area where Wallace and the Rajah may have met (Benteng Somba Opu) has been turned into a museum, with the remains of demolished fortress walls on display together with a number of replica traditional buildings from around Celebes.

The Raja’s new house might have looked like this one.

Wallace didn’t think much of the local coffee:

Some wine was then brought us, and afterwards some detestable coffee and wretched sweetmeats, for it is a fact that I have never tasted good coffee where people grow it themselves.

Nowadays the local coffee is quite drinkable. In fact the Gowa Regency has even inspired its own brand.

In the interior of southern Celebes the villagers were unused to seeing foreigners:

Not a single person in the village could speak more than a few words of Malay, and hardly any of the people appeared to have seen a European before. One most disagreeable result of this was that I excited terror alike in man and beast. Wherever I went, dogs barked, children screamed, women ran away, and men stared as though I were some strange and terrible cannibal or monster. …… If I came suddenly upon a well where women were drawing water or children bathing, a sudden flight was the certain result; which things occurring day after day, were very unpleasant to a person who does not like to be disliked, and who had never been accustomed to be treated as an ogre.

The locals are more much accustomed to seeing foreigners nowadays. Instead of running away they ask to take selfies.

Wallace had much better luck in searching for species at Maros, which he visited during a second trip to Celebes from July – November 1857:

After much inquiry I determined to visit the district of Maros, about thirty miles north of Macassar.   ….    Passing over an elevated tract forming the shoulder of one of the hills, a picturesque scene lay before us. We looked down into a little valley almost entirely surrounded by mountains, rising abruptly in huge precipices, and forming a succession of knolls and peaks aid domes of the most varied and fantastic shapes.

This area is now a national park called Bantimurung.

Bantimurung National Park. Wallace might have liked this treehouse.

The rare and beautiful Butterflies of Celebes were the chief object of my search, and I found many species altogether new to me, but they were generally so active and shy as to render their capture a matter of great difficulty.

They are not easy to photograph either, as this blurry picture shows. I must invest in a good camera and super-dooper lens one of these days.

Here is one you missed Mr. Wallace. I’ll name it the Papilio Russel Bantimurung in your honour!

In these rocky forests dwell some of the finest butterflies in the world. Three species of Ornithoptera, measuring seven or eight inches across the wings, and beautifully marked with spots or masses of satiny yellow on a black ground, wheel through the thickets with a strong sailing flight. About the damp places are swarms of the beautiful blue-banded Papilios, miletus and telephus, the superb golden green P. macedon, and the rare little swallow-tail Papilio rhesus, of all of which, though very active, I succeeded in capturing fine series of specimens. I have rarely enjoyed myself more than during my residence here.


There is a rather tatty butterfly museum inside the national park containing some fine butterfly and moth specimens caught locally and elsewhere in Indonesia. Wallace’s name appears under a number of the specimens for having provided the original descriptions.


Wallace counted 250 species of butterfly at Bantimurung and dubbed the area the Kingdom of Butterflies. When a local university professor carried out a census in 2005 , only 125 species were identified. Given the number of stalls outside the national park selling butterflies I suppose we should be grateful there are any species left at all.


Wallace is still remembered at Bantimurung. He even gets a prominent mention on the National Park’s official website.

In Search Of Wallace – Part 8: Bali & Lombok


Perhaps the most lasting legacy of Arthur Russel Wallace’s eight year odyssey though the Malay Archipelago was his discovery of what came to be known as the Wallace Line, a boundary separating the faunal species of southeast Asia from those of Australia and New Guinea.

Wallace found this demarcation to be most abrupt when he travelled across the 35 kilometre wide Straits of Lombok between the islands of Bali and Lombok.

Although these neighbouring islands share similar terrain and climate Wallace was surprised by the differences in fish, bird and mammal life:

“Neither of these physical differences corresponds with the remarkable change in natural productions which occurs at the Straits of Lombock, separating the island of that name from Bali, and which is at once so large in amount and of so fundamental a character, as to form an important feature in the zoological geography of our globe.

During the few days which I stayed on the north coast of Bali on my way to Lombock, I saw several birds highly characteristic of Javan ornithology. Among these were the yellow-headed weaver (Ploceus hypoxantha), the black grasshopper thrush (Copsychus amoenus), the rosy barbet (Megalaema rosea), the Malay oriole (Oriolus horsfieldi), the Java ground starling (Sturnopastor jalla), and the Javanese three-toed woodpecker (Chrysonotus tiga). On crossing over to Lombock, separated from Bali by a strait less than twenty miles wide, I naturally expected to meet with some of these birds again; but during a stay there of three months I never saw one of them, but found a totally different set of species, most of which were utterly unknown not only in Java, but also in Borneo, Sumatra, and Malacca. For example, among the commonest birds in Lombock were white cockatoos and three species of Meliphagidae or honeysuckers, belonging to family groups which are entirely absent from the western or Indo-Malayan region of the Archipelago.”

This Google Earth image is taken looking from west to east. Lombok is in the foreground with the spectacular crater lake of Mount Rinjani (3,726m) easily recognisable. Lombok’s main town of Mataram can be seen in the middle left. Beyond the Lombok Strait lies Bali with its volcano, Gunung Agung, on the top right. Bali’s capital Denpasar can be seen next to the search box.

Wallace did not climb Mount Rinjani. You can read about my trip of a few years ago here.

In Search Of Wallace – Part 2: Mt.Ophir

In Search Of Wallace - Mt. Ophir

After his time in Gading and Ayer Panas, Wallace continued his travels by visiting the fabled Mt. Ophir (Gunung Ledang), a 1276m high (4186ft.) peak straddling the border between Malacca and Johor states. He writes:

“Having determined to visit Mount Ophir, which is situated in the middle of the peninsula about fifty miles east of Malacca, we engaged six Malays to accompany us and carry our baggage. As we meant to stay at least a week at the mountain, we took with us a good supply of rice, a little biscuit, butter and coffee, some dried fish and a little brandy, with blankets, a change of clothes, insect and bird boxes, nets, guns and ammunition. The distance from Ayer-panas was supposed to be about thirty miles.”

Map of Gunung Ledang
Map showing the hiking trails up Mt. Ophir (in red and black). Wallace would have taken the black route.

Nowadays Mt. Ophir is a popular climbing spot, being the highest mountain in Johor and the closest peak of any size to Singapore. There are two main ways of accessing the mountain. One is via Sagil, a town in Johor, the other, slightly shorter, is through Asahan in Malacca. Wallace almost certainly took the Asahan route since he approached from the Malacca side. Also he made no mention of the waterfall which he would probably have encountered if he had ascended from the Johor side. He continues:

“Our first day’s march lay through patches of forest, clearings, and Malay villages, and was pleasant enough. At night we slept at the house of a Malay chief, who lent us a verandah, and gave us a fowl and some eggs.”

I estimate the half way point between Ayer Panas and Asahan village (the trailhead) to be somewhere close to Kampung Chabau where he might have stayed in a house like this, a building that looks to be of some age, with its original attap thatch roof long since replaced by corrugated iron sheeting.

Fallen log at Gunung Ledang National Park
Fallen, moss-covered tree trunks were a great source of beetle and other insect specimens for Wallace.

“The next day the country got wilder and more hilly. We passed through extensive forests, along paths often up to our knees in mud, and were much annoyed by the leeches for which this district is famous.”

Pitcher plants.
Pitcher plants similar to those observed by Wallace at Mt. Ophir.

Ascending the mountain, Wallace encountered a large patch of bare rock:

“We came out upon the “Padang-batu,” or stone field, a place of which we had heard much, but could never get anyone to describe intelligibly. We found it to be a steep slope of even rock, extending along the mountain side farther than we could see. Parts of it were quite bare, but where it was cracked and fissured there grew a most luxuriant vegetation, among which the pitcher plants were the most remarkable.”

Photo taken on Mt. Ophir in 1934.
Source: Lowe, G.H. (1934) Mount Ophir, Johore. Yorkshire Ramblers’ Club Journal Volume 6 Number 21

This photo of the same spot was taken in 1934 by G.H. Lowe who wrote that it was shrinking in size: “The path now goes down to the Padang Batu, the Field of Stone, once much bigger, but vegetation is rapidly covering it.”

Puteri Waterfall at Gunung Ledang
Wallace does not appear to have seen the Puteri Waterfall, a cascade of about 60m with pools and a pleasant picnic and bathing area further downstream.

I have visited Gunung Ledang National Park twice but although I have pottered around the lower slopes and the Puteri Waterfalls I have not yet climbed to the top. A few things have put me off; compulsory guide, high cost, need to book well in advance, the ‘technical sections’ where some scrambling up ropes is required, history of accidents and so on. Besides, the view from the top, although as panoramic as any mountain in Peninsular Malaysia, is not really that special. Here’s what Wallace had to say about it:

“The top is a small rocky platform covered with rhododendrons and other shrubs. The afternoon was clear, and the view fine in its way–ranges of hill and valley everywhere covered with interminable forest, with glistening rivers winding among them. In a distant view a forest country is very monotonous, and no mountain I have ever ascended in the tropics presents a panorama equal to that from Snowdon, while the views in Switzerland are immeasurably superior.”

I have to agree with him about the views, particularly in respect of Malaysian mountains. The climb is seldom worth the effort. Pity he did not climb Mt. Rinjani while he was on Lombok. The views on that mountain could give Switzerland a run for its money.

Road to Gunung Ledang
Laterite road leading to Mt. Ophir (peak in background).

As previously mentioned there are two main hiking trails up Mt. Ophir but I noticed from Google Maps that there is also a road which winds its way right up to the telecom towers just below the summit. I thought I would cheat and drive up to the towers and just walk the final 10 minutes or so to the top. I had read an account of somebody who had done it. The road started out OK, a red laterite gravel road bordering oil palm plantations brought me to the foot of the mountain. As the track ascends the mountain it deteriorates and what was once a metalled road is now full of potholes where storms have washed away the surface. After half an hour or so of slow but steady progress I reached a giant notice erected by the Johor Forestry Department warning the public not to go any further at the risk of a sizeable fine and/or six months imprisonment. Not willing to go to prison just for the sake of a blog post, I reluctantly turned back.

Rare Ferns on Mt. Ophir
Rare Ferns on Mt. Ophir. Source: The Malay Archipelago by Arthur Russel Wallace.

Wallace does not go into detail about the animal and insect species gathered on Mt. Ophir and he was apparently more impressed with the flora such as these rare ferns illustrated in his book.

Monitor Lizard at Gunung Ledang.
My nervous, shaky hand gave a nice hologram effect to the lizard photo.

He reported seeing rhinoceros tracks but did not see the actual animal, nor any tigers, both of which still roamed the area in his day. No chance of seeing those today but I was startled by this enormous monitor lizard emerging from a litter bin at great speed, hence the artistic blurry photo.

Gunung Ledang
Mt. Ophir has not changed much since Wallace’s day – apart from the communications towers on the summit.

Wallace seemed satisfied with his time at Mt. Ophir:

“Mount Ophir has quite a reputation for fever, and all our friends were astonished at our recklessness in staying so long at its foot; but none of us suffered in the least, and I shall ever look back with pleasure to my trip as being my first introduction to mountain scenery in the Eastern tropics.”

Perhaps I should try climbing it one of these days.

Next Instalment: Bukit Timah, Singapore