Thursday, October 29, 2009

Recrossing the Wallace Line


Stories of exploration make for fascinating reading and they impress on the mind that exploration is a joint venture even though often the name of a single person is attached to a given account. Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913), the great English naturalist and traveller, has a sharper eye for others than himself in his exploits. A good example is a wonderful sentence from his "The Malay Archipelago" (1869):

'It was on the 13th of June, 1856, after a twenty days' passage from Singapore in the "Kembang Djepon" (Rose of Japan), a schooner belonging to a Chinese merchant, manned by a Javanese crew, and commanded by an English captain, that we cast anchor in the dangerous roadstead of Bileling on the north side of the island of Bali.'

In the book, Wallace gives a marvellous description of the geography, the natural world and the great variety of human culture of the Malaysian and Indonesian islands. But he is not only a describer; he also theorises about what he sees. On the basis of his observations he put forward the theory of the Wallace Line. This is an imaginary boundary running through the Lombok Strait (between the islands of Bali and Lombok) which separates the zoogeographical areas of Asia from Australia.

Although the Strait is rather narrow - only about 22 miles across - it is extremely deep and was a barrier that in theory kept the flora and fauna of Asia divided from those of the Australian region.

This idea has today basically been abandoned. But the fact of the difference between the various species of plants and animals of those continental areas helped Charles Darwin conceptualise his theory of the origin of species.

This photo shows a plantation of palm trees, a thatched beach hut, and the blue waters leading to the Lombok Strait. My back is to magnificent Mount Rinjani, and from this spot in clear weather you can see to the east the outlines of Bali's Mount Agung.

'Leaving Bileling,' writes Russell a few pages on, 'a pleasant sail of two days brought us to ... the island of Lombock...' And he continues: 'We enjoyed superb views of the twin volcanoes of Bali and Lombock, each about eight thousand feet high, which form magnificent objects at sunrise and sunset, when they rise out of the mists and clouds that surround their bases, glowing with the rich and changing tints of these the most charming moments in a tropical day'.

With a book on my knee, a gin-and-tonic at hand, and this view: what more could one wish to enjoy!