Following in the footsteps of Alfred Russel Wallace
By Samantha Fergusson
The theory of evolution has long been credited solely to Charles Darwin. His name is recited in schools across the world as the most forward-thinking scientist and naturalist of his time, while his statue gazes wisely down at each new generation that sets foot in London's Natural History Museum. It may then come as a surprise to some that his world-renowned theory on the evolution of species was first published jointly with a lesser known figure whose name has slowly been erased from the history books: Alfred Russel Wallace.
Darwin's voyages are famous - his exploration of the Galapagos Islands on HMS Beagle has inspired generations of scientists and adventurers - but Wallace's, although lesser-known, were in no way less awe-inspiring. His travels took him from South America and the Amazon all the way across the globe to the Malay Archipelago, including the islands of Malaysia, New Guinea, Borneo and Indonesia. While it took Wallace years to traverse this scattering of islands, with modernity on your side you can navigate his route in just a couple of weeks, witnessing the beauty and wonder that inspired his papers, and ultimately, the discovery of evolution.
Bako National Park, Borneo
If you wish to follow some of Wallace's routes around the Malay Archipelago, make sure that a leg of your journey takes you to Sarawak, Borneo. Its bustling capital, Kuching, is surrounded by a wealth of rainforest that begs for exploration.
It was here that Wallace wrote his first essay on the origin of species, published in London in 1855, and once you step away from the bustle of modern day life and into the rainforest, you might as well be re-entering that era with the Victorian Wallace waiting for you around the next bend, butterfly net in hand.
On the northern tip of the Muara Tebas Peninsula you will find Bako National Park. It is home to an extraordinary range of fascinating flora and fauna, as well as approximately 275 rare proboscis monkeys. Found only in Borneo and key players in Wallace's own mental evolution towards his great discovery, these monkeys are known by the locals as Belanda, translatable to "Dutchmen", and although their comparison to the western male is perhaps a little unflattering, it is the parallels that can be drawn between them, their fellow primates and humans that aided the discovery of evolution.
Batang Ai National Park, Borneo
Of course, you must make sure that while you are in Sarawak you don't miss the opportunity to see Borneo's iconic Orangutans. Wallace was captivated by them and is said to have looked after an infant he unintentionally orphaned for several months, calling it "the most wonderful baby I ever saw".
Batang Ai National Park is one of the best places in which to search for them, with the highest density of wild Orangutans to be found across the whole of Borneo within its borders. Whilst it is in no way guaranteed that you will encounter one of these magnificent primates, the Batang Ai is still home to a wealth of rare species and is looked after by the Iban tribe, descendants of Borneo's legendary headhunters... Thankfully this tradition is no longer practised and instead the people act as custodians for this wonderful nature reserve and the home of their ancestors.
To truly get a feel for Wallace's journey of discovery, you need to cross what is now known as the Wallace Line, a deep channel of water separating the Asian and Australian faunas. The transition from primates to marsupials was instrumental in his conclusion that these animals had developed completely separately from each other, despite being just tens of kilometres apart.
It is also on this side of the crucial boundary between species that you can find Wallace's Standardwing bird of paradise. To see any bird of paradise is a true treat, but what better way to round off a grand tour of Wallace's discoveries than by concluding it with a sighting of a bird that bears his name?
Make it happen
Inspired to visit some of Wallace's haunts? Get in touch with our local travel experts in Malaysia, Borneo and Indonesia and let them know what you are after. All they need are a few details to get the planning underway. To speak with someone in the TravelLocal office, call +44 (0) 117 325 7898.