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August 2012

The “earthquake-tortured island of Ternate” (as Wallace called it in his book The Malay Archipelago) is a small island off the north-east coast of Sulawesi. It basically consists of a very large volcano (Mount Gamalama, 1,715 m) which is only inhabited around the base and is forested all the way to the crater. The volcano erupted violently in 1840 wiping out most of the town. The last time it erupted in a more modest way was a few months ago and the ash closed the airport for several days. This is a sobering thought, given that you can clearly see the volcano from any part of the island, and it only looks a stone’s throw away from the back of our hotel...


Bill and Ternate final.JPGBill Bailey with Ternate in the distance
(Click images to see them full size)


For Wallace fans, Ternate is one of THE places to visit, because it was on this island (or possibly on the neighbouring island of Halmahera) in February 1858 that Wallace discovered the process of evolution by natural selection, whilst laying incapacitated with fever. After he had recovered enough to put pen to paper, he wrote an essay explaining his theory and posted it from Ternate together with a covering letter to Charles Darwin in Kent, England.


Wallace rented a house on Ternate for three years, which he used as a base to return to after voyages to distant islands in search of rare specimens. This house has become legendary, and although many have tried to locate it the site of it is still a bit of a mystery. Wallace writes that from his house, “five minutes’ walk down the road brought me to the market and the beach, while in the opposite direction there are no more European houses between me and the mountain”. He continues “ just below my house is the fort, built by the Portuguese”. This fort is called Benteng Oranye and it was built by the Dutch in 1607 on the foundations of an earlier Portuguese structure.


House they think is Wallaces.jpgBill & wallace alley final.JPG

Left: The building that the local people think is on the site of Wallace's house

Right: Bill in Wallace Alley


A house owned by a Chinese family has been identified by some as THE house, but it has the wrong orientation to the mountain, is too far from the fort, and the front garden is too large. We used the landmark of the fort to orientate ourselves and found a plot across the road and up-hill of the fort which is about the right size as the one that Wallace’s house would have occupied (his house was 40 feet in width and had a garden on either side of it). The width is of great relevance, because plots of land on which houses are built tend not to change in size over time. This plot is now occupied by a new two storey building owned by “Adira Finance”. It will probably never be possible to be 100% certain whether this is the actual site of the house, but we feel that we may be a step closer to finding the Wallace holy grail.


Possible site of ARWs house.jpg

The building we think might be on the plot where Wallace's house once stood



A short film about the location of Wallace's house
Filmed by Jan Beccaloni

Ternate final.JPGTernate at sunset

One of the many great things about travelling to the more remote parts of the World, is the opportunity to sample the local cuisine. One may argue that you need never leave London, because its wonderful multi-cultural way of life means that you can get a spicy Indian curry, a salsa-laden Mexican fajita and a rather humble cheese sandwich all in the same short stretch of road. But nothing beats actually being in the country of origin.


Wallace ate a great many weird-and-wonderful  things during his travels in the Malay Archipelago, and he often writes with great enthusiasm about his culinary experiences. Whilst in Sulawesi (Celebes) he was invited to the house of a chief. He writes: 


“The dinner was excellent. Fowls cooked in various ways, wild pig roasted, stewed and fried, a fricassee of bats, potatoes, rice and other vegetables, all served on good china, with finger glasses and fine napkins, and abundance of good claret and beer, seemed to me rather curious at the table of a native chief on the mountains of Celebes”.


All seems unremarkable in this description, until you spot the ‘fricassee of bats’! This is not something you would encounter in the suburbs of Merton, for sure.  Well - maybe you would encounter the ‘fricassee’ bit, which is chopped meat stewed in gravy. Clearly, I don’t come from a posh background, as I call stewed meat, stewed meat - not fricassee...

LocalSulawesiHouse.jpgThe local 'restaurant'


Of course, being a game type of chap, and wanting to experience as much as he could of Wallace’s travels, Bill Bailey accepted an offer to try this local ‘delicacy’. So we travelled up the road from the lodge where we were staying, to a traditional sturdily-built thatched wooden house. A small fire was constructed in the nicely-swept dirt backyard, and a spicy ‘gravy’ of coconut milk, spices and chillies was prepared in a large metal pot, before the unfortunate bat (which are sold in the local markets) was popped in. After being simmered for 20 minutes or so, the bat was ready.


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Fricassee of bat being cooked


Bat is considered by the locals to taste very much like rat, but given that this flavor ‘benchmark’ is unfamiliar to most Europeans, one needed to sample the bat in person. Bill manfully ate a decent sized portion. Chewing on the wing membrane, Bill remarked that it was like eating a musty old umbrella - yum! Being one to try most things at least once, I decided to try the bat too. It wasn’t as bad as I imagined it to be - it tasted very much like ostrich. However, given that this comparison might also be fairly useless, as not everyone has eaten that beast either, I will describe it as a cross between chicken (doesn’t everything taste of chicken?) and liver. I have to say that I was glad not to have to eat my way through the entire dish!


Bill eating bat final.JPG

Bill eating the fricassee



The species of fruit bat which Bill ate is a common and geographically very widespread one. For a recent article on the ethics of eating such things see


Tangkoko beach.JPGTangkoko National Park is located North-east of Manado on the northern tip of Sulawesi. It was here in 1859 that Wallace came to collect the strange maleo bird (Macrocephalon maleo) which used to nest on the black volcanic sand beach there. Maleos are unique amongst birds in that they bury their eggs in a deep hole and leave them to hatch. There is no parental care and the young are able to fly and forage for themselves, soon after they have burrowed their way to the surface of the sand.


The eggs are huge - 5 times the size of a chicken’s egg - and they are (unfortunately) a favorite food of the local people. Egg collecting, together with the hunting of the birds and habitat destruction, accounts for the fact that the maleo is now an endangered species. It is extremely rare at Tangkoko and no longer nests on the beach where Wallace says that many hundreds came to lay their eggs. It was a special experience to stroll along the black sand  (image to the left) peppered with white coral fragments and imagine Wallace walking just ahead of us.


Bill, Jan and I spent a few days at Tangkoko to look for some of the other peculiar animals which are endemic to Sulawesi and which are relatively easy to see there. We were very fortunate in having close encounters with the rare Sulawesi black crested macaque (Macaca nigra), only 2,000 of which still survive and which are tragically eaten as bush meat by the locals. Although fearsome-looking with their fiery-coloured eyes and massive teeth, crested macaques are actually rather gentle creatures which are more interested in peering at their reflections in shiny surfaces and checking us out.


Macaque final.JPGBill and macaque final.JPG

Left: Macaque. Right: Bill Bailey and Macaques
(Click images to see them full size)


We were also very keen to see the nocturnal spectral tarsier (Tarsius tarsier). Our guide took us to a tree which is visited by tourists at dusk, in order to view the tarsiers up-close-and-personal. Initially, we were rather skeptical that we would see any animals there, because there was literally a queue of people waiting by the tree, cameras in hand. However, our fears were unfounded because the tarsiers that hang-out there are totally habituated, and are very used to noise and the light from camera flashes and torches. Plus, we had not accounted for their biggest passion in life - tasty, big, fat, green bush crickets. The guide placed the said insect on a branch outside the tarsier’s lair, and in the blink of an eye, a tarsier had leaped out from the inside of the tree and grabbed the poor cricket. It then took it back to the safety of its tree hole home, and greedily gobbled it down with relish!


Tarsier final.JPGTarsier


The diurnal bear cuscus (Ailurops ursinus) proved to be a much more elusive quarry. We only caught a glimpse of a pair which sleepily gazed down at us from the top of a tree. Sulawesi is the western-most place in the world where marsupials such as cuscuses occur. All the mammals to the west of Sulawesi and Wallace’s Line (which passes between Sulawesi and Borneo) are placental mammals. As mentioned in an earlier post, Sulawesi is part of a biogeographical transition zone named Wallacea after you-know-who, and it contains a confusing mix of both Oriental animals (e.g. tarsiers, macaques) and Australian animals (e.g. cuscuses and maleos).


Bill and flowers final.JPG

Bill tries on some forest flowers for size

Arrival in Sulawesi

Posted by Jan Beccaloni Aug 16, 2012

At last the day arrived to travel to Sulawesi, a weirdly-shaped island in Indonesia. The region is named Wallacea, after - you guessed it - Alfred Russel Wallace. We had a great flight, apart from the fact I was stuck next to a bad-tempered man with halitosis - on reflection, I think I’D PREFER TO HAVE TAKEN MY CHANCES strapped to the wing. It might have been a tad chilly, but it would have been more fragrant. Better luck next time. As we drove from the airport to the hotel, we were struck by the similarity of Sulawesi to Fiji - a highly humid, verdant and lush island, with numerous palms and towering volcanoes.  One of the volcanoes had a plume of smoke emerging from the crown - we should have taken this as a warning of what was to come...

Manado final.JPG

View of Manado with active volcano in distance (click images to see full size versions)



Manado2 final.JPG

Another view of Manado with yet another active volcano in distance


The following morning, I gradually surfaced through the layers of consciousness to George shaking me awake. I thought he’d got rather carried away, because the whole bed appeared to be shaking, so it must have been a dream. Reality soon kicked in however – we were actually experiencing our first earthquake!! As I leaped out of bed, I could feel the whole room moving from side to side. We rushed out of the room and headed for the emergency stairs. Our room was on the 9th floor so it was a long way down. As we rushed bare footed (there had been no time to put on foot wear) in fear of our lives, I felt that I was almost literally following in Wallace’s footsteps. He wrote the following about an earthquake he experienced near Manado in his book The Malay Archipelago:


“During my stay at Rurukan, my curiosity was satisfied by experiencing a pretty sharp earthquake-shock. On the evening of June 29th, at a quarter after eight, as I was sitting reading, the house began shaking with a very gentle, but rapidly increasing motion. I sat still enjoying the novel sensation for some seconds; but in less than half a minute it became strong enough to shake me in my chair, and to make the house visibly rock about, and creak and crack as if it would fall to pieces. Then began a cry throughout the village of "Tana goyang! tana goyang! "(Earthquake! earthquake!) Everybody rushed out of their houses--women screamed and children cried--and I thought it prudent to go out too. On getting up, I found my head giddy and my steps unsteady, and could hardly walk without falling. The shock continued about a minute, during which time I felt as if I had been turned round and round, and was almost seasick. Going into the house again, I found a lamp and a bottle of arrack upset. The tumbler which formed the lamp had been thrown out of the saucer in which it had stood. The shock appeared to be nearly vertical, rapid, vibratory, and jerking. It was sufficient, I have no doubt, to have thrown down brick, chimneys, walls, and church towers; but as the houses here are all low, and strongly framed of timber, it is impossible for them to be much injured, except by a shock that would utterly destroy a European city. The people told me it was ten years since they had had a stronger shock than this, at which time many houses were thrown down and some people killed.


At intervals of ten minutes to half an hour, slight shocks and tremors were felt, sometimes strong enough to send us all out again. There was a strange mixture of the terrible and the ludicrous in our situation. We might at any moment have a much stronger shock, which would bring down the house over us, or-- what I feared more--cause a landslip, and send us down into the deep ravine on the very edge of which the village is built; yet I could not help laughing each time we ran out at a slight shock, and then in a few moments ran in again. The sublime and the ridiculous were here literally but a step apart. On the one hand, the most terrible and destructive of natural phenomena was in action around us--the rocks, the mountains, the solid earth were trembling and convulsed, and we were utterly impotent to guard against the danger that might at any moment overwhelm us. On the other hand was the spectacle of a number of men, women, and children running in and out of their houses, on what each time proved a very unnecessary alarm, as each shock ceased just as it became strong enough to frighten us. It seemed really very much like "playing at earthquakes," and made many of the people join me in a hearty laugh, even while reminding each other that it really might be no laughing matter.”


We emerged into the hotel lobby covered with thick dirt from the emergency stairs and dressed only in night attire. I thanked my lucky stars that I had gone to bed in pyjamas, and not in the all-together! The hotel staff tittered politely behind their hands at the sight of two dirty and semi-naked orang putih (that’s Indonesian for white people). The tremors, which we discovered later were 5.1 on the Richter scale, had finally stopped, and so we reluctantly went back to our room. We discovered later that it was the first earthquake of the year, and that some of the staff had been a bit scared!

Bill & local boy final.JPGBill Bailey greeted by a local Manado boy