In 1996, Tim Severin set out to travel round the Spice Islands of equatorial Indonesia on a locally made and designed boat in the footsteps of Alfred Russell Wallace, the brilliant biologist who had come up with the ideas of natural selection and evolution at the same time as Charles Darwin.
There are places where time seems to have stood still, the birds of paradise thriving and happily playing in the trees, hunted yes but in a sustainable way with the local villagers taking responsibility for restricting the amount they hunt. There are beautiful beaches and pristine stretches of water. People are invariably friendly and helpful.
Then there are sights which Severin knows would break the heart of Wallace if he were to return to these same places again. Harbours that are full of stinking rubbish, markets that are full of meat that comes straight from endangered species of birds and animals. Beaches were all the turtle nests have been dug out and every single egg stolen and eaten. Areas where the birds of paradise are being pushed into smaller and smaller patches of trees, their future existence becoming more precarious by the day.
The irony is that Wallace himself was not only a naturalist but a collector of birds and butterflies. in fact he financed his journey largely through the selling of rare bird skins and insect specimens. He also killed not insubstantial numbers of insects and birds for his scientific studies. In those days, it was all on a smaller scale, but even so, the pressures put on wildlife by hunting go far back.
This is a fascinating book, full of the wonder of the tropical beauty that still survives in some areas of these islands but not afraid to show the less palatable side of life in Indonesia, largely as a result of rapidly expanding human population and rampant greed.
The worst thing reading this though is the knowledge that so much must have changed in the twenty years since it was written, how much more of the paradise has been lost in that relatively short period of time?
The Spice Islands Voyage by Tim Severin published by Abacus.