It’s just after 3:00 am when a voice outside my cabin door calls softly, telling me that its time to go.
I make my way gingerly up the internal staircase from below decks in pitch darkness, careful not to wake the other guests on board the Katherina, a 100 foot Phinesi sailing ship, moored off the island of Gam in the tropical waters of Raja Ampat in West Papua.
Our ever vigilant purser, Frans welcomes me on deck with cup of coffee and gives me detailed instructions as to what will happen over the next two to three hours. I try to take it all in but am somewhat distracted by the night sky which, given the absence of any external light is peppered with a billion, brilliant stars.
The guttural sound of an outboard engine breaks the silence and, out of the darkness there is Simon, my Papuan guide standing like a sentinel at the rear of a longboat. Only his brilliantly white teeth framed by a massive smile can be seen in the pre-dawn darkness.
Taking my seat at the front of the longboat, mere inches above the water we speed away from the the safety of Katharina and into the night. Strapped to my head is a cumbersome headlamp, its powerful globe protruding from my forehead making me look like some prehistoric deep water fish.
Within seconds of turning it on I am enveloped in a swarm of tiny insects performing a form of ritual hari kiri by flying at speed directly into the lamp’s globe and, by design, my face. Simon advises me to keep my mouth closed but, all to late as several dozen to make their way down my throat!
If that wasn’t enough, the swarming flying creatures attracts hordes of bats swooping like fighter jets catching the insects mid-flight. Not for the first time this morning I begin to question my motives for this expedition.
Alfred Russell Wallace
Now, lets be clear here, I am not exactly a keen ornithologist, in fact, I really don’t have much interest in birds whatsoever but, what I do have, is a fascination with the writings of Albert Russell Wallace, the eminent 19th century explorer who spent many years exploring this part of the Indonesian archipelago. During his time here he chronicled the exploits of one of the most wondrous creature to have ever taken flight, the aptly named, Bird of Paradise.
To see the Bird of Paradise entails a rather intrepid journey as I am now discovering, swatting away, not only the insects but also a hordes of swooping bats.
The longboat weaves its way into a shallow inlet that will take us about three miles into the jungle. The floor of the inlet is studded with giant coral lurking just below the surface which is why I cannot switch off the pesky headlamp even though it creates a beautiful halo of illumination that shows the coral in all its glorious splendor. Large fish, attracted by the headlamp are flying past my head leaping to a height of perhaps six to eight feet and splashing back down into the water on the other side of the boat. Some however mistime their jump and land in the boat and begin to thrash around at my feet.
Simon is delighted, “Breakfast,” he calls out!
By now we are surrounded by thick jungle, the air thick as treacle and the temperature and humidity are reminiscent of a Swedish sauna. At this stage the only thing keeping me going are Wallace’s eloquent words describing the elusive Bird of Paradise thus;
“Their wings rise vertically over its back, its head bent low and stretched out. It’s rear plumage then rises up and expands until until they form two magnificent golden fans, striped with deep red at the base before fading to light brown at the tips. The whole bird is then enveloped in this curtain of plumage offset by by its bright yellow head and emerald green throat. This creature, when seen like this really does deserve its name as it must be ranked as one of the most beautiful and wondrous of all living things.”
How could I resist!
We arrive at a rickety jetty where, waiting for us are two more barefooted Papuan guides there to help me up the vertical slope where the birds will come to the ‘dancing trees’ as the sun rises.
The path cuts vertically through a wonder of iridescent beetles, giant moths and butterflies. Soaring trees and giant ferns, interspersed with towering fan palms sprout from the rich undergrowth of the forest floor. I feel like a lowly ant as I ease my way through the the sprawling roots of these giant trees, festooned with multi-colored orchids.
I was astonished to see sea shells clinging to the sides of the trunks transported there by industrious hermit crabs who dragged their dwelling several miles inland from the ocean.
At last we reach the summit and Simon squats down, places his fingers across his nose and emits a strange raucous call, “wank, wank, tok, tok, tok tok” and, lo and behold, from deep in the valley there is an answering call.
The birds are coming!
Lying on a log and gazing upwards I see the males arrive, five of them, each emitting a call that is remarkably similar to the common crow. They begin to dance, fibrillating their tails and bobbing their heads up and down in unison. When one sees them for the first time its like seeing the shimmering gold of St. Elmo’s Fire, as when they freeze, feathers aloft they resemble colourful wild flowers caught in a shaft of sunlight. The rather drab and unimposing hens show complete disinterest in the dandies strutting their stuff around them as, being outnumbered seven to one they can have the pick of the bunch.!
Once one of the hens has chosen her ‘dancing partner’ the other males behave like jilted lovers, showing off and strutting around the amorous pair while the other females, obviously not having found anything to their liking, fly off into the jungle.
It’s a mesmerizing performance.
In many ways perhaps, it would have been a blessing if these fabulous creatures had not been ‘discovered’ and brought to the attention of the west by the likes of Wallace for, once the ‘outside world’ became aware of their beauty it created a virtual industry.
Everyone wanted a piece of the bird, dead or alive!
Chinese mariners travelled to the islands of Raja Ampat and to the southern Aru Islands in search of these mythical creature where the Arunese, sensing a burgeoning market began to capture and kill Bird of Paradise, selling their skin (replete with feathers) by weight, minus their legs. Europeans actually named them, “paradiscea cepoda’ or the ‘footless bird of paradise.
Within twenty minutes the show is over and, as the sun rises over the tops of the trees the brightly coloured performers are on their way, leaving me breathless.
Once again I am reminded that the world is indeed an amazing place.
Paul V. Walters traveled to Raja Ampat as a guest of Seatrek.
Written by: Paul V. Walters
Paul v Walters is the best selling author of several novels and when not cocooned in sloth and procrastination in his house in Bali he scribbles for several international travel and vox pop journals.
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