This week’s dream
Searching for paradise on an Indonesian archipelago
“When I enter the rain forest of Indonesia’s Waigeo Island, the first thing I notice is the equatorial air,” said Mark Johanson in the Chicago Tribune. “It’s so thick, I feel as if I’m walking through a cloud.” Then there’s the deafening hum of cicadas, which drown out the sound of my footsteps as I crunch through the brush on my way toward a thatched hut. In 1860, British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace lived for two months in this very spot while studying the elaborate courtship dances of birds of paradise. Though his friend Charles Darwin is today widely regarded as the father of evolution, Wallace independently developed the theory that species evolve through natural selection. My fascination with this often overlooked genius led me to join a sailboat cruise to Waigeo, an island west of New Guinea in the Raja Ampat archipelago. I hope to retrace Wallace’s steps and find his beloved birds of paradise, an “aptly named” group of about 40 lavishly plumaged species.
My first stop is Misool, a Rajat Ampat island that sits at the heart of a 300,000-acre marine reserve rich with manta rays and corals. From the water, the island itself is stunning: “Foliage clings, improbably, to dramatic karst formations that rise out of the sea like shards of green glass.” Behind some of those rock towers lie turquoise lagoons so clear you can see blue sea anemones swaying in the water as you glide above. The lagoons are a favorite hangout spot for hornbills, which whoosh overhead and fill the air with their moans.
After sailing to the Fam Islands, where pincushions of tree-covered rock jut from the sea, we head to Waigeo—home to Wallace’s brilliant birds. To see them, I have to wake at 4 a.m. and hike through the jungle to a hilltop viewing blind 650 feet above the sea. We reach the blind at sunrise, and soon a creature emerges from the leaves. The bird of paradise wears a costume “even a peacock would envy”—crimson wings, emerald cheeks, yellow shoulder tufts, and curling purple tail feathers. Soon more appear, lining up along a branch to perform for female spectators. Each male seems to have its own signature move. When the sun crests the horizon, the bejeweled birds scatter into the forest, vanishing as quickly as they came.
A 10-day Jewels of Raja Ampat cruise with SeaTrek Sailing Adventures (seatrekbali.com) starts at $5,350 a person, double occupancy.