Go with the flow

“Have you ever dived in currents before?” the instructor asked. We were in Komodo National Park, where the warm Indian and cooler Pacific Ocean collide. The conditions here make for epic dives, with bountiful corals housing a diverse range of reef fish, and the nutrient rich water attracting larger open sea species such as giant manta rays, white tip sharks and even dugongs.

From the boat, we could see a faint dark strip parting the water in the faint light of dawn. It was smoother than the water either side of it, and seemed to flow differently. It signalled that below the surface, a strong current was moving.

We had never dived in currents before, but my friend described it as riding an ‘underwater roller coaster.’ Once you were in the jet stream, all you could do was go with it. They move fast and can carry you for miles. However, divers have been known to end up far from their boat, so you must enter drift dives with care and have some prior diving experience.

We had our morning briefing, put on our kits and did our buddy checks. The small islands changed from dusky hues to become more solid as the sun rose. We were the only boat there, deep in the National Park and close to Rinca Island where the dragons live. One of the advantages of living aboard is that you don’t have to travel from the mainland for every dive, and the captain can avoid the other boats by navigating the dive sites depending on the tides or recent sightings of marine life.

The view from the Mastro Aldo boat

Tatawa Besar
We were heading to Tatawa Besar (Big Island) for our first drift dive. This site is shallower and during rainy season, there’s a good chance you’ll catch the manta ray coming through. We entered the dive site from the island’s small beach. This is a shallow dive, and ideal for those new to drift diving. The currents here are less powerful compared to Tatawa Kecil (Small Island) or Batu Balong.

The coral garden is located on a gentle slope that encircles the island, and is an ideal spot to see a dizzying collection of tropical reef fish. On our dive, we spotted a psychedelic Napoleon wrasse, the goofy but territorial Titan triggerfish, and a mystical horned unicorn fish.

Don’t mess with a triggerfish

The current was gentle and swept us slowly across the pastel shades of coral reef. We glimpsed both Nemo and Dory, with clownfish hiding in their soft anemone beds and Pacific blue tangs zipping back and forth. Cornet fish glided by with their long thin bodies, and a spotted porcupine fish with bulbous eyes followed our bubbles.

Looking out into the almost misty depths of the open water, a shadow formed into a shape. It was the first shark I’d ever seen on a dive. Two black tip reef sharks and one white tip patrolled the edges, then faded back into the water beyond.

A black tip reef shark

Batu Balong
The second drift dive was at Batu Balong, a site considered one of the best in Komodo National Park with rip currents pushing shoals of giant trevally, dazzling rainbow runners and dogtooth tuna. The strong currents and steep rocky outcrop of this site pose a challenge for divers, but the rewards are worth it.

From the boat, the rock pinnacle seemed small. The north side is shallower at around 27m, but once we rolled in, we found ourselves inside a glittering school of giant trevallies. As we descended further, silver changed to blue as tuna encircled us in a hypnotic display of flashing scales.

We continued round to the south side and found ourselves staring down the plunging rockface. Here, we saw giant sweetlips, dancing mantis shrimp and the unnerving stare of a moray eel. The fusiliers were painted in an assortment of pigments so vivid they could not be replicated on land. Beyond the shelf, it descends to a whopping 75m. Staring over the edge felt like gazing off the edge of the earth.

In my dive log, I nicknamed this site ‘The Aquarium’ for the sheer volume of tropical fish we saw.

A healthy reef with thousands of fish

Tatawar Kecil
Another site renowned for its strong currents, Tatawa Kecil offers divers with the chance to drift dive over soft coral and anemones to spot the resident pygmy seahorses.

We entered on a falling tide, aiming to exit on a rising tide. Two reef sharks emerged from the blue as we zigzagged down the rock face, fighting the current that tried to sweep us into the deep. They crossed our path a few times before disappearing into the haze.

The coral garden was abundant with pockets of life. Nudibranches with spots and stripes waved their funky frills. Moray eels poked their monstrous heads from cavernous rocks, their unseen bodies twisting beneath them. A grouper, almost as large as me, kept an eye on us as we floated on by.

More giant trevally shimmered past, riding the currents as they huddled together.

Makassar Reef
This site offered us a slow and gentle drift, but conditions can change quickly. Known as a shelving site, the shallow sea bed of Makassar Reef offers an almost martian landscape of craters and coral rubble. Here lies the ‘cleaning stations’ of the manta rays, and it is an ideal location to see these flying acrobats up close.

A giant manta ray chaperoned by a giant trevally

Although seemingly barren with mostly broken coral, you can find some larger clumps of coral heads (or brommies) with reef fish sheltering inside. We saw a white tip reef shark, so they were wise to find a hiding spot. Flitting between the surviving coral, we clocked Zap-coloured parrotfish, a deflated pufferfish and some punky batfish outlined in neon.

Then, the main event. Our dive master saw two manta rays flapping towards us and used a metal rod to twang her tank. Kneeling in the broken shards of coral, we gazed upwards as the manta rays flew over our heads. When you spot a giant manta ray, it can be a challenge to stay in one place before the current shuffles you away. With reef hooks, it is possible to hold yourself to a rock, but finding something to grip on to can be a difficult task. My divemaster ended up holding me as I threatened to skid off on my own.

Circling back, the manta rays were inquisitive and swam into our bubble streams. Two more joined the party, and flapped effortlessly against the current that was still edging us forwards. As their wings rose and fell, they twisted their bodies. Their lower flanks lit up as they flew towards the surface.

Dive Package Information
Company: Komodo Dive Center
Boat: Mastro Aldo
Website: https://www.komododivecenter.com/
Package: 4 days, 3 nights (other stays are available) with food and board
Diving equipment: Included, but dive computers available for extra
Group sizes: Small. We lucked out and had one divemaster for two divers!

Have you ever been on a drift dive? Where is your favourite place to catch a current? Let me know in the comments.

Look for the little things

Now more than ever, it’s important to find some rays of sunshine in your day. The restrictions have meant most of us are staying at home, and rather than gloomily mulling over things yet to pass, I’ve found it’s better to remain positive. Losing my job was a blow, but I have more time to appreciate the things that would only receive a cursory glance before.

With less people moving around, nature is already extending its boundaries. Our school, which closed three weeks ago, has reported jaguar paw prints 10m away from my now empty classroom. At home, the turkey vultures that circle this valley have started flying much lower. So low, in fact, their wrinkled pink heads and two-tone feathers are clearly visible.

Swallow-tailed kites, usually soaring on the thermals way above us, have started flyovers in groups of three. Their iconic split tails and monochrome colouring is striking, and for such large birds they are surprisingly graceful.

One day, Tom saw the swoop of a long tail outside as we were cooking together. The brilliant colours and red eyes were unmistakably that of a blue-crowned motmot. Sitting in the wind and trying to position its long tail comfortably, its feather sprayed upwards, showing a paintbox of mustard, turquoise and electric blue.

As I was washing up, some birdsong drifted through the open window that I’d not heard before. It wasn’t the harsh rasps and clicks of the grackles, whose black feathers shine like oil spills in the sunlight. It wasn’t the catcall of the tanned squirrel cuckoo. It was delicate, and spilled in phrases that gave the illusion of multiple birds singing together. Rather than running for my camera, I closed my eyes. I was content just hearing it.

Over breakfast, the sporadic lopsided flight of a giant Morpho butterfly caught my eye. It was about the same size as my bowl. Blue then brown, blue then brown, until it was out of sight.

Another day, I heard three emerald toucanets croaking nearby. Scanning the treeline, I could see boughs shaking in the breeze. Then, a sudden flash of a yellow beak and royal blue, followed by green feathers that burst into umber at the tail. Three of them hopped around hesitantly, until they disappeared back into the forest.

Although all the white flowers from December had blown away, some fuchsia ones recently popped up on the trees. Our resident tri-coloured squirrel, with plumper cheeks than when I saw him last, rustled the leaves before perching and gobbling up the remaining petals.

The capuchin monkeys that used to visit us, sometimes in a small group of three, or a large troop of around twenty, swung by earlier this week. The dogs barked at the pair of intruders, and they stopped to study us by our high windows before jumping away down the valley, using their long tails to balance on impossibly thin branches.

The small banana tree that sits above our house has sprouted mini green fingers. The waxy flower, once a rich purple, has faded to lilac and is peeling to the ground. There must be forty or so tiny bananas growing quietly, and I had never noticed them before.

Wild flowers, white and flushed with soft pink, sprung up out of the ground seemingly overnight. After just three days in the relentless sun, they began to dry up, curling their petals that were now fringed with brown.

The rhythm of nature continues, regardless. I’m finding solace in the fact that there is happiness to be found, if you only stop and look.

Borneo’s big five

You’ve heard of the Big Five in Africa, but have you heard of Borneo’s version?

The first animal on our list was the reason we had travelled to Borneo – the orangutan. The Sepilok orangutan rehabilitation centre is wildlife conservation at its best, with a focus on protecting the orangutans from the deforestation for palm oil production, while preparing them to be reintroduced to the primary forests.

The first orangutan we saw was from the boardwalk, a young male that looked as though its fur was on fire as it caught the early sunlight. With black fingernails, he clasped the branches with finesse as he climbed down to the feeding platform. The orangutans here are not guaranteed sightings, and in fact, the guides said it was a good sign not to spot them as it meant they were foraging for themselves. This brought them one step closer to being re-released into the wild.

We also encountered a giant male with impressive side flanges who seemed to have a monopoly on the larger feeding sight. Swinging from a rope and bellowing, his presence was undeniable. However, a mischievous pig-tailed macaque stole fresh fruit from under his nose undetected.

We would spot three more orangutans outside of Sepilok, solitary individuals who were making their nightly nest high in the canopies, feeding on the fringes of the rainforest, or emerging from the thick canopy above.

Back on the river, it wasn’t long before we spotted animal number two. Our wooden boat lurched down the swollen river, so full of mud that everything below the surface was hidden. Sunning itself on the bank with its jaws open in a menacing pant, it flexed each of its muscular legs before thumping down its thick tail and slipping into the water. Our guides pulled at the motor as we scanned the chocolate river for a sign, but the 3m long saltwater crocodile had disappeared without even a ripple.

On a night tour, we would see dozens of glimmering golden eyes bobbing on the surface, not disclosing the size of the body beneath. On a dawn outing in the boat, a 4m male swam underneath us and rose to let us watch his endless scaly spines submerge once more.

Our third spot came suddenly, as a troop of proboscis monkeys disturbed the outer edges of the rainforest by leaping and shaking the leaves. The males, most famous for their protruding noses, sported potbellies and sat apart from the rest. The females carried younger members of the group, with the same rounded stomachs on show as they jumped to higher branches.

Proboscis monkeys are endemic to Borneo and are endangered through loss of natural habitat. To avoid being hunted by leopards, monitor lizards and eagles, they sleep on the edge of the rainforest, finding the lightest boughs that will support them. However, one misstep or ill-timed spring could land them in the water, where a hungry crocodile will snap them up instantly.

From the Kinabatangan River, we noticed rope bridges connecting the distant banks. These were introduced by conservationists to provide safe passage for orangutans, but they are inevitably used by other species who are not keen to test the waters.

As we approached the Sukau Rainforest Lodge, one of National Geographic’s unique lodges of the world, we noticed a chalkboard full of scribbled names of recent sightings. Our hopes of seeing number three were raised for the next morning, but of course, nature is unpredictable.

We set out early to reach the oxbow lake, and saw frogs, silvery langurs and graceful egrets with curved necks. We had seen sombre black hornbills roosted on dead stumps, a pair of ghoulish mating white-crested hornbills, Oriental pied hornbills with their grand casques flying in single file, and we would later see nesting bushy-crested hornbills in the Tabin Wildlife Reserve.

Fourth on our list was the rhinoceros hornbill, with an impressive casque coloured like flames in contrast with its monochromatic plumage. Our guide pointed to a silhouette high on a branch, and as the mist dissipated, its colours were revealed. The male preened himself and its decorative casque swayed elegantly as it moved its beak around.

The final animal on our list was one that our guides said was rather elusive, despite its size. The Borneo Pygmy Elephant is the smallest elephant species in the world, but adult males still reach up to 2.5 metres high. Having already seen so many incredible species, we were content with the peaceful boat ride down the river.

Just as we were about to turn back to the lodge, we heard a splintering crack from the bank. Our guide killed the engine, and we sat in silence, listening to the disturbed water lapping the side of the boat. The sound of snapping again, followed by a glimpse of a grey, weathered trunk.

Before long, a whole herd of elephants was munching its way to the river’s edge. Juvenile elephants playfully chased their elders in circles, before retreating into the rainforest. A scarred male, missing half a tusk, stood apart from the rest. The matriarch of the group, an old female, led the group, and for a moment, we thought she would enter the water. However, she slowly turned and walked back into the treeline, the view clear after they had demolished the undergrowth.

If you would like to experience a wildlife tour in Borneo, we recommend Borneo Eco Tours. Not only do they hire local guides who are experts at spotting wildlife and sharing stories, they are consistently recognised for their commitment to conservation efforts and prioritise the welfare of the animals and local communities.

With any wildlife encounter, sightings are not guaranteed. Seeing an animal in its natural habitat is special, but it is even more so when it is not a given. If you would like to book a wildlife tour, we recommend this 5 day, 4 night experience that is a budget tour including Sukau Rainforest Lodge and the Tabin Wildlife Reserve.

Night tour in Monteverde

Our guide, Cristian, stopped on the trail, his torch shining downwards.

“What is it?” we whispered, half hoping it wasn’t the puma that had been spotted nearby, or the jaguar he had joked was stalking us from above.

“I can smell something. Yes, it’s a tarantula,” Cristian replied.

Although it was dark, I tried to scan his face for clues. I’m known to be quite gullible, so I have to be wary in situations like these. “What do they smell like?”

“Well, to be a guide you have lots of training. It takes years to smell it. I can’t describe it really.”

Following the stony path, we stopped to shine our torches into the small holes that burrowed into the verge. Where the path grew wider, we stopped to gaze up at the starry sky with the unmistakable wisp of milky way.

We were walking inside the cloud forest at Refugio de Vida Silvestre, where 30 hectares of cultivated farmland was transformed into a protected refuge for the wildlife.

“Here!” We gathered round a hole the size of a saucer. Poking out, we saw four very hairy legs. Behind those, eight shiny eyes studied us carefully, before retreating slowly. I surreptitiously sniffed the air, hoping to smell something.

During the night tour, our guide pointed out creatures of all sizes, hiding in the undergrowth or concealed in the canopy. Although sightings are never guaranteed when it comes to wildlife tours, with 60% of the wildlife here being nocturnal in one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, we had a good chance of seeing some animals.

Giant stick insects the length of my forearm and fat glow-in-the-dark caterpillars crawled along twigs that shook as they moved. In the depths of the forest, we turned off our lights and as our eyes adjusted to the darkness, a log appeared to emit its own bioluminescence due to the fungi that grew over it.

Higher up, we spotted a sleeping brown jay that had puffed up its chest to stay warm. Beyond it, we saw a male-gartered trogon with its distinctive orange breast. Then not far away, our guide spotted a snoozing white-tailed sabrewing with striking oil-spill feathers.

A sleeping white-tailed sabrewing hummingbird

Armed with a UV torch, I was tasked with trying to find a scorpion in the dead leaves. Some insects are able to see beyond the spectrum of human sight, so using UV light can reveal lichen and other organisms that are not usually discernible to the human eye. Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to locate a scorpion, but we did enjoy the fluorescent disco shoes of our hiking companions.

Climbing further into the reserve, Cristian blocked the path with his telescope and asked us to take a peek. Right in front of us hung an acid green snake, only 7ft away. The side-striped palm pit viper is extremely venomous, and can be fatal if an antidote isn’t administered in time. Coiled up and ready to strike, its pale eyes were scanning the ground for a tasty rodent.

A side-striped palm pit viper

Just around the corner, a larger pit viper was scaling a thorny tree. Despite the inhospitable bark, the snake persevered to reach an unlucky wren’s nest.

The highlight of our night tour was seeing a sloth high in a tree. The Hoffman’s two-toed sloths are the only sloth species here in Monteverde, as the three-toed variety have thinner coats and dislike the cooler climate. The female was visibly pregnant and happily munching away on leaves.

Contrary to popular belief, she moved at quite some speed! The locals here call sloths ‘perezoso,’ meaning lazy, but this nickname seemed undeserved after watching her in action. After two minutes, she had clambered into the dense growth, just in time to create a veritable challenge for the next passing group.

If you would like to sign up for the Refugio de Vida Silvestre tour, you can easily book it through your hostel/hotel here in Monteverde / Santa Elena.

Tour: Refugio de Vida Silvestre (Wildlife Refuge), Monteverde
Website: Relaunching soon. More information here.
Cost: $25 per person, plus a 10% tip for your guide in dollars. Discount available for residents.
Duration: 2-3 hours.
Time: 6pm and 8pm every night.
Group size: small, maximum of 8 people per group. We had just 4 in ours, and didn’t bump into any other groups except to share the sloth sighting.
Fitness level: Easy to moderate walk. Might be muddy after rainfall.
What to bring: Raincoat, suitable walking shoes, long sleeves and trousers.
Optional: water, binoculars, camera/mobile phone. We didn’t need insect repellent as we’re at high altitude here.
Included: Spanish or English-speaking guide, torches for each person, a telescope to take photographs/videos through using your mobile.
Lodge amenities: free coffee and bathroom.

In the meantime, check out their Facebook page, Instagram account or TripAdvisor reviews.

We will definitely be returning again soon in the hope of spotting an armadillo, kinkajou, opossum, coati, pygmy owl, resplendent quetzal, scorpion and the resident cloud forest tree frog!

Saltwater crocodiles

Hypercarnivorous apex predator. The most chilling three words in the English language.

“This is what we do if we get attacked. You go for the eyes, or if you’re caught in its mouth, you need to reach to the back and past the tongue. There’s a flap there which stops water flooding their lungs.” Tom narrowed his eyes and looked concerned, but not about being bitten.

I had spent hours researching saltwater crocodile attacks ahead of our Borneo trip. I had read reports of fishermen in capsized boats being dragged into the water, women who were stolen from riverbanks as they washed their clothes, and swimmers who had disappeared without even a ripple. I had consulted WikiHow about how to survive an attack, and delved deep into the archives of crocodile-related deaths.

As I read our itinerary on the Kinabatangan River, my blood cooled.

Crocodilians can attack at any time, but are most active and most dangerous at dusk and at night. The Sukau Lodge where we were staying was built on the banks of the river. We would be taking boat tours along the river at dusk, along with an optional night cruise.

Crocodiles, in particular, are also known to attack and overturn boats, and will even grab people off of boats and drag them into the water. I flicked through the tour images on the site and was surprised to see how small the boats were. They had motors but were barely above the water’s surface.

Avoid patches of vegetation where these animals could hide. Our guide would steer our boat right into a floating carpet of salvenia molesta aquatic weed where it was rumoured a 5m male crocodile lived. This was also a popular place for females to lay their eggs.

Large crocodilians can launch themselves through the water at speeds of up to 60kmh (37mph), faster than most people can react. As we made our way to the lodge, the engines were cut as we drifted past a 3m crocodile. It was sunbathing on the shore, open-mouthed. We were easily within 10m of it. It banged each leg in turn, twitched its tail, then suddenly snapped its head towards us and launched into the water. Our captain rushed to kick start the motors as we lost track of it immediately in the murky brown water.


Cruising along the Kinabatangan River, we spotted four adult crocodiles. One of the guests in the boat was an American woman who had done this tour ten times. She lived in Kota Kinabalu but was a wildlife enthusiast and a professional underwater photographer. She said that she’d never seen so many crocs in all her previous trips. She had attended a wildlife conservation conference where she had chatted with a crocodilian expert. According to him, the water temperatures dictate whether the eggs will produce male or female crocodiles. As water temperatures continue to rise, more males are likely to be born. The males are more territorial and aggressive, and can grow up to 2m larger than the females.

Our guide told us that the river can sometimes swell up to 5-6m higher, and the water reaches 2-3km beyond the usual banks. When this happens, more humans are attacked as workers in the plantations do not expect to see a crocodile there. Down the river towards Sarawak, it was reported that the firemen are being trained how to hunt crocodiles following a spate of attacks. As the macaque monkey populations are smaller there, the crocodiles have less food to snatch from the overhanging branches and are forced to hunt other prey.

Tom might have been right. I was getting a bit obsessed. After all, saltwater crocodiles were only one of the Borneo Big Five – we were there to see the orangutans, proboscis monkeys, rhinoceros hornbills and the pygmy elephants too.


During the night cruise, the strong torch positioned at the back of the boat swung across the treeline, illuminating the greenery in the darkness. The chocolate-coloured water was now inky black. The light hovered across the still water and our eyes followed it with trepidation. The guide was searching for the telltale shine of crocodile eyes. Just as he was about to abandon it and return to the sleeping kingfishers or proboscis monkeys, we caught a glimpse of two gooey gold eyes. The set of eyes silently glided past our boat, the rest of it submerged and unseen. The eyes were close together, meaning it was a young crocodile. We saw three baby crocodiles, then a larger one about a metre long who menacingly kept his mouth wide open as the waves from our boat washed over him. He was on the muddy bank next to our lodge opposite the jetty, reminding us that the danger was close by.

The next morning, our guide Stephen was keen to get out on the water at 5:40am and beat the other boats. He had a knack for finding the biggest salties as they cruised in the water before the whirring of the motors caused them to move away. True to his word, we encountered a huge 3m crocodile swimming alongside our boat. His skin was much darker than others we’d seen, and his body slinked on top of the water before disappearing altogether. Time was suspended as we nervously scanned the surface. He emerged on the other side of us briefly, then I was glad when Stephen spotted him upriver, far from our boat.


On our final river cruise, we went down a new tributary that was only slightly narrower than the main Kinabatangan. Large cables ran across the river, connecting two large trees on either side. Our guide explained that these were built by the WWF to allow orangutans to cross safely, as crocodiles would hunt anything that had the misfortune of falling into the water. However, it was mainly the proboscis monkeys that made use of the bridge.

It was here that Stephen told us a story that I have not been able to verify online, and I’m not sure I completely buy it in hindsight. It is true that crocodile attacks do go unreported in remote areas, and equally, I understand why a story like this might be quashed. In a nature reserve that relies on tourism to maintain its conservation efforts, bad press could threaten their work.

As the story goes, two European tourists were staying at a nearby lodge, which was discernible only by the wooden hut and steep jetty. At around midday, they decided to go for a swim. They took off their hiking boots and clothes, and made their way down the muddy bank into the water. They both were taken by the crocodiles, and only one torso was recovered. Now, I appreciate this sounds like a story that you’d tell over a campfire, but in that moment, and having seen the large predators over the course of three days, I believed him.

Now that I have had time to absorb the sights and the whole experience, I feel slightly embarrassed by how scared I was each time I boarded the boat. Given the number of tourists that take these tours, I should have been able to settle my nerves.

With any wildlife spotting tour, you are lucky to be in an environment where wild sightings are possible. I felt the same way when I dived with sharks in Komodo National Park. Instead of my phobia bubbling over, I actually willed the black or white tipped reef sharks to appear from the blue and swim nearer to us.

Next time, I’ll spend less time tormenting myself with click-bait reports and devote more time to finding out about the conservation efforts in place to protect these misunderstood species.

– How to Survive a Crocodile Attack, https://www.wikihow.com/Survive-an-Encounter-with-a-Crocodile-or-Alligator
– Saltwater Crocodiles, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saltwater_crocodile
– Temperature-dependent sex determination in the salt-water crocodile, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/296789610_Temperature-dependent_sex_determination_in_the_salt-water_crocodile_Crocodylus_porosus_Schneider 
– Waterweed-eating Weevils, https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2017/11/08/waterweedeating-weevils-to-be-set-loose-in-mid2018/

We travelled with Borneo Eco Tours and booked their BB7H experience, taking in the magnificent Sukau Rainforest Lodge (one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World) and Tabin Wildlife Reserve. Highly recommended and a wonderful wildlife spotting trip!

Birds of paradise in Singapore

Like the Victorian naturalists and explorers before us, we were searching for the pinnacle of feathered beauty. The most impressive specimen of the local birds of paradise – the greater racket-tailed drongo.

These are the rare creatures which attracted the Victorian ecologist Alfred R. Wallace, who was studying the variations between bird species, from plumage to beak shape. It was his curiosity and passion for finding birds of paradise, or what he called “the most extraordinary and the most beautiful of the feathered inhabitants of the earth,” that made him one of the most prolific and celebrated minds of his era.

The beauty of exotic birds was highly desirable and fetched an even higher price, so many explorers, Wallace included, attempted to capture specimens to send back to menagerie displays and collectors back home. This additional venture enabled travellers the funds to be able to continue their work.

Wallace was a successful field biologist, spending twelve years in jungles in the Amazon and then island hopping around the Malay archipelago. His interest was mainly in birds, and his observation that individual islands had their own unique species led him to the theory of evolution, around the same time as his contemporary Charles Darwin. You can read more about his life and accomplishments below*, but for now, let’s retrace Wallace’s footsteps into the jungle 150 years later.

We stepped into the treeline and out of the sudden downpour. A shower of heat dripped down our arms as condensation. The cicadas filled our heads like tinnitus, and the flashes of sunlight through the leaves distracted our eyes from the fast flittering movements of the butterflies. Dead leaves larger than our heads were caught in rigor mortis on the large vines that swept down from the canopy in dizzying spirals.

Yet there was so much life. The prehistoric-looking common mynah birds hopped before us, their movements reminiscent of two-legged raptors. Rustles in the leaves twenty feet above announced the arrival of a troupe of long-tailed macaques, lured close by a fellow walker rustling in their bag. Their smiles and keen eyes were not to be mistaken for friendly, and mothers with bald babies clinging to their bellies clambered down towards us. Many others watched from the branches, before leaping across the path above us to continue their hunt for food.

Following the boardwalk by the water, giant ripples from bobbing catfish the length of my arm disturbed the surface. A flicker of a tongue revealed the otherwise statuesque 5ft monitor lizard, who on being discovered, plodded away on his sharp claws in search for another sunny patch to recharge.

Yet we still had not found our prize: the coveted greater racket-tailed drongo birds. The call of a drongo is difficult to recognise since it is a master of mimicry, copying not only other birds but other animals too. One theory behind this feature is that it enables these particular drongo birds to distract smaller birds and steal their hoard of insects – they are the pirates of the high trees.

The most distinctive mark of the bird is its unique elongated tail feathers, which are shaped as delicate bows, or twirled rackets, only at the end. It hangs down from the bird at an impressive length, and seems to pose a hazard as the bird flits between dense branches. Perhaps for this reason, it mainly occupies the higher echelons of the jungle.

“[Drongo birds] have long forked tails, and some Asian species have elaborate tail decorations. Racket-tailed drongos are the mimicry artists among birds. They can mimic the sound of other birds and some animals.”

Looking directly up at the silhouetted branches, we strained our eyes to see what was calling in a nasal whistling sound. The speckled leaves exposed pinpricks of light, having been ravished by hungry insects. It was then I saw it.

A medium-sized bird, unremarkable in colour with its black/blue feathers that reminded me of blackbirds in my native England, but with a show-stopping finalé. The long tail swept behind it before settling down gracefully below its owner. The tufts of its crown moved as the bird surveyed its surroundings.

These drongos are well-known for their bravery on taking on larger birds in competition for food, and it was likely searching for an easy meal. It was a magnificent sight, and the experience only lasted half a minute. Yet the appeal of seeing these birds has lasted centuries.

* Alfred R. Wallace was a self-taught naturalist, who spent eight years hopping around the islands of the Malay archipelago to study and collect a range of specimens. As New Scientist writes, ‘Most famously, when [Wallace] crossed the narrow but deep channel between the islands of Bali and Lombok, he discovered strikingly different sorts of birds and other animals. He realised he had crossed a boundary between two major zoological realms; on one side, the animals were typical of Asia, on the other of Australasia. The boundary is known as Wallace’s Line.’

Back in England, in haste to publish these significant findings to the scientific community, it was agreed that Darwin and Wallace would publish their theory of evolution in a joint paper in August 1858. At the time, Wallace was still out in the field, suffering with fever in New Guinea and did little to celebrate his success. On his return to England, however, Wallace was awarded with the Order of Merit, the highest honour bestowed by any monarch. His travel memoirs, The Malay Archipelago was published in 1869 and has never been out of print.

Although Wallace published subsequent books on his theory, it was Darwin’s book in 1859, On the Origin of Species, that ignited the imagination of the public. The evolution argument fell out of favour towards the end of the 19th Century, and on its revival in the 1930s, it was Darwin who received the sole credit.

However, on the centenary celebrations of Wallace in 2013, a portrait was hung in the Natural History Museum in London to commemorate his achievements, albeit dwarfed by the impressive marble statue of Darwin seated on the stairs. Finally, in 2015, the first full bust of Wallace was presented to the Linnean Society, where his joint paper on evolution was first read in 1858.


‘Bill Bailey’s Jungle Hero’, BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0160nxk

‘Tricksters’, BBC Wildlife, http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/life/Drongo

Greater racket-tailed drongo bird, Wikipedia, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greater_racket-tailed_drongo

‘Why does Charles Darwin Eclipse Alfred R. Wallace?’ by Kevin Lenoard, BBC News, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-wales-21549079

‘Alfred R Wallace: A Very Rare Specimen’, by Stephanie Pain, New Scientist, https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.newscientist.com/article/mg22029421-100-alfred-russel-wallace-a-very-rare-specimen/amp/?client=safari