Diving’s not the only thing that Raja Ampat is famous for. The lush, green forests here are home to myriads of exotic birds, including huge hornbills whose wings beat the air with an extraordinary ‘whomp… whomp… whomp’ sound as they fly overhead. Then there’s the guttural, mournful cry of the great-billed herons and a cacophony of other bird calls in just about every anchorage we visit. But perhaps what this area is best known for are the Birds of Paradise; the iconic symbol of Papua. Their mating displays are quite spectacular by all accounts, but they live deep in the forests and are hard to find.
Several local operators offer ‘Bird of Paradise’ tours, but last year we never got around to it – we were always in transit or had no cash to hand (although I suspect the 4.30 am start might have had something to do with our lack of enthusiasm). But this year is different. We’re determined to make the most of every opportunity given to us and so when Fritz, a local Papuan guide, comes alongside to spruik his tour we sign up, along with our American cruising friend, Kevin. Now, at this point, I need to acknowledge how much I appreciate my wonderful husband, who’s not known for his love of early mornings or birdwatching, but who nevertheless agrees to accompany me on this latest adventure.
Fritz organises to collect us at 4.30 am the next morning, so we prepare torches, bug spray, water and camera (of course). We set our alarm for 4.15 and as we’re busy getting ready we hear a noise on the back transom. Fritz is already here, how long he’s been waiting who knows – he doesn’t own a watch so no doubt he’s been drifting off the back of the boat waiting for our lights to come on. We collect Kevin and then we head off across to the other side of the bay and into the mouth of a small river. It’s low tide, so Fritz has to pole us across the coral-strewn shallows. It’s a beautiful starlit night/morning and we can see starfish on the sandy creekbed. As we slowly motor upriver, helping Fritz avoid the rocks by shining our torches on the water, we see fireflies dancing on the rock walls. After about 15 minutes we come to a wooden-framed jetty where we tie up and then start the climb up the steep, narrow, and muddy path. Fritz strides ahead, needing no light, while we bumble along behind, grateful for the handrails someone has so carefully constructed. We still manage to slip and stumble on the sharp rocks and Bruce gashes his shin open on a particularly nasty one. Oh dear, we still have a long climb ahead. It takes a while but eventually we near the top and stop to rest. Fritz’s English is very rudimentary but he’s keen to learn so we have an impromptu English lesson on the names of the various critters we come across – giant millipedes, tiny frogs, and the occasional spider. Of course, there’s immediately a difference of opinion between the Aussies and the American about the correct pronunciation – we insist it’s ‘spida’, whereas Kevin is equally adamant it’s ‘spiderrr’. Fritz is bemused, so I don’t think we’ve been much help.
As dawn starts to creep across the sky, we reach the clearing at the top of the hill and quietly wait for the birds to arrive. Fritz whispers to us that the males will arrive first and then they put the call out for female company. If we’re lucky and a female arrives, then the show starts.
We wait a bit more.
There’s not a lot of action.
Finally, a male arrives but he’s hard to spot so high up in the treetops. I catch a glimpse of yellow and crimson but he’s too far away to get more than a blurred smudge of crimson through my viewfinder. After putting out a few calls on the bird equivalent of Tinder he gives up and flies off. I daren’t look at Bruce, but after 25 years of marriage I have a pretty good idea what’s going through his head.
At this point, Fritz engages in some upselling to assuage us – he can take us to see the hut that the famous British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace purportedly lived in while he was busy collecting Bird of Paradise specimens in the 1860’s. Sure, OK, why not. We head back down the by-now-much-easier-to-see path.
The hut’s not far from the jetty where we started, but by this time Bruce’s leg is getting sore so he elects to sit it out on the jetty while Kevin and I follow Fritz down another (thankfully level) path to the little hut in the clearing.
It beggars belief that this would be the original hut, and from the little I can glean from Fritz’s explanation, I think his grandfather and father were instrumental in building this replica with some financial assistance from the Tourism Department. They’ve done a great job – it probably needs a little restoration work on the roofing, but I especially like the nice touch of a cooking pot and some carefully placed potted plants, and there’s an information plaque about Wallace and his visit to the area. He was a contemporary of Darwin’s and had the same theory of evolution as Darwin had, but “On the Origin of Species” got published first and the rest, of course, is history. Nonetheless, it’s piqued my interest about Wallace and his visit to this area, so I now have “The Malay Archipelago” on my reading list.
It’s been quite the adventure, even without the Bird of Paradise display. The sounds and smells of the early morning forest, and the birdsong at dawn will be memories to cherish, and it’s good to be able to support the locals who’ve been so hard hit by the lack of tourism in the past year. And in case you were wondering, Bruce’s leg is healing nicely (I love you, baby).