Going Camping with Alfred Wallace

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Early Europeans began arriving on Borneo in the late 1700s, and throughout the 1800s. To these first pioneers coming to the vast tropical island of Borneo, this was the most fascinating place in the world! They knew nothing about it, and they wanted to find out. In order to do so, they needed to head away from the shores and walk into the deep never-ending forests. They needed to cross rivers and climb mountains. They either found longhouses to stay in, or camped for weeks at a time, carrying what they needed, and hunting in the forests and rivers for food along the way.

Today, to go camping, one can head to a shopping mall and quickly come away with almost everything one would need: backpacks, tents, mosquito protection of all types, foldable chairs, mobile cooking stoves, battery-powered lights, etc. In the 1800s, things were a little more complicated.

Many of these early explorers were naturalists or geologists. In other words, they were not on holiday. They had a purpose, and more often than not, that purpose required them to collect things…things they would have to bring what with them.

A certain Major Georg Muller, in 1824, is thought to be the very first European to undertake a camping trip into the unknown parts of Borneo. He didn’t come back. It is thought that he met some Iban head-hunters. A range of mountains in West Kalimantan is named after him. Since then, several came back. Carl Schwaner, a German naturalist, came back from the Meratus in 1842, Dutchman Anton Niewenhuis came back in 1894, and Charles Hose also managed to come back. All also have mountains named after them. No one knows why.

Perhaps the most famous of these early explorers was Englishman Alfred Russel Wallace, who not only came back, but has forever imprinted his name on Borneo with his writing, in Sarawak, of the theory of evolution (with Charles Darwin) in 1858. Surprisingly, he doesn’t have a mountain named after him.

Wallace was a happy camper. We know he undertook several trips, each for weeks at a time, going where no one had gone before. Wallace was collecting plants, animals, birds and insects, eventually collecting some 125,000 specimens. He also shot a dozen orang utans!

So, what would Wallace’s jungle camp have looked like? Well, firstly, this would have been a big camp. He would have had a huge amount of stuff to carry with him. Rice would have been the most important, since meat could be obtained from wild pigs, deer and fish along the way. Nobody eats vegetables.

He would have had crates and boxes to carry the specimens he collected, and the more he collected, the more people he needed to carry them. More people would have meant more rice to feed them, and more cooks too.

To collect plants, he needed knowledgeable locals who could climb tall trees to collect leaves and fruits. They would have built smoking houses to dry and preserve plant specimens. This would have been virtually a small factory of people pressing specimens between frames of twigs, and storing them in crates. Imagine this little industry being set up each time they chose a spot to camp, stay a few weeks, then dismantle it all to set up again in a new place.

Collecting birds and animals required teams of locals with blowpipes and guns, shooting and trapping almost everything they found, bring them back to camp, skinning them, drying them, preserving them in salt, and labelling each one before storing them in crates. Another small factory-line going on in the forest. Imagine the quantities of salt they would have brought with them!

For insects, they needed lamps and sheets of cloth to trap them at night. This means lots of people up all night, and all day too! Preserving insects is a delicate process, and mounting them and transporting them requiring a lot of care.

Keeping salt, clothes, gunpowder and specimens dry in the rainforest must have been a phenomenal feat! Having the stamina to stay out for months collecting and carrying specimens is another feat. It is possible that a typical Wallace camping trip would have had at least 50 people, with several tons of stuff to carry. Basically, these were like small villages being set up in the forest!

Thinking back, what we know about our island of Borneo today owes a huge debt to all these people who went out those years ago to document our nature. Wallace may have been the leader, but without the locals, he would have achieved little. We salute these explorers of old, our first campers on Borneo.

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1 Comment

  1. Peter Cooper Peter Cooper
    June 18, 2016    

    Alfred Wallace kept a diary of his time in Borneo as well as the rest of the Region and Tim Severin wrote “The Spice Islands Voyage” in the late ’90s celebrating Alfred Wallace with a trip through the Indonesian Archipelago.

    His diary is very pleasant reading (compared to a lot of Victorian diarists!).