Travel | People | Culture

Ring of Fire: the Extraordinary Odyssey of the Blair Brothers

“Are you one of those people who believe that there’s nothing left to discover in this world of ours? Then here’s the story of Lawrence Blair and his brother Lorne, who came East in search of adventure and found themselves wandering for 10 years in the most volcanic region on earth, into the Ring of Fire…”

The documentary voice-over, with its plummy English tones, was an introduction to an inimitable Indonesian odyssey that called for a sense of romance, idealism, inspiration, stubbornness, and moments of sheer insanity; today, there are few journeys to compare.

Watching the Ring of Fire series is still an intensely evocative experience. The films chronicle the Blair brothers’ ten years of exploration of the Indonesian archipelago that started in 1972 and their encounters with primitive tribes and exotic creatures, from the Punan Dayaks to the Asmats of Papua and from the cuscus to the Greater Bird of Paradise.

David Bowie and Mick Jagger gave each other copies for Christmas in the year it came out, says Lawrence, “so when they came over [to Indonesia] they contacted me and I was their sort of glorified tour guide. They were the musicians of our generation, and the poets, and I am the poet-explorer of it.”

The Greater Bird of Paradise: the mythical bird that drew the brothers to eastern Indonesia, following in the footsteps of Alfred Russel Wallace.

The Blairs were never destined to lead conventional lives. As young boys in drab 1950s Britain, they heard a world of colourful stories from their actress mother about her youth in Calcutta, Kipling-esque tales of the days of the Raj and the life she and their father had left for the London stage. When she married their stepfather, a pilot and merchant adventurer, the family moved to Mexico.

“I was 14 and my brother was 11,” Lawrence recalls. “We took a ship on our own, which was a hell of an adventure to take. I remember we didn’t have a clue about how to handle money. We stopped in New York for a day, took five dollars ashore and went for a long long walk, and then we finally had ourselves a hamburger and a cup of coffee and it wasn’t enough! And the guy tapped us on the shoulders and said, ‘well guys, can you wash dishes?’ We made it back to the boat just in time. It’s probably a little young to send people off on their own on an adventure like that…”

In Mexico, the adventures continued; they learned to dive and began going on their first expeditions. “So when we got to Indonesia, we were sort of prepared.”

It was Subud that first brought them to Indonesia – the spiritual movement started by a Javanese man that attracted followers from all over the world. Their mother Lydia was already here, having moved to the Subud compound in Jakarta after the death of her husband in Mexico. The two brothers joined her, and they began reading about Indonesia. “We realised that this was Mexico multiplied by a hundred. Everything could be found here if you were nosy and adventurous.”

Their idea for the first film, for which Ringo Starr offered to put up £2,000 and the cost of post-production, was to follow the path of Alfred Russel Wallace, taking a traditional pinisi schooner with a crew of Bugis tribesmen from Sulawesi to Aru in the East, a 2,500-mile voyage. Wallace was the first Westerner to see the Greater Bird of Paradise alive; the Blairs were on a quest to find and take the first colour footage of the legendary bird in its natural habitat.

The Sinar Surya, seen from above: the pinisi schooner that bore the brothers from Sulawesi to Aru, a voyage that lasted nine months.

It was not an easy journey. The ship drifted for nine months, with little food and no contact with the outside world. But eventually, they reached Aru and captured minutes of precious footage of the birds. It was the beginning of a decade of exploration, during which they proved that there was indeed much left to discover in this world of ours.


Ring of Fire DVDs are currently available at selected outlets; the book, Ring of Fire, was republished in 2010.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *