Ring of Fire An Indonesian Odyssey Book Review

Ring of Fire An Indonesian Odyssey Book Review – Lawrence and Lorne Blair

Last year, I reviewed An Empire of the East: Travels in Indonesia by Norman Lewis. Next up is Ring of Fire: An Indonesian Odyssey by Lawrence and Lorne Blair. 

It was written in the 1980’s to support a set of documentary movies and is about two brothers as they travel through a fantastical Indonesian landscape of forests, beasts, or less visited islands. The opening story sees them join a traditional Bugis trading ship and attempt to follow the monsoon winds on an old trading route with a cargo of salt. Their adventures, and the character of the murderous crew is fascinating and sets the scene for a series of explorations over a few decades.

Ring of Fire An Indonesian Odyssey Book Review – Context

The Indonesia that these two writers and film makers found and fell in love with has gone forever. Skyscrapers have arrived, cars have multiplied and forests have disappeared. The people have changed as well since the rebirth of the nation after Suharto. With greater regional autonomy has come far greater mobility, both nationally and internationally.

There is a sense of authenticity about these adventures into some of the worlds last true wild places. I was fascinated by the final chapter, where the brothers have overestimated their capacity to survive in hostile rain-forested Kalimantan and, having succumbed to malaria, are slowly starving to death. Their survival is a testament to their adventuring spirit and I felt real envy of these two lucky guys who seemed to be in the right place at the right time, both in history, and also in circumstance. It seems that, nowadays, adventures are often in the urban environment, and that the challenges and dangers are provided by people rather than animals.

The brothers convey a sense of riding their luck. They maximise their opportunities, and that takes them to places and situations that would have many travel writers salivating these days. As members of the ‘old upper-middle class’ of Britain, the brothers come from backgrounds more privileged than many.  

They have had access to people and opportunities that are beyond most people. This is highlighted in the work they did as luxury tour guides, and with reference to some of the names they drop and the people they encounter. Oddly, however, this didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book because the authors have enough charisma and integrity which comes through all their encounters with the local people. Parts of this book are also recollections of the spiritual quest that drove the exploration. Lawrence Blair was a student of theology, and retains an interest in spirituality. 

Ring of Fire An Indonesian Odyssey Book Review – Criticism

What was less appealing were parts of the brothers attitude to the country. They admitted looting artifacts from archeological sites, and displayed the kind of post-colonial arrogance that sees the locals as dark skinned devils, if they are poor, and incapable sycophants if wealthy. This probably reflects the time in which the books was written, but it’s kind of jarring to read and probably doesn’t fairly represent what the authors feel about the country or their surroundings.

Ring of Fire An Indonesian Odyssey Book Review – Recommendation

I’d recommend reading this book as an insight into the drama and wonder that must have accompanied European visitors in recent history and it was really refreshing to read a book that acts as a marker for exploration in times gone by, and shows how much ‘progress’ Indonesia has made over the last few decades.


Living here and being able to visit some of the places means that reading this book is like opening a series of vignettes and then going to the locations of the photographs to see what has changed. The spaces and places overlap, but the boundaries are fuzzy as time shifts the landscape and the culture onto which events are mapped. I wouldn’t recommend retracing the steps of the brothers unless one is seeking a sense of loss and dispossession, particularly of natural habitats, ethnic cultures and the impact of irresistible change on fragmented disaporic communities.


Choosing the photographs to go with this post highlighted that much of ‘the wild’ remains, but it is certainly fragmented. I chose some pictures that I took on my travels and that I think fit the character and narrative of the book. You can read more about my trip to Wakatobi, Papua, or Komodo if you like.

If you enjoyed this book review, why not tell me about it below, or email mystory@hellomister.net



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2 thoughts on “Ring of Fire An Indonesian Odyssey Book Review

  1. It must be quite difficult to read and review this book because if the time distance of forty years. Yet, for me, those forty years cover my adult life and so seem quite short. I was struck by how much you felt things had changed in Indonesia and that much of that is to be regretted. What positive changes have there been? I hope that policy makers in Indonesia can see the importance of slowing down or halting environmental degradation. It seems to me that Java is probably beyond any saving from the worst of the 21st century, but I hope other islands can live in the modern day but also protect the rich culture, history and natural beauty of the past.

    • Yes. Actually, the book covers the decades of 1960-1980 so it’s really reaching back in time. Things have certainly changed, but not just in Indonesia. There was a cultural assimilation project during much of this period, but modern technology, TV, mobile communications have also dramatically impacted on the people and the places. Actually, what struck me, and continues to, is that there is still a huge area that is unspoilt and little changed as well. Reading this book provoked a mixture of feelings, not just nostalgia or melancholy, and I’m sorry if it came across as hopeless. I guess I feel envious that it could have been me!

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