Notebooks from New Guinea

Fieldnotes of a tropical biologist

Vojtech Novotny

This book has a great start - the cover is so good I couldn’t wait to dive inside. Its middle and end aren’t too bad either.

Convincing a reader – especially one that’s never been - of the sapping heat, disorientation, power and beauty of a rainforest is no mean feat, but Vojtech, through the very readable translation, manages it. But what he adds is lashings of credibility and humour to rainforest science. Rainforests in the media are diminished by sensational survivalism, which seems purely for the sake of contrived adventure. It’s never made much sense to me. They’re adventure stories without a story.

It’s easy to forget that many people live and work in forests day on day, year on year. Their survival is intrinsic to their mission and so much more authentic than the glorified explorer who eats only tarantulas for a few days before safely evacuating. Vojtech’s is a true story and it’s better for it. He tells us exactly how and why he does his science and his numerous adventures are a necessary, but secondary, part of the game.

Of most interest to me were Vojtech’s encounters with people and the impact he had on their lives. There is an honest, humorous modesty that runs through the book that transmits the warmness he is clearly regarded in. One of my favourite passages tells of the establishment, demise, resurrection and evacuation of a research station in the remote Simbu Province. In this tale the colourful diversity – the good, the bad, the ugly and the downright hilarious - of people who inhabit New Guinea comes shining through the pages.  

The illustrations are beautiful, but – in the words of a 10 year old - I would have liked to see some more pictures. Maybe read alongside Harry Holcroft’s and Ghillean Prance’s recent beautiful book to round off your armchair rainforest experience.

Above all, Vojtech loves the forest and its people. He reminds us - right when we need it most and without ever really saying so - why we must treasure these last wildernesses.

Dan Ryan, June 2009