Adventurers in the 'Ring of Fire'

In another age, the Blair brothers might have been Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Thor Heyerdahl, Lewis and Clark, Stanley and Livingstone.

For 10 years, Lawrence and Lorne Blair explored the most remote jungles and beaches of the nearly 14,000 islands of Indonesia. They hitched rides aboard primitively beautiful sailing sloops with pirates in search of the mythical Greater Bird of Paradise.

They cavorted naked with the New Guinea cannibals whom they believe murdered, cooked and ate Michael Rockefeller in 1961. They sparred with man-eating Komodo dragons, participated in a bizarre funeral ritual of a tribe that claims its ancestors descended to Earth in starships from outer space, and tip-toed through villages inhabited by people who had never seen Westerners before.

And they did it lugging around enough 16-millimeter camera equipment to document all nine of their expeditions and their battles with mosquitoes, leeches, diarrhea, infections, governmental red tape and sanity-shredding doldrums in the Banda Sea.

Hypnotically edited into four one-hour documentaries that are part eye-popping travelogue, part living record of people and places untouched by the last 50,000 years of technological development, and part incomparable adventure teeming with thrills, chills, mystery and the bizarre, the Blairs' "Ring of Fire" begins airing in weekly installments Monday at 8 p.m. on Channels 28 and 15 as part of the PBS "Adventure" series.

"It's like the last wild garden of the world," Lawrence Blair says while musing about why he has devoted so many years to exploring and filming these bewitching and often treacherous jungle paradises. "One wants to explore what's at the bottom of that wild garden while it's all still there. And it's not only the physical--the actual geography and land--that I'm talking about; it really is the wild antipodes of the human mind and our abilities."

Munching on salmon salad, fried eggs and bacon in the manicured garden restaurant of a swanky Beverly Hills hotel--a far cry from the barbecued caterpillar larvae they snacked on with the notorious Asmat headhunters of the New Guinea jungle--the Blairs could almost be mistaken for a couple of hip Hollywood directors.

But these are no ordinary film makers, cutting deals over lunch as the Southern California sun glistens off their long, graying hair. Descended, they say, from several generations of British Raj, the Blairs joke that they are anti-missionaries, dedicated to nudging their Western audience with the idea that there are other ways of seeing the world that are just as valid, if not more so, than ours.

Fascinated by the mysticism and superstitions of the diverse peoples of Indonesia and by the way they live in harmony and interdependence with their steamy, equatorial lands, the Blairs contend that by looking backward into the primitive past, Westerners can catch glimpses of their future and learn invaluable lessons about the preservation of the environment, ecology and the power of the deep subconscious.

"We have these nasty sort of genes from some of our missionary-like ancestors who went out there in the past and browbeat the natives into alien forms of belief," says Lorne Blair. "Now we're doing it in reverse."

By their own admission, the Blairs are restless, curious souls who, after spending their early years under the drab English sky, say their lives began when they were suddenly exposed to the "many-layered richness and color of the world" as teen-agers growing up with the coral snakes in and around the jungles of Mexico.

Lorne, 42, a former BBC employee, cameraman and the brother described in the films as "the bearded one with the monocle," says he feels uncomfortable in the West and yearns to get back to their home in the spectacularly sculpted hills of Bali, which the people of one Balinese village invited them to build about halfway through their 10-year odyssey.

Lawrence, 46, who has a doctorate in comparative religion from Lancaster University in England, actually has lived--between Indonesian adventures--in an A-frame in the Hollywood Hills, but he is happier far away from the sanitized world of television and bug spray.

They first visited Indonesia as delegates to a conference on meditation held in Jakarta, the capital, during the bloody revolution that toppled President Sukarno in 1966. It was then that Lorne first discovered the Toraja tribe, who claim their ancestors came from the stars, and first laid eyes on the ominous black-sailed schooners of the notorious Bugi pirates.

Their film-making adventures began when Ringo Starr, enticed by their stories of spaceships and pirates, gave them a 2,000 (approximately $4,000) grant in 1972. With that money, two movie cameras, two still cameras, a small Honda generator to charge their batteries, a tape recorder, several cassette tapes by the Beatles, a bottle of Grand Marnier and a copy of the "Malay Archipelago" by the 19th- Century British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, the Blairs caught a plane out of England and began their decade-long pursuit of the art Lawrence calls "guerrilla ethnography."

Their initial ambition, which eventually evolved into the first film in their series, was to hitch a ride with the pirates and follow Wallace's 2,500-mile journey across the Banda Sea in hopes of taking the first-ever color footage of the Greater Bird of Paradise. It took several months hanging around the harbor, but they finally convinced a Bugi captain to take them and their equipment along the tribe's ancient trading route to the Spice Islands.

On a ship constructed entirely from raw materials cut out of the Indonesian forest--the hull held together with wooden pegs, the ropes that raised the sails woven from coconut husks--they spent nine months with the difficult Bugis. Time and time again, especially when they found themselves becalmed for days in the middle of the sea, the Bugis, legendary for throwing unwanted passengers over the side, would mutter aloud that perhaps it was the white men who were responsible for the terrible weather.

After docking at one island many months into the journey, the Bugis actually set sail with all of the Blairs' film stowed away in the ship's tiny cabin, leaving the two white men behind on the shore. The desperate brothers gave chase in dugout canoes, and when the wind died, caught the ship and were welcomed aboard, Lawrence says, as if nothing had happened.

Finally they landed on the island of Aru, having learned to speak Indonesian fluently and just in time to see and film the mating dance of the surreal-looking Greater Bird of Paradise. At the end of their 11-month voyage, which cost them about 100 for the ride, their good health to malaria and enough nervous exhaustion to last a lifetime, they had no idea whether any of their film had survived the months of storms, insects and fierce tropical heat and humidity.

But they came away intoxicated by the allure and mystery of the islands and the raw, unparalleled adventure afforded them. After finally seeing these birds--symbols of the soul and eternal life, and the ancient inspiration for the myth of the phoenix--"mating in the high forest canopy like cataracts of spun glass," Lawrence writes in his colorful book about these adventures, "we found them to be transparent with a deeper meaning, something which lay beyond them in the undiscovered wisdom of the islanders themselves."

Hooked, they left Indonesia to scour the world in search of investors willing to help them chronicle and preserve the lives and idiosyncrasies of the vanishing tribes, forests and wildlife in some of the most remote places on Earth. All told, the Blairs say the four films they put together for PBS and another seven half-hour films they made for the BBC cost about $800,000.

But perhaps the real value of the work is etched on the faces of the adventurers themselves, whose Indiana Jones-like real lives are as much a part of the films as are the lives of the native peoples and lands they visited. Not only will the audience see the brothers age over the course of 10 years, but it also will watch them become a part of the strange places they set out to capture on film.

And the integration of these two white, English brothers into some of the most foreign societies imaginable does, after a while, begin to resonate with the possibilities afforded humankind when individuals are willing to risk opening their minds to the unfathomable.

Some might call them crazy. They call their adventuring the only thing they know how to do.

"I just think I can learn a lot more about myself in other people's cultures than I can within my own," says Lorne Blair, who insists that after resting for a while at their house in Bali, the brothers will embark on more adventures and produce more films. "You're constantly being confronted with, 'Boy, this person's thinking is entirely different from mine.' It's like a mirror where the image is so alien that it forces you to really look closely at your beliefs and the way you think."

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