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book review

In Tim Flannery, a widely revered Australian explorer, mammalogist and climate-change evangelist, Melanesians have at last acquired a fan.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that, so far as the manifold delights of the Pacific Ocean are concerned, the Melanesians get pretty short shrift.

While it may shame us, politically correct and sensitive though we try to be, we Westerners with a fondness for the planet's greatest ocean have invariably found ourselves much more easily drawn to the handsome, ukulele-playing, breadfruit-and-coconut-eating and lei-draped Polynesians, Maoris to Hawaiians to Friendly Islanders. We like to spend our holidays on their beaches and beneath their palm fronds. Our literature – Robert Louis Stevenson to Herman Melville, Rupert Brooke to Sir Arthur Grimble – is awash in fondness for Polynesian culture. And Rodgers and Hammerstein have stamped for us in celluloid a Pacific Polynesian image that is now as indestructible as marble.

By contrast, the fierce and ragged ranges of islands of the southwestern Pacific that support their country cousins – Neanderthal kin, anthropologists say, and we who fear them noddingly concur – are far less visited, are all too little remembered (for who can name a single island in the Solomons, while all of us well know Tahiti and Bora Bora?) and are precious little liked. They are seen as vaguely frightening – refuges of desperadoes, of last-chance miners, of revolutionaries and even, dare one say it, of the last vestiges of what we call primitive culture, cannibalism among them.

The best-known (but unarguably least-read) book from the region up to now is probably Bronislaw Malinowski's The Sexual Lives of the Savages – a title from 1929 that surely says it all – in which are recounted the habits of the people of the Trobriand Islands, who have an abiding enthusiasm for sex, yams and cricket, in that order. The legions of erotically supercharged young white men who then visited, in hope, found the favoured squatting position of the islanders uncomfortable, and didn't much care for the yams either, and so generally left disappointed.

But now, in the hands of the widely revered Australian explorer, mammalogist and climate-change evangelist, Tim Flannery, the Melanesians have at last acquired a fan, and a worthy champion. In Among the Islands, the first of what he promises to be a small series of volumes about this immense unknown region, he recounts with the detached dispassion of true explorer – and with the kind of matter-of-fact languor that reminded me of Ernest Shackleton – a series of quite extraordinary, mind-boggling adventures that he undertook there in the 1980s.

Over the months and years of what came to be known as the Scott Expeditions, Flannery and his students hopscotched from one obscure group of islands to another, ranging almost 5,000 kilometres from the Bismarck Sea off the Papua coast down to where Melanesia and Polynesia meet, in Fiji. In all the islands he was wearing his mammalogist's hat, looking largely for bats and rats, to collect, study and – if he was the first to recognize them – to name.

To do so, he had the time, he had the backing (mostly of the Australian museum that employed him), the money (a bequest from a wealthy Sydney widow named Winfred Violet Scott, who in her long life had been transfixed by a need to study the world's endangered species) and the equipment (no more than a few mist nets to catch nocturnal animals, and a small armoury of shotguns to bring unwilling creatures down from trees).

He also had the unerring eye of a naturalist, a small army of eccentric friends, a quiverful of memories and a sense of illuminating joy that pierces the gloom and tribulations that attended all too many of his trips.

There is at least one line on every page of this remarkable book that prompts the reader to stop dead, and demand a repeat. Of a colleague: "Next to taxidermy and beetles (a group he is a world authority in), George's greatest passion was wrestling," was a modest line, one that struck me within minutes of beginning the book. Soon afterward, I found that the aforesaid George had managed to pitch his tent inside a leper colony, had been frightened more than perhaps a wrestler should be, took off from it in nighttime panic and by canoe, got promptly lost at sea, and finally came ashore by stepping on what he thought was land, but which turned out to be a crocodile.

Moments later, matters took off for Flannery himself. Describing a choice between a mountain covered with bat feces and a lagoon reeking of bat urine, " chose the mountain. The hard legs of beetles scratched at my toes, and maggots squirmed at my ankles." And after surviving that, he went on, elsewhere, to observe that "the female monkey-faces had tiny teats, and when they were touched milk shot from them with force. … Some bats even have false nipples in their groin to which they young attach themselves, providing their mothers with more freedom to manoeuvre their wings."

Who knew? Who knew almost anything that is revealed in these fascinating, absorbing tales – about animals utterly unfamiliar, places utterly unknown, peoples generally unfavoured? Seldom have I been so captivated by a book, and for which I had such little expectation and which was devoted to topics and places in which I thought I had so little interest.

And more: In addition to my delight at being proved so wrong, I can claim at last to know the answer to my question about the Solomon Islands, and its rival to the all-too-familiar Bora Bora and Tahiti.

The best-known island in the group is of course Guadalcanal; and as well as sporting plenty of war history, it is an island that has countless exotic varieties of rats and bats, about which now I, courtesy of Tim Flannery, could tell you many, many things. Meet me alone in a bar one late and rainy night, at your peril.

Simon Winchester has just published Skulls: An Exploration of Alan Dudley's Curious Collection. His book The Men Who United the States will be out next year.