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Exploring exotic Indonesia, a 10-year trek relived. Blair brothers chat about quest for unknown peoples and places

Ulysses, Gulliver, and Robinson Crusoe have nothing on the Blair brothers. Lawrence Blair, a British anthropologist, and his brother, Lorne, an ethnographic filmmaker, describe their 1972-85 exploration of the Indonesian Archipelago as ``years of adventure through a land of waking dreams.'' They began their decade-plus odyssey with a comparatively modest excursion - a schooner trip with ``Bugis'' pirates to find and film the greater bird of paradise, a creature seldom captured on film before.

But smitten by a world ``infinitely larger and less-explored than we were ever taught in school,'' as Lawrence puts it, they returned to make film records of peoples that have had little contact with the outside world. They found nomadic clans thought to be extinct, island sultanates rich in silk and gold, fire walkers, magicians, mystics, headhunters, and cannibals.

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Excursions vividly detailed

The result is ``Ring of Fire,'' a four-part TV series [see preview at left] and a companion book with the same title (Bantam, $24.95). Both chronicle in vivid detail the Blairs' vast excursions through the 13,000-island nation.

Spanning 2 million square miles of ocean and kept obscure - even to itself - by formidable legal, geographical, and linguistic barriers, Indonesia has been ``effectively off limits to all but the most stubborn foreign travelers,'' the Blairs write.

On their sojourn, they lived with the Asmat cannibal tribe of West New Guinea; photographed the dwellings of the Toraja tribe, whose members believe their ancestors descended from the sky in starships; and navigated for months without use of maps or stars under the direction of a ``dream wandering'' tribe in Borneo, believed to be extinct.

Parts of the saga are astonishing; the Blairs found strong evidence supporting the theory that Michael Rockefeller's well-publicized 1961 disappearance was possibly due to death by cannibalism, for instance.

And beyond the sheer narrative power of their tales of escape from flesh-eating Komodo dragons, pythons, and bellicose tribesmen, both book and TV series contain much that could provoke Westerners to reconsider their own societal and familial relationships and assumptions.

Englishmen by birth who emigrated to Mexico while still in their teens, the Blairs discovered there a multicultural and botanic/zoological mix that seemed staggering by European standards. After traveling to Java as delegates to a conference in the late 1950s, they found ``that Indonesia was like Mexico multiplied by 100,'' says Lawrence, and they decided to return.

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Lorne, the younger of the Blairs, did most of the cinematography; Lawrence did most of the writing and took the photographs. Some 14,000 of his irreplaceable slides were lost in a tragic fire at his home in 1982. Plenty remain, however - pictures of Balinese headdress dancers, island funeral rites, and natives with tusk-size nosepieces. Not to mention shots of rare flora and fauna.

Both brothers love the story of ``Dynamo Jack,'' an ethnic Chinese they met in Java who could emit electric shock from his hands like an eel, a talent he says derived from Taoist teachings. After eight years of demonstrations, the Blairs finally persuaded him to go on camera, igniting a newspaper without a match.

Close brush with a deadly octopus

The Blairs said they had frequent brushes with death, like the time Lorne filmed a benign-looking miniature octopus crawling up his hand, only to learn later it was a Moluccan blue-ringed octopus, whose bite can be deadly.

But despite the dangers, the Blairs' account is ripe with poetry: ``We packed up our possessions and our battered pile of equipment, walked on air, despite our load, through butterfly and lizard gardens to the high cliff overlooking Bira's deep-water harbour, ...'' writes Lawrence. ``The realization of our dreams surpassed our wildest expectations.''

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