Exploring the Spice Islands - 2014

Exploring the Spice Islands in Eastern Indonesia. – Garry and Anna Connery

In October we travelled in Eastern Indonesia.  On the way to the Spice Islands in the Moluccas we enjoyed four days in Bali at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, an experience to be recommended.  An interesting cohort of speakers with diverse strands and activities.

This however was a prelude to the main purpose of our Indonesian trip – 12 days and 1100 kilometres on a traditional 35 metres long Sulawesi Bugis Phinisi, a beam of 10 metres and two masts rigged fore-and-aft with marine-blue sails.  These vessels have been built for centuries for cargo and transport throughout the Indonesian Archipelago. The ‘Ombah Putih’ has been purpose built with 12 snug ensuite cabins and we had 20 fellow travellers from France, England, Holland, Canada, USA, Indonesia and Australia.

This trip turned out to be enormously educational highlighting the history of maritime exploration, trade, imperial domination, geographical, geopolitical and geophysical histories … and one of the best holidays ever!

Ambon, our starting point, is a busy central port for the Moluccas and has significant new development and a strong military, naval and police presence.    We visited the beautifully maintained Commonwealth Graves Cemetery which honours our fallen soldiers, sailors and airmen, many from Gull Command (2/21st Australian Infantry Battalion).   Over 2,000 Australian, American, English and Dutch servicemen, many unknown, lie here and we found the grave of the notable Australian cinematographer, Damien Parer.   A peaceful resting place and a moving experience.

As the sun set we joined our vessel and headed overnight south east to the Banda Islands, approximately 240 kilometres, arriving at the island of Ai under billowing navy sails (assisted by motor!) in the early afternoon.  The Banda Islands are 900 kilometres directly north of Darwin. The islands Ai, Run, Lonthiar and Banda Neira are central to the history of the Spice Trade, particularly the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and English who fought ferocious battles,  massacred local islanders, and built substantial forts to protect their spice interests which were worth more than gold by the time they reached Europe.  We visited the nutmeg groves shaded by huge kenari trees and saw the sun-drying of nutmeg, mace, cinnamon and kenari nuts.  Two kora kora canoes, beautifully painted with 25 - 30 paddlers in each, raced each other to rapid drum beat in a farewell as we left Banda.

We were accompanied by Ian Burnet, the author of Spice Islands and The East Indies, who has spent 20 years living, working and travelling in the Indonesian archipelago during his career as a geologist/geophysicist.   His fascination with the 2000 year history of the spice trade and also contemporary Indonesia gave us a new perspective on our close neighbour which is complex with its population of 246 million peoples in 18,500 islands … quite a task for their new President, Joko Widodo.

The history of spices is a little like a history of the world!  Egyptologists have recorded cloves in the tombs of the Pyramids and archaeologists found clove buds in a ceramic pot dated 1,721BC in Terqa, Syria.   The earliest versions of the Ramayana epic (300BC) mention seafarers bringing cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg to India and cloves have been dated to the Han Dynasty (200BC) in China.  Traders opened the Silk Road across Central Asia in 138BC with trade dominated for several hundred years by Middle Eastern and Venetian merchants.  The lure of the fabled spices drove the “Age of Discovery” and the first circumnavigation of the world.  Spain and Portugal backed explorers such as Columbus, Vasco de Gama and Magellan to try to find a sea route directly to the Spice Islands.  The Portuguese reached Banda to trade nutmeg in 1513, the Spanish Armada de Molucca arrived in 1521, Francis Drake arrived in Ternate in 1579, the first Dutch fleet in 1596. The English East India Company was formed in 1601 followed by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in 1602 who eventually came to control the trade.    In 1667 the Dutch agreed to a land swap to gain the last island,  Run  which they exchanged for a small island on the North East coast of America  -  Manhattan in New Amsterdam - now New York!

The trip was not all history!  Most days we swam and snorkelled in crystal clear waters.    Several times we stopped as pods of whales and dolphin surrounded us. Thrice daily buffets with an Indonesian influence, many with fresh fish speared by the crew, were served on the quarter deck where we enjoyed exchanging stories of our fellow travellers. Some evenings the 15 crew entertained us with singing and dancing and one night about 30 from a local village arrived on board to party and sing accompanied by their “tea-chest” bass! 

Perfectly calm weather meant we sailed only on the first day - mostly we motored overnight to the next island seeing the production nutmeg, cashew, cloves, sago, copra and dried fish with a following of most of the village children!  Twice we visited local schools where we caused chaos – visitors are rare in these small communities and every child had to clap hands or high five with us all!  One school gave an impromptu concert led by our Captain.  

After passing the Ceram Sea and Halmahera Island we crossed the Equator which brought us close to Tidore, Makian and Ternate, three volcano cones which rise majestically from the water.  Tidore was in full preparation for the swearing in of its new Sultan within a few days.  Ternate is a busy centre of trade as it has been for centuries. It sits in the shadow of the Gamalama Volcano which last erupted in 2012.  The day starts with the calling to prayer at 4am.  There is a mosque every two blocks and each amplified call is different – hard to sleep through, even across the water! In the evening there was a beauty to these unaccustomed sounds.  We visited some of the 17 forts built by the Portuguese and Dutch, the home of Alfred Wallace where he penned his famous letter to Charles Darwin on the Theory of Evolution and the Palace of the Sultan.  A final farewell dinner on board, singing with the crew, whilst the sound of Ternate partying on Saturday night wafted across the water.  This was not quite a ‘sailing’ holiday, but certainly an experience and an education.  12 days of no watch, no shoes and no internet – perfect!


Posted on February 17, 2015 .