The Islands of Spice with Lawrence Blair

I have just disembarked from a fantastic Sea Trek voyage aboard Ombak Putih, from Ambon to Halmahera, in the surprisingly little-visited North West Moluccas. This was a journey between the ancient sources of the two main spices which fired the spice trading days: nutmeg, from the Banda islands, and cloves from Ternate and Tidore, to the north. The Bandas are fairly frequently visited by live aboards, but the islands to the north are not. They are all staggeringly beautiful, and being close to the centre of the Coral Triangle, their limpid waters are full of life.

The Ombak Putih is a 130-foot, traditional Bugis schooner - a far cry from the motorless 90-footer on which my late brother and I travelled through these waters in 1972, while filming our Ring of Fire series. On this occasion, I had to do without the rats and cockroaches and the perpetual diet of ground corn. And my shipmates, on this occasion, were an inexhaustibly enthusiastic group of grey power Ozzies and Kiwis, who were a constant reminder of how resilient and good-natured these folks can be. Our cruise director, Caroline Deiman, from Holland, was totally on top of things, and just the sort of person one wants to be at sea with. And her assistant, Anastasia, a local Moluccan from Ambon, has excellent English and is a font of local lore.

The Banda islands, and Ternate, of course, are famous for being the epicenter of colonialism, where the first Portuguese, Spanish and English explorers fought for the golden crop, ultimately surrendering it all to the Dutch, who went on colonize what is now Indonesia for nearly 300 years. These islands were additionally made famous by Alfred Russel Wallace, the 19th. Century independent co-discoverer, with Charles Darwin, of the Evolutionary Theory of Species by Natural Selection. Wallace’s eight years of travelling and critter collecting here are described in his Malay Archipelago – Land of the Orang Utan and Bird of Paradise, which is still the travel classic of the Moluccas – and my inspiration both on this and my 1972 adventure.

I have been visiting Banda for decades, and was concerned that after the death in 2010 of Des Alwi, the island’s uncrowned king, steward and protector, that things might now be going down hill. But Banda remains surprisingly resistant to change, and the locals are well aware of their and their islands’ historical value. 

We walked amongst the nutmeg trees, in the shade of the towering kenari forests on Lonthor Island, and wandered amongst the old colonial mansions and fortresses of Neira, and some of us actually managed to climb the 2,100-foot-high Gunung Api volcano, which last erupted in 1988. It left a swathe of lava down into the sea where, with mask and snorkel, we could observe how the filigreed corals are swiftly making a comeback. From the mini museum on Neira, with its VOC coins and crockery and rusting cannons, we pondered how this tiny group of islands were the pivot on which world history would turn.  For the spice trade, like the oil industry today, was once the main artery of global commerce.  And it was the search for the source of these spices that led to the age of discovery and to the enrichment of Europe. Whereas the Bandanese are well aware of their historical importance, amongst the island to the north, leading to ternate, there seems little memory of their illustrious past. 

Nature has resumed control over these islands, with thick forest and clear waters, and villages that, as we had occasion to witness, still glaze their simple pottery with the resin of the damar tree, and forge their blades in the manner of old-fashioned blacksmiths. The villages are small, and the children are still amazed and delighted by foreigners, and the streets were strewn with drying mats of clove, nutmeg and mace. Unlike such Islands as Banda, Ambon or Saparua, where the old fortresses are being restored, here they lie forgotten and disintegrating in the jungle.

Near Goro Goro, in Bacan Island, we walked up the same jungle-shaded riverbed where Wallace had captured his birdwing butterflies, and where we too saw great winged insects floating about like straw hats, and watched the hornbills and parrots overhead, as Wallace had done. It was here in Bacan where he had discovered the Standard Wing bird of Paradise, as well as the world’s largest bee, as big as a sparrow, which some of us were glad to miss. We also caught sight of the Black Crested Macaques, which Wallace had pointed out were endemic only to Sulawesi island, more than 200 miles across open sea to the West. Of the numerous theories as to how they got here, the most satisfying is what I heard from the local school teacher: that the macaque’s ancestors were brought as a gift by Sulawesi royalty to the Sultan of Bacan in the 1700s. The royal monkeys had tired of their gilded cages in the palace, and decided it was preferable to make a break and run amok and multiply in the forests of Bacan.

When we finally reached Ternate, we were assaulted by the sound of cars and motorbikes. This is a city, with banks and malls, by itself, out in the Far East, just before reaching sprawling New Guinea, the second largest island on earth. Its city loomed over by one of a whole series of perfectly shaped Volcanoes, stretching to the horizon.   I realized that It was the unique volcanic chemistry of their eruptions which had nurtured the clove tree, just as Banda volcano’s unique chemistry had produced the nutmeg – the 2 spices which lured us round the world into the Age of Discovery, leading to where we are today. We have a lot to thank for Indonesia’s volcanoes.

It’s a wonderful relief to me to find out how much of Indonesia remains unvisited and unexplored. One of the best ways to do it is aboard the Ombak Putih.


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