After being met at Ternate Airport, or your hotel, you will be escorted to our ship, the Ombak Putih, at her spectacular anchorage beneath the towering Mt Gamalama. On board, you’ll be given a general briefing and a chance to meet your fellow guests before going ashore to explore Ternate City. One of the four, historically powerful Moluccan spice sultanates, Ternate is still a vital trading outlet for fragrant cloves, nutmeg and mace. From here, the great 19th-century English naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace, penned his famous ‘Letter from Ternate’ to Charles Darwin on the theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. We will visit the splendid 17th-century, pagoda-style royal mosque, and the Sultan’s Palace with its rich collection of heirlooms. There’s a choice of forts to visit, such as well-restored Fort Tolukko (Portuguese, 1540), signifying the turbulent centuries of spice wars fought by Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and English rivals. Hopefully, there will be time to visit the mysterious Tolire Besar crater lake. Believed to be bottomless, the lake is said to be protected by hundreds of white crocodiles that only a few can see. Another bizarre local legend maintains that if you attempt to throw any rocks into the lake, they will never touch the surface because of a mystical exception to the law of gravity over the water.
Crossing the Equator overnight, we will wake up in the southern hemisphere at Bacan Island, another seat of the historic spice Sultanates. We will go ashore at the village of Goro-Goro, walking up a rainforest-clad river valley. Bacan is where Alfred Russel Wallace discovered the golden birdwing butterfly and the giant mason bee, ‘Chalicodomapluto’. We’ll keep a close watch for these and a whole host of other species, some of them endemic, including parrots, cockatoos, lorikeets, hornbills and the elusive cuscus. We may see some rare black macaques – the only monkey species in Maluku because this is the wrong side of the Wallace Line for monkeys; these ones were introduced from North Sulawesi. After lunch we will motor around the coast to the uninhabited Kusu Islet, snorkelling from the ship’s tenders.
Labuha is a small port town on the island of Bacan. Here, we can visit the Bacan Sultan Palace, and the Barneveld Fort, which was built by the Portuguese in 1558 but was then taken by the Spanish. In November 1609 a Dutch fleet stormed the fort and massacred all of the people inside. In 1696 the Dutch handed over Fort Barneveld to Sultan Alawaddien of Ternate. We can explore the area around the fort and we can also visit a place where the locals sell a natural ‘chrysocolla in chalcedony’ colour-changing gemstone to make jewellery. Bacan stone is a clear dark green or a lighter bluish green or blue. Upon our return to the Ombak Putih, the boat will cross to a small island near Bacan for snorkelling.
Anchored off the deserted, white-sand Belang Belang Island to spend the morning swimming, snorkelling crystal waters or playing on the ship’s paddle boards and kayaks. Over lunch we sail to nearby Obi Latu Island, going ashore at the isolated village of Manatahan. Settled just a few generations ago by roaming Butonese mariners from their islands to the south-east of Sulawesi, its steep hills are covered with attractive groves of clove trees. We’re sure to see cloves, nutmeg and mace drying on mats laid on village pathways. The surrounding seas, once dotted with the sails of spice trading galleys, Portuguese caravels, Spanish galleons, Dutch jachts and English pinnaces, are now plied by locally built outrigger dugouts, sampans, island ferries and a few old trading sloops still working under sail.
Today we reach the remote Sula Archipelago, where we are least likely to encounter a single foreign visitor! These obscure islands are the cultural crossroads of Maluku and Sulawesi. Sanana is the capital of the Sulas, located on Sulabesi, the southernmost of the three main islands. In the distant past, the Sula archipelago was forcibly controlled by the Tidore Sultanate, and Sulabesi became a port of call for spice traders. Here, we can visit de Verwachting Fort, which was built by the Sultan of Ternate in 1623. In front of the gate, there are Arabisch sentences, but no one can explain the meaning. From the fort we can stroll around the ciy, visit the market and interact with the locals. There are some beautiful beaches in the area and we should be able to go snorkelling in the afternoon.
After cruising along the southern shore of Mangoli Island, we’ll reach Taliabu Island, where we will go ashore at the small Muslim village of Waikoka. Generally, the entire village takes an interest and hordes of children will most likely accompany us. This village was hit by a tsunami in 1999 and many of the residents relocated inland. We’ll reach the new settlement by a picturesque path winding through extensive coconut groves. Later, we can expect a warm welcome at the Christian hamlet of Mantarara on the southern shore of Taliabu. The residents here are unlikely to have had any foreign visitors since our last visit. This is a community of Kadai people, the indigenous tribe of Taliabu, and the kids will perform a the cakalele war dance originating in the Kadai’s pre-Christian past. With the right tides we can also visit a hot spring or explore a forest river that flows over sandbars into the sea.
Entering the region of Sulawesi, Mbuang-Mbuang – in the Bokan Islands southeast of Banggai Island – will be our first stop. This beautiful area is also known the “Raja Ampat of Banggai Laut”. There are many natural attractions here: caves, beaches and snorkelling spots, but the most unusual is Paisu Batongan Lake. This rare, saltwater lake offers the opportunity to swim amongst many thousands of stingless jellyfish, which have living algae within their bodies that, just like plants, photosynthesise in sunlight. The algae produce what is essentially a form of sugar, which the jellyfish metabolise, and this is how they gain the energy to propel and migrate through the water, grow and reproduce. The jellyfish swim toward the sunrise each morning until they reach the shadows on the lake’s far eastern edge. Ensuring that they are always in sunlight during the daytime, they become a living wall of jellies, hovering near the shadowed lakeshore. We will later take time to explore the area and snorkel in the sea before moving to Banggai
Approaching the big island of Sulawesi, the scenic Banggai group of islands, small and large, are still remote and very little-known. Banggai’s main port is a lively hub for colourful interisland ferries. Here we enjoy a tour in chartered ‘Bentor’ – raffish two-passenger motorcycle rickshaws that will turn heads as our flotilla of foreigners motors through town. Visits include a bustling market and the modest timber palace of the local sultan. There’s an unusual, sacred community gathering-house whose revered elders guard its pre-Islamic rituals and cult objects – happily co-existing with the mainstream mosques of this Muslim port town. Nearby is an island that’s something of a beachcomber’s retreat, where we can enjoy paddle-boarding, kayaking or snorkelling from the beach.
We leave early with the ship’s tenders to visit the Morowali National Park, hoping to meet the last indigenous tribe of Sulawesi. The semi-nomadic Wana people have a shamanistic, animist culture that’s unique in Indonesia. It’s based on shifting agriculture, hunting with blowpipes and snares, fishing and harvesting forest products such as rattan and damar. Morowali comprises lowland alluvial forest, mountain forest, swamp forest, mangrove forest and moss forest. Our Wana guides lead us up-river and through dense forest – thankfully flat going, and with crew members carrying our pre-packed lunches! Note: we always advise of likely walking conditions, leaving guests the option of choosing a quiet day at anchor.
Today we will explore Umbele village in the Salabengka archipelago, which is inhabited by a mix of local people and Bajo people, or sea gypsies. If we’re lucky we will see Banggai cardinal fish hovering in groups around their stilt houses. The tranquil bays of Banggai and its neighbouring islands are the only places on Earth where you can see these tiny, exquisite fish in their natural habitat. Sadly, they may soon be gone from the wild because they are being collected for the aquarium trade faster than they can reproduce in nature. From here we will head to nearby Labengke. In this pretty cluster of hilly, jungle-clad islands, we can snorkel, kayak and paddle board from a deserted white-sand beach.
After cruising down the mountainous eastern shore of Sulawesi, we reach the isolated Padea Islands to visit the Sama-Bajo village on the coral cay, Samaringa. Here, we will meet more of the famed sea-gypsies, the Bajo (or Bajau Laut) people – some of the last true marine nomads who for centuries belonged to no nation and lived exclusively from the sea. In the last few decades, however, they have been forced to settle permanently on uninhabited scraps of islands, often building their stilt-houses on reefs or over tidal zones. Yet our cheerful hosts are still exclusively sea people, fishing, farming seaweed, harvesting beche-de-mer or trochus pearl-shell. From Samarengga island we will looking for a small island where we can anchor and snorkel offshore. We will finish the final full day of our cruise with a great farewell party as a fitting celebration of a fantastic voyage.
Our journey ends at Kendari, the small city and busy port that is the capital of Southeast Sulawesi and the homeland of the Butonese people – one of the noted seafaring groups of Indonesia (along with the better-known Bugis and Makassans of South Sulawesi). The Butonese sailing sloops, known as ‘Lambo’ roamed widely around Indonesia, carrying anything and everything from copra and live turtles to lumber and groceries for remote eastern islands like the ones we’ve been seen on our voyage. After breakfast and farewells to the tour guides and crew, you will be transferred to the airport for your homeward or onward travel.