You’ll be escorted from Ternate airport to board our ship Ombak Putih in her spectacular anchorage beneath towering Mount Gamalama. One of the four, historically powerful Moluccan spice sultanates, Ternate is still a vital trading outlet for fragrant cloves, nutmeg and mace. It was from Dodinga Village in Halmahera, very close to Ternate, where the great 19th-century English naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace sent Charles Darwin his crucial ‘Letter From Ternate’ offering his own theory of evolution. We visit the 17th-century, pagoda-style royal mosque and the grand palace of Ternate’s surviving sultan. Attractively restored Fort Tolukko introduces the turbulent centuries of spice wars fought by Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and English rivals. Near old lava flows, a spectacular volcanic crater lake is a source of local legends and home to an elusive white crocodile!
The neighbouring island of Tidore is another perfect volcanic cone rising from tropical seas, with graceful clove plantations adorning its slopes. Originating only in these few islands, cloves were so rare and precious that local sultans and European powers fought for centuries to monopolise them. Today it’s a picturesque island of gaily painted village houses. We visit a blacksmith working ancient piston-bellows, a vibrant market for local handicrafts, and the rebuilt palace of the Sultan of Tidore with stunning views across the strait to mountainous island of Halmahera. Nearby are two more restored colonial strongholds: Portuguese Fort Torre and Spanish Fort Tahula. A seashore monument marks the 1521 visit of Magellan’s battered fleet on the first-ever circumnavigation of the world.
We sail by night across the equator and you awaken in the southern hemisphere at Bacan Island, another seat of the historic spice Sultanates where outsiders like us rarely if ever venture. On every island people speak a different mother-tongue, but our guides communicate easily in Bahasa Indonesia, the old seafarers’ and traders’ language that’s become the national language. Going ashore at Goro-goro village, we’re led up a riverbed winding through steep, jungle-clad limestone karst formations to a spectacular waterfall, looking out for black macaque monkeys and hornbill birds. After lunch we motor around the coast to uninhabited Kusu islet, snorkelling from our ship’s tenders.
We anchor off 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 you are least likely to encounter a single foreign visitor! These islands were once plagued by formidable, swift raiding galleys called kora-kora, favoured by pirates and slavers. Today the name kora-kora is given to large ceremonial canoes propelled by banks of paddlers. We sail along the southern shore of Mangoli Island to Taliabu Island, going ashore at the small Muslim village Waikoka. Generally the entire village takes an interest and hordes of children will likely accompany us. This village was hit by a tsunami a 15 years ago, and many relocated inland. We reach the new settlement by a picturesque path winding through extensive coconut groves.
Local boats can find quiet seas on either side of the Sula Archipelago, depending on the season… some still carry spices and valuable forest or sea products such as damar resin, rattan, beche-de-mer and pearl shell on their way to larger trading centres. We can expect a warm welcome at the Christian hamlet of Mantarara on the southern shore of Taliabu, as they’re unlikely to have had foreign visitors since our ship’s last visit – when they told us we were the first foreigners ever to visit! The whole village turns out to present dances with origins in their pre-Christian past, including the dramatic mock-battle of the cakalele war dance. With the right tides we can visit a hot spring or explore a forest river that flows over sand bars into the sea.
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 enjoy paddle boarding, kayaking or snorkelling from its beaches.
The Bay of Tolo is our first stop on the forest-clad east coast of mainland Sulawesi. The fancifully shaped island, that some liken to a spider or a human figure, drifted together a mere 3 million years ago, during the great Pliocene collision of the South-East Asian and Australasian tectonic plates. Ranger-guides of the Morowali National Park accompany us to the Peo river to look for maleo, the megapode scrub fowl, in their casuarina forest habitat. They dig deep burrows in the hot beach sand to incubate a large, single egg. Up-river, the banks are lined with luxuriant mangroves on a scale you’ve probably never seen. Nearby Baturube is a neat coastal town with a mixture of churches and mosques, proud winner of a regional ‘tidy town’ contest.
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.
Down the mountainous eastern shore of Sulawesi we reach the isolated, offshore Padea islands to visit the Sama-Bajo village on the coral cay Samaringa. Our cheerful hosts are the famed sea-gypsies, who in the past spent their entire lives on their small sailing boats, from conception and birth to death. Landless, they belonged to no nation and lived exclusively from the sea. Now they’ve settled on uninhabited scraps of islands or built their stilt-houses on reefs or over tidal zones. They’re still exclusively sea people, fishing, farming seaweed, harvesting beche-de-mer or trochus pearl-shell. At nearby Labengke, in a pretty cluster of hilly, jungle-clad islands, we can snorkel, kayak and paddle board from a deserted white-sand beach.
Reaching Pulau Wowoni, a big island just in front of the Bay of Kendari, South-East Sulawesi, we step ashore to the seaside town of Kekea for a final ‘meet the people’ stroll around the town. Among other produce of the gardens and forests are breadfruit, copra and cashews, while on the beach the catch is landed from locally built koli-koli – the local word for a dugout canoe or sampan. Depending on the weather and wind we may have a final chance to get Ombak Putih’s lovely blue sails up again, to experience the joy of sailing and to ensure everyone goes home with great photos our Bugis pinisi under full sail. The final night of our cruise always brings a great farewell party as a fitting celebration of a fantastic voyage.
Today we reach Kendari, the small city and busy port that is the capital of South-East Sulawesi. We have now entered the homelands of the Butonese people – one of the noted seafaring groups of Indonesia (along with the better-known Bugis and Makassans of South Sulawesi). Their sailing sloops called 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 sailing through. After farewells to the tour guides and crew, you will be transferred to the airport.