From Banda Neira to Ternate, a cruise aboard a Bugis-style ironwood schooner proves the ideal way to tour Indonesia’s fabled Spice Islands, whose long-faded fortunes have given way to fascinating ports of call
By Johnny Langenheim
Photographs by Jack Wyllie
The sun is already hot and high by the time Run comes into view. Perched on the prow of the Ombak Putih, I have to squint to make out the island, a tiny smudge on a languorous blue horizon that stretches otherwise unbroken in every direction. We’re a good six hours behind schedule, having sailed overnight from Ambon against un-seasonable currents. It’s a small enough delay considering the three days it took me to get here from London, flying via Singapore, Bali, Sulawesi, and finally Ambon, the capital of Indonesia’s Maluku Province. I’m also mindful of the fact that four centuries ago, a journey like this would have taken the better part of a year, and that was if you made it at all, what with storms and scurvy and skirmishes with locals, not to mention getting hopelessly lost because no one could measure longitude yet. But that didn’t stop Europe’s most powerful nations from trying: back then, the Moluccas Islands were arguably the hottest property on the planet.
Our quarters are decidedly more inviting than those of an East Indiaman. Built in a Kalimantan boatyard in the style of a traditional wooden phinisi schooner, the Ombak Putih is 42 meters long, a beamy 10 metres across amidships, and sprouts two masts rigged fore-and-aft with marine-blue sails. Run by a Bali-based outfit called Sea Trek, she has a dozen snug en-suite cabins, decks strewn with sunbeds, and thrice-daily buffets that mean we’re more likely to gain paunches than perish.
“It’s amazing to think that these tiny volcanic islands sparked the Age of Discovery,” says author Ian Burnet as he joins me at the bow, a mug of coffee in hand. “And the establishment of the world’s first true multinational companies for that matter—the Dutch and British East India Companies,” he adds, gesturing at the indistinct blob on the skyline. Burnet, a retired geologist who’s making the most of his retirement by traveling the archipelago and writing books on Indonesian history, is the guest lecturer on this two-week voyage around the fabled Spice Islands.
An hour later we weigh anchor off Run, board a speedboat, and putter across a shallow reef to the shore, where two shyly smiling kids peep out from a beached fishing boat. There’s no one else to be seen. Considering its storied history, Run really doesn’t look like much—white sand, coconut palms, lush vegetation clinging to steep slopes, the rusting corrugated roofs of a neatly kept fishing village. A typical tropical paradise. But then our guide, Ari, points up at a stand of nondescript trees on a hillside and says, “Nutmeg.” And that’s really where the story begins.