– First published Bali Echo, December 1994

Halmahera Map 500
Halmahera Map

The Moluccan Archipelago of Indonesia is one of the most isolated on earth.

This was not always the case. In the days of the Roman Empire, Pliny wrote of the mythological island of spice. These, of course were none other than the Moluccas. The story of the European quest to discover an control them is the story of the creation of modern Europe, full of the same intrigue and betrayal. The magnificence cities of Venice, Lisbon and Amsterdam were built from the profits of the spice trade.

Columbus discovered the Americas in search of fabled island of spice, the Portuguese actually found them. A zealously fought over group of island nestled on the equator, a few hundred nautical miles east of Borneo that the Portuguese would have a hard time seizing and keeping.

The largest of these islands, little known and less visited than Ambon or Banda, is Halmahera which sprawls across the equator like a giant orchid, a miniature copy of its near neighbour, Sulawesi. Up to this day its interior remains largely unexplored, a wild tangle of mountainous rain forest famous for its fauna and the rare, almost birdlike butterflies. Oddly enough the most ubiquitous creature of the Indonesian bush – the monkey — is found nowhere here.

Most of the 200,000 inhabitants of this island live along the coasts where copra is the most abundant and successful cash crop, followed by quickly by cocoa and cloves; the interior is mountainous and deeply jungled and even less populated. For the casual tourist trade, this is still very much virgin territory.

Only the towns of Daruba, Tobelo, Kao and Lailolo have basic hotel facilities and rudimentary restaurants. This might be daunting for the average tourist but for the adventure traveler willing to suffer without en-suite and European breakfast, few such opportunities exist to experience truly magnificent natural beauty, great reefs and attractive unspoiled locals.

To travel in Halmahera is to travel by boat between the main island and the many hundreds of smaller islands which surround it like coracles around a mother ship. The general Indonesia term for the humble two-wheel two-stroke step thru (motor) is instead used in these parts as the name of the small outboard driven prahus. I cannot relate the joy and beauty of such travel and the oneness one feels with the sea. Everywhere one is stuck by the abundance of the crystal waters. Every self-respecting farmer one meets reserves his afternoon hours for fishing.

Mother of Pearl, tuna, sardines and pearl are all eagerly sought by all Halmaherans from young to old and this activity results not only in a cash crop but a guaranteed meal every night. Such is the abundance and variety of local waters that they boast they could eat a different species of seafood every day of the year – without repeats! So, the restaurants might be simple but the fish is some of the best in the world.

Indeed, most visitors come to dive in the pristine waters; Coral is not just abundant here – it is like a plague, with new atolls forming almost before one’s eyes. It is downright dangerous to boat here without good local knowledge and even then, never at night. Even the seemingly bottomless sea, miles from the nearest land, the sea floor will suddenly and without warning appear within a meter of the boat hull, the brilliant blaze of multicolored corals stretching hungrily upwards.

The variety of fish, seashells and other marine life is equally prolific. Rare species not only survive but thrive in incredible numbers. For a commercial review of this wealth one need only visit the local fish markets where huge snapper and tuna can be had for less than one dollar a fish.

In Daruba in the north, scuba gear can be hired from local entrepreneurs but make sure you are experienced as very few PADI instructors up here. Also be forewarned that face masks are prized possessions of almost heirloom value and snorkels are virtually unheard of. If you don’t come prepared you will risk madness at the frustration of visiting one the world’s best diving spots and only be able to muddle about in rock pools.

Another reason to come is to view rare giant butterflies and birds that are surreal and prolific. For entry into some areas of Halmahera, permits are necessary so do your research first and come prepared as this is jungle trekking at its best. There is a good article on this subject in September’s edition of Garuda magazine if you would like some further information.

Finally visitor’s come for the history as Halmahera played a critical role in the drama of the Spice Islands. The native inhabitants were named the Alfurs or Alfuros by the Portuguese who were the first Europeans to sail to these islands. By the 19th century they acquired the name (along with the Balinese) of being some of the largest and fiercest warriors in the archipelago.

The Portuguese, however, were not the first visitors here. While European’s were arguing whether the earth was round or flat, Chinese and Indian traders were making themselves rich on the profits of the clove and nutmeg endemic to this region. The 12th century Majapahit empire of Java then took dominion over these valuable islands, to be later defeated by a series of sultanates set up on the nearby islands of Ternate and Tidore by the warlike Buginese people of Southern Sulawesi.

These men were rich and powerful Kings but the age of the Explorers were closing in, many seeking the wealth of the spices of Halmahera. After years of local war and intrigue, the Portuguese seized control only to lose it to the Dutch barely a 100 years later. The now centuries old animosity between the Dutch and English was partially the result of the brutal Dutch expulsion of the English from these islands (though one suspects the English would have done the same but did not have means at the time).

But eventually the Dutch fell victim to history as the spice trees were stolen and planted elsewhere until the price of spice dwindled and the entire region was almost forgotten.

History came to Halmahera again with the Second World War. The Japanese decided to make an Imperial Navy base in the Bay of Kao, an inlet formed by the two isthmuses on the north coast of the island. Eventually, this was home of two hundred Japanese warship and the airport in Kao itself was the launching pad for countless Japanese bombing runs in the immediate region.

General Mac Arthur made good on his “I shall return” promise in 1944 when he attacked the Japanese base from his headquarters in Sorong, Irian Jaya; obliterating the bulk of the Japanese force. He then moved his operations to Morotai, a small island off Halmahera’s northernmost cape. From here he harried the remaining Japanese forces in Indonesia and the Philippines until V- day.

At one stage over 60,000 Allied servicemen were barracked on Morotai, so it is not surprising that till this day many elder inhabitants speak good English and will fondly retell their memories of this brief association with the Allied troops. It is rumoured, too, that the Enola Gray, that infamous bomber that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, stopped in Morotai for refueling.

Halmahera is not for everybody. Here you will live adventure rather than dream of it. For those brave enough to forsake the beaten path you are guaranteed an experience of a lifetime.

Untouched beauty, magnificent flora and fauna with lovely people and layer upon layer of history at the far end the world.

How to Get There:

  • Daily flights to Ambon are available from Jakarta and Bali on Garuda and Merpati.  Merpati flies to the island of Ternate but while there are several dirt landing fields on Halmahera there are no regular flights. Best is to arrange passage from Ternate on a boat or prow.
  • Travel around the island is primarily to be achieved on foot or by other prahu. The mentioned towns all have small losmen or guesthouses and in more out of the way places you will have arrange some sort of local accommodation. This is high adventure. l
  • Check out Bill Dalton’s guide to Indonesia and remember that the rain season in the northern Moluccas is the opposite of the rest of Indonesia.
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