Ternate and Tidore - the fabled Spice Islands of the Indies, two names whose very mention once enthralled the royal courts of Europe with dreams of exotic lands and unimaginable wealth. The only source of cloves and nutmeg, man’s desire for control of their trade ushered in the golden age of exploration that lead to huge profits for individuals and nations bold enough to make the journey to the ends of the Earth. Michael Travers takes his taste for the past and sails in their wake.
The bottle of rum my four shipmates and I had drained the night before was still dancing around in my head when I was woken by the grating, cackling laughter of two women outside my cabin door making coffee. I checked my watch: 5.45 and way too early for this kind of carry on. I was already awake so, with a begrudging selamat pagi, and a cup of the sickly sweet brew in hand, I made my way to the bow to catch a glimpse of what I had come all this way to see. There, rising from the sea dead-ahead in the blue, early morning light were the mist-shrouded volcanic peaks of the
Spice Islands. I wasn’t disappointed.
When Sir Francis Drake and Francisco Serrão first arrived here over five centuries ago they both wrote of the scent of cloves on the breeze while still many leagues out to sea. I could smell them too - actually it was the sweet smell of clove cigarette smoke, the infamous Indonesian kretek, wafting up from the foredeck, but I convinced myself it was destiny.
We had left Manado in Sulawesi the evening before on the MV Theodora, a 150-foot-long Indonesian ferry of the type that gets mentioned in the world’s dailies every few months when they sink with all hands. We could have flown, but this was a pilgrimage of history, and there was really no other way for us to arrive than by following in the footsteps - or the wake - of those whose past adventures had brought us here.
Located on the equator, 1,700 km northeast of Bali, these forest-covered volcanoes have held the world’s attention for thousands of years. The ancient Romans and Egyptians knew cloves, nutmeg and mace to be the holy trinity of spices, cherished for their taste, their preservative powers and their medicinal use for all manner of ailments from impotence to the plague. The islands were controlled by two rich and powerful sultanates, both fierce rivals for control of the trade and when the first Europeans arrived in the 16th century, Ternate courted the Portuguese and Tidore the Spanish. Both European powers played the islanders off against each other to gain the upper hand but it was the Dutch in the following century, who eventually won the game, relegating the Iberians to history’s also-ran pile.
With a population of around 150,000 Ternate is still the main centre of North Moluku Province and a bustling hub of economic activity, plainly evident as we pulled into the busy port. The sultanates are still a major part of the governmental system on both islands and there is a very strong Islamic influence, with a vast collection of mosques filling the air with almost constant calls to prayer throughout the day. The people are accommodating and friendly and disembarking from the ferry was a breeze. Surprisingly, we were offered a fair price for a taxi straight off without having to haggle, and were soon checking into the Hotel Amara, the own’s only four-star hotel, a four-storey glass and stone structure high on the hill, where we were able to sleep like sultans and dine like kings on coconut crab and icy cold beer, (until the supply ran out after three days), with views of the islands’ volcanic peaks fore and aft.
Military might was obviously key to the spice trade and both Ternate and Tidore are dotted with the remnants of stone forts that are filled with ghosts and untold stories. It was these, or the former inhabitants thereof, that we had come to see. After a much needed catch up on sleep we rented a car on the second day and headed off down the coast road, the only road around the island, passing picturesque coconut-palm fringed beaches on our way to Gambesi Beach in the island’s south, which anyone familiar with the Indonesian 1,000 rupiah note will recognise. We took out our money and tried to recreate the famous photo and scored a dozen coconuts from a friendly local with a head for heights to mix with that night’s rum ration.
The road is in good condition and it winds around the island through large clove and nutmeg forests, past rugged black-sand beaches, where we stopped often to swim in the cool clear waters. We stopped to admire the view at Lake Tolire, a land-locked, crater-lake that is, according to the locals, infested with crocodiles.
We looked and looked but funnily enough didn’t see any. We did attempt to climb the 1,715m peak of Mount Gamalama late one night but a fresh tropical storm washed out the paths before we could start. Local wisdom prevailed and our guides wouldn’t take us any further.
In the middle of Ternate town the Dutch-built Fort Oranye is still very much in use as a school and shantytown by the locals, and still has some of its many cannon in place along the walls. But it is the older forts that capture the imagination best; Fort Tolukko is an old Portuguese stronghold, immaculately restored on a hilltop vantage point; while Fort Kelamata sits on prime waterfront real estate just south of the town with views across to Tidore. But by far the most intriguing is the infamous Fort Nosra Señora del Rosario on the southeast coast, where in the late 16th century, the Ternateans besieged the hapless Portuguese for five long years after the interlopers treacherously murdered the sultan over trading rights. You can almost smell the isolation, desperation and hopelessness that the inhabitants must have felt as they sat out their siege in their tiny box waiting for relief that never came. In 1579 the siege was lifted and the Portuguese left the island, never to return.
Dominating the southern sky with its tall volcanic cone just across the water, Tidore has become the somewhat poor relation to Ternate, but is still a very beautiful and dramatic place. Best as a day trip, as accommodation is extremely limited, it’s only a 15-minute speedboat ride away. We were met on the wharf in Tidore with offers of taxis, but we chose to rent motor scooters instead for around $1.50 per hour, which gave us the freedom of the highway to tour the island at our own pace. Like its rival Tidore is filled with clove and nutmeg forests, sandy beaches and immaculate villages, all well-maintained and proudly painted in distinct ‘team colours’ that change as we passed from village to village, but all filled with the same friendly smiles and waves from excited children wherever we went.
Unfortunately, not many westerners visit the Spice Islands these days. When we scoured the visitor’s books in Fort Tolukko there were only a handful of latter day explorers who seem to have made the semi-arduous trek. But hardship can be its own reward and without the sea leg of our journey it just wouldn’t have been the same.
That said, the easy option of leaving by plane was a blessing. When Sir Francis Drake sailed from Ternate he had to jettison a cannon and a couple of tonnes of spices to lighten his ship enough to get over the reef. In 2011, with 3kg of excess baggage, I had to discharge boots and jacket from my suitcase into my carry-on to get on the plane. A fitting parallel, I thought, to end a grand and spicy voyage into history and discovery.