The Archipelago Journal: Morotai Island

The province of North Maluku Utara might seem a long way from anywhere at first glance, but time and again these remarkable volcanic islands have found themselves at the centre of some of history’s most significant events.

Words and photography by David Burden


There are records from the 12th-century Chinese Ming dynasty about the ‘Miliki’ islands and their four renowned kings of Jailolo, Ternate, Tidorhe and Bacan. Around the same time, Arabian traders were also passing through, returning home with stories of what they called ‘Al-Malukh’ – literally, ‘the islands of kings’.

Fast-forward a few hundred years to the 15th century, and Spanish and Portuguese missionaries brought Catholicism to the region, kicking off the spice trade in the process.


Adding to those already impressive credentials, in the mid-1800s, the regional capital city of Ternate was home to the great naturalist Sir Alfred Russel Wallace, during which time he worked on his own theory of natural selection – a paper that he would eventually send to a very surprised Charles Darwin in London for corroboration. However, the event that has arguably written North Maluku into the history books more than any other is its role in the Pacific campaign of the Second World War, Specifically, the northernmost island of Morotai, from which General Douglas MacArthur rallied Allied forces in preparation for the liberation of the Japanese-controlled Philippines.

Arriving in the capital town of Daruba at the southern tip of Morotai, you don’t need to go
far to find evidence of what happened during this time. Just a few minutes away from the ferry terminal lies Blue Beach, where American and ANZAC forces came ashore in September 1944 to take control of the island from the occupying Japanese forces. It was not an easy landing, and the battle that ensued cost over 200 men their lives – the Australian mass war grave is just a few hundred metres further along the beach. Marking the landing spot is a huge (although partially finished) museum, with a memorial statue honouring the fallen. I spend a few minutes poking around outside as unfortunately the museum itself turns out to be locked, until a couple of local guys point me in the direction of Pak Muhris Eso, a local historian and collector who apparently lives up the road in Daruba. “He’s the man,” I’m told, and after much to-ing and fro-ing around town trying to locate him, eventually I find myself at his fascinating ‘mini museum’.


A strong contender for the world’s nicest person, Muhris has spent the past decade collecting all kinds of memorabilia related to the Second World War, meticulously sifting through overgrown battlefields to uncover dog tags, spent ammunition, rusted weapons and all manner of other relics.

The tiny one-room museum is an absolute treasure-trove, and I can’t resist snapping a portrait of Muhris, decked out with tin helmet and bullet sashes, and holding an enormous heavy Browning machine gun.

Feeling slightly ‘historied’ out, I spend the next day hopping around the numerous atolls to the west of Daruba. The first port of call is Dodola – essentially two islands connected by a narrow sandy isthmus that is completely covered up at high tide. As far as tropical islands go, Dodola is pretty hard to beat, with its icing-sugar sand and crystal-clear waters. An easy 10-minute boat ride from town, it’s a popular picnic spot for locals on the weekend, who come to frolic in the sea and potter around on sea kayaks.


We push off again and head just a few minutes across the water to Zum-Zum,
or MacArthur Island, where the man himself spent many hours devising his strategies. Now mostly overgrown and seemingly forgotten about, the only reminders of his residence here are the island’s name in metre-high lettering near the old pier, and a giant statue of MacArthur, looking for all the world like a chubby Daniel Craig.

Back on the mainland, I go statue hunting again, this time looking for the man at the heart of one of the strangest stories of the Second World War. In a bid to escape the advancing Allied troops, Taiwanese-born Private Teruo Nakamura of the Imperial Japanese Army retreated deep into the remote jungles of central Morotai. There he remained for almost 30 years, unaware that the war had ended until a passing pilot spotted his forest hut in 1974.


A search mission was launched, and Nakamura was eventually captured and repatriated to Taiwan. A good few kilometres north of Daruba, near the spot where he was eventually discovered, I find his statue – a simple construction in the middle of a dusty intersection. An odd place to find the memorial to such a remarkable man, but then nothing about Nakamura’s story is particularly normal.

On the move again, I head up along Morotai’s main highway, which skirts the eastern side of the island. The scenery begins to change dramatically, with steep jungle-clad hillsides dropping down to meet rugged black-sand beaches. From April through to September, the seas are calm and great for swimming, but for the rest of the year the Pacific Ocean roars to life, with deep low-pressure systems spinning off the Philippines and sending solid swells to the reefs and beaches of Morotai’s north and east coasts.


Pulling into the village of Buho-Buho, I spot four dots catching waves way out to sea. The dots turn out to be four South African guys – literally the only foreign tourists I see during my entire trip – who invite me back to their digs to talk surf and trade info. The digs turn out to be a new luxury resort called Moro Ma Doto, owned by a German businessman and designed by the same architect responsible for Sumba’s celebrated Nihiwatu resort.

My last stop is to the spectacular Garango beach, where the waves seem even more ferocious. As I stop to take in the view up the coastline, a huge hornbill comes flapping right past me, only to settle on a nearby fence. Having never seen one of these majestic birds up close, I’m pretty awestruck, scrabbling to get a photo before it takes off again.

With a morning ferry to catch back to Halmahera, I head back to Daruba, wishing I had more time to explore this fascinating island perched way up on the top end of Indonesia. Rich in history and blessed with phenomenal scenery, Morotai ticks all the boxes for those who are looking for somewhere way off the usual tourist trail.

Jakarta to Ternate

Flight Time 3 hours 20 minutes

Frequency 7 flights per week

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From Colours March 2017


5 Senses – Sight

Morotai has no shortage of statues, so keep an eye out for Douglas MacArthur on Zum-Zum Island, the war memorial at Blue Beach that depicts the Allied forces coming ashore, and Private Teruo Nakamura. The last one is a bit trickier to find as it’s on the far outskirts of Daruba, so it’s worth asking a local guide to show you the way.