The Archipelago Journal: Seram
Far and away the largest island in Maluku province, Pulau Seram is nowhere near as developed as neighbouring Ambon, and has some of the most sublime scenery you’ll find anywhere in Indonesia.
Words and photography by David Burden
After an easy jaunt on the fast boat across from Ambon to Masohi port, and a pleasantly winding drive through the mountainous interior of Seram, arriving in Saleman village and looking across Sawai Bay really is one of those travel moments that takes your breath away.
Beyond the rows of colourful boats and giggling kids splashing around in the shallows, soaring jungle-clad cliffs plunge from cobalt skies into the kind of sapphireblue waters that would make your desktop wallpaper look drab. Palm trees line the shore – the occasional one growing out over the ocean, providing the perfect jumping spot – while coral reefs sparkle and shimmer beneath the surface. There is still a short boat ride to go before my final destination, but already I’m convinced that this is paradise found.
As we skim across the oil-glass water towards Ora Beach Resort – my base for the next three nights – the scenery only gets more impressive when the mighty peaks of Seram’s northern mountain range come into view. We pass men in tiny canoes lethargically pulling in their nets, full to the brim with all kinds of fish, before arcing closer towards the shore and up to Ora’s boat jetty. ‘Idyllic’ doesn’t even come close: the setting is beyond picturesque, with half-a-dozen or so thatched bungalows on stilts fringing the southern end of the beach and a few more cottages tucked back near the base of the cliffs. The resort’s restaurant sits just off the boat jetty on the northern end of the beach, directly over the house reef, which I can already see is alive with sea life and dazzling coral.
Although the trip from Ambon is fairly straightforward, it has still taken me a fair chunk of the day to reach Ora, and so to freshen up I waste no time changing into my swimmers and diving straight off the jetty out front. Later, over cold drinks and a chat with some of the other guests in the restaurant, I watch the sun slip down into the horizon and turn the whole sky red, before our dinner of freshly caught barbecued fish is served by the friendly resort staff. Life really does not get much better.
Ora Beach is only accessible by boat, and so the next morning I arrange a trip aboard the resort’s launch to take me cruising around the nearby sights. First up, we motor a few kilometres north towards Sawai River to the impressive sea cliffs of Tebing Batu. Approaching the sheer limestone walls that drop vertically into the sparkling water, I’m reminded of Vietnam’s famous Ha Long Bay, although unlike the popular tourist spot, here we have the whole place to ourselves. We moor up the boat next to an isolated wooden platform in the ocean (ideal for selfies!) and spend the next hour or so swimming around and soaking up the sun and scenery.
A little further along the cliff wall, a small recess signifies an underwater cave system where you can actually swim underneath the overhang and pop up inside the hollow. It’s best tackled with a mask and snorkel, and provides an incredible, if slightly intimidating, experience for those who love to explore unusual places. “It’s completely safe,” my boat driver Iqbal reassures me, and after a few dives in and out I’m inclined to agree, thanks largely to the still ocean that is as calm as a lake.
Next on the day’s agenda is a stop at the beach known as Air Belanda (‘Dutch Water’), where a natural upwelling at the eastern end of the bay produces a freezing-cold spring that seeps through the sand and into the sea. A brief paddle in the shallows confirms this – it really is Baltic! I retreat back to one of the ramshackle wooden huts nearby to grab a drink and a bite to eat. I’ve not long sat down when a boatload of tourists pull up to stake out their spot in the next shack. They immediately wave me over, generously insisting that I join them for a slap-up lunch of ikan bakar colo-colo – grilled fish, Ambon style. As we tuck in to the delicious barbecued seafood – caught just moments before and cooked over coconut husks right there on the beach – Seram local and guide Pak Helmi tells me that his group come all the way from Lombok to visit every year to admire the scenery and enjoy the local food. Some praise considering Lombok is not exactly short of either of those things.
“Would you like to see my butterfly garden?” asks Helmi unexpectedly after we’ve cleared our plates. “It’s not far,” he assures me. ‘Not far’ turns out to be a hot 3km uphill hike through thick jungle, but the peaceful clearing filled with numerous butterflies flitting around sweet-scented cacao and nutmeg trees makes the walk completely worthwhile. After a fruitless 30 minutes chasing a yellow birdwing around trying to get close for a photo, I give in and join Helmi and his neighbour Pak Anas for a refreshing cup of ginger tea on the porch of his forest cabin, before ambling down the trail and heading back to Ora for the evening.
My next excursion is to a small cluster of mostly deserted islands further west, known as Pulau Tujuh (Seven Islands), where some of the best diving in the area is to be found. Less than 10 minutes out from Ora, we come across a huge pod of dolphins – a number of which swim along with us for a distance, effortlessly weaving and leaping off the bow as we glide along towards the snorkel spot of Pulau Alle. The shallow reef drops off steeply into an abyss of deep blue, creating a huge wall that is absolutely swarming with all manner of fish darting industriously to and fro. I spend an unforgettable hour drifting amongst the busy shoals and colourful coral heads, before we up anchor and beach ourselves on the next island, Pulau Isau, for a castaway picnic lunch under a couple of low palms. Further up the beach, I find a group of local fishermen casting lines off a wooden jetty, who attempt to show me how to catch bait. They make it look easy, pulling in a fish within a few seconds of every cast, but predictably I’m completely hopeless, failing to snag even one. And so I leave them to it in favour of another snorkel session over on what Iqbal aptly calls ‘Nemo Reef’, before sadly it’s time to call it a day and move to the next adventure.
Reluctantly packing my bags, I reflect that Pulau Seram remains gloriously untouched for now, and is further proof that Indonesia still has so many hidden treasures that are well off the busy tourist routes.
Jakarta to Ambon
Flight Time 3 hour 10 minutes
Frequency 7 ﬂights per week
5 Senses – Taste
Ikan colo-colo is the speciality around these parts, thanks to the variety of limes that grow here. The fish is always fresh and barbecued to perfection – no matter which warung you happen into – but it’s the colo-colo condiment that makes this dish so renowned. A zingy mix of sliced shallots, tomatoes and chilli swimming in the juice of local limoncina, it’s the perfect accompaniment to the seafood, and no visit to this region would be complete without having a taste.