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Halmahera

Entering through Ternate, Colours explores Halmahera and its surrounds: charming port towns, great beaches and wonderful reefs.

Words and photography by Tim Rock

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We were undersea off the isles near Tobelo along a stunning wall of soft corals when a most unusual thing happened. A large school of tiny ocean catfish moved near us and then extended out into the water column. Like a fish tornado, they moved with such strange precision that we were instantly mesmerised by their fluid movement into the blue water. They put on quite a show for us and then returned to the safety of the reefs. The waters of Halmahera never cease to surprise.

More and more, Halmahera, the largest of the Maluku islands, is garnering attention from travellers, adventurers and ocean lovers. With Ternate, a bustling port city full of history, as the Garuda Indonesia gateway to this island, one can experience true adventure around North Maluku and Halmahera. Ternate has a stunning seaside mosque and the dominant volcanic Mount Gamalama. These are the two things that really stand out here. Clove and nutmeg groves line the sides of this still-active volcanic isle. Landmarks include crater lake Tolire, said to be filled with magic crocodiles. Across the strait sits Tidore, another cone of an island, and others stretch off in the distance.

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Beautiful Jailolo Bay just north of Ternate beckons beachgoers, snorkellers and divers. In the spice trade days it was a powerful sultanate. Now it is a peaceful and popular place from which to day trip to islands such as tiny but sandy Pastofiri. Its attractions, especially for snorkellers, are the healthy coral reefs of its tiny shores. It is a great place to anchor and do a day or two’s diving. There are more than a dozen dive sites in this bay, many named with the acronym NHR, after Namto Hui Roba, the West Halmahera Regent and a keen diver, who was instrumental in their discovery.

In a trip on both land and sea, on the way to Tobelo we made our way to Galela for the amazing warm-water vents dive. In the distance, volcanic Mount Dukono belched. Gunung Dukono is a fairly remote volcano and one of the most active in Indonesia. Looking up to Dukono, if it’s active, you can see the sulphur and even ash plumes being emitted. It is known for its frequent small explosive eruptions and, after a while of diving in its shadow, you get used to the seismic burps. We were told that during the hours or days between explosions it looks deceptively peaceful, just calmly steaming away.

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When we visited Tobelo, well known for ring merchants who sell exquisitely polished stone rings and jewellery (known locally as bacan batu), we found a friendly town sitting in the shadow of the Karianga Mountains and spread along the shores of a huge bay of lush islands with beautiful beaches. We had the good fortune to get a short city tour from Firman Bachtiar, an energetic tourism official who also happens to be Tobelo’s only certified dive instructor.
He has been quite instrumental in promoting diving and snorkelling in and around Tobelo and nearby Moratai.

We also visited the Hibualamo Traditional House. Built in 2007 in the centre of town, it is where traditional ceremonies and meetings take place. The Hibualamo also displays quite a bit of the local culture. The building has a traditional octagonal Halmaheran floorplan, with doors opening in all four directions. This symbolises both the fact that guests arriving from anywhere are welcome and the unity among the people of North Halmahera. Another interesting display on the same grounds is a giant model of a traditional korakora war canoe from the Tobelo-Galela area.

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Aside from some ash in the air when the wind blew our way, the whole area is idyllic, with isles adorned by sandy beaches and towering coconut palms. We then ventured to the upper reef of Pawole Island, which was thick with coral gardens and clouds of chromis fish. The dive site Kumo Wall offered a plethora of stunning colourful soft corals growing from 3m to 30m. This wall had great small sealife too, including pygmy sea horses and an amazing shoal of tiny catfish.

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This diving area has much potential. The natural beauty and variety of islands make it a candidate for a new Indonesian hotspot. Halmahera has plenty to offer and is growing as a new destination. With a rich history and dramatic landscapes, combined with diverse marine life and some great local culture and cuisine, visitors come away wanting just one thing…to return to see what more this amazing paradise has to offer.

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5 Senses – Scent
BIRDING

Birding in Halmahera is considered some of the best and most diverse in the world. Birding can be done any time of the day or night and, depending on whether you’re looking for diurnal or nocturnal birds, can produce some amazing results. It is not uncommon for a die-hard birder to rise at 3am and drive to various elevations listening for the calls of night birds. Sunrise usually brings a completely different cacophony of sounds. Here, birders listen for the call of a Moluccan goshawk, see if a Moluccan drongo-cuckoo emits its strange call or see if a chattering lory ever stops its chatter, and listen for the unmistakeable call of the barking owl. Lists of over 250 species of rare, endemic and exotic bird sightings have been compiled on stays of five days or less in Halmahera.