North Halmahera

Things are sometimes not what they seem in Halmahera. The great cone of Mt Mamuya looms like a gigantic pyramid behind Tobelo town, looking like a picture-perfect volcanic backdrop. Yet it’s just a peaceful, jungle-covered mountain. But, to the west of town, what looks like a ragged mountain ridge with swirls and eddies of highland mist is, on closer inspection, the partially hidden crater of Dukono volcano sending up raucous coughs from the planet.

Down on the waterfront, traders and deckhands barely cast an eye towards the volcano (one of the most dramatic of Indonesia’s 127 active volcanoes), which has been rumbling ominously, almost without break, for the last 85 years. Boarding a boat at the rough-hewn wooden jetty, I get the idea that time changes very slowly in old Tobelo.

“North Halmahera is one of Indonesia’s hidden gems, with incredible landscapes and fascinating history,” says guide Yusferglius Tjingaisa. “Yet, today, few people even seem to know that it exists.”

There had only been one other foreigner on my flight into the island from Manado: we chatted for a minute or two in the baggage hall before realising we’d met 20 years before at a gold mine in Kalimantan. Indonesia might be a mind-bogglingly huge country, but North Halmahera is a small world.

As our little boat putters out towards a chain of islands, flying fish glitter like silver darts in the tropical sun and in the distance I notice the splashes from a small pod of dolphins. North Halmahera boasts 115 islands (mostly uninhabited), and it is a mark of their remoteness that even today 19 of them remain unnamed.

“Over to the south there is Tupu-Tupu island,” Yus shouts over the throbbing of the outboard motor, “and dead-ahead is Tagalaya.”

Tupu-Tupu was named in the local language as ‘Fire Island’ – for reasons that have long been forgotten – and even at this distance I can see the tell-tale lacework fringe of breaking white-water that occasionally attracts adventurous surfers to this area. Tagalaya, meanwhile, appears as an impenetrable mangrove forest, but Yus assures me that it’s a unique snorkelling spot. If you know the secret channel through the barrier reef and the mangrove maze, there’s a protected lagoon that fills most of the centre of the island. But it is tiny Pawole island (barely 200m long) that lures us onwards to the edge of the open ocean.

Pawole is a classic desert island paradise, fringed with talcum-powder sand and capped with tousle-headed palms. We jump off the boat to explore a pristine Robinson Crusoe beach devoid of human footprints. The regimented lines of palms in the centre of the island betray the fact that this is a tiny coconut plantation, perhaps established by a descendant of the traders who sold spices and oil to the Chinese and Arabs long before the first European galleon ever anchored in these waters. The local trade in nutmeg, cloves and copra (a preliminary stage in the production of coconut oil) was already ancient when Europeans first heard tales of these fabled Spice Islands.

In 1510 the Portuguese arrived in search of the land the Arabs called Jazirat-Al-Maluk (the Land of Many Kings). They were followed by the Dutch and then the British, who broke the Spice Island monopoly by transporting precious seedlings to Malaysia, Sri Lanka, India and eventually to the Caribbean island of Grenada (which now even has a nutmeg on its national flag). The last invading force to take control of North Halmahera was the Japanese, whose Second World War artillery and bunkers remain after falling to US forces from Morotai (just 50km away), from where Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed.

Such violent days seem a world away today, and it’s hard to imagine that these timeless islands once provoked an international superpower race: not so much a gold-rush as a ‘nut-rush’. While the streets of London were once believed by a gullible few to be ‘paved with gold’, the forests of the Spice Islands were, quite literally, sprinkled with a nut that was worth more than its weight in gold.

Later, back on the mainland, Yus and I trek through such forests on the trail to Sapoli waterfall. The hot afternoon air seems to be laden with the heady scent of nutmeg and clove. Harvesters get almost US$6/kg for nutmeg in Halmahera, but in the West ground nutmeg sells for more than US$45/kg on the internet. Even so, the crop is so plentiful that we are literally treading upon dark-brown nuts which – with their supposed power to cure bubonic plague – would have been considered more precious than diamonds in medieval times.

In the shimmering afternoon sun the double cascades of Sapoli waterfall also seem to glint like diamonds. North Halmahera boasts several beautiful waterfalls, but Sapoli is one of the most enchanting and, thanks to its relatively inaccessible position, still retains the feeling of a jungle hideaway.

There are said to be 122 villages in North Halmahera and the little dirt-track hamlet of Roko (not far from Sapoli) is surely one of the prettiest. Adrianus Pali lives in one of the pastel-coloured houses that line Roko’s main (i.e. only) street and it is here that he practises one of the crafts that perhaps predate even the spice trade. Despite the arrival of imported plastic containers, the cone-shaped bamboo baskets known as saloi are still preferred for collecting produce in the jungle and plantations. Yet 58-year-old Adrianus didn’t start making saloi until he was already 30, and today he is the only person in the area who makes them.

“There’s clearly still a business here for saloi producers,” he says. “I have orders for 11 new ones… but no time to make them since I now have a job at the gold mine. It’s such a shame that young people are not interested in the old crafts because when I’m gone I don’t think there will be any more saloi.”

Over in Paca village Ibu Susana Muluka tells a similar story. She weaves traditional tikar mats from pandanus leaves: “It might take as much as a month to produce a really fine tikar because I can only work on it in my spare time,” she says, “but they are still in demand and I can sell them for about US$90.”

Even today, beautifully woven tikar mats are used at weddings and in burial rites, to be placed like a blanket over the corpse. In an ancient tradition that dates back to tribal kings, visiting dignitaries are still often greeted with a row of 10 mats, laid out in a local version of the red carpet that traditionally welcomes VIPs in the West. These days tikar are usually decorated in luminous colours using shop-bought dyes rather than the natural vegetable dyes of yesteryear.

“They’re not difficult to make,” says Ibu Susana modestly as I admire one of her beautiful designs. “I learnt simply by watching an older woman, but young girls today are not interested in the old crafts. Perhaps they need to see more international visitors arriving and showing a real interest in our local culture.”

For the time being, however, it’s unusual to see a foreign face in North Halmahera. Among Indonesia’s 17,508 islands there will always be a hidden corner – a delightful secret spot still waiting to be ‘discovered’ by pioneering travellers. But the word is out. The best secrets are hard to keep, and maybe this peaceful corner of the fabled Spice Islands is ready for the next instalment in its colourful history.

5 Senses – Touch UNDERWATER VOLCANO

Feel the heat from an underwater volcano as bubbles rise like diamonds from the black volcanic rock. North Halmahera offers some unique diving experiences. Along with wreck-diving on several sunken Japanese Second World War destroyers, Halmahera Tour also offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dive a submarine volcano and a night-dive among ‘walking sharks’.