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. As the only source of cloves and nutmeg, man’s desire for control of the trade ushered in the golden age of exploration and lead to huge profits for individuals and nations bold enough to make the journey to the ends of the Earth.
Rising from the sea dead ahead in the blue, early morning light were the mist-shrouded volcanic peaks of the Spice Islands. 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.
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.
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, which anyone familiar with the Indonesian 1,000 rupiah note will recognize. 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. We stopped to admire the view at Lake Tolire, a 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 tropical storm moved in and 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 shanty by the locals, and still has some of its many cannons 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. But by far the most intriguing is the infamous Fort Nosra Señora del Rosario on the southeast coast, where 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 waiting for reprieve 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. 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 trek, almost certainly because getting there isn’t the easiest task. But hardship can be its own reward and without the sea leg of our journey it just wouldn’t have been the same.
Text and photos by Michael Travers