On the road circling the island of Ternate, small bright-red stars lay scattered over the smooth tar. A “red carpet” laid for visitors on two wheels? Just beside the flaming spread lay others, brown and shaped like shrivelled nuts or tiny nails, in reality, cloves. The air was filled with their rich familiar aroma. Better not ride over them! Same thing goes for the fresh nutmeg and mace drying in the blazing sun.
Nutmeg “” an essential ingredient in Coca-Cola’s secret formula “” is the seed of the nutmeg fruit, while the more valuable mace is the delicate scarlet filigree wrapped around the outside of the seed, between the pit and the fruit’s husky interior. Clove and nutmeg trees both come from Ternate and a number of neighbouring volcanic islands: Tidore, Bacan, Makian, and Motir. We were indeed stopping over on the legendary Spice Islands!
During the Renaissance in Europe, the small archipelago had a mythical international reputation and became the object of everyone’s desire. Today, only few can point accurately on a world map to the famous “Spiceries” located between New Guinea and Sulawesi, some of the 17,000 islands forming Indonesia. Fewer could call them by their actual name “” the Moluccas.
Attempting to discover shorter and safer sea routes to the Moluccas “” then called the East Indies “” the most powerful nations at the time financed the expeditions of Vasco de Gama, Magellan, and Christopher Columbus. Spaniards and Portuguese, motivated by the lure of financial gain and obsessed with evangelization, would jump on shore, sabres upright, shouting “For Christ and spices!”
In one of history’s biggest mistakes, Christopher Columbus in navigating toward the Indies via the West failed and hit the previously unknown Americas instead. In his zeal to convince his paymasters and himself that he had succeeded, he named the New World’s natives “Indians” and their sacred chilies “red” peppers “” two unpardonable obfuscations that have confused people to this day!
After four days and three nights onboard M.V. Nggapulu “” a passenger ferry belonging to PELNI, Indonesia’s national fleet “” Pierre and I set wheels on Ternate. We had embarked in Jayapura, Papua’s capital on New Guinea Island. Ternate, as well as being historically famous, is an emerged volcano. The island is a perfect cone culminating at 1,721 metres, where sits Gamalama’s crater. With our chins on the handlebars and our chains in the “granny gear,” we climbed behind Ternate-town to the volcanic observatory where scientists monitor the active island day in and day out.
The welcoming vulcanologists informed us about Gamalama “” which erupted to create great havoc in 1737, 1987, 1990, and 1994! “” and other active mountains of the Northern Moluccas. They also shared the coordinates of fellow scientists located on other islands “” in case we had more questions during our ride around the volcanic archipelago. Close to the volcanic observatory is Afo, a 400-year-old clove tree. Every year, Afo produces 600 kilograms of its aromatic flowers “” the clove is not a seed or fruit, but a dried flower!
Afo is live witness to the vile excesses perpetrated by the Dutch East India Company. Founded in 1602, it became the richest corporation in the world by 1670, paying its shareholders an annual dividend of 40% on their investment despite financing 50,000 employees, 30,000 fighting men, and 200 ships. The secret of its success was simple: the company had no scruples whatsoever.
Having displaced the Portuguese from the Moluccas, the Dutch were intent on maintaining a monopoly on the very lucrative spice trade and proceeded to extirpate every tree not under their control. They imposed the death penalty on anyone caught growing, stealing, or possessing nutmeg or clove plants without authorization. Yet high on the hillside, Afo, the illegal tree, lives.
Despite the Dutch East India Company’s extreme precautions, Afo’s sister seedlings, stolen in 1770 by an intrepid Frenchman (curiously named Pierre Poivre), ended up flourishing on Seychelles, Reunion, and Zanzibar islands. By the end of the 18th century, the emergence of these rivals had broken the Dutch monopoly for good.
Back in town, we undertook to ride around Ternate, a leisurely 100-kilometre spin. “Ternatese” along the way point out that besides clove, nutmeg, and mace, they grow vanilla, cocoa, coconuts, and a whole range of tropical fruits. The road slices through an endless line of coastal villages. We spent most nights either inside impeccable losmen (small guesthouses) or camped by public schools. Our gastronomic fuel of choice is gado-gado (hot salad covered with a spicy peanut sauce), mie goreng (fried noodles), nasi goreng (fried rice), pisang goreng (fried bananas), and satay kebabs.
Back where we started, we joined other passengers onboard a tiny ferry propelled by an even tinier outboard motor. Fortunately, the strait separating Ternate from its almost identical twin Tidore, where we’re setting course for, is just a kilometre wide. Tidore once too was a spice-rich sultanate and is also an emerged volcano “” 1,730 metres high but dormant.
Approximately the same size as its sister, Tidore harbours a smaller population, meaning fewer mopeds and a quieter, non-motorized ride. The west coast is one long Muslim village “” although 80% of Indonesians are Muslims, in the Moluccas about half the population is Christian “” with a pastel-painted faÃ§ade. The east side boasts a few fishing villages where the road stretches from the tranquil lagoon to the steep volcano slopes. On both sides, we were invited to join festive roadside family feasts: a birthday in the east and a funeral in the west.
Transiting on Ternate, we hopped on a speedboat en route to Halmahera, Northern Moluccas’ biggest island. On a map, it looks more like an amoeba on the run than a volcanic island, but Halmahera is host to the most active volcano in the region, Dukono volcano, continuously erupting since 1933.
In Sidangoli, after delivering our bikes from their rooftop hold, we realized that this “amoeba” is oddly not invertebrate. The road shoots straight up to one of its many spines, a ridiculously abrupt and sinuous mountain pass topped by thick jungle. On that stretch of vertical asphalt, I was witness to a first: Pierre, on a paved surface with a bike in perfect working order, is walking!
At the top of the pass, we made sure there was enough rubber on the brake pads before dropping down the other side. Once we reached the bay of Kao, it was a 200-kilometre rollercoaster ride to Dukono. On either side of the “garden” road, palm- or jungle-fringed, were abandoned villages, burnt and wrecked houses, churches and mosques. It was the same on Ternate, especially in town, where half-destroyed churches and mosques served as refugee camps for Halmahera’s displaced population (those who had survived the fratricidal conflict between Christians and Muslims that broke out in a few Indonesian regions during 1999 and 2000). The good news was that the violent clashes had stopped, the reconciliation process had begun, and people were slowly returning home and starting to feel safe again. As for us, we never felt our security was at risk.
We did find Dukono at the mouth of Kao Bay. We marvelled at its ash column for only a short while. No time to hike around or closer to the spewing crater. The Indonesian assistant-consul at the border with Papua New Guinea had only given us 30-day visas to visit his gigantic country and it was time to backtrack to Ternate where we could get aboard MV Lambelu. The PELNI ship would take us to the Riau Archipelago this time, a group of minute islands just across from Singapore, our only way out. We descended into the abyss of “cattle” class for a six-day six-night cruise shared with 3,000 chain-smoking fellow passengers and a zillion cockroaches! Bon voyage!