Towering volcanoes, teeming reefs and remote rainforest... Alex Robinson hikes, snorkels and explores Indonesia's ‘Gardens of Eden’ on a sailing adventure
I cursed Christopher Columbus. It was because of him that I was dragging myself up this confounded volcano: scrambling along a path of shifting scree, grabbing at tree roots to secure myself as I slipped yet again. “Bloody Columbus!” I grazed my elbow after walking into a sticky spider web in the pre-dawn half-dark. It was all his fault. His success had inspired my first travels; his failure had led me here, to the slopes of the Gunung Api volcano. The explorer had spent a lifetime trying to reach the Banda archipelago – this corner of Indonesia’s Spice Islands. But Columbus had landed on Hispaniola instead, half a world away.
Inspired by him, I’d tried to visit the Spice Islands for decades. They were too expensive to reach from Bali in my backpacker days and too difficult when I returned with more money many years later. But local airlines now fly in, connecting with traditional pinisi sailing schooners – small wooden ships with distinctive dark sails unique to Indonesia and the Philippines – like my ship, the Katharina. For centuries Indonesians slept on the deck of the original pinisis, leaving the hold for cargo and cockroaches. But with private cabins, a bar and fabulous fresh seafood, the Katharina was boutique-hotel comfortable, my temporary home for a ten-day, 700km cruise around Banda and the forest-swathed archipelago of Raja Ampat – islands sprinkled like mossy pebbles in the deep sea around Papua New Guinea. As it turned out they could be deceptively steep, especially in the dark.
When I finally broke the tree line and reached the 666m-high summit of Gunung Api, I was panting and covered in a sheen of dust-smeared sweat. As I caught my breath I began to take in the view and my irritation at the volcano vanished. Hot-air balloon-slow, the silent eye of the sun was rising over an oceanic horizon, sending a shimmering stairway of gold across the Pacific. The morning light gilded the steep half-moons of the fragmented caldera, an ancient volcanic cone rising from inky and near-fathomless deep. Buttery shafts silhouetted the forests, woke the birds and warmed the hull of the Katharina – now as small as my fingertip in the distant bay below. Above me in the chilly blue sky, a soaring sea eagle searched for fish.
This was the view Columbus had never seen. I stood transfixed, drinking it all in as I breathed in the smell of nutmeg and cloves.
Along with mace, nutmeg and cloves were the spices that launched a thousand ships, all trying to reach Banda and the Spice Islands. They failed, like Columbus before them, until the Portuguese finally landed here in 1512.
I’d been captivated by the islands since I first read about them as a boy. I learnt that, in the Renaissance, those spices were no mere condiments. They were magical: panaceas and aphrodisiacs, which Muslims and Europeans believed grew in the Garden of Eden. The Islands were imagined as tropical, populated with innocent humans and exotic animals, and lying somewhere at the far end of the Silk Road. Feathers arriving in Europe on Magellan’s ships were described by the expedition’s chronicler, Antonio Pigafetta as “belonging to God’s birds.” Europeans called them ‘birds-of-paradise.’
Back on board the Katharina after descending Api, the crew were laying out breakfast on deck – poached eggs, mango and dragon fruit, java coffee. I was one of 12 guests. All were Dutch but for me – frosty with the only Brit, demanding justifications for Brexit and frustrated that I couldn’t give them. Not that I minded. Europe was far away.
We’d begun our voyage in Ambon – the nearest thing to a city in the Spice Islands, and the only place with an airport big enough for jets, which fly in from Jakarta. Having drifted down past islets fringed with empty palm-shaded white beaches and crags covered with nesting seabirds we’d now reached the Bandas, the southernmost of the Spice Islands and once the most treasured.
In Columbus’s time all the world’s nutmeg and mace came from Banda. It still grows semi-wild on the islands. We’d seen nutmegs for sale in the local market in sleepy Banda Neira town – little more than a huddle of dusty streets squeezed between the wild ocean and a stippled, crumbling old Dutch-colonial fort. They were dark, almond-sized seeds surrounded by a red sheath of mace and set in a fruit that looks a bit like an apricot. I drunk the tangy nutmeg-fruit juice – as fresh as citrus and as invigorating as Red Bull – and then walked the fragrant nutmeg forests where locals harvested and dried the spice. With parakeets twittering in the air and butterflies floating through trees, it all felt idyllic.
Swimming over the reefs the next morning was almost as dizzying as the volcano climb. Sheer walls of coral covered with barrel sponges and lacy gorgonians dropped blue-black to an invisibly distant sea bed. Further out to sea this plummets into an 8km-deep trench, which only a handful of humans have ever visited. A few nights a year, hundreds of thousands of bioluminescent fish rise from the deep to mate, turning the ocean into a rolling carpet of sparkles that mirrors the starry sky.
We left Banda that evening, dining on freshly caught snapper as the sun sank orange into the ocean and a pink-tinged sky faded into peacock blue. Even after dark and with an ocean breeze, the air was English summer warm. I decided to sleep on deck, counting the constellations and shooting stars, before being lulled to sleep by the pitch and roll of the boat.
The Katharina had turned north. We passed the towering slopes of Seram Island, where cassowaries and yellow-eyed black macaques live in wild forests that cover an area almost as large as Wales. We visited a hamlet where white foreigners were exotic enough to draw out the entire local population. They followed us, children giggling at our gangly limbs and sun-red skin.
“We’ve left Asia,” said the ship’s captain over breakfast the next morning. “You’ve crossed a border. Well, at least biologically…. Welcome to Australasia, and to the land of the birds-of-paradise!”
Although it would be redrawn later – further east – that border had initially been marked by British biologist, Alfred Russel Wallace. It’s still known as the Wallace Line: where Asian animals end and Australian began. Like Columbus, the young Wallace was captivated by the lure of the Spice Islands and, most particularly, by the birds-of-paradise. In The Malay Archipelago, he writes about his desire to become “the only Englishman who has seen these wonderful birds in their native forests.”
Wallace bankrupted himself to get to the Spice Islands but they would give him more treasures than he could imagine. While ruminating on the astonishing biodiversity of the birds-of-paradise he was studying, Wallace fell into a malarial fever dream, waking in a cold sweat and a sudden epiphany. Independently of Darwin, he conceived of the theory of evolution by natural selection and in 1858, the two scientists had their work jointly published at the Linnaean Society. Darwin, of course, became famous but, like the Spice Islands themselves, Wallace was largely forgotten by history.
That afternoon, as we tramped through thick bush, I thought of Wallace. He had taken years to journey from London through Singapore to what was then the end of the earth. I pictured him sweating in his heavy Victorian clothes in these forests and tingling with excitement as he saw his first bird-of-paradise. We heard it first, the local guide stopping suddenly, hushing us with a silent finger across his lips and then tentatively pacing off the path into the dense tree line. Then we saw the bird – high up on a bald tree branch, turkey-fat and preening. As if on cue, he arched, craned his neck and began an extraordinary mating display – a tremulous samba dance of brilliant, fluttering feathers accompanied by a chorus of caws and clucks.
Yawning before dawn the next day we huddled behind a hide and waited for another display – from a Wilson’s bird-of-paradise. After what seemed like hours he arrived in a flash, perching on a branch, twitchingly alert, before settling on the ground and clearing an area of fallen foliage to create a personal posing patch, or lek.
Soon a female arrived and the male began his dance. His wiry tail feathers oscillated, catching the early light in flashes of electric blue, mouth open to reveal brilliant yellow cheeks. His neck was a moving wave of velvety greens, reds and blues. Then, with a flit, the pair were off into the trees to consummate their courtship. We walked back to the boat to a conference of birdsong – the chirrups and cheeps of sunbirds and flycatchers, the coo of rainforest pigeons and, rising above the chorus as bright and clear as a prayer bell, the plaintive cries of hooded butcherbirds.
By now, we were close to New Guinea on the northern edge of the Spice Islands, today known as the Raja Ampat Regency. Volcanic cones and deep sea had given way to archipelagos of undulating limestone islands spattered with prehistoric rock art and swathed in forest. We cruised through them, stopping to swim by torchlight into honeycombs of caves and to climb rickety wooden stairways for pinnacle-top views over pearl-white beaches and shallow coral seas that faded from sapphire into aquamarine. But, for a scattering of hamlets and a few dive boats, there was barely a human in sight.
On our final afternoon we went snorkelling right off a pristine beach on Waigeo Island. The sand gently sloped down into a clam-and-clownfish-covered sea garden. The coral colours were as rich and varied as a flower meadow: petal-bright scarlets and brilliant blues, the swaying pink fronds of sea fans, orange anemones undulating in the gentle underwater breeze. A turtle lazily rose from a crevice and swum alongside me before slowly drifting away. Hundreds-strong shoals of silver-sided trevallies gleamed in the sunlight. White-tipped reef sharks hovered in the distant, deeper blue. There was no plastic, no coral bleaching, no concrete. Just life.
I surfaced and looked across the water at ridges and hills stretching into the distance. Halmahera, Buru, Ternate and Tidore; the Kai islands, Lucipara and more. It had taken me decades to reach the Spice Islands. I’d tasted their lure, touched their tragedy, fallen for their beauty. In this ravaged world they were closer to that dreamed-of tropical Eden than I could ever have hoped for. Columbus had been right to try and reach here. I thanked him for his inspiration and promised myself that with so many more islands to see I would come back – even if it took decades more.
The author travelled with Audley Travel (01993 838110; audleytravel.com), which offers a 12-night tailor-made Indonesia adventure, all with breakfast and nine nights aboard SeaTrek Sailing Adventure’s cruise on a full-board basis including all cruise excursions.
Capitals: Ambon (Maluku), Sofifi (North Maluku) and Manokwari (West Papua); Jakarta (national) Population: 3 million + (Maluku and North Maluku), 963,600 (West Papua); 267 million (national)
Language(s): Indonesian, Ambonese Malay, Ternate Malay, Papuan Malay and other indigenous languages
Visas: Not required by UK passport holders for the first 30 days. Money: Indonesian rupiah (IDR). ATMs are only in Ambon, Bandaneira town and Sorong.
The Spice Islands and West Papua are equatorial, so the average year-round temperature ranges between the mid-20°Cs and the low-30°Cs.
October to March: The driest months with clear skies and occasional tropical showers giving around 120mm of rain. Typhoons can occasionally hit between September and December.
March to April: The hottest, most humid months of the dry season with temperatures around 35°C. May to August: The wet season, with as much as 640mm of rain in June and July.
April and September: 240mm of rain can fall during these two months.
Hepatitis A, tetanus and diphtheria, inoculations are usually advised and rabies and typhoid vaccines considered (fitfortravel.nhs.uk). Malaria prophylaxis should be taken for West Papua. In all destinations it is important to avoid bites as dengue exists and so does elephantiasis.
Crime is rare, though be careful in Sorong. Avoid talking about religion as there have been tensions between Christians and Muslims in the past.
There are no direct flights from the UK to the Spice Islands. Malaysia Airways flies to Bali or Jakarta via Kuala Lumpur from where there are connections to Ambon with Garuda or Lion. Plane changes mean journey times from London to Ambon are over 24 hours.
Lion Air and Garuda have internal flights between Ambon and Sorong. There are no flights to the smaller islands. Seatrek operates 'adventure' cruises on luxurious traditional-style schooners, while local ferries run between the larger Spice Islands (notably Ambon to Banda and Seram). These, however, are difficult to organise before arrival without the help of a UK tour operator. Private transfers can be expensive.
Expect to spend around £15 a day if you stay in hostels and eat cheaply. Staying in air-conditioned hotels and frequenting better restaurants will cost you £20-£50 a day. Luxury is available from £80 a day.
With large distances between the islands and no public transfers to speak of, the only practical way to visit the islands is on a live-aboard cruise. But should you wish to visit Ambon, Banda and Seram, making your own way between the islands, you will find accommodation.
Ora Beach Resort on Seram, the second largest of the Spice Islands, has thatch-roof cabins sitting over reef and turquoise water. There’s a semi-private beach and the pristine rainforests of Manusela National Park rise in misty ridges behind the resort.
Maulana in Bandaneira, the main island in the Banda group, is set in a shady garden on the waterfront. Nearby you can enjoy dive and snorkel trips and hikes up Gunung Api volcano.
Sorido Bay in Raja Ampat has a range of simple and plusher bungalows,
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