Welcome to the original Spice Islands. Back in the 16th century when nutmeg, cloves and mace were global commodities that grew nowhere else, money really did ‘grow on trees’. It was the search for Maluku’s valuable spices that kick-started European colonisation and, thanks to a series of wrong turns and one auspicious land swap, shaped the modern world. Today, spices have minimal economic clout and Maluku (formerly called the Moluccas) has dropped out of global consciousness. What remains is a scattering of idyllic islands where the complex web of cultures envelops visitors with an effusive welcome and an almost Polynesian charm. While transport can prove infuriatingly inconvenient, with flexibility and patience you can explore pristine reefs, stroll empty stretches of powdery white sand, book idyllic over-water bungalows, scale 16th-century fort walls, snap endless photos of perfectly formed volcanoes, and revel in a tropical discovery that seems almost too good to be true.
Ambon is the metropolitan focus of Maluku. By the 19th century, due to Dutch influence, about half of Ambon’s population had converted to Christianity. The newly baptised Ambonese availed themselves of educational opportunities, forming the backbone of the Dutch colonial army. Not even World War II could shake their loyalty to Holland. Maluku was overrun by superior Japanese forces in spite of heroic Australian resistance in Ambon, and the area became a central Japanese base. After the war, the Dutch returned to a rousing welcome in Ambon. When Indonesia became independent later, Ambon resisted; thousands fled to Holland while others fought a guerrilla war against the Indonesian military.
Manusela National Park
Seram, the largest and among the least-known islands in Maluku, hovers over Ambon, Saparua and Molana. Seram lies within the Wallacea Transitional Zone and is a key area for global studies on species evolution. The central Manusela National Park, which is home to 2,000 species of butterflies and moths and 120 species of birds, covers an area of 189,000 hectares (467,103 acres). Wahai village is the northern entrance to the park, and Sanulo village, overlooking the Bay of Teluti, is the southern gateway.
South of Seram and Ambon is Kepulauan Banda, or the Banda archipelago. “Founded” by the Portuguese in 1512, it was the Dutch who arrived a century later to set up a spice monopoly. The English, who came later, undercut the Dutch efforts of price control by shipping nutmeg and mace to Europe from Run island, in the Bandas. The Dutch monopoly was restored when Manhattan was traded for Run, but as spices were increasingly produced elsewhere, the nine Banda islands faded into obscurity.
Banda’s islands, like the majority of Maluku’s fertile waters, offer excellent diving opportunities. Snorkelling is also possible on sites within Banda’s huge natural harbour. One special site, Lava Flow, situated upon the lava from Gunung Api’s 1988 eruption, has been identified as having the world’s fastest-growing table corals, with layer upon layer reaching a span of 3 or 4 metres (10–13ft). Sharks and pelagic species patrol deeper waters, while a myriad of colourful fish swarm coral-encrusted walls. Banda has a unique mandarin fish; every evening divers can observe and photograph its mating ritual. In April and October, the seas are calm and visibility excellent. The Bandas also have seasonal fishing, primarily for tuna, marlin and snapper.
North of Ambon, the administrative and geographical district of the northern third of Maluku is dominated on maps by Halmahera, but tiny Ternate island is the real centre of power and communications as it is the capital of North Maluku province. Two-thirds of the island’s people live in Ternate town, the business and market centre of the region.
One of the major clove-producing islands of Maluku, Ternate had been trading with Chinese, Arab and Javanese merchants hundreds of years before the first European arrival. The Portuguese were there in the early 1500s, followed by the Dutch at the start of the 17th century.Benteng Oranje was built by the Dutch in 1667 and is currently used by the Indonesian police and military. There are many ancient cannons in the large complex. On the outskirts of town, towards the airport, there is a mosque whose foundations date back to the 15th century. Its multi-tiered roof covers an airy space, beautifully designed for prayer and meditation.
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