Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and British all came to Ternate, driven by an all-pervading hunger to control the Spice Islands. Thanks to its fragrant treasure this tiny volcanic island once rose to become the most important city in Indonesia. (Words & Images by Mark Eveleigh)
It’s one of the most famous views in the country, yet many Indonesians couldn’t tell you where it is…despite the fact that they’ve been carrying pictures of it around in their wallets for their entire adult lives.
I’m sitting on the cliffs of Ternate Island but, even now, I don’t realise why the two volcanoes across the water seem familiar, until my guide Ahmad ‘Mus’ Mustakim holds up a 1,000 rupiah note. The picture on the back – labelled ‘Pulau Maitara dan Tidore’ – portrays the view we’re looking at.
It seems incredible that these tiny islands (Maitara is barely 3km across) could become defining icons in the monetary system of one of the world’s biggest countries. Then again, it is also incomprehensible that the sleepy little town down the hill from us could once have been the administrative headquarters from which all Indonesia was governed before the Dutch shifted their capital to Batavia.
The Spice Islands
Cinnamon is the inner bark of a tropical evergreen tree. Since ancient times it has been used as a medicine, a flavouring for beverages and as a cavity filler in Egyptian mummies. In ancient Rome it was valued more than gold.
Nutmeg trees flourish in Indonesia, as the plant grows best in volcanic soil near the sea in hot, humid tropical climates. Roughly 75% of the world’s nutmeg still comes from Indonesia.
Perhaps Ternate was destined for great things from early on. The Chinese had traded for spices here long before European explorers even found their fabled route to the East. When Sir Francis Drake stopped here to visit the Sultan, he remarked on the spectacular harems of one of the most powerful feudal leaders in Southeast Asia. Drake was unable to stock up on spices, however, because his ship was packed to the gunwales with plundered Spanish gold.
This little group of islands – tightly wedged in the nutcracker of shifting tectonic plates that criss-cross the Moluccas archipelago – was the only place in the known world where nutmeg (a spice which was said to be a cure for the dreaded black plague) grew. Even today the jungle slopes of Gamalama volcano are still fragrant with the scent of cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and mace.
It takes less than two hours for Mus and me to drive all the way around the chain of fishing hamlets and secluded coves that fringe the island, and the ash-covered peak of Gamalama looms like a malevolent deity at every turn. Evidence of its awesome power is most visible, however, in the Batu Angus (burned rock) fields where twisted-rock sculptures, forged by powers deep beneath the earth’s crust, form a very provocative exhibition of natural volcanic art.
The Moluccas have been described as a hothouse of biodiversity. In fact, it was here that the great Welsh naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace came up with the theory of evolution in 1858. Wallace sent his famous ‘Ternate Essay’ to his friend Charles Darwin, who was coming to similar conclusions in the far-off Galápagos. The so-called Wallace Line runs across the Moluccas and these islands are famous for being a dividing line between Asian species and those of Australasia. The flocks of great white cockatoos frequently seen at Lake Tolire are a striking symbol of the Wallace Line.
We stood on a precipice with the mysterious lake, domain of giant crocodiles, below and the sulphur-choked vent of Gamalama volcano high above us. The Sultans of Ternate were traditionally believed to have the power to quell the volcanic forces. Although the present Sultan spends much of his time working as provincial ambassador for Ternate in Jakarta, he returns frequently, and in 1983 he hurried back to calm the smouldering giant. He mounted a ceremonial boat trip around the island bearing the sacred sultanate crown (said to be adorned with human hair that never stops growing). Apparently, the volcano calmed even before the Sultan had returned to his palace.
Having completed our own circumnavigation of the island, Mus next offered to drive me up the volcano in search of Afo, the island’s oldest inhabitant. This ancient clove tree is said to be more than 400 years old and was named for the local rebel who planted it in defiance of the Dutch monopoly on the harvest. I’d read guidebook reports that said that Afo’s tree was now nothing but a broken stump. So I was impressed, when we arrived at the end of a short trek across a fragrantly forested valley, to see a great trunk looming up into the tangled greenery of the surrounding trees. For four centuries this tree has stood as a symbol of the starring role that tiny Ternate played in the formation of the Indonesia that we know today.
I was just about to turn and start the walk back down the valley when my observant guide whistled approvingly.
“Look,” he said, “that branch is growing again.”
He was right. A branch that I’d mistaken as belonging to another tree was in fact one long healthy limb sprouting from Afo’s trunk. A 400-year-old tree that had been declared dead had not only revived itself in the rich volcanic soil, but had also burst into fruit with a rich crop of cloves on the new bough.
Like the venerable old tree, ancient Ternate has itself lived through many dramatic times. Perhaps it too is on the verge of another new and bountiful era.
** At secluded Sulamadaha Beach you might be lucky enough to see a unique Ternatean ceremony known as Bambu Gila (Crazy Bamboo). A team of young men wrestle on the black volcanic sand, pitted in strength against a length of bamboo that seems to be hurling them around like the thick tail of a giant python. It’s said that the bamboo has been infused with its crazily thrashing spirit by the incense smoke and prayers of the local shaman (Credit to : Colours the magazine of Garuda Indonesia)
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