Sailing the Spice Islands


The great arc of the Indonesian archipelago starts north of the island of Sumatra and curves south and east until it reaches Papua. This arc of islands is defined by a string of active volcanoes, in Sumatra, Java, Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa, Flores and Banda, which erupt as the Indian Ocean plate is subducted under the Asian continental plate. Further east, the island arc is pushed to the north by the Australian continent, which has been relentlessly marching northward since it separated from Antarctica 45 million years ago. The continuing collision of the Australian continent and the Pacific Ocean plate has thrust the Papuan mountains up to a height of 5,000 metres above sea level, where a tropical glacier still exists only four degrees south of the equator. The huge Pacific Ocean plate is moving westward pushing the island arc back on itself and rafting segments of Papua hundreds of kilometres towards the west.

Our voyage on the Ombak Putih, a classical two masted Bugis Pinisi, starts in Ambon from where we sailed overnight to the nutmeg islands of Banda. Here we are at the easternmost extension of the island arc before it is cut off by the westward extension of Papua. The Banda islands represent a remnant volcanic crater with the newer volcano of Gunung Api formed in its centre. Some tectonic shift in the continental and oceanic plates occurred in 1988, causing Gunung Api to erupt, sending huge clouds of volcanic ash high into the atmosphere and molten lava to flow down its flanks and into the sea. These black lava flows are still evident as we sail into the sheltered harbour town of Banda Neira.

The Banda Islands

The Banda Islands

Gunung Api in the Banda Islands

Eastern Indonesia represents a unique part of the Earth’s surface because it is here that four of the earth’s great tectonic plates – the Indian Ocean, the Asian Continent, the Australian Continent and the Pacific Ocean – are in collision with each other. Three million years ago in the Moluccan Sea, these powerful forces fused together volcanic island arcs, seafloor sediments and coral reefs to create new land, forming the unusually shaped island of Halmahera. A subduction zone then formed along the western side of Halmahera causing a series of offshore volcanic eruptions.

Our voyage continues north and we are now sailing along the narrow Patinti Strait between the large four-fingered island of Halmahera and a chain of offshore volcanic peaks, which rise directly out of the sea before us. This voyage is one of the most beautiful in all of Indonesia and to make it even more spectacular we are accompanied by a school of dolphins welcoming us by diving out of the crystal clear waters beside our vessel. By mid-morning, the large island of Bacan is receding in our wake and the island of Kayoa lies ahead. Here, we pause to do what few others have done and our group swims across the Equator. Soon the island of Machian is in view, with wisps of cloud starting to build up around its volcanic peak. Machian was once the most prolific producer of cloves in all the Spice Islands and sailors have described how, with the wind in their faces, they could smell its sweet spicy fragrance from far out at sea.

The island is characterized by a central volcano, which has been breached by a large cleft caused by an earlier eruption. The same tectonic event that effected Banda in 1988 also caused the volcano on Machian to erupt explosively and 15,000 islanders were evacuated with some being permanently resettled on the main island of Halmahera.


The eruption of a volcano on Machian island in 1988

The Ombak Putih lands our group and guides ashore at one village on Machian and we walk along a coastal path for an hour or so until the next village. Walking through plantations of cassava, corn, cloves, nutmeg and coconuts, a particular flower attracts my attention. In my online search to identify the flower, I discovered an unusually named plant called Clitoria Ternatea. This generic name was given by the botanist Breyne in 1678 to describe an exotic plant found growing as a vine on the island of Ternate.

Owing to its similarity to a human body part, it was often used in traditional medicine to treat female sexual ailments and also as an aphrodisiac. The Portuguese, who were the first Europeans to reach Ternate, called it ‘fula criqua’ or the flower of creation, as in human creation. Taken from the northern Moluccas, this exotic cultivar is now grown all over the tropical and sub-tropical world. Commonly called the blue-pea, the butterfly-pea or the cordovan-pea, it is often grown as an ornamental plant —and you may have one in your own garden.

Clitoria_MS4124 - CopyResize

Our final destination is the twin islands of Ternate and Tidore, which for a millennia were the centre of the clove trade and from the harbour in Ternate we can look back at the volcanoes and our voyage along the Spice Islands.

Nadge Ombak Putih volcano row DSC_5827 - Copy

The next voyage by the Ombak Putih to the Spice Islands is from October 8-19. There are still a few cabins left so please contact Sea Trek Sailing Adventures for more details at

Fast Facts:

Location: The Maluku Islands are on the Halmahera Plate. They are located east of Sulawesi, west of New Guinea and north and east of Timor. Major islands and island groups include Ambon, Aru, Halmahera, Ternate, Tidore and Seram.

Population: The whole of Maluku Islands have a population of about 2 million people. It is the least populous province in Indonesia. Ambonese-Malay is spoken in most parts of Maluku, with differing dialects and deep roots in Portuguese.

Getting there: Ambon and Ternate are the region’s air hub. Sultan Babullah airport in Ternate and Ambon’s Pattimura airport are served by Lion Air, Batavia Air, Garuda Indonesia Airlines and Sriwijaya Air daily.

Things to do: Banda islands is popular for its breathtaking views on snorkeling and diving excursions, as is the case for most Maluku islands. Great beaches come in abundance in Maluku islands, and it is a mountainous region, therefore hiking is a great activity to enjoy. Eat and drink well with an array of sea food in the islands, and try the famous rujak in Ambon.

Local transportation: On the islands, transportation is provided by bus, minibuses (bemo), taxi or chartered cars. Bicycles and rickshaws are available for the smaller islands. For island hopping, ferries and boats are your best bets.

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Spice Islands — Time for a Celebration!

Man and Mountain 2 - Copy

It is three years since Spice Islands was first published and it is time for a small celebration — with some bubbles!
In July 2011 I received the advance copies of Spice Islands.
Imagine the excitement of holding the results of so many years of effort in my hands — 200 pages of text with 50 color images — and thanks to Rosenberg Publishing for delivering such high production values.
The reviews were good and how could I forget Brian Geech from the Townsville Bulletin describing Spice Islands as a ‘triumph of passion and scholarship’.
The hardback first edition sold out last year and a second printing in paperback is now available.Spice Islands has also made the transition to e-books and is now available in Kindle and other formats.
It has been a great experience, it lead to the Spice Islands Sailing Adventures and has allowed me to meet so many interesting people.


For more information please go to

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Spice Islands Sailing Adventure — October 2014

The Ombak Putih departs from Ambon on October 8 for 12 days of exploring spice plantations, VOC forts, Sultan’s Palaces, volcanic islands, remote villages, tropical reefs and just relaxing in the pristine waters of the Moluccas in Eastern Indonesia.
Eight of the cabins are already booked, which leaves four cabins and room for eight more voyagers ready to explore the Spice Islands with the tour guides from Sea Trek Sailing Adventures, and historian and author Ian Burnet.

The Ombak Putih is a classical ketch rigged Bugis Pinisi updated with air conditioned cabins and ensuite bathrooms. To enjoy the three minute video from the Spice Islands Sailing Adventure 2013, produced for Sea Trek Sailing Adventures and Ian Burnet Books please follow this link

To see voyage details and booking please go to Sea Trek Sailing Adventures

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The Garden of Good and Evil — Indonesia’s Fabled Spice Islands

A guest blog from Jennifer Hayes, tour leader, photographer and writer with Sea Trek Sailing Adventures

SeaTrek, the Ombak Putih and Ian Burnet will be sailing to the Spice Islands from 8-19 October 2014, for more details go to

The Banda Islands

The Banda Islands


Imagine if you will, a tropical Paradise: a miniscule string of emerald green islands immersed in an aquamine equatorial waters, far from the cares of outside world. The shorelines of these lush island gems playfully alternate between dense jungle, volcanic lavaflow, dramatic cliffs, and white dreamy beaches. The warm equatorial sun, and rich volcanic nutrients have all magically combined to create pristine and colorful sub-aqua wonderland In fact, the water is so clear that one can see the brilliant coral reefs and teeming fish life from the surface of the sparkling turquoise sea.

This land is rich and verdant, the dark soil of the islands enriched by neighboring Gunung Api, whose conical volcanic peak soars out of the sea like a towering beacon keeping watch over the resident farmers and fishermen of the island chain. An enticing scent stirs on the equatorial breeze, radiating from the thick jade forest that covers the island slopes. Here, under the shady canopy of the towering Kanari forest thrives an abundance of trees whose leaves shake and gyrate with the clumsy movements of resident wild pigeons who emit a loud booming cry as they snack on the plentiful yellow fruits that adorn its branches.

Swollen and juicy, a globular peach- like fruit swells with ripeness until bursting open down the middle to reveal a black, glossy nut enclosed in a brilliant crimson lace. The branch buckles under the weight of this ripened orb until the twig snaps and the newly freed fruit lands softly on the lush and verdant forest floor below. This fruit might seem like an insignificant product of nature, but it’s discovery and journey past its native islands is pregnant with consequence both for the people of these islands and those outside world. If this image of the Banda Islands seem like a tropical Eden, then this is a portrait of the garden before the fall, only instead of an apple, it was the nutmeg tree that tempted mankind with it’s irresistible fruit.

Nutmeg, Mace and Cloves were both a blessing and a curse to their native Moluccan islands. These Islands were so favored with thick with fragrant clove forests and bountiful nutmeg trees that they would soon be known the world over as “ The Spice Islands.” The aroma of this fragrant island bounty could be smelled on the breeze far out at sea, inviting close and unwanted attention from those who would do anything to take it. It seemed to some that the Spice Islands were ripe for the picking.

The huge impact that these tiny and remote islands had on the European continent at that time was immense, since the search for them gave rise to the Great Age of Discovery and enormous leaps in science, cartography and naval exploration. But the early European spice trade was also remarkable for its competitive ferocity as the great nations of Europe viciously struggled and fought for control of this lucrative market. Perhaps no other trade was so contested and no other group of commodities so exercised nations or so changed the course of history. The pursuit of profit and the desire to monopolize the trade of a few unessential luxury itemss would eventually be the demise of what was once a peaceful paradise. In a sad twist of fate, the very fruit that had brought life to the locals, also made life in Eden a living hell.

But once Eve had her first taste of that intoxicating spicy fruit, there was no turning back for Indonesia’s Eden.

Egyptian Spice Market


In Medieval Times and throughout the Renaissance, spices were highly prized and coveted in Europe. The problem for consumers was that the north’s temperate climate limited locally grown spices to mustard. Only warm, tropical climates could produce the double-rainbow of intoxicating spices desired to liven up bland banquets. Therefore spices had to travel great distances and were hard to come by. That rarity commanded a hefty premium, so having these pungent products on the table was a truly a symbol of wealth and extravagance.

But the wealthy were gaga over spices for more than their distinct taste. In particular, Nutmeg, Mace and cloves were used as aphrodisiacs, and nutmeg even doubled as a hallucinogen. In Elizabethan times, it was all the rage to wear a collection of theses precious twigs and berries around one’s neck as a lucky gambling charm or to prevent and cure countless ailments and diseases. It was even thought that nutmeg and cloves effectively warded -off the bubonic plague, which only made the popularity of these “it- items” skyrocket further.

The Clove Islands

The Clove Islands


For most of history, what endowed spices with their unique appeal was the mystery of where they came from. Gradually the source of most spices found in Europe’s markets was revealed, but by the later Middle Ages, only 3 of the finest spices still eluded geographical identification: cloves, nutmeg, and mace.

Arab traders brought these three spices to Europe’s markets via on the overland “Spice Route.” On this long voyage, the spices passed through the hands of countless middlemen, multiplying the price of the goods with each transaction. By the time the Asian spices reached Venetian merchants, the Arab traders were selling their wares at nearly a 6,000 percent markup. These spices had literally become worth their weight in gold, but Nutmeg, Mace and Clove were so highly coveted by Europe’s elite that the supply still couldn’t match the demand.

The Arab traders never divulged the exact location of their secret source of fragrant fortune, and no European was able to deduce their location. Discovering this highly-guarded mystery source provoked speculation, and was perceived as a challenge to many. All that was known about these exotic goods was that they hailed from islands that were unfathomably remote and far away, the fabled ‘Spice- Islands’ of the Indies.

picture4 Jennifer


As the Arabs, Chinese and Javanese traders already knew, these mythical “Spice Islands” laid in the labyrinth of the South Pacific in what is now the province of Maluku in eastern Indonesia. While cloves were more abundant and could be found scattered around several islands in The Mollucas (Maluku,) Nutmeg and Mace were native to just ten miniscule volcanic islands, surrounded by a vast expanse of ocean. Laying just below equator and 800km north of Darwin, “the Banda Islands” historically were one of the remotest locations imaginable. It would seem that isolation gave nutmeg, mace and cloves their unique character and intoxicating influence, which the outside world found so irresistable.

picture6 Jennifer


Though isolated, the Moluccan islands have attracted regional and international traders for more than 3,000 years, long before Europeans had even heard of the Spice Islands. The Bandanese were already long a part of an Indonesia-wide trading network, taking cargo as far as Malacca. The gifted sailors of Indonesia relied on the 6 month trade winds to carry them back and forth across the Archipelago.

Before Europeans arrived, the people of the Spice Islands were able were able to trade their spices for everyday necessities needed for survival. The Javanese, Arab, and Indian traders for example brought indispensable traditional trade products such as rice and cloth, and even such useful treasures as steel knives, copper, medicines and prized Chinese porcelain. In comparison, the trade items that would later be offered by the Dutch traders included heavy woolens, damasks, and unwanted manufactured goods, which were useless to the people of these tropical islands.

Clove islands ternate tidore


The volcanic islands of Tidore and Ternate were to become the capitals of the clove producing Mollucas. The combination of fertile volcanic soil and the province’s location right on the Equator has resulted in an extremely lush vegetation covering these islands, whether it is primary rainforest or spice plantation. The clove, like most understory trees, it is unable to regenerate under the full tropical sun and its seed is only viable for a short period – which may explain its limited distribution to these tiny islands.

The natives of the Mollucas had long traded spices with other Asian nations, but as China’s interest in regional maritime dominance waned in the late 15th Century, regional trade became dominated by Arab traders. The Arabs not only brought with them Islam, but also a new technique of social organization, the sultanate, which replaced traditional Mollucan councils of local rich men (orang kaya) on the more significant islands such as Tidore and Ternate. The adoption of a Sultanate system by the clove islands would prove to be more effective in dealing with the outsiders that would come.

Red Cloves


In Moluccan folklore, villagers treated blossoming clove trees “like a pregnant woman,” taking great care was not to alarm them lest the tree drop its fruit too soon like the untimely delivery of a woman who has been frightened in her pregnancy. Although modern attitudes have changed, in some villages a clove tree is still planted at the birth of a baby, with the belief that if the tree flourishes, so will the child.

The clove spice is actually the unopened flower bud of the evergreen clove tree, which gradually turn from green to pink to signal that they are ripe for the picking. Once collected the buds are dried in the sun until they turn brown in color. It takes more than 3000 highly valued flower buds to produce one kilo of dried cloves, which may explain why they are so valuable.

With their round, flat top and tapered stem, cloves resemble tiny nails, in fact, the spice gets its name from the French word “clou” which means nail. But don’t be fooled by its “tough” name, although cloves have hard exterior, their flesh features a rich oily compound which is the source of which their warm flavor and sweet aroma that evokes the sultry tropical climates where they are grown. Since Ancient times cloves and their oil have been used for their antibacterial and analgesic properties, which were especially valued in a world without medicine. Even today clove essential oil is used for cosmetics, dentistry, medicine, and as a clearing agent in microscopy.

picture9 Jennifer


Before the arrival of Europeans, Banda had an oligarchic form of government led by orang kaya (‘rich men’) that was never replaced by a Sultanate system like it’s Moluccan neighbors to the north. The Bandanese had an active and independent role in trade throughout the archipelago, making their living by trading spices from the Nutmeg trees that were only indigenous only to their little islands. A single mature tree could produce up to 2,000 nutmegs per year for up to 75 years. Since nutmeg has no particular season, it’s harvest supplied the Banda islanders with a steady harvest, and subsequently a steady income year round.

Although Myristica is a genus found all over Asia, no other species achieves the special powers of the Myristica Fragrens, or nutmeg tree. The mere existence of this magical tree on these impossibly remote islands is an incredibly unlikely phenomenon. The Bandas are surrounded by ocean, and unlike the coconut, the nutmeg isn’t a “seafaring nut.” Floating in the salty sea to a nearby island would have the same sterilizing effect as pickling the pepper. Additionally a nutmeg seed needs both male and female trees to germinate. The odds of this unusual species of arriving on a wayward desert isle and happening to find and couple with another of its kind are beyond extraordinary. Perhaps the bland ancestral nutmeg, arrived by chance at the windswept volcanoes and became concentrated and intense, like a pool of elixir evaporating in the sun. The Bandanese were indeed were in a rare position to have such a mixed blessing from nature in their possesion.

all Nutmeg components


The nutmeg fruit, resembling an apricot or a large plum, is the only tropical fruit that is the source of two different spices. When ripe, the fruit bursts open to reveal the seed. The glistening wet aril, is what we know as the mace. This soft, red, and lacy placenta clings to the shell of the glossy black nutmeg like a hand with its fingers holding so tightly that they leave little indentations to show where they’ve been. After collection, the mace is peeled away from the nutmeg seed, and each is dried in the sun. Once dry, the nutmeg seed rattles within its smooth, mace-embossed outer shell, and oxidization has turned the mace from a brilliant scarlet, to a rusty red–orange.

A Bandanese legend claims that the nutmeg’s musky scent is so overpowering when ripe, that it causes Birds of Paradise to fall to the ground. Indeed, the name nutmeg comes from Latin, nux muscat, meaning musky nut. It turns out that the nutmeg is indeed intoxicating. The spice has long been ingested for it’s hallucinogenic qualities, but the side effects are so unpleasant that it is generally only used by those with no access to other drugs, such as soldiers and prison inmates. Nutmeg overdoses had become such a problem in US prisons that the spice had to be banned from their kitchens.

No wonder it had such an intoxicating effect…

Caravan by Sea


By trading with Muslim states, Venice had come to monopolize the spice trade in Europe between 1200 and 1500. After traditional overland connections were disrupted by a war between the Mongols and the Turks, Venice turned to dominate Mediterranean seaways to ports such as Alexandria. The rest of Europe had enough of paying the Venetians top dollar for thiers spices. Finally It was a financial incentive to discover an alternative to Venice’s spice monopoly of this most lucrative business that was possibly the single most important factor precipitating Europe’s Age of Exploration.

The Gold Rush was on. The great nations of Renaissance Europe would take to the seas in a quest to beat all quests. The race to the Spice Islands of the exited monopolists fired up patriots and coaxed investors to risk all they had to find this proverbial Pot of Gold at the end of the rainbow. But it would be the Spice Islands themselves that in the end would pay the biggest price. The Great Age of Discovery was on its way bringing the unsuspecting inhabitants of The Spice Islands just a step away from meeting their doom.

The Banda's  from Ai Island

The Banda’s from Ai Island

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“Indonesia Menggugat” —- “Indonesia Accuses”

I was recently reminded that Soekarno’s birthday is in June, and then remembered a visit to the former Dutch Landraad courthouse in Bandung.

The Landraad Courthouse Bandung

The Landraad Courthouse Bandung

It was here in 1930 that Soekarno gave his famous speech against colonialism, ‘Indonesia Menggugat’ or ‘Indonesia Accuses’ in the Dutch courtroom, before being sentenced to four years in prison.

Soekarno, his three co-accused and their lawyers

Soekarno, his three co-accused and their lawyers

The building has since been restored as a museum dedicated to the memory of Soekarno and the three other leaders who were sentenced with him. In a beautiful touch of irony the restored building was officially opened by his daughter President Megawati Soekarno in 2002.

The Memorial Plaque

The Memorial Plaque

I was struck by the significance of a poster displayed in the building, of President Soekarno telling the nation:
“My struggle was easier because it was to expel the colonialists, but yours will be more difficult because it is against your own people.”

Indonesia Accuses 4

I was even more struck by another poster on display quoting the same words by Soekarno.

Indonesia Accuses 5

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On Food and Wine

The Sydney Writers Festival was another great week of ideas and discussion.

Here are some famous writers with their thoughts on Food and Wine.

George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw

Virginia Wolfe

Virginia Wolfe

Scott Fitzgerald

Scott Fitzgerald

Earnest Hemingway

Earnest Hemingway

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

And my personal favorite Francois Rabelais

And my personal favorite
Francois Rabelais

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The Flowering of Clitoria Ternatea

On the Spice Islands Sailing Adventure in 2013 we landed on the island of Machian in the North Moluccas. Once the most prolific of the clove growing Spice Islands, early sailors claimed they could smell the sweet scent of its cloves from far out at sea.
The island is characterized by a central volcano which has been breached by a large cleft on its northeast side, and the archival photo below clearly shows the cleft.

Machian Island

Machian Island

The volcano erupted explosively in 1988 and 15,000 islanders were evacuated with some being permanently resettled on the main island of Halmahera.


The Ombak Putih landed our group and guides ashore at one village, and we walked along a coastal path for an hour or so until the next village. Walking through plantations of cassava, corn, cloves, nutmeg and coconuts, a particular flower attracted my attention. In my online search to identify the flower, I discovered an unusually named plant called Clitoria Ternatea. This generic name was given by the botanist Breyne in 1678 to describe an exotic plant found growing as a vine on the island of Ternate.

Clitoria_MS4124 - CopyResize

Owing to its similarity to a human body part, it was often used in traditional medicine to treat female sexual ailments and also as an aphrodisiac.The Portuguese, who were the first Europeans to reach Ternate, called it ‘fula criqua’ or the ‘flower of creation’.


Taken from the Northern Moluccas this exotic cultivar is now grown all over the tropical and sub-tropical world. Commonly called the blue-pea, the butterfly-pea or the cordovan-pea, it is often grown as an ornamental plant —– and you may have one in your own garden.

The Ombak Putih sails to the Spice Islands again in October 2014 and the details can be found at

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