Ever heard of Morotai?
You’re not alone. But, when it comes to desert island bliss, this smallish island off northern Halmahera in Indonesia’s Spice Islands (Maluku or the Moluccas) packs some serious punch.
Over the last four days we’ve splashed by night in luminescent water on the soft white sand of our own private island (accommodation free), got up close and personal with critically endangered dugong, the origin of the mermaid myth, visited a pearl farm, and handled Japanese bayonets and American dogtags from World War II battlefields.
Also? We’ve seen some turtles, the odd dolphin, 6-metre saltwater crocs. And eaten fantastic crabs.
And there’s much, much more to Morotai.
Underground rivers, mines, spirits, traditional villages, butterflies, birds, the rusting remnants of WWII amphibious squadrons, amazing diving potential, the jungle hideout of the last Japanese soldier of WWII, Tesuo Nakamura, who fought the war for three decades after it ended…
(I’ll tell you his story in a subsequent post. It’s not quite what you read in the newspapers…)
Not, however, visa extensions. Or any international money facilities. Which is why we left… (Take much, much more money than you’ll think you need, as this is the sort of place that really grips you.)
Our private island? Dodola. It’s a little island off the coast of Morotai, fringed with white sand as soft as powder snow, paired with an even smaller island by a narrow isthmus which disappears altogether at high tide.
Uninhabited with the exception of a Moro, one of the ancestral beings from whom the nineteen tribes of Halmahera claim descent and Morotai takes its name, Dodola is an amazing place by day.
By night, occupying one of the grandiose wooden beach chalets constructed by the government and then, well, quietly forgotten about, it’s stellar. Cooking on the beach, splashing in the crystal waters with glittering droplets fluttering around you, all under a dazzling night sky…
Seagrass not far off shore draws a decent turtle population. A stay here during nesting season, when the critters lumber out of the sea trailing luminescence behind them to lay their eggs, would be –- well, pretty phenomenal, as it goes.
Our hands-on museum? Well, that’s a little one-room place in Daruba, run by Muhris Eso, an early standout in my personal competition for nicest man alive.
Morotai, y’see, was the site of a major battle during World War II, a key staging post in MacArthur’s campaign to retake the Philippines, a nation to which he had said “I will return”.
And did. Preceded by, erm, a hefty tonnage of TNT…
Muhris has been lovingly exploring and cataloguing Morotai’s myriad WWII sites. (It’s little by Indonesian standards, but this li’l place spans a good couple of hundred square miles…)
And working through his electic collection – a dogtag for a Mrs E. Callaghan of Two Forks, Montana, a Japanese bayonet, American canteens, Australian pennies, endless ordnance, galaxies of Coca Cola bottles – is genuinely moving.
It’s the kind of anecdotal, personal insight into the human experience of war that you don’t really get in larger, more organized establishments. Pretty much up there with the dinosaur bones we got to hold back in Laos.
The dugong? Well, that’s a sad story.
These outsized dolphins with hippopotamus faces (as the nine-year-old so age-appropriately remarked, the sailors who mistook them for mermaids must have been on the rum that night) are the last remaining subspecies of their family, so critically endangered that even wildlife organisations have no idea how many there are.
Their slow reproduction rate makes them vulnerable even without human habitat destruction. Let alone hunting.
On arrival at Pilowo, the sort of place where several hundred kilos of dugong meat at a few thousand rupiah a kilo can make a family wealthy beyond its wildest dreams, we are offered the opportunity to see the skin of a dugong caught earlier this year…
Out in the bay, we see two or three adults, feeding on the seagrass. But I guess it will take a lot of tourist rupiah – and hopefully some eco-investment in education and/or jobs – to make up for that tonnage of flesh. If you’re in Maluku, do make the effort to pay a visit.
You could spend a week or even two, to be honest with you, simply bouncing around the myriad islands off Morotai’s coasts. As much again exploring the island itself.
Now, as you’d expect in a young destination, Morotai has its challenges. You can spot a foreigner a mile off by the curious crowd trailing in their wake or standing in a silent semi-circle: it’s definitely not a place for the camera-shy.
Power cuts are legion; internet is non-existent; plastic and foreign exchange is unheard of; mobile phone signal is hard to find; pesticide fishing has just been introduced; you will need to speak quite a bit of Indonesian to get by without a translator; a section of Daruba harbour currently functions as the island’s only rubbish dump; and Morotai is (technically) dry.
Furthermore, the combination of the Indonesian obsession with obyek wisata (“tourist objects”) and the deep belief in the supernatural that almost all Moluccans share can make for some curious results.
Take Zum-Zum atoll. Home to MacArthur’s World War II headquarters (and a pretty little coral garden amid some potent currents).
The obyek wisata? Not the rusting remains of the pier on the beach. Not the Indonesian war graves behind the pier. Not the underground stuff which apparently lies behind those.
But a bust of MacArthur which bears a close resemblance to Chairman Mao and a bashed about steel globe with, so far as we could tell, two continents omitted and at least one upside down.
The underground structures? Well, this is where the supernatural comes in. For fear of “snakes” (clue: snakes, like ghosts and vampires, can be warded off with garlic, at least in the mornings), to get anyone to guide you, you will need to go early. And expect your boatmen to draw anchor with or without you at the earliest sign of dusk…
In a way, though, this combination of magic, mystery and sheer frustration adds a little bit of extra charm. And sitting in Tobelo right now, plotting tomorrow’s assault on the underwater volcano a couple of hours from here, I’m seriously contemplating heading back for round two.
Or, then again, maybe wait for 2012. When a planned investment in tourism will either have sorted the basics out, spawned a demonic proliferation of obyek wisata signs or made the place like Piccadilly Circus. On balance, I’m figuring now.
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You can reach Morotai by plane (Lion Air fly regularly from Ternate) or by daily boat from Tobelo in Halmahera: speedboats leave around 8am (when full) and the marginally slower big boat leaves around 12.30, getting in around 3pm. Dolphin and turtle sightings are frequent but by no means guaranteed.
Powerful, small, fibreglass outriggers for island-hopping or trips to coastal villages should cost 300,000-400,000 rupiah per day depending on distance. Look along the harbour, not by the pier and don’t hand over any money until you’ve checked the boat and witnessed the engine start. Don’t expect fripperies such as lifejackets but look for a functional radio.
Muhris Eso knows Morotai better than almost anyone, with a particular focus on the WWII sites, but speaks only a very little English. If you speak Indonesian (or have a translator), contact him through Daruba’s unmarked and pathologically over-staffed tourist office, or by rocking up at his Musium Mini, down the little track opposite Bumi Moro in Daruba.
Pacific Inn, operated by Haji Zein, is by far the slickest gaff in town, with shady rooms around a pretty courtyard, complete with A/C and Western bathrooms (250,000 rupiah). Budget travelers should opt for Penginapan Asnolia, a friendly place where fan rooms with mandi en suites run 100,000 rupiah and 50,000 more buys A/C and oodles of space. A bentor (motorised rickshaw) or ojek (man on a motorbike) should cost 5,000 rupiah per hop around town.
Moro Rasa, near the port, is a bright, clean eatery with great soto ayam (Indonesia’s answer to laksa). Rather less prepossessing and not for the hygiene-conscious, Bumi Moro serves amazing seafood from the big chill chest: huge crabs steamed in spices are phenomenal, and the grilled fish melts in the mouth.
Alex Djangu (a very experienced, knowledgeable guide based in Tobelo: alex UNDERSCORE djangu AT yahoo DOT com) and Fauji Muslim (helpful, enthusiastic and with some experience, based in Ternate: fauji UNDERSCORE muslim AT yahoo DOT com) make good English-language guides to Morotai.
If you do Morotai without a guide or translator, make sure your hotel files the requisite passport and visa copies, plus paperwork, with the police, and consider popping in yourself, perhaps with a report from Ternate or Tobelo.
Talk to Haji Zein, perhaps while staying at his hotel, to gain access to his pearl farm on Ngelengele island while workers are on their break. Om An (no phone) is Pilowo’s dugong man. Ask Muhris Eso or Daruba tourist office for access to the chalets on Dodola: there is a well and wood but you will need to bring everything else from Daruba.
The nearest dive operation is on Kakara Island, a short boat hop across the harbour from Tobelo, on Halmahera. They have four sets of brand new Mares gear, a spanking new dive boat and a dive master: prices, including equipment, are 250,000 rupiah for one dive, 450,000 for two, 600,000 for three, plus boat charter.
Contact them via the North Halmahera tourist office: sites with potential include Pilowo (for dugong) and Transmitter Beach (a dramatic coral dropoff where the Allies landed, complete with at least one wreck).
There are 6-metre saltwater crocodiles in the river estuary by Pilowo. Whether or not you wish to see them, consider them before snorkelling or diving with the dugong out at sea.
Visitors have snorkelled with the dugong and locals consider it safe. In general, saltwater crocodiles like to hunt within a 200-metre radius of their estuary home. However, they are very strong swimmers and have been found as far as 30km out to sea.
This (blah) does not (blah) constitute legal advice (blah, blah, blah), but I would have snorkelled for a few minutes and dived with a guide were I not a parent. There was, however, absolutely no way that my child was getting into that water.