15Oct2010

The Adventure Island You’ve Never Heard Of: Morotai

Flickering flames and logs against a pitchblack background.

Ever heard of Morotai?

Nope?

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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DIY
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.

44 Comments

  1. Sounds blissful. If you tell me you were staying in a treehouse Robinson Crusoe style I’m booking my plane-smaller plane-boat-smaller boat-dingy tickets right now! Cant wait for photos and stories of the old Japanese man waging his 30 year solo war!

    • MummyT says:

      I will do him next. Problem is, good stories piling up! We dived an undersea volcano yesterday. Total result!

      • Lol – I have about 30 unfinished drafts sitting in wordpress just waiting for me to get around to publishing them! Mr 5 is jealous of your volcano story. He’s still convinced one day volcanoes will bring all the dinosaurs back since they had a hand in their death in the first place.

        • MummyT says:

          Aw! Has he heard the fart version?! A minority view, to be sure, but once seriously propounded: that the amount of greenhouse gases produced by that many gigantic lizard critters super-charged the atmosphere…

      • fauji muslim says:

        uhh. cool you got diving and snorkeling. its will a good spot for tourism in sail morotay 2012 undersea volcano

  2. fauji muslim says:

    well, our government prepare for sail in morotay 2012. we are welcoming to everyone to visit here. and i will be a translator

  3. Jasmal Martora says:

    Hey everyone. I’d like to tell you that I’m a native morotai and I know more about it. I didn’t see the most hoillaruous and amazing places mentioned in the above post only a few parts. Suma Pangeo and America are the examples.

    • MummyT says:

      Hi there, Jasmal, and nice to hear from you.

      I never heard about these places either, and I imagine most folk won’t either. I really wish I’d spent more time on Morotai, but I needed to renew my visa that week, so I didn’t.

      Can you give me some more details on Suma Pangeo and America? I’m sure lots of people would love to hear…

      Theodora

  4. Jasmal Martora says:

    For sure! Suma Pangeo is one of the most amazing places with plenty of mid-height waterfalls, a very long scintillating and rafting river, and countless of wonderful creeks along the river that to be found in the north of Morotai. The water is so crystal-clear that we can see stones and pebbles under. We can also easily catch some river shrimps and fish for our meal. At night and every morning just as the sun rises, lots of birds are flying across the river with their enchanting tiny voices make you persist to stay listening.
    I bet if you visit this place, you’ll want to stay any longer… And about America, it is also such a wonderful place where lots of foreigners wanted to seize the place during the World War II. Everyone might be questioning why it is to be called America? Well, it is because there was a small mid-settlement of American soldiers who fiercely warred with the Japanese on obtaining the villages among the island. In this place also we can find various kinds of inheritance of the both military troops such as the pieces of plane, car, buildings, waterpool, etc. According to the local people there are some hidden inheritance around America but nobody knows…

  5. Jasmal Martora says:

    Hi Oji[Fauji Muslim], have you bought a new phone? If yes please let me know cause sometimes I need your help and so you do. Btw, here is my phone number:+6285298207902.

  6. Jasmal Martora says:

    Hi Oji, have you bought a new phone? . Btw, here is my phone number:+6285298207902. Do forget to contact me soon.

  7. Jasmal Martora says:

    yeah, it’s quite far away.

  8. Jasmal Martora says:

    yeah, you are right Theodora. It’s quite far away.

  9. Jasmal Martora says:

    By the way, there is”Sail Morotai”, an excellent tourism Objects promotion program designed by the locals in coordinating with the national government that will be conducted in Morotai Island at the beginning of 2012 and will be attended by aproximately 56 countries in the world which is prospectively as an entrance for the development of Morotai itself. I hope this wonderful plan would be undertaken smoothly:-):-):-)

  10. Jasmal Martora says:

    By the way, there is”Sail Morotai”, an excellent tourism Objects promotion program designed by the local people in coordinating with the national government that will be conducted in Morotai Island at the beginning of 2012 and will be attended by aproximately 56 countries in the world which is prospectively as an entrance for the development of Morotai itself. I hope this wonderful plan will be undertaken smoothly:-):-):-)

  11. Wow, reading this post, I thought to myself that this island is simply surreal. I must manage somehow to get there too:D. You know, just when you thought you’ve seen it all…8-> Thks for posting:)

  12. Tay T says:

    This is so interesting! I am an underwater photographer enthusiast interested in World War II. I ran across this place by Google Earth looking for old airstrips and googling the island. This sounds like a spectacular place for adventure tourism.

  13. Helen Hall says:

    I only know about Morotai as when I was born my father was with the Australian Army on the island fighting the Japanese. As I now live in the UK I don’t suppose I will get the opportunity to visit the island as it is rather a long way away even from Australia.

    • Theodora says:

      It is a wonderful place to visit — but, yes, it’s fiddly to get to, even from within Indonesia (although there are flights to Ternate airport). We met someone there who was revisiting his Australian grandfather’s war, so it is possible, and they do have sites commemorating the Australians, in addition to the little museum…

  14. ALEX says:

    Hi Theodora, than kyou for writing my e-mail, another new island already set up for tourism destination is Galolo-galo Island. please google on my blog “MOROTAI:FOR BEING RELAX ON SOFT WHITE SANDY BEACH”

    I have another information for another tourism activity in halmahera Island, please google;”WEST HALMAHERA TOUR”

    It might help you for your next trip plan.

    Alex

    • Theodora says:

      Hey Alex! Good to hear from you! I hear there’s also now a new resort in East Halmahera, that Ilham’s running. So brilliant that tourism is growing here. I might actually update this post to include some of this new info.

    • Gayl Edwards says:

      Hello Alex, My brother and I are wanting to visit Morotai in August next year as our father served in RAAF there in WW2. We will need a guide/interpreter as we do not speak any Indonesian. We would very much appreciate any help. Cheers!

  15. fred wijburg says:

    in 1949 I was in the airforce meteorological
    seride on Pitu airstrip as a dutch airforceman. It is a wonderful place for being in the army there,
    I can recommend it top everyone.
    When i left in 1950, 5 japs came out of the bush, wearing only a “cawat” and a rifle!!!

    • Gayl Edwards says:

      Hi Fred, my father was in one of the RAAF squadrons that constructed Pitu airstrip. My brother and I are hoping to get there late next year. Cheers!

  16. Gayl Edwards says:

    Hi everyone, my father was on Morotai with the RAAF from 1944 till the end of occupation. I would love to visit but as I am in my 60′s wondering how difficult it would be. Cheers!

    • Theodora says:

      Hi Gayl,

      Morotai’s perfectly doable with a guide, but challenging without, unless you speak really good Indonesian. There are flights into the airport a couple of times a week if you’d rather not do the overland route, and there’s a couple of tourist-class hotels now. Contact Alex Djangu, who’s a good guide — this is his website: http://visit2tobelo.blogspot.com/. You will need a guide or a translator, though. Provided you’re competent walking a bit over rough ground, and getting in and out of boats (with someone holding your hand), you should be fine to enjoy Morotai, and if you work with Alex to give him more details of where your father was and fought, you might even be able to visit the exact place.

      Theodora

      • Gayl Edwards says:

        Oh thank you so much Theodora! My brother will be coming as well and maybe one of my adult daughters, so we will need a guide and interpreter as we speak no Indonesian. I am so glad this trip is doable as my father rarely spoke of his war service and I’v mainly found out about him through our government service records. We intend to follow in his footsteps through New guinea and onto Morottai. Thank you again, Gayl

        • Theodora says:

          Oh, what a fantastic trip! You’ll have a great time on Morotai, truly wonderful…

          • Gayl Edwards says:

            Hi Theodora, Do you know how safe it is for westerners to travel in the area? Our government basically say to reconsider travel to Maluku province. The next warning up is do not go, in which case our travel insurance would be void. I will be very disappointed if it means we do not get there. Cheers! and many thanks, Gayl

          • Theodora says:

            Our government just says exercise caution in Maluku, especially Ambon – https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/indonesia – here. There has been Christian-Muslim and Muslim-Christian violence in Maluku, but not for a while, and I’d consider it safe for travel. Frontier Travel Insurance – http://shrsl.com/?~4jb3 – offer insurance to places governments advise against travelling to, so even if the advice does change (which I doubt, we’ve had the same advice on Maluku for the last four years) you can still get cover.

  17. Gayl Edwards says:

    That is so good to hear, thank you Theodora:)

    • Gayl Edwards says:

      Hi again Theodora. Well we have our trip planned! Airfares and hotels booked and we have engaged Alex Django who has put together a great sounding tour for us. I have been researching photos from our War Department in Canberra and have many to take with us. My brother is going to dive with Alex, I will be relaxing in the sun. I can’t thank you enough for your excellent help with getting this trip going :) Cheers! Gayl

      • Theodora says:

        That’s brilliant news — Alex told me you were heading out in August. I reckon the bunch of you will have an absolute blast!

  18. Hi Theodora, thanks for the fun and thorough Morotai write-up. I was googling some stuffs about Morotai and discovered escapeartistes. I will be heading to Morotai this May for some scuba-diving adventure. I’ve always gone back to the east side of Indonesian for this sport so yeah I’m so excited about my next dive trip! God bless you and your son! Safe travel!

    PS. I couldn’t help but laugh a bit when you say, it is hard to travel to Morotai even from within Indonesia.

    Cheers,
    Eric (from Medan, North Sumatera, Indonesia)

    • Theodora says:

      Enjoy! And take a safety sausage. In Dahab earlier this year, I met a guy who’d drifted for 24 hours after diving off Morotai before being picked up by a fishing boat. He said he felt like he’d been born again — as you would do.

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