EASTERN PROMISE
National Geographic Traveller India|March - April 2021
SET SAIL ALONG THE FRINGES OF INDONESIA’S VAST ARCHIPELAGO TO DISCOVER REMOTE ATOLLS HOME TO COMMUNITIES OF SEA NOMADS, THE WORLD’S LARGEST CONCENTRATION OF REEF SPECIES, AND THE BIRDS AND BUTTERFLIES THAT HELPED SHAPE THE THEORY OF EVOLUTION
SARAH BARRELL

But Jago isn’t diving today. He sits dockside, poised as if ready to do so, dressed in nothing but a pair of loose shorts, bare feet placed lightly on the decking. You get the feeling Jago is always ready. His sea salt-thickened hair, silver at its roots, is rudely abundant. He’s slight and leathery-tanned, with a teenage boy’s build; liver spot-mottled cheeks frame eyes that are rheumy but resolute. At his hip, a bag bulging with cigarette packets—some gifted, some barter traded as is the local way. I wonder aloud about his lungs. “They’re fine,” answers his nephew. “He’s not so happy with his knees, though.”

It’s understandable for joints to be giving you gyp after eight decades making forays deep under the ocean. Rohani, Jago’s real name, began freediving aged five, learning from his father how to train lungs, heart, mind—and knees—to drive him 120 feet below the surf to spear hunt for fish, earning him his moniker ‘Jago’—master among the skilled Bajau free-divers. These ‘sea nomads’ of eastern Indonesia’s Togean Islands are supremely fierce fishermen. Over centuries, the Bajau have evolved unusually large spleens: warehouses for oxygen-carrying red blood cells that help sustain dives for up to 13 minutes at a time. In recent years, Jago’s diving and the Bajau way of life have inspired several TV documentaries and glossy photo features. Between here and Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, some 2,011 kilometres west, Jago is surely the country’s biggest celebrity.

I find him in Kabalutan, a village in the Togean Islands that’s far larger than it appears from the approach by boat. Rickety wooden bridges span sea inlets forming gangways to huts stilted above blinding turquoise water; concrete tracks make half-hearted inroads into the island’s boulder-strewn interior, a craggy playground for a healthy population of goats. What looked like a desert island is in fact home to around 2,300 people—most of whom appear to be under the age of 10. As I disembark onto a wooden jetty, I watch a boy sail an impressive model boat he’s built out of wood, complete with outriggers and battery-powered propellers.

Nomadic until a couple of decades ago but now largely settled, the Bajau once dived for pearls and patrolled spice trade shipping channels at the behest of the region’s powerful medieval sultans. Today, they subsist via aquaculture, fishing, reef foraging and boat building—model and actual. “One of the best day’s sailing I’ve ever had was on a Bajau sloop,” says Jeffrey Mellefont, a maritime historian working with SeaTrek Sailing Adventures, the Balinese-based company with whom I’m travelling. “They’re master sailors; they read the sea like a book. They also maintain they command the wind and can conjure drinking water from the shallows. I didn’t see this done,” he shrugs. “But there’s no doubt these guys really know the sea. It’s who they are. After a baby’s birth, for example, having thrown the placenta in the sea, they say it accompanies the child on every voyage throughout its life—a sort of aquatic spirit.”

The Bajau are just one of the countless communities that carve out a life on the easternmost fringes of the world’s largest archipelago. It’s pioneering terrain for SeaTrek’s new, 14-day sailing expedition, however, which casts off from the island of Ternate in Indonesia’s northern Maluku ‘spice islands’, to follow a perfumed trail southeast to Sulawesi. If you can’t spend your career aboard Bajau sloops sailing to remote Australasian outposts like our resident maritime historian, then this trip aboard Ombak Putih (‘white wave’), one of the SeaTrek’s two traditional wooden pinisi ships, has to be the next best thing.

When I meet her—ironwood hull gleaming, seven midnight-blue sails flying—Ombak Putih almost upstages the drama of Ternate and neighbouring Tidore, islands whose stone horns cut jade slices out of the Molucca Sea. Unlike the clunky, souped-up pinisi boats widely used in Indonesia’s eastern Raja Ampat atolls as liveaboard dive boats, Putih’s handsomely preserved contours wouldn’t have looked out of place in Ternate’s harbour even a thousand years ago. Her elegant lines are the embodiment of a centuries’ old boatbuilding tradition from the island of Sulawesi; the hand-crafting skill of the island’s Bugis people that gained Indonesia a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage nomination in 2017. Formerly seen sailing across the old 100 rupiah note, pinisi remains integral to the nation’s far-flung shipping network.

Still weighing heavy as cargo are the nutmeg, mace and cloves that made the Maluku Indonesia’s most powerful islands, long before the Dutch East India Company and spice-seeking European colonisers sniffed them out. Behind a modest shopfront near Ternate’s harbour, I find frilly red mountains of mace heaped on the floor, hessian sacks of the seeds they previously encased; nutmeg, lined up to be categorised by weight and lustre; sacks of cloves bulging from shelves, bleeding their Christmas cake aroma into the 40°C air. “Indonesia was, at one time, the world’s only producer of cloves,” explains SeaTrek guide, Arie Pagaka, interpreting for the factory’s Chinese owner. “Clove and nutmeg are still Ternate’s main source of income.” Much of which goes east to China, following a route sailed for millennia.

WELL ABOVE STANDARD

There are even more exotic things, however, lurking in the trees of Indonesia’s spice sultanates. On the neighbouring, starfish-shaped island of Halmahera, I find the world’s most modestly named bird.

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