Indonesia - North Maluku Province

Of several eastern Indonesia provinces located on the Pacific Ocean, North Maluku may have the best surfing opportunities in Pacific Indonesia.

Indonesia, North Maluku Province on the Pacific Ocean.

Featuring the jungle-clad and wave-rich islands of Morotai and Halmahera and the fabled spice islands of Ternate and Tidore on the other side in the Molucca Sea, this area was one of the earliest places in Indonesia visited by Europeans. 

Phil Goodrich, diving into the Pacific Ocean.

First the Portuguese, and later the Dutch and the English all came halfway around the world to the Moluccas in search of one thing: precious spices like cloves and nutmeg, which could be sold for a small fortune in the markets of Venice at the time.

Piers are vital infrastructure for towns that rely on boat access only.

Cloves (Syzygium aromaticum) have been found in unlikely places in Asia, the Middle East, in Europe and as far north as Scandinavia in contexts going back more than 2500 years. 

Hayato Maki, surfing in the Pacific Ocean on an offshore islet.

Cloves were clearly a very valuable item, to have travelled so far on the difficult trade routes of the time, bought and sold many times over in markets across the ancient world.

Until quite recently, cloves only came from one small area, the two volcanic islands of Ternate and Tidore in what is now North Maluku Province in Indonesia. 

Alberto Lima Castro from Brazil is a Bahasa speaker and his language skills solved many problems with a quick discussion.

With their distinctive aroma and many uses, cloves were first traded hundreds of years ago throughout the Indonesian archipelago and onward to India. Once in India, they were bought by traders and transported across the Indian Ocean to the Middle East where they could be found in markets in Egypt and Lebanon. 

Phil Goodrich, surfing in the Pacific Ocean on an offshore islet.

From there, they could be bought and transported on to Venice, where Europeans craved their oil, flavor and preservation properties in the days of no refrigeration. Despite their popularity and high-value status as an item of trade, Europeans did not know where cloves actually came from, their origin was unknown.

Phil Goodrich, surfing in the Pacific Ocean at an offshore reef wave.

It was initially the Portuguese who first ventured to the Moluccas in search of the origin of cloves, reverse-engineering the trade routes after the Basque navigator Juan Sebastián Elcano proved it was possible. Elcano circumnavigated the world, leading the small fleet of Ferdinand Magellan through Indonesia and back to Spain, after Magellan was killed in The Philippines in 1521.

Eastern Indonesia, including North Maluku Province, is often called the "Forgotten Indonesia" for the lack of development and infrastructure. 

When they arrived in Ternate, the Portuguese alternately threatened and negotiated, making numerous arrangements and treaties with the Sultans of Ternate and neighboring Tidore island, the two small islands which produced virtually all the cloves in the world at the time.

Hayato Maki from Japan brought his spear and dive kit, securing fresh fish for lunch for the whole group.

As the two Sultans were rivals and not allies, the Portuguese and later the Dutch were able to play the Sultans off against each other to get the cloves they wanted, which were then transported to Lisbon and Amsterdam where they were sold for a fortune.

The spice trade threw an international spotlight on the Moluccas, which would gradually fade as cloves and later, nutmeg trees from the Banda Islands were successfully transported and grown commercially in other locations worldwide. 

Halmahera Island is surrounded by small islands with coral reef waves, accessible from the mainland by boat.

The British used Zanzibar in East Africa for cloves and Grenada in the Caribbean for nutmeg and the French grew cloves in Madagascar, thus greatly increasing the supply and making these spices far more available and accessible to consumers, ending the worldwide monopoly once enjoyed by the Spice Islands of the Moluccas.

The Moluccas declined into obscurity until World War II when the Japanese Imperial Army occupied Morotai island, which was part of the Dutch East Indies, in their effort to dominate the supply of raw materials and natural resources in the western Pacific region.

Many of these offshore islands have stunning white sand beaches and swaying coconut palms.

Their occupation continued until 1945 and the surrender of Japan, but numerous Japanese soldiers were not accounted for at the time and indeed, carried on the fight for decades from their jungle hideouts. One of the last survivors, Teruo Nakamura, was  finally discovered only in 1975 when he was finally caught and compelled to surrender and return to Japan.

Emiliano Cataldi, making friends with local fishermen.

After the independence of Indonesia from the Netherlands was declared in 1949, the eastern half of the great archipelago, including the Moluccas, sank into deep obscurity, as most government or private investment went to Java or other islands much closer to the capital in Jakarta. 

We used boats to go everywhere; doing as the locals do, who hardly ever ride in cars.

The Moluccas, which were renamed “Maluku'' were very remote and with poor infrastructure and few airports, they were virtually in a separate county from the rest of Indonesia. As these islands and other areas of eastern Indonesia have a high proportion of Christians; not Muslims, this made them less important to the largely all-Muslim government ministers making the budget and investment decisions in distant Jakarta.

Once a swell arrives from the Pacific Ocean, the reef breaks come alive with waves.

As far as surfing is concerned, it is only in the last twenty years or so that there have been any surfers, anywhere in North Maluku Province. This is of course, much later than the Indian Ocean side of Indonesia, which has seen surfers in large numbers since the mid-1970’s.

Going upriver in Halmahera was entering another world, were there is only the forest and very few people.

Surfing arrived in North Maluku via the occasional solo feral Australian surfer and primarily through live-aboard boat trips, with adventurous groups of surfers chartering idle dive boats in the off-season for diving out of Manado in North Sulawesi and making a round trip to Morotai Island, where many new waves were discovered with absolutely no one surfing. 

Phil Goodrich, paddling out into empty perfection in Pacific Indonesia.

Basic land-based “surf camp” accommodations in several areas were set up, rudimentary losmen for sleeping and eating. Several hundred surfers now visit Morotai annually for surfing activities in the northwest of the island.

Bringing lunch from the losmen, we could have a picnic in the shade with fresh fish from Hayato's spear.

The season for waves in Pacific Indonesia is conveniently, the opposite from the favorable season in Indian Ocean Indonesia, with swell from the Pacific starting in October and being quite consistent until mid - March.

Emiliano Cataldi, surfing in the Pacific Ocean on an offshore islet.

Wave heights in Pacific Indonesia rarely exceed 3 meters, with most swells in the 1 to 3 meter range. Winds are the main concern for surfing, with seasonal winds in the November to March period from the northwest.

Emiliano gets in a header in an afternoon game of football in the village. All Indonesians are football fanatics, to a man.

Getting good surf can be planned around having a northwest wind most of the time, with other wind directions possible, but infrequent.

Coral reefs are very common everywhere in tropical North Maluku Province, so most of the surfing in this area is done over reefs. With the heavy rainfall, there are many rivers transporting sand and gravel to the coast, so there are a surprising number of beachbreaks and rivermouth sandbars, some of which can provide very good waves under the right conditions.

Evening in the village, with the call of the Muezzin from the mosque.

One thing every surfing visitor has to deal with in the North Maluku area is the frequent heavy tropical downpours, which can happen at any time, including at night. Heavy rain makes camping difficult and any boat transportation a matter of getting wet, either from salt water splashing or heavy freshwater downpours, sometimes both at the same time!

Phil Goodrich, surfing in the Pacific Ocean on an offshore islet.

The other limiting factor for travelers, surfing or otherwise, are the twin problems of terrible roads and scarce and expensive petrol. Getting petrol is difficult in this area, much of it is sold on the day of delivery twice a month and hoarded by residents and dealers. 

Emiliano Cataldi, surfing in the Pacific Ocean on an offshore islet.

Driving anywhere is largely out of the question, as where there are roads they are generally very bad roads and most of the locations of interest to surfers are on offshore islands anyway, so boats are used for transportation much more often than vehicles.

Alberto Lima Castro, surfing in the Pacific Ocean on an offshore islet.

With delivery every two weeks and with frequent unexplained delays, handwritten signs appear a week or so after a delivery when the petrol station is sold out, advertising petrol for sale. The price climbs every day until the next delivery, then the cycle repeats itself.

Phil Goodrich, surfing in the Pacific Ocean on an offshore islet.

We spent numerous mornings walking around town, looking for petrol for the outboard engine, until a local was kind enough to explain how the system worked. As delivery was scheduled for two days, we could find less than 25 liters for sale anywhere, which we bought at 10x the price of the day of delivery.

Phil Goodrich, surfing in the Pacific on an offshore islet with Pacific Ocean power.

We went to the Pertamina station that evening, only to find a long queue of placeholding plastic jerrycans, as everyone in town had a reserved spot to try to buy as much petrol as possible for the next two weeks.

Alberto Lima Castro, surfing in the Pacific Ocean on an offshore islet at a coral reef left-hander.

We learned our lesson and stockpiled our own supply, some 200 liters in plastic jerry cans, some of it bought from the allowance granted the provincial governor himself, who had heard there were foreigners in town who were looking for petrol for their outboard motors and generously offered us some of his government allotment. 

Many empty waves on this day, there were only three surfers in the lineup on an offshore islet.

The fuel was transported by wheelbarrow across town and hidden under plastic tarps and behind a locked gate, used sparingly so we would have enough gasoline to go all-out when we got a swell.

Phil Goodrich, surfing in the Pacific Ocean on an offshore islet.

The plan worked. There is no internet in this area, only a weak 2G signal so when we did get a text-only, no graphics message from a friend monitoring a number of swell forecast sites for us to expect a solid swell in two days time, we were ready. 

We had several of the 25 liter plastic fuel tanks loaded with the precious fuel in the boat, so there was no wasting time walking around town looking for gasoline and we were able to set out into the bay at sunrise with plenty of petrol, plus food for lunch and water to drink.

Emiliano Cataldi, waxing up on the big boat. The big boat used a lot more petrol, but was more comfortable for a group.

The swell was definitely there, the biggest waves we had seen on this trip and the right reef-point setup on the corner of the island was working up to its considerable potential as probably one of the best waves in Pacific Indonesia.

With a long morning surf, a good lunch and rest in the shade, then a long afternoon session as the swell continued to increase, we were getting the best out of surfing in Pacific Indonesia.

We did not see another surfer the entire day.

North Maluku Province in Pacific Indonesia.

Text and Images © John Seaton Callahan

Want more from  ?

Join azylo to get the latest stories from the author in your feed. Don’t miss a single story.

Recomended for you

View All