The sound of the ancient gong called the two warriors to the stage. This was no ordinary stage; we were on a remote island in the Malukus, the birthplace of the original Cakalele dance. The children scrambled from wooden huts and humble dwellings and jostled for position on a huge piece of driftwood washed up and conveniently lodged, facing the shore. As the sound waves from the giant gong reverberated through the village, the ocean waves embraced the call and the mock battle began on Taliabu Island under the intense heat of the day. The two proud Maluku young men, dressed in ceremonial red garb started their war dance against a perfect backdrop of crystal clear languid ocean waters. With parang (sword) in one hand and salawku (shield) in the other, they engaged in a mock battle showcasing their skills and bravery to the audience gathered in a semi-circle on the beach.
Next, the women formed a circle and danced the Yusa dance with handkerchiefs, mesmerizing the crowd. They were dressed in their finest colourful garb. Traditionally the women wear white to honour this dance, but our captain had only rowed ashore some three hours prior, to alert the village that guests would be coming, so a compromised costume was called for. The eight women wore bright coloured lacy kebayas and sarongs. It was day four of our Maluku Island journey on a fine traditional Bugis pinisi sailing vessel, Ombak Putih and we were on an uncharted voyage. Our captain had a route plotted that involved lots of night sails, so every morning we would wake up in a new island in the Sula Island chain, eventually ending in Kendari, Southeast Sulawesi. He had never been to these islands before and nor had Ombak Putih, so our arrival was somewhat of a surprise to the villagers, who usually see small local transport boats only.
The local villagers were fascinated and bewitched at the same time when they awoke to see this magnificent sailing ship at their front door. “You are the first white tourists ever to visit our village,” said the village elder. He was very excited to welcome our party to his remote island and told the captain to bring our group to his island after lunch, and we would be honoured with a war dance that doubles as a welcome dance, the Cakalele. And so it was that we came to be here. After the dance, some of the village youth jumped up on a very rattly bamboo platform and did a version of a breakdance, or at least that is how it looked to me. Their precision footwork kept pace with the rapid drumbeat and intermittent gong clang. As they finished in spectacular fashion, the whole town erupted in a huge round of applause.
Next, it was time for Arak (rice wine) and some tobacco. How could one refuse? It is very rude to decline local hospitality, so some two or three hours later, we all staggered back to the Zodiac in varying states of intoxication. Betel leaves and pinang nut were passed around like candy, and everyone was smiling a whole lot. The conversation flowed between Bahasa, English, Dutch, French and the local Kadai dialect. Touring the village, we were directed towards the two Christian churches, which stood side by side, one Catholic, and the other Protestant. A very enthusiastic group were proud to show us the marvel inside – a very shiny, new-looking statue of Mary and baby Jesus. Most of the villagers had converted to Christianity including the interior people, the native Taliabunese, who are very few in number. Most of them came down from the interior and are now coastal dwellers in small villages, like Mantarara. It’s a good life as fish are plentiful and easily caught from a sampan (traditional wooden boat) and crops of cassava, vegetables, mango and coconut trees grow easily on the island.
To reach the two churches, we were escorted down a very new, smooth, government built raised concrete platform weaving through the village. Traditionally this island belonged to the sultanates of North Maluku. The local dialect is Malay-based but closer to Ambonese. The village chief told me many migrants came here from the very overpopulated Southeast Sulawesi. As I sat in the shade I struck up a conversation with a fuzzy haired, dark-skinned villager, who looked Papuan to me. I found out that he was indeed Papuan. “My parents are from Papua, but I was born here. My friend here, he is from Makassar.”
My Papuan friend told me the original people, the Kadai tribe, came down from the interior about 1921. The village is now a cultural mix of several ethnicities. Hence several languages are spoken in Mantarara Village. I went with my new Papuan friend to find an original Kadai tribesman but we were unsuccessful. “He is probably off hunting a babirusa,” he said. As I wandered through the village, I noticed a babirusa skull sitting on a window ledge baring its four curving tusks to the passersby. As this community was so open and welcoming, it was totally fine just to walk straight into a local’s home and start up a conversation. The owner of the home told me the babirusa (which means hog–deer) is a variety of wild pig and can weigh up to 90 kilograms. He told me they often roam and hunt alone, but they generally belong to a group of about eight. “You don’t want to meet a large, powerful stud babirusa,” the villager told me, “He is chosen for his leadership qualities and can turn nasty when disturbed and charge at you. Be careful walking in the forest. ”
The long tusks of the hog deer curl towards the skull and protect them from the thorny rattan. “Always make a noise when you walk in the forest on any of the islands around here,” he told me. I made a mental note to self that when walking in the forest I must sing, clap, talk incessantly or wear a bear bell. I could have done with a set of those tusks when I went hiking in the forest because when I came back, my legs looked like a barbed wire matrix of sorts. Another note to self, always hike in Indonesia with long pants, unless you have skin as thick as a babirusa.
Before we made our way back to the comforts of starched white linen, fresh Ambon nutmeg topped cappuccinos and gin and tonics, we said our very long goodbyes to the friendly village folk. Our captain promised to come back next year, with another group of funny sounding Bahasa speakers and foreigners, so everyone was happy with that outcome. Some young boys in sampans trailed us. They could not contain their curiosity and had to have a look on board our pinisi. Why not? This opportunity had never presented itself in their lives. They met the rest of the deck and cabin crew and were very happy to meet another woolly-haired Papuan among the crew. Great chuckles all around comparing hairstyles.
We treated the young boys to cold soft drinks and Dutch biscuits, two very novel food items for them, and soon enough they were paddling their way back to shore. Uncharted, adventurous sea journeys bring wonderful delights and next year with the promise of return, the ladies of the village might get a chance to trade some fish or coconuts for white cloth and make some traditional dresses in time.
Mantarara village, Taliabu Island, can only be reached by sea. It is very remote and totally cut off from trading routes and ferry lines, making it an isolated paradise of rich culture in language, music and dance.
Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913)
English naturalist, anthropologist, theorist, and evolutionist, who noted 48 species of birds on Taliabu Island. The steep forested mountains are near impenetrable, making logging virtually impossible, so to this day the island is very pristine. Wallace discovered and noted several new bird species in Taliabu Island, which is part of the Sula Island Group, North Maluku. One of the smallest birds of paradise is found here and no other place. Bobong is the main town.
How to Get There
Flights from major cities to Ternate, Maluku
Board the Ombak Putih - 12-day sailing trip Ternate to Kendari
Stephanie Brookes is a travel writer and blogger with tales from Indonesia and beyond.
Author –“Indonesia’s Hidden Heritage; Cultural Journeys of Discovery” (Click here to purchase the book)
David Metcalf is a photographer and runs cultural photography tours in Bali, Kalimantan, USA tribal lands, Toraja, Sumba, Japan and Vietnam