Cruising the Caves of the Moluccas

Maluku, or The Moluccas, in Indonesia are perhaps better known as The Spice Islands. This name originated from the spice trade during which Indian, Chinese, Arab and later European traders frequented the place from as early as the 1st century. In 1999, the Maluku Islands split into 2 provinces: North Maluku and Maluku. I knew about the caves near Halmahera in the North Maluku province, which had been documented in caving journals, but until my trip to Maluku province in 2007, I had no idea about the caves there.

Although not many cavers have been to Maluku, research has been carried out in several archaeological caves there over the years. Archaeological case studies include the Labarisi site (north Buru), the Hatusua site (southwest Seram), and several cave sites on the northern Leihitu Peninsula (Ambon).

The Siwa Lima Museum in Ambon built a replica cave to represent a prehistoric cave in which people used to live. Inside, visitors can look at cave paintings, a fire place, protective wooden gates, enemy skulls etc.

Caves on Seram

Pulau Seram, or Seram Island, is non-volcanic and is the largest island of Maluku. The capital of the district is Masohi. The island covers an area of 18,625 km2 and its highest peak, at 3027 m, is the Gunung Binaya.

The Manusela National Park covers 19% of the island's width, and has some high and densely forested limestone mountains. The formation of the Manusela limestone has not been precisely dated. I came across two reports; one stated that it is Triassic limestone formed during the Paleozoic and early Mesozoic Eras, while the other report (Cooper) writes that its formation dates back to the Early and Middle Jurassic Period. This is equivalent to 190 to 150 million years ago.

Most of the limestone mountains have been unexplored by cavers and there is one unexplored cave right by the roadside. The caves around the coastal villages of Sawai and Saleman, in the northern parts, are better known. Due to the geological formation of the caves, many of them have deep shafts and canyons formed by underground streams. The water supply for these two villages is obtained from several small resurgences. There is a series of stream sinks on the eastern side of Hatu Lusiala, 3 km to the west of Saleman. Resurgences can be found at sea level and up to a height of 50 m above sea level. The boat ride between Sawai and Saleman offers a good view of the 300 m high limestone hills.

Kampung Saleman is a small Moslem fishing village and tourists are taken to see the evening bat flight from Goa Lusiala. The large entrance is clearly visible high in the cliff of Gunung Polesi behind the village. Every evening flocks of bats leave the cave in an impressive "bat flight". They exit and fly in the shape of a long ribbon over the sea. Unfortunately, the locals seem to think of them as birds, and tourists are taken to see the "Lusiala birds". This 'bird' is sacred to the local community, indicated by its name, 'lusi', which means ancestors, and 'ala', which means descendants. The locals describe these animals as a 'bat-type bird with a tail' and they supposedly leave the cave bearing the souls of the ancestors. The cave is said to be 450 m deep, according to local men who have descended. The SUCC/WCC expedition (see below), however, record it as 80m deep.

Behind the Moslem village of Sawai, there is one cave which is suitable for tourists; Goa Hatu Putih (aka Goa Lasai). It is located within the National Park and is a 40-minute walk away from Sawai. The entrance is in a rock on the hillside, and is a resurgence with 2 small streams coming out. The chamber at the entrance is occupied by fruit bats and non-edible birds' nests. Upon entering the cave, there is a passage with many stal to the left. This leads to a couple of small chambers, which are inhabited by bats and invertebrates such as spiders, whip spiders and ants.

In 1996 there was an international caving expedition to Seram, by SUCC and Wessex Cave Club (WCC, England). They explored many caves in the Saleman/Sawai area and recorded more than 30 caves and resurgences. Many of the caves had deep shafts. According to tourist literature, there are caves near Hatuhuran on West Seram, near Seram Beach Resort.

Goa Akohi, a famous cave in south Seram in Tamilouw, east of Masohi, is full of spectacular stalactites and stalagmites. Large concrete square stepping stones form a path through the cave. The cave is really beautiful. Unfortunately, a new concrete entrance blockhouse has been built over the natural entrance in the last year. Also, electric lighting has been installed recently, powered by a generator located next to the entrance. However, the lights dazzle visitors and the cables were laid without care. Also, much of the workmen's debris has been left in the cave, as well an old concrete staircase. The cave guide found nothing wrong with touching the stal and using them as handholds.

The cave is located right by the roadside and I was told that there are 16 others in the area. The cave is managed by Dinas Pariwisata (Tourism Office). The caretaker can arrange tours for people who turn up at the cave, but it is advisable to pre-book with the Dinas Pariwisata in Masohi before visiting.

Caves on Saparua

Saparua is one of the 3 Lease Islands, which lie northeast of Ambon in Maluku Province, Maluku. Ferries and speedboats leave from Ambon's Tulehu harbour to various ports on Saparua.

The first cave I visited is in Ouw, in the south easternmost corner of the island. I hadn't seen any limestone in the area. Ouw is famous for its pottery. Our drive ended at the far side of the village, from which we walked about 200 m to the concrete steps leading down to a cave. Inside the dark chamber, locals were washing their clothes in the sizeable river. They were using smoky kerosene lamps to light up the place. Unfortunately, they leave their plastic bags, empty detergent containers and toothpaste tubes behind in the cave. The cave apparently leads to the coast which is not far away.

Driving across the top of the island to Kulur on the northwest corner, we passed a cave immediately by the roadside. This may have been Goa Air Serambi. Further on, a local led us to Goa Puteri Tujuh, or Seven Princess Cave. A track led through farmed land with coral karst rocks scattered in the fields. We walked down the steps leading to the cave, and entered a large chamber with several pools filled with incredibly clear water. There were supposed to be seven pools, one for each princess. The water was so clear that, at first, I didn't realise it was water, and wondered why the rocks below were green. I took several pictures but they don't do any justice to the place. Apparently, the pools, which are separated by rock walls, are dry at times of low water. Again, the locals use this cave for washing and obtaining water.

We drove through the village of Kulur and to two caves, Goa Mandi and Goa Minum (washing and drinking caves). The first cave is used for washing and a concrete platform acts as a bathing place. Surprisingly, there were fish in the water. It was murky, presumably from all the soap and shampoo used. The second cave is used chiefly to obtain water and concrete steps lead down to a pump. There is a water tank outside the cave, set up by Mercy Corps in 2002.

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