The Stunning Banda Islands

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November 8 2010

As I sit on our balcony writing this, I feel I can almost touch the volcano Gunung Api, separated from us by 500 metres of ocean. It last erupted in 1989 but caused no ill effects to the island of Neira where we are staying. Our small bright orange guest house is situated on the water, with its own little jetty, alongside the village docks, so we are entertained (and deafened) by the constant toing and froing between the many tiny islands of the Bandas and the relatively large village of Neira. Surrounding us are the tiny houses belonging to the villagers, all with tin roofs in varying stages of oxidation. The scene is impossibly picturesque as the slopes of the volcano and those of the tiny islets dotting the strait are thickly forested with a tropical rainforest canopy. No wonder we disembarked from our ship and promptly rebooked our return tickets so as to have 2 weeks here instead of one.

We left Ambon 9 days ago on the Pelni ship, the Ciremai. It is a large cargo/passenger ship, roughly the size of one of the large B.C. ferries, but with layers of passengers where the car decks would normally be, and no seating accommodation on the top deck. Fortunately when we booked the tickets the agent had suggested we book a cabin which we were happy to do, just from the point of view of having somewhere safe to stow our luggage for the 7 hour journey. As it turned out, the journey was more like 11 hours all told as our departure was considerably delayed in Ambon. All the people on the bottom decks were in so-called economy class which meant they were supposed to have a thin mat on the floor down below assigned to them. Many people had been on the boat for days as it plies a circuitous route from Jakarta through the Indonesian archipelago. So many people and so much cargo was loaded on in Ambon that there was not a spare inch of space on the outer decks, or in the stairwells, or even any way to get out of the inside of the ship because of all the bodies sleeping in every spare inch and the piles of boxes and bundles everywhere. We had envisioned spending time on the deck observing the sea as we do on the ferry, but had reckoned without the heat, the crush of bodies and the complete absence of space to walk, let alone sit! So as we left the island of Ambon behind, we actually repaired to our AC cabin, stretched out on our bunks, broke out the box lunches we’d brought from the hotel, and read for the rest of the journey.

It was very late at night when we arrived at Bandaneira but with incomprehensible messages being broadcast over the loud speakers we managed to catch the word Banda and decided it was time to emerge and prepare to disembark. Just as the agent had told us, the entire town seemed to be out in the pitch dark streets to greet the boat. What total confusion as everyone pushed and shoved down the narrow gangplank and porters struggled out with immense loads of boxes and baggage. I had phoned a guesthouse at random, and sure enough, someone plucked us from the crowd saying “Delfika 2”? We are rather obvious and there were only 6 non Indonesians on the boat as it turned out. By a stroke of good luck we chose the nicest guesthouse in town, and the owner Bahri, has been unflaggingly helpful and a great source of information.

Access to the Banda Islands has been limited for the last 10 or more years to the 2 Pelni ships which call here at varying intervals. The problem is that their schedules change daily so it has been impossible for tourists to make firm arrangements for onward flights out of Ambon and so on. Incredibly frustrating for the Bandanese too — there is a very basic clinic here but no real medical care so if anything happens that requires a real hospital, they had to wait for a boat to (maybe) show up in a week or so. The medical contingent may be interested to know that women in obstructed labour are loaded into a small fish boat to which they attach a second motor and transported over often stormy seas to Ambon 10 hours away. Needless to say the outcome is usually dire. Since June 2010 a tiny airplane which can hold about 20 people if they are not too heavy (they weigh everyone and their luggage) has been flying in and out twice a week except when the weather is bad. The guesthouse operators are delighted, but since it is impossible to make return bookings from Ambon, it is still a bit of a toss of the dice whether or not you will be able to get on a return flight when you get here. Bahri told us of two guests who got stranded here a couple of months ago. Their visa was running out and their tickets back to Europe in jeopardy. A private plane carrying the Chief of Police of Maluku (chief of police is definitely the job to have in this country, they are amazingly rich and wield huge power, such a corrupt place) arrived on a day trip to see the Banda Islands. Bahri begged him to take the tourists back to Ambon, saying that if he didn’t he would have to arrest them as they would have no visa in another 2 days. Fortunately he consented!

Back in the late 1500’s the Bandas were the most sought after trading outpost in the world due to the fact that they were the world’s only source of nutmeg which was reputed to be a remedy for the bubonic plague which was decimating the population of England and the rest of Europe. Samuel Pepys writes of exchanging a whole purse of gold for a half dozen nutmegs as plague gripped London. (A very interesting book about this period is Nathaniel’s Nutmeg – it’s in Maple Ridge library) The Dutch had a trading post in Java by the early part of the 1600’s and a bitter struggle was waged between them and the British for control of these coveted islands where cloves and pepper were also grown in abundance. Of course the wishes of the Bandanese were never considered. The Dutch built forts on all the islands, the remains of which stand today, and massacred the islanders in droves to force them into submission. Really the brutality of the times is quite unbelievable to read about. The British tried to gain a toe hold but only managed to establish themselves on tiny little Run Island, about 15 kilometres from the island of Neira where we are. (We snorkelled there a couple of days ago) Finally the Dutch murdered all the English that were manning the place, massacred all the Bandanese, and cut down every nutmeg tree on the island, at which point the British objected and after long negotiations agreed to trade Run for Manhattan!

The snorkelling here is reputed to be some of the best in the world. The water has amazing clarity, one of the divers told me normal visibility is over 30 metres, the coral is undisturbed and undamaged unlike other areas of Indonesia and the Philippines where they bomb for fish, and the varieties of coral and sea life observable is immense with many species unseen elsewhere. Couple that with really nice people, a village atmosphere and pretty well no tourists and you basically have paradise in many people’s opinion. When we first got here there were a few other tourists here, some of them staying in our guesthouse and Bahri arranged boats for us to go snorkelling to a number of different islands which we all shared the cost of. Now we are down to just two other tourists in another guesthouse because a Pelni boat showed up several days behind schedule and since none of them had plane tickets they all (8 of them) had to grab their bags and decamp. However the English tourists are keen to go with us any day we want and the boats are not expensive.  Our first trip was to Run Island, about as far out as these tiny boats go. We were simply stunned by the coral and the fish and thought this must be the ultimate spot on the islands (little did we know what awaited us….) The boats they use are long and narrow, only about 5 feet wide in the middle and about 30 feet long, with a very low cabin, and powered by a small outboard engine. The strait in front of Neira is calm but once we rounded the end of the volcano the water became quite choppy and the boat was a wallower, going from side to side constantly — those who know me will understand that it was an ordeal for me the whole 2 hours out to Run! We went to shore after our first snorkel and walked through the tiny, clean village with its brightly coloured cement houses and gardens of bright tropical plants. People are not exactly busy on these islands, some women were sitting on the ground shelling nutmegs, there were trays of mace (which is the inner skin around the actual nutmeg nut and is very valuable) drying in the sun, along with canari nuts and tamarind pods. A man offered us some coconuts to drink, shinnied up a tree and brought us one each which is the best oral rehydration fluid around. The 6 of us who went out that day included an Indonesian couple from Jakarta who had never snorkelled, and maybe in the wife’s case, not even swum before. They wore life jackets and really enjoyed themselves despite the fact that the poor woman was wearing a head to toe Muslim outfit comprised of tight trousers topped with a knee length tunic, her head covered by a kind of tight bathing cap topped with a headscarf and shoulder length veil. Since it all kind of matched I assume it was purpose made. The boat always drops us off over the reef wall and then motors down in the direction the current is going so we drift and there is little effort involved. However I thought she did very well, as with all her slippery clothes on it was very hard to climb the ladder back into the boat and she seemed to get a bit hysterical about it all!

We then went to a tiny uninhabited islet called Nilaka where we did more snorkelling, and amazingly saw more variety of things. We struggle to pick out the different species of fish but a young English guy that was with us that day had dived a lot so knew quite a few species. We finished the day by stopping at Ai Island where we all felt too exhausted to get out of the boat, did so, and then couldn’t get back in as it was such a fascinating reef. The day took 8 hours, we snorkelled for 4 so we were pretty much toast when we got back . We have decided to snorkel on alternate days and walk and explore on the others — it is really warm here and when your choice, as mine is, is to sit inside the cabin and throw up for the whole journey or sit on the roof in the sun and wind and fry yourself to death, a rest day in between is needed! Such a treat — we’ve made 4 trips now to four different areas, including the base of the lava flow as the lava has caused a proliferation of gorgeous coral. (7 trips in total by the time we left.)

We returned to Ai yesterday so that we would have time to explore the village between snorkels, and found the old Dutch fort, Fort Revenge. The old Dutch cemetery beside it, with some more recent Christian graves has become the town garbage dump unfortunately The Dutch cemetery in Naira is in the same state, though the government has restored Fort Belgica. In 1999 Maluku experienced what they refer to now as “the troubles.” Muslim insurgents came in to various islands, apparently from Java, and incited riots in which people were killed and all the Christian churches were burned down. The Christians escaped from the Banda Islands to Ambon and have never returned so the churches stand as burned out ruins on each island and it is pretty much wholly Muslim here now. The Bandas were closed to tourism for a period and for 6 years no planes flew in so the economic situation was very poor for the people here.>> We have seen an amazing variety of species of reef life. I feel as if I am swimming in an aquarium, surrounded by masses of brilliantly coloured fish of all shapes, some almost square with bright lemon yellow bodies and black stripes, others white with black polka dots, pure black ones with tails like scarves waving behind, great blunt faced parrot fish swimming soberly among the more ebullient hordes of little fish. At one point I was in the middle of a swarm of very tiny twinkling fish – yellow, orange, red, black – it was like being surrounded by a gorgeous shower of confetti. We have seen a few things I would rather not, off Ai we ran into a whole pack of black tip sharks, which are small and apparently not dangerous, but still ugly looking blighters in my opinion. And at another spot we saw about a dozen trigger fish, one after the other. These odd looking iridescent fish with a horrible underbite have the unfortunate habit of attacking snorkelers who stray into the territory near their nests. They can bite quite badly and one snorkeler was knocked cold and drowned after one hit him on the head. However usually they go for the fins so apparently you can generally beat them off. Ellie, the extremely rotund English woman has been attacked, but really everything in the world has happened to Ellie so I am not sure how serious it was. These ones didn’t seem aggressive and we gave them a wide berth. We also saw a lot of moray eels and sea turtles which are very stately as they swim. I saw one of the enormously venomous but apparently not aggressive banded sea snakes off Sumba and was not pleased, so when the others started to spot them off Pisang Island and called us over to look I quickly swam in the other direction.

The beds of coral are immensely varied, and the way they grow reminds me of a forest canopy, some are low bottom huggers and look like succulent plants, others are high and branching, still others wave in the current like feathers, all with their various shades of colour. You see whole beds of formations that look like rows and rows of fabric rosettes, with the edges of the petals tipped in silver. Others look like huge brains, all fissured, still others like huge toadstools with frilly edges. The fish cluster around certain ones and feed from them, it is so cute to watch them.

We have gotten to know Bahri the guesthouse owner quite well and he has taken to visiting us for long chats each day. He has been a font of information about the politics here, and the infrastructure of the place. He is a very philanthropic type who has organized all kinds of help for poor kids to get senior high school (the Indonesian government instituted free elementary and junior high education 4 years ago) and has teamed up with an Australian woman who did her PhD here 10 or 12 years ago and who returns every year for a period of months, to put together a small foundation to support some worthy but needy kids to further their educations. He also uses the money to float small loans to people who need help, for example our boat driver was penniless when his old motor gave out, so he and Agnes organized a loan for a new motor. Quite inspiring to see what one committed individual can do in a small community. Of course we will leave him as many rupiah as we have left (no ATM or money exchange here) when we depart for some of the school fees.

Well a couple more days in paradise have come and gone, and after a final trip to Hatta Island and a last dinner at the wonderful Mutiara, we will take the plane back to Ambon Saturday morning where I will immediately try to send this and hopefully catch up on the news from home.

 PS For those with atlases, our next destination is to Papua. We hadn’t planned to go but since we are so close…We fly Ambon to Sarong in the north west, then on to Jayapura in the north east. We then have to arrange a police permit and a flight into Wamea to see the Baliem Valley. No roads in and out of these areas in Papua, everything goes by plane, hence traveling will be more expensive. Hope to see a penis gourd, but hear the men have exchanged them for shorts in recent years — may get lucky.. 

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