Our first task upon arrival in Ambon (aside from sampling the tasty food) was to find out about flights. The availability (or lack of) of flights would be a deciding factor in terms of how long we would stay in Ambon and whether or not we spent time exploring the wider Ambon island before heading away.
The flight between Ambon and Banda Island is never a certainty. The schedule (if you want to call it that) is sporadic. And just because you book, it doesn’t mean that it will go. If it rains, the flight is cancelled. If the pilot sleeps in, the plane leaves late. Maybe.
As it turned out, there was a Merpati flight scheduled for the next day. We were told to check-in at 7am, and the plane should leave at 8am. If it doesn’t go at 8am, we will have to wait for a few hours while they make up their mind as whether or not they will go at all.
We get to the airport at 7am, only to find out that the departure time was 7 – NOT the check in time. It didn’t even occur to me to check the printout given to us by the Merpati office – we just listened to what we were told. Lucky for us, this is Indonesia. Tidak apa-apa! (No problems!). Thank goodness for that, otherwise we would have had to resort to our Plan B… which didn’t really exist.
The plane was a dinky little plane holding up to 16 passengers. Alan thinks its some Russion built thing now banned in Europe! It looked like it had been built in the 1940’s. The seatback reminded me of old school busses except that it was a bit wobbly. There certainly wasn’t any safety briefing, but we were given a little snack box as we boarded.
Our seats were right behind the pilot so had a good view of their activities, at least until they pulled the curtain. Later in flight, we could smell cigarette smoke coming from the cockpit. Obviously the ‘No Smoking’ sign was intended for passengers only. As we landed, they sprayed the cockpit with air freshener – like we wouldn’t notice!
The view coming in was fantastic – I just wish the perspex windows weren’t so crazed so that I could have taken some decent photos. Banda Island is essentially split into two halves, divided by the runway. As you land, you have an incredible view of Gunung Api (the volcanic island just off of Banda Island) immediately in front of you. It was an exciting preview of what would await us during our time in the Banda Islands.
The Banda Islands
The Bandas are a group of small islands: we arrived on Pulau Banda, staying in the main town of Bandaneira (also spelled Bandanaira). This is the hub from where we would visit some of the outer islands, either on day trips, or overnight. Just a couple hundred meters off-shore from Pulau Banda is Gunung Api, the large and impressive volcano which last erupted in 1988 with full lava flows and boulders ‘’as big as cliffs’’ shooting from the crater. By all accounts, the Banda Islands offer some of the best diving in the world although I won’t be finding this out myself due to a recent cold and persistent congestion that prevents me from giving it a go.
The Spice Islands – a brief history
The Maluku Islands (of which the Bandas are just one group of islands) have an interesting history, all revolving around the spice trade – hence are also known as the original Spice Islands. In the 16th century, nutmeg, cloves and mace were considered to be global commodities that only grew in this region. Nutmeg was as valuable as gold. This attracted the interest of the Europeans and started the battle between the Dutch, the British and the Portuguese for colonisation and to monopolise the spice trade, resulting in bitter battles, treachery and loss of life.
What is interesting as you wander around Bandaneira is that there are many reminders of this period. There are two old Dutch forts: one that is pretty much reduced to ruins aside from some of the old stone arches (Benteng Nassau), and another classic 5-point style fort built in 1611 (Benteng Belgica) that has been well maintained and restored. There are old canon relics scattered around town – some prominently displayed, and others just abandoned and partly buried in random places. We saw kids using one as the foundation of a home-made fort to play in.
Many of the old Dutch buildings still exist – some in an abandoned state of disrepair, others serving as museums while others appear to be lived in.
We wanted something a bit quieter, and that’s what we got. Bandaneira is a lovely little town with relatively little traffic – just a few motorbikes. There are so many little alleyways and paths to explore, always with little kids jumping out to have their photo taken. As we walk around, “Hello Mister, where are you going” is the common catchprase. This is addressed to both Alan and myself: we are both ‘misters’.
The remains of the big old Dutch-built buildings are found throughout, intermingled with some newer concrete homes painted brightly in all colours of the rainbow. It all makes for an interesting area to wander.
We’re staying at a family-run guesthouse called Mutiara that offers decent rooms, some common living and dining areas that are beautifully decorated with stylish furniture and antiques. The guesthouse is run by Abba and Dilla, and Dilla is without doubt the best cook in the Banda area, if not all of Indonesia. She puts on an incredible buffet of local produce: always 1-2 large fish (snapper or tuna), grilled eggplant with Kenari-nut sauce and various salads. Her reputation is widely known by travellers and we are often joined by people staying at other guesthouses. We’ve had to ration our nights dining in because we were eating far too much! At some point, I am going to get Dilla to teach me some local recipes.
The day we arrived was Indonesian Independence Day and Banda very kindly put on a small parade for us. This compromised mostly of the school kids dressing up in all sorts of costumes and walking in class groups down the street. Most didn’t look like they enjoyed it much – it was hard to find photos of the smiling kids! I guess the blazing hot sun may have had something to do with that.
We’ve done a fair amount of walking and exploring but nothing that is riveting to write about! We clambered over the two old Dutch forts several times.
We hired a motorbike to explore the small island a bit more, and get to the top of the island for a spot of snorkeling at Malole Beach. It was somewhat underwhelming but apparently we should have gone out a bit further than we did to get to the more interesting stuff. The motorbike journey was fun, however, as we weaved in and out of small villages trying to find out way north. We even managed to have a spin on the airport runway – there were no planes due this day!
We’ve been on a spice plantation tour, a couple of snorkelling trips, including one to the ‘lava flow’ on Gunung Api. When the volcano erupted in 1988, the lava flowed into the ocean at three different points – one of which has now become a popular snorkel and dive point as the nutrients from the lava have encouraged some good coral growth with loads of fish.
Alan joined two others to conquer Gunung Api – a 2.5 hour vertical climb on loose scoria and scree to the top. I took the lazier option and just chilled around at the guesthouse.
We’ve climbed to the top of Benteng Belgica (the old fort) a couple of times to watch the sunset. It’s the perfect spot for a great view over Bandaneira and Gunung Api in the background. And there will no doubt be a handful of kids all wanting their picture taken.
We’ve met some really nice travellers while here: a German guy here for the diving, various couples from Italy, Hungary and the Czech Republic, a New Zealand guy living the in the UK, a young girl from Canada who had been living in China and another girl from India who had been living in the US. And the older, American travelling ‘mystic’ who communicates with the rocks. Bandaneira is a small town so we’re often bumping into each other. We share boats for snorkelling and other day trips. It feels like we have a group of friends here which is nice – and it’s kind of sad when people leave to move on – but there are always a few new arrivals on the next incoming boat. There are very few tourists here so you always know when someone new arrives in town!
I like Bandaneira. It’s chilled, quiet and it takes 10 minutes or less to walk to anywhere. There isn’t a lot of excitement here – but it’s just a nice town to hang out in for a while, and serves as a good base for snorkel day trips and to visit the outer islands.
Lisa’s Travel tips
I’d highly recommend Mutiara Guesthouse. It’s not the cheapest option in town, but at 200,000rp we still think it’s good value and a really nice to stay. Clean rooms, friendly and helpful hosts (Abba and Dilla), nice communal areas in a garden setting. Rp 200,000rp per night including breakfast of eggs and toast or freshly made pancakes with banana and cinnamon. And don’t forget the homemade nutmeg jam.
Mutiara Guesthouse: Eating at Mutiara is something that you need to do at least once. Dilla is an excellent cook – and her food always includes the local spices and Kenari nuts. Cost Rp80,000 per person. Not to be missed!
Nutmeg Café: Just down from Mutiara, the food was fine (when it eventually arrived), but the service was dismal. No one to welcome us in, to take our order or to bring the bill. This is contrary to the experience of other travellers so maybe we struck a couple of bad days.
Rumah Makan Bintar Indah: a small restaurant on the waterfront, popular with locals. You can find it just along from the Pelni office. Food was tasty and cheap – you pick what you want from the bowls of food displayed on the shelf. We paid Rp20,000 each for a large meal of rice, several vegetable dishes, eggs and a lemon juice drink. That’s less than NZD$3 each! Probably best for lunch when the food is freshest.
Nusantara: Good food and friendly hosts. Recommended.
WiFi: The internet has come to town – sort of. There are now WiFi connetions available with repeaters being installed at several guesthouses. We’ve got a strong signal at Mutiara and it’s also available at Lekas Guesthouse. Whist you can connect to the WiFi signal easily enough, whether or not the servers are all up and running is a different story. It’s hit and miss at the moment. Costs Rp15,000 for 24 hours, max 250mb. You can buy vouchers with login details from the guesthouses.
ATM: The BRI has an ATM, and my understanding is that the maximum withdrawal is Rp1,250,000 per transaction. The still don’t do currency exchange although Abba at Mutiara may do it (according to his guesthouse sign).
Things to do:
Benteng Belgica (fort): appears to be closed during the day but go up around 4pm and the caretaker will meet you there, take your 20,000rp donation and give you the guided tour for 10 mins or so. You are then free to wander around and climb the towers as you like.