A Different Side to the Spice Islands

November 30, 2014 frvtravel
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A big pile of mace drying in the sun.

By Thomas Jones

The Banda Islands are without superlative, a paradise on earth. Covered in coconut palms, nutmeg plantations, , jungle, giant rainforest trees, coral reefs, blue skies, crystal clear waters, and colourful villages filled with happy smiling people, they even have their own, genuine smoking volcanic island towering overhead.
Daniel Dafoe’s robinson crusoe couldn’t have designed it better himself.

These are the Spice Islands, the home of the fabled nutmeg and mace, spices worth more than their weight in gold and one of the driving forces behind Europe’s Golden Age of Exploration, which drove world trade in the 15th and 16th centuries and saw the Spanish and Portuguese, the English and the Dutch resort to extreme brutality and cruelty for their control. The riches made here set the scene for today’s modern capitalist world, and it is this colonial legacy that is the number one reason for tourists to visit the islands.


The Ombak Putih, the best route to Banda.

It is by no means an easy place to get to, with plane schedules sketchy at best, and the 12-hour ferries from Ambon quite the hassle, having done it five years previoulsy. We had bypassed the irregularities of Indonesia’s transportation system by sailing there in luxury on the Ombak Putih, a 42-metre, white, wooden, phinisi schooner that plies the waters of eastern Indonesia, the only way to go in my mind.


The towering Gunung Api as seen from the airport’s runway cum race track.

By the time we dropped anchor in Banda Neira, the island group’s main island, it was approaching dusk, but the next morning, we were up bright and early as usual, and we spent the day visiting the two main islands, meeting the locals, exploring the old forts, museums, the crumbling colonial mansions and the beautiful nutmeg forests high in the hills and it was all that it had promised and more.As fun as it was from a historical point of view, we couldn’t help feeling that there was more to the islands scenery and cuisine than just what the guidebook’s told us, so in an exercise in chaos on our second and final day, five of us jumped on motorbikes with some local lads and just said, ‘let’s go,’ in search of the unknown. There were no helmets, but this being a land of lax rules and fewer options we breathed in hard and set off with our hair blowing in the wind and insurance policies null and void.


Rundown and ramshackle, the colonial era looms large in the streets of Banda Neira.

Banda Neira has great roads, small but in good condition. We set off through the market turning heads as we went, and on through the beautifully kept neighbourhoods with their colourful houses, flower pots and pomegranate trees. Turning left or right at random and waving at strangers, we found ourselves at the water’s edge at a small shop selling fresh bread from the oven with delicious homemade nutmeg jam, which we ate with milky coffee while sitting astride a couple of 16th century cannon outside – as you do.


What it’s all about: nutmeg, nutmeg, and more nutmeg.

My driver suggested we go to the airport, which straddles the island and only gets used something like four times a week at best. The views of the volcano would be great from there, he said. When we got to the airport, a kilometre stretch of asphalt that runs the width of the island ending in a steep drop off at either end, my driver asked if we wanted to drive out onto it? On to an runway? Is that legal? Once again, there are few rules and even fewer people around to enforce them so we got to experience racing up and down this impromptu race track at high speed, a popular past time for the locals by the looks.


A doorway to history.

The north coast of Banda Neira has some beautiful beaches, so that was next on our list as we went up and over the hilly road through huge and ancient rainforest trees and nutmeg plantations. Arriving at beautiful and picturesque Malole Beach we all went in for a swim before heading on as far as the road would take us to the final, tiny village that looks back towards the harbour mouth and to where the Ombak Putih was riding at anchor in the lee of Banda’s active volcano, Gunung Api.


Cannon like this have been littering the streets for centuries.

From the concrete pier the water dropped off into the deep blue sea and it was teeming with hundreds of little fish. It was too inviting not to strip off and jump in for another swim and so we did. As luck would have it a local woman was grilling fresh sardines outside her house and she was more than happy to part with some for a few rupiah. As we sat munching she went inside and came out with a plate of grilled eggplant slathered in a sauce made of crushed kenari nuts –much like an almond– mixed with chilli. Today was just getting better and better.


The fading Maulana Hotel, still the choisest digs around.

Looking over at the Ombak Putih reminded us that we were due to sail in about 90 minutes, so we said our goodbyes and raced back to town and to the Maulana Hotel, the town’s fading, waterfront grand dame for a final couple of final cold Banda beers in the shade of history. The boys dropped us off and we left them with a generous tip, knowing they had had as good a time as we had just following the wind around their beautiful island home.

The kora kora war canoe that waved us off.

The kora kora war canoe that waved us off.

Soon after, we were sailing out of Banda Harbour under the guidance of a local kora kora war canoe, which had come to bid us farewell and to guide us on our way. Banda had been fantastic, not least for its castles and nutmeg legacy, but because like anywhere in the world, there’s always something else lying under the surface waiting to be discovered. You just have to look.

Channelling Abbey Road in the hot Banda’s active volcano tropical sun.

Channelling Abbey Road in the hot Banda’s active volcano tropical sun.

With flight schedules changing by the week and ferry sailings spaced far apart., Getting to Banda Neira is not easy. However, sailing with Sea Trek Bali is far and away the most elegant and fun way to see the Spice Islands and indeed, all of eastern Indonesia.



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