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Published: October 18th 2006
Big ship, small port
The Bukit Siguntang approaches the dock at Banda Neira. It's just as well that the channel between Neira and Gunung Api, despite being narrow, is very deep.
Not all that much happens on the Banda Islands. The days of crazy foreigners falling over themselves to set foot on the islands - all for a little brown nut - are long gone. The Bandas are a forgotten backwater if ever there was one.
Not surprisingly therefore, the docking of a ship as large as the Bukit Siguntang
at a port as tiny as Neira Island's is an event. A big
Arriving in the Banda Islands aboard a PELNI liner is quite a surreal experience. As the islands come closer into view, the ferry suddenly seems disproportionately large. Surely this place, in the back of the back of beyond, does not merit a detour ? Perhaps PELNI stops here purely out of courtesy, as if to send a message to this little specks of land that Jakarta has not forgotten them.
Without any apparent reduction in speed, the vessel squeezes through the narrow channel that separates the chief island, Pulau Neira, from the volcano-island of Gunung Api. It is early morning and local fishing boats scoot back and forth across the channel, as small as insects mere metres from the ferry's towering hull. As Neira approaches
Fort Belgica appears out of the vegetation as we approach Pulau Neira aboard the PELNI ferry.
on our left, a glimpse of a hilltop fortress. Then the gilded onion-shaped domes of a mosque. Buildings, houses. This is Banda Neira, one and only town of any size in this group of islands. A concrete platform at the edge of town acts as the dock. As we finally slow down, it seems incredible that a ship this size is going to be able to dock here. A crowd has begun to gather on the jetty, and the Bukit Siguntang
's entire contingent of passengers is leaning over the side to watch the delicate process. Mooring ropes are thrown, tied, tightened. As the ferry's hull inches closer to the dock, it is obvious from where we are standing on the upper deck that the small town of Banda Neira has gone into overdrive. Becaks have begun to gather near the mosque, porters stand in a group on the dock, jostling and preparing to dash aboard the millisecond the boarding steps have touched the ground. A market has been set up in the narrow street leading away from the dock. The Bukit Siguntang
's next stop is Tual, main port of the Kei Islands, a small archipelago that makes even the Bandas
Easy does it...
Approaching the jetty at Banda Neira. As you can see there is already a crush of people on the steps ready to board !
look like the bright lights. There are many hungry mouths aboard to feed, and the ferry is only going to wait an hour before it sets off on the twelve hour sailing to Tual.
Getting off the ferry is not as traumatising as we had feared. Just as in Ambon, the authorities have judged it appropriate to embark and disembark passengers simultaneously, using the single set of narrow steps. This is not quite fair - there are
no authorities to do anything of the sort, and as is always the case here, everyone is left to their own devices, in other words to push, shove, yell, run. Luckily there are not that many people getting on or off here, so we make it on to dry land pretty easily.
The owner of our hotel, the Delfika
, is waiting for us on the jetty. I had phoned ahead to reserve a room from Ambon - he didn't exactly need a sign with our names on it. There are all of five foreigners on the ship ! He leads us approximately 30 metres from the jetty to the hotel, a very attractive colonial-era building, built around a central courtyard. As
Inching closer to the jetty. There is not much room for maneuver here !
with most hotels in the Banda Islands, accommodation is usually on a full board basis. There never have been many restaurants in Banda Neira, and since 1999 - when the flow of tourists dwindled to a minute trickle - there are none at all. The owner of the hotel - we baptise him Mr Delfika - is charming and extremely helpful. He immediately offers to arrange a whole programme of activities for us. Activities ? Here ? I thought there really wasn't a whole lot to do in the Banda - part of the reason we came here. Apparently there is...
We spend six relaxing days in the Banda Islands, much of it spent aimlessly wandering the street of Banda Neira, marvelling as its old colonial church, houses and government buildings. Much of these are not in as good a state as they should be - time, a lack of money, damage from the sectarian troubles of 1999, and most importantly a lack of interest from Jakarta, all these things have taken their toll. None of this, however, takes away from the fact that Banda Neira is a truly extraordinary place. The church, despite its sad condition, is especially
Flurry of activity...
...as passengers stock up on supplies before the ferry departs for Tual. The huge ferry looks so out of place here.
atmospheric, and contains a large number of gravestones, both Dutch and English, dating from as far back as the late 17th century. One such gravestone bears this wonderful inscription: To the memory of Captain James Logan, in the service of the Hon'ble English East India Company, who in the prime of life fell victim to this unsalutary climate on the 5 July Anno Domine 1798. His zeal, conduct and courage made him a credit to his profession whilst his liberal disposition, ingenuous manner and unsullied principles acquired him in life the love and esteem of his friends and, on his death, ther sincere regret.
The Banda Islands are ideally suited to aimless wandering and wondering. Wondering what the islands must have looked like hundreds of years ago at the height of the spice race. This represents no great leap of the imagination, what with V.O.C. cannons littering the streets so that you almost trip over them, imposing fortresses at every corner, and nutmeg drying the sun by the side of the road.
The welcome here is particularly strong. The islands' original inhabitants were efficiently exterminated by the Dutch, who objected to the locals' demands for
Show's over, folks !
Packing up the market after the ferry's departure for Tual.
fair prices, so the Bandas today are inhabited by a population with Indonesian, Melanesian, Arab and Indian roots. Perhaps because of this diversity, the Banda Islands are one of the few places where Bahasa Indonesia
or "standard Indonesian" is the actually the principal language. On these islands it is spoken with a distinctive and beautiful lilting intonation - the Bandanese sound like Italians speaking Indonesian ! In fact if you weren't listening carefully, it would - bizarrely - sound almost exactly like Italian. Children in the Bandas are particularly curious when it comes to foreigners - since the late 1990s they are a real rarity here, so any child under the age of ten or so is invariably captivated by your presence.
Maluku being a more isolated province of Indonesia, the phenomenon of "Hello Mister" still thrives here. It has, thankfully, been stamped out of more visited areas like Bali, but is still the phrase that Bandanese children systematically yell
at the top of their lungs in the presence of any foreigner. I'm sure many a visitor to Indonesia's backwaters would love to meet the person responsible for introducing Indonesians to this phrase, and tell him - or her
Three point turn...
The Bukit Siguntang maneuvers its way out of Banda Neira.
- a thing or two.
It usually begins with a pair of youngsters who spot us walking down one of Banda Neira's alleys. One will say to the other "Awas ! Di sana ada mister dua orang !"
. It's tricky to explain why this sounds so funny..."Mister" is used by the children as the standard word for "foreigner", while "orang" (person) is used as a classifier for said foreigners (much like "loaf" would be for "bread", or "sheet" for "paper"). "Look ! There go two misters !"
...At the excited mention of the trigger-word "mister" children from a wide area will gravitate towards the "spotters". Then the chorus of "Hello Mister" can begin in earnest, perhaps - if you're very privileged as we were - to an accompaniment of pots, pans and plastic bottles being banged together. Slightly older children learn English at school and are much more cosmopolitan, distinguishing between "Hello Mister" and "Hello Missus". This is all quite amusing for a few days, but "Hello Mister fatigue" - a medically recognised condition - soon sets in. By the end of our stay I was getting my own back by shouting "Hello Mister" at children before they had a
The waters surrounding the Banda Islands are home to some truly spectacular coral. All other reefs we have seen pale in comparison. The density of coral is astonishing.
chance to open their mouths !
One afternoon we went to visit a nutmeg plantation on Pulau Lonthoir (or Pulau Banda Besar - Big Banda Island). As the imaginative alternative name suggests, this island is the largest in the group (by far) and is also the main historical and current nutmeg producer. It's a short boat ride from Neira, but the tide was out so we had to walk halfway anyway...After the Dutch exterminated the local inhabitants they brought in a number of planters from the Netherlands, known as perkeniers
to the island. These dutifully tended the plantations and even more dutifully sold their nutmeg to the V.O.C. at bargain prices. Still, they made a fortune out of their line of business and built fancy homes all over the islands, only the ruins of which remain today. We visited a plantation owned by a Mr Pongki, whose predecessor was a Mr van den Brucke, last perkenier
in the Bandas. Several members of Mr Pongki's family were killed and many of his buildings burned down during the sectarian troubles, when Lonthoir's entire Christian population was hounded off the island to Pulau Seram, north of Ambon. He still runs his plantation,
The southern flank of Gunung Api bears the scars of a previous volcanic eruption. Coral reefs flourish over the submerged parts of the lava flows.
producing several tonnes of nutmeg annually which is all exported to Europe. He showed us the original drying racks (used to dry the "fresh" nutmeg in its shell) and his nutmeg trees. They are surprisingly puny things, perhaps 6 metres tall with a spindly trunk and narrow, waxy leaves. Every tree carries an abundance of pale yellow, apricot-like fruit, which when ripe will split open to reveal the nutmeg, inside its hard shell, surrounded by its lacy aril, mace. Nutmeg trees are very particular when it comes to growing conditions, and they prefer to grow in the shadow of a second kind of tree, the kanari
, a huge monster with enormous buttress roots. The kanari
produces a nut similar in appearance to an almond, a delicious ingredient in many Bandanese dishes.
You can feel, though, that this isn't really an economically significant or lucrative business. The amount of nutmeg produced here is a tiny fraction of what is grown in the Caribbean for example, and even the kanari
are more highly prized than nutmeg on the islands. An interesting useless piece of information (my speciality) is that much of the Bandas' nutmeg is rumoured to be eventually bought up
Teeming with life
The coral drop-off off the shore of Pulau Ai, an hour's sailing to the west of Neira. Everywhere you look, beautiful pristine coral and technicolour fish.
by Coca-Cola as an ingredient in their secret formula. How bizarre - one of the world's leading brand names, dependent on the Banda Islands...? Still, it's only a rumour.
We also had plenty of time to enjoy the Bandas' other main attraction, this time beneath the waves. Coral, and lots
of it. It is said to be truly exceptional and we were not disappointed. Particularly astonishing were the huge coral gardens that flourish over the submerged lava flows off the north-eastern flank of Gunung Api. It is believed that the volcanic substrate, combined with favourable ocean currents, contribute to the unique proliferation of coral here, which also grows at record speed. We have never seen anything like it, even in Sipadan. Luckily, one of South-East Asia's favourite pastimes - dynamite bomb-fishing - never caught on here. Pulau Ai, one hour west of Neira across deep and dangerous seas, also had spectacular coral, this time over a huge drop-off teeming with fish. The only downside was the rather chilly water - several degrees cooler than anywhere else we've snorkelled on this trip !
Otherwise, days were spent ambling about Banda Neira, absorbing this place's utterly captivating atmosphere. Islands worth
Fish of the day...
...is parrotfish. I found this elderly fisherman off Pulau Ai. He had trapped several fish in a simple trap made of bamboo and coral blocks. The hard part was to spear the fish once inside ! Parrotfish have a formidable beak and could easily have your finger off.
their weight in nutmeg, indeed.
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