Hammers and ....Nutmeg?
Updated: Mar 24, 2021
The Banda Islands are just a few tiny specks on world maps and many times they are not even shown. There was a time when these islands were amongst the most prized for the Netherlands, England and other European nations, and were better known as the Spice Islands. The islands first came to my attention after reading Nathaniel’s Nutmeg by Giles Milton. The tales of ferocious war, subterfuge and finally treaties caught my imagination.
Not so for the rest of my family who rolled their eyes, until they read that there were great scuba diving opportunities in Banda. The area is particularly famous for schooling Hammerhead sharks. Suddenly, these islands didn’t seem so far away!
Well actually, they are far away! When we began to make enquiries, we quickly learnt that flexibility was key. Although there are scheduled planes and ferries, they sometimes don’t leave or arrive! It takes about 24 hours to get there from Bangkok and the closer we got the more remote they seemed. After flying in overnight from Jakarta, the ferry from Ambon took six hours, and for most of those hours there was no land in sight, just occasional sightings of dolphin pods.
Finally, a rocky top appeared on the horizon signaling we were entering the Banda Sea. Around us were islands that seemed to be green with forests, curved crescents of beaches and along the edges a few dwellings, jetties and small boats. We had pictured remote islands, not very populated, electricity for part of the day and perhaps spotty wifi. Banda is certainly for the intrepid traveller, those looking for more than a beach, a sunset and a drink with an umbrella; however, although remote to us, they are well populated with a thriving economy.
They are a group of eleven volcanic islands in the eastern part of Indonesia between Papua and Sulawesi, part of Maluku province. This area is still a big producer of nutmeg, mace and cinnamon. Speculation is that the Arabs, Chinese and Indians were amongst the first outsiders to trade in nutmeg and mace from the Banda Islands. In the 16th century the Europeans arrived. Nutmeg became a miracle cure to Europeans and fierce battles were waged as the Dutch sought to control the nutmeg trade. At one point, anyone who was not Dutch and came upon the islands was beheaded resulting in almost a complete wipeout of the ethnic population.
The Dutch East India company (Verenigde Oost Indische Compagnie or VOC) was so focused on the trade monopoly that in 1667 the Dutch agreed the British could keep the swampy island of New Amsterdam in North America and in return, the British would vacate the small island of Pulau Run in the Banda Sea. With this, the VOC established a monopoly on nutmeg until the 19th century and by that time the island of New Amsterdam was already making its mark on the world as Manhattan, New York.
Die hard scuba divers seem to love the Bandas even though they are difficult to get to. The Banda Sea sits in the middle of an area known as the Coral Triangle. The busiest season is in October and November when schools of divers drop down to experience the larger schools of Hammerhead sharks.
The area offers great visibility, usually 30 – 50 metres, and pristine coral reefs are abundant. There are magnificent walls facing the open blue ocean dropping to 50 or 60 metres with many varieties of large gorgonian sea fans and barrel sponges. These walls attract schooling barracuda, jacks, tuna, mackerel and other large pelagic. The big reef favourites are Batu Kapal, which is a rock rising out of the water with several bomis; Pohon Miring is situated on the northeast of Banda Besar known for strong currents and an abundance of fish with a nice swim through; Pulau Hatta has some nice sites including Umbrella Rock where big pelagic, schools of bumphead parrotfish and turtles are often seen.
There are only three or four dive operators in the area. We chose to go with Blue Motion Divers who work out of Baba Lagoon Guesthouse. Tuta and his crew run a well organised diving operation with a good balance of safety and freedom to explore. Typically, four divers are paired to a dive master and the boat drops them off at five minute intervals to avoid crowding. With so few dive boats in the area, divers often get to experience the dive sites on their own.
Most people arrive in the Bandas through the port of Banda Neira. The Bahari ferry from Ambon only comes in twice a week and its arrival galvanises activity on the island. The ferries disgorge supplies, tourists and business people while motorbikes with coolers precariously balanced race through town with ocean-caught fish that will get better prices on the mainland. In harvest season, sacks of nutmeg, mace, cinnamon and almonds will compete for space.
We were lucky enough to hit durian season and the impassioned haggling for the most stringent smelling, ripest fruit! Tourism makes up only a small percentage of the local economy here, and the upside for tourists is very easy going, friendly people who are genuinely interested in talking and not always trying to sell you a tour, a souvenir or a t-shirt.
Banda Neira gives you the feeling of being caught in time. Colonial architecture intersperses with local homes. Wander around the village and you will see many remnants of history – old tombstones, old walls with Dutch inscriptions and empty colonial homes that are now used for government offices, schools or tourism. We enjoyed exploring Benteng Belgica, the better preserved of the two 17th century Dutch forts on the island. It is open every day from 4pm and you can wander freely. Go at sunset to get a stunning view of Gunung Api, still classified as an active volcano, and which sits just a five minute boat ride across the water.
If you head out to Gunung Api in the morning, you can walk up to the top of the volcano, sit amongst hot, smoking stones and take in the bird’s eye view of the Banda Sea. The path is clear, but can get tricky on the way down with many loose stones.
A spice tour is a must while you are in the Banda islands. One night over a dinner of kesar (almond topped) eggplants, nutmeg chicken and Banda fish, we booked ourselves into a tour the next day. By mid morning, we jumped in a boat with Ayu, our young guide and within ten minutes we were at Banda Besar, the largest island in the Bandas and home to many nutmeg plantations. The island seems even more laid back than Banda Neira, and for good reason.
Most people on this island are relatively well off and own small scale nutmeg plantations in the forest. The nutmeg grows in the shade of hundred year old Kenari almond trees. The fleshy outside fruit is used in jams and cooking, the red mace covering is dried and sold separately from the innermost nut which is nutmeg. We wander down shady streets and take care not to step on mats of nutmeg and mace drying on the side. Halfway up the hill, we take a quick sidestep to the Hollandia fort which offers another view of Gunung Api and a wide view of the closer Banda islands.
Ayu is one of those quiet but determined types. Originally from Banda, she did a BA in English Literature in Makassar and now is applying for scholarships to study sustainable tourism. While doing her BA she assembled a group of friends who started education programmes on plastic waste and tour guiding. She wants to educate the generations younger than her, to give them the knowledge to protect the area from the plastic waste that is destroying many other places. Like most of the people we met, she was fiercely proud of her heritage on the islands and could spend hours chatting about the history and folklore of the area. Surprisingly, there are quite a few guesthouses to choose from. Baba Lagoon Guesthouse and the Maulana Hotel are amongst the oldest and are located on the water facing Gunung Api.
The Maulana was a regular stop for ocean explorer Jacques Costeau and has seen the likes of Princess Diana, Mick Jagger, Sarah Ferguson and others. Cilu Bintang has beautiful large rooms in true colonial style and overlooks the two 17th century forts. Other smaller guesthouse such as the Delfica and the Nutmeg Tree offer cheaper but still good accommodations. We stayed at Baba Lagoon Guesthouse, whose friendly staff over-fed us with breakfasts of local-style pancakes with homemade nutmeg jam and eggs, an abundance of local specialties for afternoon snacks and always good coffee.
As the location for Blue Motion divers, Baba Lagoon also gave us the convenience of wandering out of our rooms and directly onto the dive boat. This guesthouse doesn’t serve dinner, which was a great opportunity for us to wander the town at night. Although there are many places to get good food (The Maulana and Delfica were our favourites), the best was at the local market. Stop at one of the fish vendors, choose your fish and pick it up after 30 minutes when it will be grilled for you. Accompany that with some spicy nasi goreng and vegetables which will be wrapped in paper and get your fingers ready for eating! Six days in Banda passed magnificently. The two scuba divers went out on the boat every day, and the non-scuba (me) enjoyed snorkeling and found plenty of places to explore on land.
We had planned on seven days, but at dinner on the fifth night, we learned that the Bahari ferry had been chartered by government officials and had arrived a day early, which meant it was leaving a day early. In the end, everything fulfilled our expectations, even the unscheduled ferry! We’re already booked for high season in October and getting our cameras ready for the schooling hammerheads!
Getting to Banda Neira: From Jakarta it is best to take the Lion Air flight to Ambon, which connects well with the six hour Bahari ferry. The ferry is scheduled to leave on Saturday and Tuesday mornings from Ambon and returns on Sunday and Wednesday. You can also fly from Ambon to Banda Neira but are allowed only 10kgs of luggage. The Pelni company operates overnight and 14 hour ferries with cabins. We recommend booking your return flight from Ambon to Jakarta at the last minute to avoid change fees.
Contacts: Blue Motion Diving and Baga Lagoon Guesthouse: Rafa or Tuta email@example.com Maulana Hotel: Mita Alwi firstname.lastname@example.org Tour Guide Ayu: email@example.com