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August 21, 2014

Nathaniel’s Place

Filed under: Books,Holidays,Indonesia — scotsabroad @ 8:48 pm


Ever changeable transport connections made the Banda Islands an awkward place to reach. But the wonderful week we eventually had on Banda Neira made all the logistics worthwhile. We found an amazing, as yet undeveloped place that brought Giles Milton’s book very much to life. Many people have been asking us for details about getting to the islands so I hope the information included in this blog helps in some way. 


Nutmeg, one of the medieval world’s most expensive commodities was once produced almost exclusively in the Banda Islands. Things started to go wrong for the islands when the Europeans arrived and demanded a trade monopoly. Milton’s book describes the rivalry and hostility between the Dutch and the British at this time. The book makes you want to visit the islands of Rhun and Ai. We were told that we would find discarded cannons lying in the streets. We did. But we found so, so much more.


We booked a Garuda flight from Jakarta to Ambon a while back. Going to the Garuda office and paying with cash at Dharmawangsa Mall got us a special deal. This gave us about a two-week window to hopefully use the Pelni Ferries that stopped at Banda Neira.

The company only publishes it’s timetable a few weeks in advance so we anxiously waited to find out if we could go and for how long. We used the services of Joyce at Morning Star Tours and Travel in Jakarta. ( She kept her eye on the Pelni website and let us know when we could purchase tickets. We had to send her photocopies of our Kitas and she bought the tickets for us. We thankfully bought first class. I suppose you could use any tour operator.

Flying into Ambon on the Saturday, it turned out that we could sail the next evening at approximately 6pm aboard the KM Tidar. Having bought supplies we made our way down to the docks. We were told that the ferry was late and was now due at 8pm. We decided to stay. All around us vendors were selling pieces of matting. People were buying these to sit on. The waiting area and docks outside began to fill up with hundreds, if not thousands, of people.  Eventually the ship sailed into port about three hours late. The crowd swarmed towards the ship as passengers also tried to disembark. I still can’t believe we managed to make our way through this crowd to the gangplank. I hope the picture gives some idea of what we waded through. Not for the fainthearted.


Once on board we discovered the stairwells and corridors were already full of humanity. Stretched out on their matting and corralled within their bags and chattels. If this ship was going down any reported passenger numbers would have been just an estimate. There does not seem to be a maximum capacity for Pelni Ferries.


Stepping over some bodies we were glad to get into our first class cabins just so we could dump the bags, find a space and have some privacy. The cabins stank and we spent the night with the light on as I hit cockroaches with Shona’s Havaianas. Not the most pleasant of cruises for eight hours. The light of day brought a sighting of Banda Neira in the distance and  the ship’s rats up close. We sailed right into Banda Neira. Disembarking was easier. We waved to the remaining passengers on board – many who had found space in the lifeboats. Later, from our guesthouse balcony, we watched the ferry leave after three long horn blasts . It began raining.



We stayed at the Delfika 2 guesthouse down by the town’s public jetty. We had the only two rooms facing the water and use of the balcony and the private jetty. We had a spectacular view of a small volcano called Gunung Api. Clean and very reasonably priced (250k a night for a room with a volcano view) but no toilet roll or hot water. Breakfast was prepared by the housekeeper. They also did a great laundry service. I’ve never had my boxers look so white. Bhari runs both Delfika guesthouses. He doesn’t have great internet connection but he speaks excellent English. He was prompt and helpful with information when I booked. Indeed, he supplied the ferry information and timings before the travel agent.        tel: +62 910 21027

The Delfika 1 is an old Dutch mansion in the town and has a reputation for its café. We used it a few times but were not impressed. Perhaps, because it was Ramadan, the family seemed less than enthusiastic – especially about feeding us during the day. But nothing wrong with the location and the accommodation at Delfika 2. We had the place to ourselves. The other guesthouses are listed below.

First morning, Shona and the boys relaxed in the guesthouse as I went out to explore the town and buy some toilet roll. A quick mango juice at the Nutmeg café and a clamber around the fortress of Benteng Belgica. More cannons lying in the grass. Old colonial mansions left to slowly decay. In some places it felt like I was walking around a historical film set in the rain.


At other times we all walked around the town exploring the old colonial buildings and the older fort of Benteng Nassau.We got into the deserted Istana Mini, the residence for the Banda’s Dutch governors, and found the bust of Dutch King Willem 3 just rusting away quietly in the garden. The house that Hatta lived in when he was exiled to Banda Neira was worth a visit. We got access to the Rumah Budaya Museum which wasn’t great and it was blatantly selling artefacts. We resisted the temptation to buy small cannon-shot and padlocks with the VOP emblem on them.




On our way back to our guesthouse we often passed through the narrow market area to buy fresh fruit and delicious cinnamon snacks. We watched the islanders sell their produce and bring in their nutmeg in plastic bags to sell to one of the several collection centres. The distinct smell of nutmeg hung around the alleyways.



On our second day we chartered a boat to take us to Pulau Ai and Pulau Rhun. An adventurous and rough crossing in parts – being monsoon season. Not much left of the forts on both islands but magnificent old almond trees used to shade the prized plantations of nutmeg. Almost every household has nutmeg and cloves drying in the warm sunshine. The nutmeg is individually harvested by hand when the flesh splits to reveal the red layer below. The outer fruit of the nutmeg is dried for candy and jam making. The remains of the plant’s flower is this red layer within the fruit. When dried this is mace. Then there is the nutmeg itself left at the core, left to dry in its outer shell.


Rhun is a lovely little village, very friendly and colourful. We stumbled up to the site of the ruined fort in the rain and then walked the village that rises quite steeply from the shore.


We swim and snorkel off the island that the English gave to Holland in exchange for Manhattan in 1667. We then beached the boat for lunch – on a beautiful deserted strip of white sand on Pulau Neilaka. We looked back at Rhun while wading in the warm water amazed at the enormous (fossilised?) clam shells – like old open dinosaur eggs.



We also chartered a boat from the public jetty to Banda Besar a couple of times. We asked to be put ashore at Lonthor. This is Besar’s biggest town that steeply rises from the shore. We climbed the extremely long and steep steps that double up as Lonthor’s main street. We walked around the Kelly plantation at the top and then looked for Benteng Hollandia. Nutmeg trees are almost defiantly growing over the entrance. This overgrown fort was shattered by an earthquake in 1743. Great views of Gunung Api.





The boys decided to climb Gunung Api on the Friday morning. Api is 666m high. We were warned it was a steep climb and to take a stick to wave away the spider’s webs across the trail. Also, it was easy to lose your way on the top if the clouds came down. But worst of all was the descent on very loose scree. The last eruption was in 1988. However we had perfect weather. I was impressed with the boy’s climbing. We stopped a few times to empty our water bottles and watch the Tidar leave Banda Neira on its return journey to Ambon.


We walked around the old crater and edged over to the new. There was the distinct smell of sulphur and a few bubbling, steaming crevices. We could feel the heat under our feet. The decent was rough but we made it down. We got delayed at the bottom trying to attract the attention of a boatman across the water. Unfortunately, the mid-day mosques were on maximum volume and our whistles and shouts were drowned out. We sat in a shelter waiting. It was only after I slid off the concrete shelf that we noticed I had been sharing it with a snake.



Once we hired Ojeks to visit a beach on Banda Neira and passed the airstrip. We heard news that subsidised flights from Ambon to Banda Neira were just starting again. Two flights a week on a Thursday and a Monday. Thursday’s inaugural flight had been cancelled and was rescheduled for the Sunday. We knew some people leaving on this flight and decided to wave them off. We thought of our ferry leaving early the next morning. It was the Kelimutu, a smaller, slower, more congested and infested ship than the Tidar the locals said. We decided, having seen the plane land and take off successfully, to try to buy tickets for the Monday flight. A one hour flight to Ambon rather than a ten-hour ferry journey. The ticket office for Aviastar (the new operator) was a lady’s front room near the airport. Tickets were the same price as the ferry. Our only concerns were that the ferry was now leaving at 4am instead of 7:20 am. Also, the World Cup final started at 4:30 am. If the plane didn’t fly the next day we had no way of getting off the island. The ferry would have sailed. If using the ferry, check the Pelni shack to find out if there are any changes to sailing times. Anyway, we gave our first class ferry tickets away to the American brothers and optimistically turned up at the airport for 7:00 am the next day. A siren was sounded and fires were extinguished – and islanders were discouraged from crossing the runway. The plane came into view and landed. The pilots got out, shook hands with everyone, smoked cigarettes and then got ready to leave. We shook hands with the pilots, climbed in and we took off. The views were stunning as we said our farewell to Banda Neira. We landed in Ambon at 9:30 am. Brilliant.


Loved this holiday. Loved Banda Neira. Lovely people. Can still picture the corrugated roofs and brightly painted houses. The smell of paint in the streets as people freshened up their homes for Eid. Huge skies. 


Other Banda Neira guesthouses:

Mutiara Guest House

+ 6281330343377  I wish someone had recommended Abba’s place to us. If money is not an issue (and it is not really that expensive to stay here – 350 000 for a room) this is the only place to be based for comfort, brilliant food and great hospitality. We booked dinner there most nights for 200 000 Rp each. The children were half price. Abba’s wife is a great cook and prepared a fantastic selection of local dishes for us to try – she eventually got a bit stressed trying to cater for this vegetarian. Abba made his money trading in pearls but has a hand in many ventures around town. He is a great entrepreneur and his guesthouse even sells copies of Giles Milton’s book, nutmeg jam, his own postcards and pearl necklaces. A marsupial called a cuscus, unique to the region, visited his garden in the evenings. He hired out good snorkel gear and flippers. I liked Abba and didn’t really mind him taking my money. He was helpful arranging boats and even gave me a lift on his scooter to buy our return air tickets. I would have had a hard time finding the place as it turned out to be a family’s front room. He’s building a new imitation Dutch mansion beside the post office and Benteng Nassau. Can’t beat a bit of nutmeg inspired bling. VOP sells.

Vita Guest House  Cheap at 150k a night for a room. No food but cold beer. Great location on the waterfront tucked in behind the market street. Young caretaker and his wife lovely. I bought my beer here. They also let me and Cairo knock their door at 5am to watch some World Cup games on their small television set. We got to know a fellow Scot from Oban who had been staying there for a month.

Bintang Laut              

Some young American brothers were staying here and a young German couple. Again, down on the waterfront with its own jetty. Looked clean and sold beer. The water below the jetty teeming with life at sunset. We chartered a boat from them to go snorkeling off the lava flow and a boat to try to get to Banda Hatta – the sea conditions were mad after we turned past Besar and the boat began to slam violently into the waves. The boys were genuinely afraid in their fibre-glass coffin so we turned back. We were told the weather had not been good enough and we should not have been told by the guesthouse operator that the trip was possible.  


Being Ramadan the days were quite tough. However, the Nutmeg Café did some good mango juices. We ate lunch at the Delfika twice but both times the food was poor and they definitely do not do the best pancakes in town. If not at the Mutiara we used the Namasawar Restaurant just up from the port. Meals were cooked to order in the family’s kitchen and if they didn’t have enough ingredients family members were dispatched to the market. Clean and cheap but painfully slow. We used them for packed lunches too – 100K for four Nasi Gorengs to go. Snacking, we feasted on peanut and almond brittle, local bananas and cinnamon biscuits.




August 16, 2014

Before and After

Filed under: Holidays,Indonesia — scotsabroad @ 10:39 am


We spent some time in Kota Ambon and on Pulau Saparua before and after our journey to the Banda islands. The airport in Ambon is miles away from the town’s centre across the bay. A bridge is under construction to reduce the journey time but progress has halted. The navy have found out that some of their larger warships will be unable to pass under the bridge to their base. While we were staying in the Swiss Belhotel a conference was being held to discuss the matter. Also, some people were saying that the concrete used for the support pillars was crap. Anyway, thank god for the Swiss Belhotel. It provided comfort in this drab city. We took a walk around the port area looking for the Pelni ferry terminal. As the Lonely Planet says… sights are minimal and architecture wins no prizes.

We visited the Commonwealth War Cemetery. On the sight of a Japanese prisoner of war camp the beautifully kept graves were shaded beneath huge trees fuzzed with epiphytes.


On our return to Ambon we also visited the Siwa Lima Museum. In Lonthoir on Banda Besar, Lucas had found a small model boat on the beach. He showed it to some local kids who threw it into the waves. At the museum we found out that it was a doti-doti – a voodoo-style curse boat. We recognised the Nutmeg collector called a Takiri. Model Belang boats were on display. We bought one in Banda Neira. Early European ships would be met by these boats possibly with as many as twenty eight rowers. Now they are used for competitions between villages, each boat having their own distinct colour scheme.


Having exhausted the things to do in Ambon we decided to get a ferry from Tulehu to the island of Pulau Saparua. Not surprisingly, the ferry was jammed full of people. We got off at Kota Saparua and got a bemo to a beach resort called Putih Lessi Indah Kulur. The island seemed very religious and crosses adorned houses among the numerous churches. First impressions of Putih Lessi Indah were good. Great communal area, right on the beach and Bintang. However, the food wasn’t great (problems for the only time on the whole trip) the beds were disgustingly soiled, the place was crawling with red ants and they ran out of beer. For this they were charging 300k per person a night. However, just up the road from the place was Goa Puteri Tujuh or the Cave of the Seven Princesses. These were amazing pools of crystal clear water that had religious significance to the island.




We decided to check out and head back to Kota Saparua. We checked into the Penginapan Perdana. Full of cockroaches and mosquitoes and a television left on all night – but reasonably clean beds and two rooms for 330k a night. A wonderful street restaurant across the road (Dulang Raja) that we used for lunch and dinner.


Another Dutch fort, Benteng Duurstede. It was locked at first and we sat forlornly on the beach covered in driftwood and rubbish. We eventually found the caretaker who let us in and into the museum opposite. We felt obliged to sign the visitors book and make a donation. The museum had several dioramas to do with Pattimura but the lights didn’t work and most were in darkness.


Next day we were quite glad to catch the 7am ferry back to Pulau Ambon and leave behind our melancholic mood.

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