The Banda Islands: A Travel Guide
The Banda Islands: perfect white beaches, vibrant bustling coral, old Dutch forts standing like lonely sentinel high on green green hills. According to Lonely Planet, they would be Indonesia’s top travel destination… if only they were easier to get to. But it is this exact remoteness which makes the islands so special; they are completely untouched and entirely beautiful.
So, the Banda Islands. Indonesia’s original spice islands. Part of the archipelago where Alfred Wallace first discovered evolution. Throughout the 17th century, they played an important role in colonial trade. They were famous for nutmeg and cloves and were the first source of these in Western culture. Men fought over them, lives were lost and people driven from their homes. Now all that remains of this time are the crumbling Dutch forts and the overwhelming smell of Christmas as cloves lie drying in the sun everywhere you look.
Anjali and I reached Bandaneira late afternoon on a Monday. We were exhausted: in total it had taken us twenty-eight hours from leaving my house in Jakarta to arriving on the islands. This included a four hour plane journey, a ten hour overnight wait in a busy harbour and another nine hours on the huge Pelni ferry that runs Ambon to Banda. Pelni is Indonesia’s most reliable and common form of transport. The ships are a melting pot of students travelling to study, young Indonesians hoping to find work on far-off islands and families visiting relatives. The woman next to us had been on the ship since Jakarta (four days); the family opposite were on it for a week on their way to the Kei Islands. They sat or lay on foam mattresses with towels and drying clothes hanging from shelves above their heads, ignoring the tiny cockroaches that crawled the walls and floor. We found a spot next to an Indonesian brother and sister that had helped us bribe a soldier for tickets at the harbour, and fell into a deep sleep.
This ridiculously long journey made our arrival even more special. Just being on the islands was enough. Travelling for twenty-eight hours had given us this sense of accomplishment, a feeling that we were somewhere few people had been. We felt grown up and independant and utterly in awe of how far East we had travelled. And, of course, the islands themselves were absolutely stunning.
Our first two days were in Bandaneira, the only major town in Banda and the port for long-distance ships. We traipsed around the town, stumbling into old ruined forts and eating fried eggplants smeared in almond sauce.
And then we were on a tiny wooden boat that bumped and jolted its way across the sea to Pulau Hatta. We arrived in the middle of a storm, soaked through and feeling rather disappointed that it was raining when we wanted to laze around on beaches. Luckily for us, the owner of a guesthouse was on our boat. He helped us jump down on to the shore and took our bags as we limped through the lashing rain; my foot was in agony as I had just gashed it on a piece of glass and I didn’t know yet just how bad the cut was. The owner’s name was Pak Sofyan and over the next few days he took us on boat trips and taught us how to skin and roll the bark of cinnamon trees to make the spice.
But our main reason for being on Hatta was the coral reef. Just metres off the beach in front of our guesthouse was the most perfect coral wall: schools of huge triangular shaped fish, tiny little blue ones that flashed in front of our eyes, and even a turtle! We spent two happy mornings, heads down in the water, feeling like we had entered an aquarium. There is no way to explain how incredible the coral was: there is a whole world under the sea that we know so little about. It was absolutely incredible.
Our third island was Pulau Rhun, the legendary chunk of limestone that the British traded with the Dutch in return for Manhattan, as in the Manhattan in the USA!! I wonder who got the better end of that deal. We arrived after a morning spent moping around Bandaneira wondering how we would get back to Ambon in time for our flight. When the harbour-master rang me to tell us that the cargo boat wouldn’t leave until the Monday (it was a Saturday at the time) Anj and I grabbed our bags and ran to the small boat terminal. We caught the only boat left – the one to Rhun.
So, one day in Rhun: playing scrabble, sitting on our own tiny deserted island and reading our books. Perfect.
And then we were back to Bandaneira in time for the cargo boat to Ambon. Anj and I were expecting cockroaches and grimy floors and crowds of sullen faced Indonesian men. Instead we climbed on to the boat and found another world. The deck had been covered with tarpaulin and the sides were rolled up. There was a sea breeze and mats laid on the ground and everyone had staked out their space and were asleep. We stood for a few seconds, wondering where to sit and were adopted by two Indonesian ladies who spent the whole journey asking us questions about England – the joys of being able to speak the language, or the curse. While Anj read her book in peace I spent a large majority of the thirteen hour journey talking to them. Still, not being able to read was a small price to pay when they insisted that we stay at their house for the night. In the morning they gave us ABC mochas (small sachets of coffee bought on the side of the road) and fried banana; we repaid them in hundreds of photos with each member of the family.
That was a Tuesday; our flight to Jakarta didn’t leave until the Saturday and so we decided to explore another island, Pulau Saparua, one hour from Ambon.
Our first day in Saparua was one of the worst in our trip. We’d been travelling for what felt like years by that point and we hadn’t eaten properly since the night before. Suddenly we were in a strange little town where everyone was staring and we couldn’t find any cheap food. Both Anj and I were reading good books: we hid in our hotel room and avoided the rain and the stares. The next day we hopped on an ojek and fled to Putih Lessi Indah, a gorgeous guesthouse on the beach. It was out of our budget but the food and the view and the sheer perfection of lying in a hammock all day reading and listening to music made it one hundred percent worth it.
And so our two weeks in Maluku drew to an end.
This was travelling at its finest: before we left Jakarta we had almost no plan. We were completely and entirely free to do whatever we wanted. It was that freedom that I loved the most. The exhilaration of being somewhere new and knowing that you had made it on your own. It took us twenty-eight hours to make it to Banda – how many places are that remote? How amazing is it that we managed to get there? Travelling, not just those two weeks, but the whole six, felt like something out of someone else’s life. It was freeing and wonderful and independent.
That’s not to say that it was easy, especially as a group of four young women travelling by themselves. There were plenty of times where we felt unbearably uncomfortable: men making cat noises to call us over to them on the cargo boat or feeling the leers of men as we sat on the ferry from Saparua. It’s difficult travelling in a country that you don’t really know. However, on the whole, we felt safe and those few times that I felt truly scared were by far eclipsed by the excitement and wonder of being somewhere new. But it wasn’t always easy and I would be lying to say so.
In the end, it all boils down to one thing: we travelled to some of the most remote places we might ever see and it was, a thousand times over, worth every second.
And now, for those of you who are thinking of a similar trip…
Getting There and Away
When Lonely Planet said the Banda Islands were difficult to get to they really weren’t over-exaggerating. Weather, high waves or overly-cloudy skies all play a part in which transport will be running. My best advice, just rock up and see what happens.
The most reliable option is the Pelni ship. It leaves Ambon twice a month so you can, if you’re super organised, plan to take it to the islands and then return to Ambon on the same boat either two weeks or a whole month later. The boat costs 110,000 IDR and is usually completely jam-packed – think a titanic style ocean liner crowded with people and cockroaches. When we arrived at the harbour all the tickets had been sold so we banded together with a couple of teenagers and managed to persuade a soldier to get us on to the boat. It would probably be easier to stay at a guesthouse in Ambon the night before so they can arrange to buy the ticket. Don’t be scared by other people’s horror stories: our ship, the Tidar, was fairly clean and was one of our most interesting experiences!
To get back we took the Perinkis cargo boat. This costs 40,000 IDR and takes twelve hours. It was incredibly clean and comfortable, if you’re not afraid of lying on the floor surrounded by other Indonesians. Ask at the harbour for timings.
If you’re used to travelling in more luxury, there is also an express boat that leaves from Ambon and is rumoured to take four hours. It costs 400,000 IDR. While we were there, it wasn’t running as the weather was bad and there weren’t enough passengers.
The last option is to fly. Aviastar runs a flight every Monday, Wednesday and alternate Fridays for 320,000 IDR. You can book these tickets at their office in the airports in Ambon and Bandaneira. Again, this depends heavily on the weather. While we were there two flights got cancelled because it was too cloudy and windy for the planes to land in Bandaneira.
Where to Stay
Pulau Banda: Mutiara Guesthouse. 170,000 IDR double room, including breakfast.
Pulau Hatta: Rozengain Guesthouse. 125,000 IDR per person, including three meals and snorkelling equipment.
Pulau Rhun: Homestay Neira. 100,000 IDR per person, including three meals.
Pulau Saparua: Lease Indah Homestay in Kota Saparua. 160,000 IDR double room.
Putih Lessi Indah Guesthouse. 250,000 IDR, including three meals and snorkelling equipment.