Posts Tagged ‘Flying’

Banda Quest: Visiting the Islands

10 August, 2011

It took me 18 years to reach the Banda Islands, Indonesia’s fabled original Spice Islands. But once there, the wait was worth it. The islands are beautiful, still scented by nutmeg, loaded with old colonial lore and only visited by about 600 people a year (Bali gets 2.3 million).

[Read the first post in the series, Banda Quest 1: Journey Begins here]

And having made the trip, I am surprised at how easy it was. Even more surprising was the cost: shockingly cheap. Read on.

Lion Air to Ambon

Getting There

By Air: Fly to the Bandas from Ambon, an interesting city in the Maluku province in eastern Indonesia. There are plenty of flights here from Jakarta, Bali etc. The three main carriers serving Ambon are:

Batavia Air Non-stops to/from Jakarta

Garuda Indonesia Flight connections from across Indonesia

Lion Air Budget airline with good connections from Bali and major cities, offers passengers prayer cards for safe flights

Once in Ambon, use the services of Michael “no problem” Erenst, a ubiquitous presence at the airport and the star of Banda Quest 2. He can set you up with a room, transport for the hour-long jaunt to Ambon etc (he works with the Banda guesthouses to smooth your journey).

For the short and slow flight to the Bandas from Ambon, your only choice is NBA, a one-airplane airline. There are full details of my flight in Banda Quest 2 but the key considerations are the following:

  • Flights only operate one or two days a week, usually Wednesday and one other day
  • Flights on the ancient plane are often cancelled because of weather, when this happens you have to wait until the next scheduled flight and a) try to get a seat, b) hope for the best. This can mean hanging out in Ambon for up to an extra week (obviously the same can happen in reverse, leaving you stuck in the Bandas for days longer than you intended – not such a bad thing really).
  • NBA has no real phone, email or website. The best way to get a ticket is through your lodging in the Bandas. Details below.

By boat: Pelni, Indonesia’s notorious shipping line, has boats that run on various schedules to the Bandas from Ambon and other more remote islands. But these trips can be an adventure in ways you might wish to avoid. Read more in Banda Quest 5. (The website is good for schedules.)

Public transport

Where to Stay

There are two hotels dating from the 1970s on the waterfront in Bandaneira, the main town: the Hotel Maulana and the Laguna Inn. Both were built by legendary local booster Des Alwi, but since his death (at age 82) they’ve been adrift as his offspring debate their future. Instead I would recommend any of the following guesthouses in Bandaneira, which average about US$15-20 per night (most rooms have air-con). Any of these three can sort out your flights from Ambon as part of your reservation.

Mutiara Guest House (+62 (0)813 3034 3377 • Run by the tireless Abba (who sadly doesn’t answer to Fernando), the four rooms here are clean, simple and built around a small garden. Abba can arrange trips to other islands, tours of nutmeg forests and much more. His wife, Dilla, is the best cook in the Bandas – even if you stay elsewhere, it’s worth booking in here for the bounteous buffet. There’s a fast internet connection.

Vita Guest House (+62 (0)910 21332 • A very mellow place with long verandas, views of the ever-ready-to-blow Gunung Api across the harbor and hammocks ready to swing. Lovely, helpful owners.

Delfika (+62 (0)910 21027 • Has two locations, one in an old Dutch colonial building across from the museum, the other in a newish building overlooking the harbor. The cafe in the original building opens onto a long tropical porch.

Boats to other islands from Bandaneira

What to Do

Read Banda Quest 3 and Banda Quest 4 to get an idea of the many pleasures and adventures that await. A brief run-down by island (pulau):

Neira The main town of Bandaneira, streets lined with evocative old Dutch buildings, old forts, a museum, the airport, port (tiny) and market; enjoy hours of good strolling from one end to the other

Gunung Api The pint-sized but active volcano which looms over Neira, climb it and see if the earth moves under you

Banda Besar Largest island and just across the channel from Neira; villages filled with winsome locals who will show you the secrets of nutmeg harvesting while you savor the air that’s scented with same (see Banda Quest 4)

Ai About an hour’s boat-ride west of Neira, triangular Ai has nutmeg, almonds and other treats growing in profusion. It has beautiful, untrod beaches (see Banda Quest 4), ruins of colonial plantations and a couple of dead-simple homestays that offer solitude and endless beach time – reserve by turning up

Run Farthest west and dedicated to fishing, notable as the island the Dutch so desperately wanted that they cheerfully gave the English Manhattan in trade; little-visited, this is real exploration

Diving and snorkeling are good. For the former, the Hotel Maulana rents gear and tanks but otherwise the lack of a pro or guides means you’re on your own. Anyone with a boat knows the best places for snorkeling – especially around tiny islands like Pulau Karaka

What to Read

The Bandas are the kind of destination where you can easily knock off your reading backlog, but bring your own. Books about the islands include:

Indonesian Banda by Willard Hanna. A lost gem that’s both irreverent and packed with detail. Highly readable, it makes the most of the bizarre and often-horrific legacy of the over-dressed Dutch colonialists and their English tormenters. Impossible to find before your trip, it’s found at Banda guesthouses and the museum [read excerpts in Banda Quest 3]

Nathaniel’s Nutmeg by Giles Milton. The first half is almost as readable as Hanna but then the book goes off the rails with endless descriptions of English swells tortured in places far from the Bandas. A tacked-on page at the end trying to justify the bombastic subtitle “Or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History” fails. Easily found online

Ring of Fire by Lawrence Blair. Superbly written adventure across Indonesia by the scholarly Blair. The section on the Bandas sings, especially the description of the glow-in-the-dark eyes of a local fish that kids use as creepy bedside reading lights. Sold online

The bill, smaller than it looks


Despite the challenges of reaching the islands, your journey and time there are crazily cheap. You’ll be hard-pressed to spend US$50 a day, making these “most amazing islands ever” an incredible bargain. Highlights of my bill for the two days I was there researching, converted to US dollars include (Abba arranged everything, which is typical of the Banda guesthouses I recommend):

Room – 2 nights @$15 – $30
Tasty dinner buffet @$7 – $14
Flight to Bandas – $37
Voyage of the Damned boat – $40
Daytrip and tour of Banda Nera & Ai – $15

Total cost of trip – $156

Three Final Thoughts

  • Stay on the Bandas for a week but give yourself two weeks to allow for transport fiascos
  • Bring cash as the one ATM is finicky and credit cards are as useful as a dead nutmeg tree
  • Don’t delay, as sooner or later the word on these amazing islands will get out

Which island next?


Banda Quest 2: Flight to the Bandas?

20 July, 2011

The biggest challenge of reaching the Banda Islands – the original Spice Islands of Indonesia – is simply getting there. Irregular ferries (more on these rustbuckets in post #5) shuttle between various islands in Maluku and can take more than 9 days from Ambon, the closest major city. There’s an airline called NBA which has one or two flights a week, but they prefer sunny weather so when conditions aren’t ideal, you have to wait days for another shot.

No Problem!

“No problem” is the perpetual refrain of Michael Erenst, the ebullient force of nature at Ambon airport whose job is securing me a ticket on NBA (they don’t have a phone or a website). When I arrive – still burping the previous night’s meal – Michael sends me off to my Ambon hotel with a breezy “no problem” when asked about the odds of my Banda flight actually leaving the next morning.

The wet road ahead

Awakening in Ambon at the unthinkable hour of 5am, I look out the window expecting to see the same dry street I’d seen before passing out the previous night. Instead – horrors! – I see water, lots of water and it’s coming down in the proverbial buckets. And my view remains wet on the one-hour dark and stormy drive to the airport.

When Michael finds me in the rain outside the terminal I ask him if he thinks I’ll be going anywhere. After a glance skyward with a quizzical look, he declares “no problem! It will be sunny!” Inside, the NBA check-in process doesn’t begin until I give the pen-less agent my own. He scribbles out a boarding card for “Jenefer Rian” and off I go, retrieving my pen as the odds of bribing my way to an upgrade seem slim. (In fact one of Michael’s main tasks is seeing that his clients aren’t bumped off the NBA Banda flights by those with more clout.)

Security is a breeze as liquids, shoes, gels and presumably machetes and other tools of mayhem are all allowed. When the terminal’s lights go out, those waiting are simply waved through. Michael jumps the queue while the rain batters the windows in the dim light of a soggy dawn and introduces me to a fellow Banda passenger. Danny van den Broeke is a university student from the Rotterdam whose great-grandfather was born in the Bandas. Now on summer break, he’s using his money earned as a musician for a visit to his ancestral homeland.

“No Problem!”

Slightly manic with both excitement and exhaustion from three solid days of flying, Danny explains that his great-grandfather was taken to Japan to work in a factory during WWII and that no one from the family has been back since. Does he know of any relatives still on the Bandas? “No.” Does he have any contacts on the Bandas? “No.” Instead he’s come almost 8000 miles (13,000km) to find out where he’s from. “I have no idea what to expect,” he says, staring across the sodden tarmac.

Like a sparrow, Michael flits past (he’s wrangling several passengers onto flights this morning) and with a wave says, “You guys can board. It’s clearing up, see, no problem!” And there really is a new shine in the sky. However this does little to brighten the sole member of the NBA fleet. Our twin-engine prop job is an old Spanish military transport from the Franco era in the 1960s. Comforts inside are few; with parachutes we could launch an unsuccessful invasion.

More power to the shields

Still, the pilots have a certain spit and polish (they’re retired Indonesian navy guys) and the duct tape that seems to cover every seam looks recent. We trundle into the air and we’re off. Actually, “off” might imply an alacrity that’s foreign to our plane as we are scheduled to cover the 100-mile distance to the Bandas in just under 70 minutes. A strong headwind could make this an all-day affair.

Danny's first shot

There are no lights in the battered cabin and the few windows are minute and look suspiciously like gun portals. But the cottony clouds slowly passing below have a mesmerizing appeal that’s rather poetic and the time passing becomes a blur. Eventually we come out of the clouds and out of our trances to see the Bandas arrayed below. Danny gets his first photo of the islands that have lured him this great distance. Jutting from the deep midnight blue waters, the three main islands cluster together while the others are scattered in a line running east and west across the seemingly limitless Pacific.

Bandas found

I catch a glimpse of the islands and their lagoons and with a bump we’re down. As I soon discover, it would have been worth flying all day to get here.

Next: The most amazing islands ever