Posts Tagged ‘Pelni’

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 5: Voyage of the Damned

27 July, 2011

I’m loving the Banda Islands but I’m really here for work – updating Lonely Planet’s legendary Southeast Asia on a Shoestring – and I can’t dawdle, much as I’d like to for a week or more. The next plane is not for several days (and then it’s on the cancel-o-matic NBA Airlines) so my options are two:

  1. Swim the 100 miles back to the regional capital and transport hub Ambon through (cliché alert!) shark-infested waters
  2. Enjoy the ferry voyage of a lifetime aboard an ocean liner operated by Indonesia’s Pelni line

I soon learn that the sharks might have the advantage.

Pelni operates close to 30 ships on labyrinth routes and schedules which link many of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands. Depending on the age of the ship and the crew, the vessels can be tolerable or not so nice. Regrettably, I’m scheduled aboard the KM Kelimutu, which the sharp-eyed website describes as “less reliable and rather filthier” compared to other Pelni ships. But none of those are calling in Banda anytime soon, so it’s the Kelimutu for me.

The ship is scheduled to arrive at 7am and sail shortly thereafter. But the night before my unflaggingly helpful host Abba learns it is due in at 2am with a 3am departure. “Not bad” I think. This will give me that much more time to research in the bright lights of Ambon. (Call that Dopey Assumption A.) A retiring Abba leaves me to my own Waterloo and I catch a few hours sleep.

Bananas await the KM Kelimutu

A couple hours later, bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived I wait at Bandaneira’s dock for the Kelimutu, which slowly floats down the channel. I figure I can catch up on snoozing once aboard (Dopey Assumption B). Scores of other passengers jostle around me, some hefting enormous bunches of bananas fresh from the tree, others carrying chickens. The ship is brightly lit and I am unhelpfully reminded of the images of the glowing Titanic sitting dead in the water. Fortunately the surrounding waters are unlikely to harbor icebergs; unfortunately I’ve also been reading about those Southeast Asian maritime disasters that are in the news all-too-often. In the past decade, Indonesia’s had three, including a bad one in 2009.

Dockside in Bandaneira

Gazing up the battered side of the docked Kelimutu I see hundreds of people gazing back down – all have boarded at previous ports of call on the ship’s peripatetic wanderings around eastern Indonesia. The gangplank hitting the dock sets off a mad scramble to board as hundreds of people, bananas, chickens and more jam together, making no collective progress whatsoever. I wait, since I have secured a “first class” ticket and have a cabin with my name on it. Optimistically, I have Dopey Assumption C: “What could be so bad about first class?”

Once aboard, it is the living embodiment of “overcrowded vessel,” that cliché found in almost every ship disaster story. There are people, goods, bags of every size and not just chickens but at least one goat crammed into every available space, including all the passages and even the stairwells. On first glance my cabin looks okay. But I soon notice that the TV is smashed, the electrical outlets are smashed, the fixtures in the ceiling are smashed and of the two beds, one has a sheet littered with an array of human and insect detritus that could inspire a graduate degree in forensic biology. Of the bathroom, one glance and I decide that I’ll drink as little water as possible so I’ll never need see it again.

My stowaway-filled stateroom

The second bed in the cabin has a sheet that at least looks clean and I sit down. Surveying my domain I notice plastic water bottles that have been cut in half and taped to the ceiling. Curious, I inspect one and discover that it is filled with roaches who have fallen in and can’t get out. It seems that nature has given roaches the ability to withstand a 50-megaton nuclear bomb but it hasn’t equipped them with legs that can scale the sheer sides of a polycarbonate container. I should be really grossed out but I’m diverted by an odd hissing noise. Suddenly I’m really, really grossed out as I realize that it’s the sound of hundreds of roach-feet trying to find purchase on the plastic. Yech!

Turning away, I see a thumb-sized cousin of the doomed masses who has easily found purchase on the wall right next to my bed. He waves his antenna at me. I turn on every light, which sends him darting off to some dark crevice and I lay down on the bed. I spray a halo of bug repellant on the sheet around me, put my hat over my eyes and pass out; it’s too late to send an SOS to Abba.

Porthole view: Eeyore keeps watch

A few hours later I awaken to thin grey light streaming in through my porthole. Gazing out through the salt encrusted glass I see a tattered sheet featuring the long-faced character Eeyore of Winnie the Pooh fame. Strung up by the people on the deck outside my cabin for protection from the sun and the rain, it recalls this classic – and all-too-appropriate – Eeyore quote:

“Everybody crowds round so in this Forest. There’s no Space. I never saw a more Spreading lot of animals in my life, and in all the wrong places.”

Despite the general din of the engines far below, a cacophony of rattles and squeaks and the dull roar of the ineffectual air-con, I start to imagine I can hear the roaches trying to escape their traps. It’s clearly time for me to escape the cabin. Opening the door, I discover an entire family has set up camp on the cabin threshold and have stacked three or maybe four generations in a space no larger than a small table (there may be the remains of additional generations in some of their battered bags stacked to the ceiling).

Deck views

Without a grumble, the family looks at me – this large sweaty apparition – and rearranges themselves to allow me by. The rest of the passage is equally jammed, but the 100 or so people slide around enough for me to hopscotch along, my size 13 sandal landing near an armpit here, a sleeping head there. I reach the thronged open deck and head up to the top deck for some air; whole families are residing on each step of the narrow staircase. [In the few parts of the Kelimutu I visit, I estimate I see at least 300 people. The official capacity is 920. Given the crowding, we must be well over that.]

Top deck is not top class

Yet as crowded as conditions are inside, it’s worse for the hundreds of people on the top deck as they’re unprotected from the frequent tropical squalls. Indeed the only protection up here is a barbed wire fence to keep a mutinous mob away from  the bridge. I find a tiny spot to stand and look around the ship which has been ridden hard and put down wet since it was new, shiny and fresh from a German shipyard in 1985.

I’m soon joined by a young guy who is somehow rather nattily dressed despite conditions which would seem to mandate the opposite. As so many such encounters go he starts by asking me in English where I’m from, where I’m going etc. His name is Lemah and he’s a school teacher on his way to Ambon for meetings with provincial officials. He gets right to it and asks me if I think the boat is bad. I try to demur but he’s got me and says “Of course it is. I don’t like it but it’s all the school can afford to send me to get more rupiahs [Indonesian currency] from the bosses.

“It looks bad up here,” he continues, looking at the people huddled around us. “But these people live hard lives. They’re going to Ambon to try to sell something, to try to survive by living with relatives or even to go to the university. But for some, the days spent on this boat mean they have a holiday from the work they do all day everyday.”

I accept this, although it still has few comparisons to my trip on a Caribbean cruise ship earlier this year – I never saw a single goat on that boat.

Back below, the tiny dining room for the “elite” in cabin class is truly off-limits to the rest of the mob. I hop around more stoic families and duck in. A smiling steward appears and unnecessarily points out that I am tall and might hit my head on the low ceiling. Another is listlessly stirring some greenish horror in a pot that is probably lunch and might be a mutineer. Karaoke blares and two women in hot pants perk up at my presence and offer me comely and crooked toothsome grins framed by vivid mace-red lips. I flee.

Once more the passengers in the first class cabin passageway shift about affably to allow me to pass. One woman even gives me a sweet smile as my stinky foot lands an inch from her head. Utterly chastened back in my cabin I vow to STFU. I have no right to complain about anything. What’s a few roaches? Maybe I can organize races… The economic truth is that I’ve paid $40 for my ticket, which gets me a cabin, a door to hide behind and even thousands of potential six-legged friends. Outside, the people have paid $11 each for accommodation on filthy decks – if they can find space.

No more jaunts justified by a quest for fresh air but which really allow me a chance to gawk at others. Instead I’ll sit in my cabin and read my book (The Broken Shore, a Melbourne mystery with lots of good cussing) as we should be in Ambon by noon… Wait, it’s actually 1pm and the only life on the horizon is Eeyore flapping in the breeze. I belatedly come to terms with Dopey Assumption D, that the boat leaving Banda early might not even require its scheduled nine hours to reach Ambon. Instead it takes close to 13. At 4pm we’re docked and the mass of humanity cascades down the gangplanks with chickens and goats, thousands of bags and bundles and impatient kids and mute old people. The roaches mostly stay behind.

Dockside in Ambon: end of the journey

Threading across the crowded docks, I’m looking for a room and a shower, in just that order.

Next: Visiting the Islands