Following the footsteps of the VOC, the remote Spice Islands

After spending the first 30 days in Indonesia it was necessary to renew our visa. We decided to fly to Kuala Lumpur. Since we missed our flight in Denpasar we had to buy a new ticket to Kuala Lumpur. This made our stay in Malaysia’s capital rather short. We arrived late in our hostel in the Chinese quarter of town, so we had just about enough time to grab dinner and go to sleep. The next day we did some planning for our second month in Indonesia in the nice cafeteria below. We visited some of the fancy malls, went to the hairdresser and saw the famous Petronas Towers in the evening. Longing for some good quality beers, after a month of Bintang, we visited an excellent beer bar in the financial district. We sat down next to a nuclear engineer and had a interesting chat over some good beers. Off to the airport again to fly back to Indonesia and head to Maluku, home to Ambon and the Banda Islands. We decided to head to this less visited part of Indonesia because of the fantastic diving opportunities and the rich history of the islands.

In the nineties Maluku experienced a lot of violence during riots between Muslims and Christians.  Due to this wave of violence the islands still have a unsafe image, despite the fact that it has been peaceful for years. Next to that the islands lack tourist infrastructure and a lot of patience is needed to travel around. All of this make the Maluku an undiscovered part of Indonesia and a perfect place to escape the crowds. We decided to skip the city of Ambon, and discover the north part of the island on which Ambon is located by scooter. We spend two nights at Michael’s Guesthouse, close to the airport (as in almost on the landing strip). After arriving early morning at the airport, we are welcomed by Michael, who works multiple jobs, one of them at the tourist counter on the airport. He describes the guesthouse and the short walk towards it. In the evening he explains how we can tour around the island and draws a very detailed map with all the highlights. After breakfast we hit the road on our scooter. It soon turns out that this part is not often visited by two foreigners on a scooter. Everybody is clearly surprised to see us. A lot of waving and ‘Hello Mister’s’ later we arrive at the first stop. In the small village of Larike, we stop to see massive eels in the creek behind the town. They say they are holy and that the town is blessed by their presence. The feeding of the eels has probably more to do with their presence. You are able to touch them and hold them, and the locals are fully surprised by the fact that we don’t want to touch them. The eels are impressive though and it makes a nice stop. We buy some snacks at the local stall and continue our trip. Next stop is Fort Amsterdam, one of the old Dutch forts of the VOC time. Maluku played an important role in the spice trade. It is where the nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon were discovered. The trade of these spices brought a lot of wealth to the area and to the VOC guarding these harbors. We continue along the road for our next stop, an impressive waterfall. We don’t have the exact location and as we are trying to figure out where to go, a local appears on a motorbike out of nowhere. He waves at us and makes a sign to follow him. After about an hour into the jungle, he points that we have to leave our scooter and have to continue by foot. We soon reach a spectacular waterfall. And the best part is that we are all alone, no herds of tourist, nobody except us three. Our ‘guide’ shows Koen how and where to climb up and jump of the rocks into the water. A magical spot! Back on the road, we give our guide a small fee and continue. What is striking about all the villages is that the people all seem to take pride in taking care of their colorful houses with small gardens. On our way back to the guesthouse we stop in Ambon, because we spot a Martabak stand. We can’t miss out on an opportunity to sample this deliciousness once more. After about 2/3 we are so stuffed, that we give the rest to Michael. We even skip dinner, because it is just too much. Time to call it a night early, since tomorrow the driver will pick us up around 6.30 to bring us to the harbor where we will catch the ferry to Banda Neira.

The ferry is supposed to be a ‘fast’ boat. It will take us to Neira in about five hours. The pelni ship, a big cargo ship, takes minimum double the time to reach the island. So in good faith we jump on board and find a spot on the upper deck to enjoy the view. In good Indonesian tradition we leave late, because it takes time to load the boat. Soon after departure we notice that this fast boat is pretty slow in reality. With an average speed of 20 km per hour it takes us more than 7,5 hours to arrive at the harbor of Neira. After a short walk, we reach our guesthouse the Nutmeg Tree. This small guesthouse has only 4 rooms, and all rooms breath the colonial atmosphere of the island. The building is restored with a lot of old doors and other authentic details, to bring back the colonial spirit of the past. Here, we meet Simon and Lily, a Dutch-American couple on a year off after 20 years of expat life in Asia. We exchange travel stories over a cold Bintang and we are curious about their experiences throughout Asia. We enjoy a really nice meal, with great fish, eggplant with almonds and a nutmeg spiced Soto soup. Yes we clearly have arrived in the spice islands! Later in the afternoon we join Lily and Simon on a snorkeling trip. The coral is in great condition, but since the sun is gone in the afternoon the water is quite chilly and we don’t get to see the fantastic color palette of the coral. We go back to the boat and enjoy the sunset over the islands. In the mean time our captain catches a big barracuda, which we will probably have for dinner that night.

The next day we decide to join the group of divers, we will snorkel on the same spots.  We leave early in the morning to a dive spot close to Banda Besar. Apparently this is a good spot to see the famous hammerhead sharks. While the divers are heading down to look for the hammerheads we float over the reef and the drop off. We see many black tip and white tip sharks and an occassional turtle. But both are too far away to take some good shots. The sharks are really impressive. It is the first time for us that we see adult black tip sharks. Back on the boat the divers turn out to be a bit disappointed in the dive site, nothing really impressive. After some snacks during the surface interval it is time to go back into the water. Now the roles have turned, this site is not the best site for snorkeling. It is cold, not much to see and there is quite a lot of current. We decide to go back to the boat early, since there is no reason to go back into the water. We head back to Banda Neira for another amazing lunch. We really enjoy these spicy soups. We have a lazy afternoon, with some reading and a short walk over the island. You can spot the colonial influences everywhere in the buildings, but as we find out later, not all of the colonial buildings are old. Some have been build in the last couple of years, but have elements of the old colonial times.

We discuss the possibilities for the next day with Reza, the owner of Neira Dive, and decide that we will join the group again for another day of diving. This time the two dive sites that are visited are both near Pulau Hatta. If we want to see hammerhead sharks, appartently this is THE spot to see them. Koen joins the group of divers and I will snorkel by myself. The divers head into the water and I am told to just follow the current and that the boat will pick me up later. My snorkel trip is great, I get to see a group of bumphead fish, a white tip shark, some really big Napoleon fish, turtles and in the final minutes my first encounter with a mobula. But every time I look up, I can not see the boat anymore. Apparently the boat has followed the divers, which apparently went in the other direction. After more then one hour in the water, the boat is able to locate me. I see a lot of relieved faces, since they were afraid I was lost, and they were searching for me. A nice dive for Koen, but still no hammerheads. With the boat we head to the main beach of Hatta, where we will stay a couple days later. On our way we are suprised by a big group of pilot whales, which are swimming beside the boat. A beautiful sight. Once we arrive on Hatta we can still see them in the distance. Hatta is the kind of place that you imagine if you are going to a remote island. White sand, blue water and wooden huts. We have lunch on the veranda of one of the huts and relax a bit. We get to meet Cesar, who is responsible for our booking on Hatta, to make sure everything is ok with our booking. Since there is no reception on Hatta, we were not sure that everything is ok. Cesar confirms everything and shows us which hut will be ours. After 1,5 hours it is time to go back into the water. Apparently the dive site is just in front of the beach. The coral at Hatta is beautiful. I float on top of the reef and look into the deep at the drop off. Again the boat is searching for me, since there was a lot of current I have drifted a lot further than they expected. The vibe at the boat is totally different. The divers have spotted hammerheads! How cool is that! We go back to Banda Neira, which is still one hour by boat. And to our surprise the pilot whales appear next to our boat again. This time Koen manages to get some nice shots with the GoPro and we can see the whales under water as well. What a perfect day.

The last day on Banda Neira we decide to relax and work on the blog. The weather is not great, we even have some rain late in the afternoon. The next morning we say our goodbyes to everybody and buy some snacks to enjoy on Hatta. We head to the dock to catch our ‘ferry’ to Pulau Hatta. We are told that the boat will leave at one in the afternoon, Indonesian Time. This means that the boat will definitely not leave at one, but will leave when it’s full. And full means really full. Once everything is loaded onto the boat, and there are no more places to sit (including on top of the boat), we are finally heading to Pulau Hatta. One hour later we arrive on our small piece of paradise.

Our private hut, with really nice chairs on our tiny porch overlooking the beach and the sea. We get a small snack and our favorite: cinnamon rolls. Yumm!!! We spend the afternoon chilling, reading a book and enjoying the lovely weather. At six our dinner is served, again some lovely soto soup, with rice and fish and a small dessert. What a life! The next couple of days we spend our days with snorkeling twice a day, lots of reading and relaxing and enjoying the beautiful sunsets. On the 7th of October, we rise early in order not to miss the yearly Lola festival. Not knowing what to expect we head to the beach. It turns out that a Lola is a sort of sea snail and it is the yearly harvest day of the Lola. This means that we are getting Lola for lunch and dinner, unfortunately, because it is not really our favorite local dish. We are happy that the next day we go back to our normal diet of fish, rice, eggplant with peanut sauce and soup. The waters of Hatta are great for diving and snorkeling, we spot a lot of turtles, a lot of fish and an occassional Lion Fish. Despite the lack of facilities, (no shower and no running toilet, so only a bucket of water to flush) we feel extremely blessed to be at such a remote island, where tourism is still very low key. After five days it is time to go back to Banda Neira. Here, we spend another two days, this time in another hotel, before we set course to Pulau Ai. Breakfast is served at the luxurious hotel Cilu Bintang. Here we get super delicious almond pancakes, fresh juice and fruit each morning. A real pleasure. In the afternoon we decide to walk to the landing strip in order to watch the sun set and have a beer at the Nutmeg tree on our way back. It will probably be the first and the last time that we have facetimed on a landing strip.

The next day we want to go to Banda Besar to visit the old fort Hollandia and we want to see some of spice plantations as well. The fort has seen better days and only a few ruines are present, but the view is magnificent. On top of the fort, you have a beautiful view over Gunung Api and the bay. After a short walk, we find a farmer that wants to show us how they harvest the nutmeg and we learn that cinnamon actually comes from a tree. The size of the trees on this part of the island is impressive. Since he speaks little English, we don’t stay long and walk towards the next harbour in order to charter a boat back to Neira. From the boat we watch the rowers practising for the yearly dragon boat race between the islands and are able to witness a show off between Besar and Neira.

Time to visit our final island in the Banda sea. Early morning we have to be ready to catch the boat to Pulau Ai. This boat is again over full and the sea is not very calm. After an hour we are glad to finally reach the shores of Pulau Ai. This island has a different vibe compared to the other islands. And the people here seem less excited to see tourists. We learn that in the past Ai was the main attraction besides Banda Neira, but since tourists have discovered Pulau Hatta, fewer tourist come to visit Ai. After about 10 minutes we reach CDS bungalows. We are happy that we left some of our luggage at the Nutmeg tree hotel, because it is a hot day and our backpacks are quite heavy. We only packed the bare essentials, which turns out to be a good call. We have a huge cottage all to ourselves, with a big veranda. We do miss our lazy chairs from Hatta though. Snorkeling is less easy at Ai, you first have to swim for 1km before you reach the dropoff, because the first part is really shallow. But the reef is still pretty and we see some sharks. We doubt if we are going to watch the Banda Festival the next day and discuss it with our host. Apparently there has to be some sort of misunderstanding, since they are waking us up at 5 in the morning and tell us that they will walk to the ferry in 5 minutes. Since we expected to leave 2 hours later, we are not prepared at all and 5 minutes for breakfast, getting dressed and packing our backpack is not enough, they leave for Neira without us. We spend the day relaxing on the beach and walk to one of the bigger beaches of the west side of the island to snorkel and watch the sunset. We repeat this the day after. To sum up our time at Pulau Ai: relax, swim, read and relax even more.

After 4 days it is time to head back to Neira for one final night on the main island. The ferry back to Ambon will go the next day. Since our two favorite guesthouses are full, we sleep in a small guesthouse close to the harbor, it is our least favorite place in Banda, but will do for one night. We walk around the island one final time, plan the next week in Bali, buy snacks for the boat trip and enjoy our last night on the islands. We text Michael to see if we can spend the final night on Ambon at his place and if he can pick us up from the harbour. The next morning we say goodbye to our beloved Banda Islands. Another destination that we hope to come back to some day. Next destination: the ricefields of Bali and the yogi town of Ubud!

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