Somewhere in the Banda Sea…

…lay the Banda Islands (surprise!). The island group is part of the Indonesian state, South Maluku. The Maluku Islands are separated in South and North Maluku and are placed right in between West Papua and Sulawesi. We knew that we wanted to pay a visit to those islands at the beginning of our travels already, but it wasn’t until the end of our stay in Raja Ampat that we decided to visit the Banda Islands. Why we had a hard time to decide on where to go next? First, because there are just so many interesting and beautiful places to see and second because there is not that much information about the Maluku Islands available. People we met in Raja Ampat recommended the Banda Islands to us and especially pointed out the amazing diving there. So, why not go there! As I said, there are so many beautiful places to visit and you hardly can go wrong with any of them. So, we booked a flight to Ambon and started the journey to the Banda Islands. Probably it was a good thing, that we didn’t know by then how hard it can be to actually get to those islands.

Ambon

After a squeezed in but short flight, we landed in Ambon and took a taxi to the probably best AirBnB ever. Within the beautiful fruit garden, we had a whole house to ourselves and could pick Starfruit, Gandaria or Guava whenever we wanted. We planned on staying at Godliefs for three days and then taking the fast ferry to the Banda Islands. We went to the huge market in Ambon together and had a really good time. As there are not that many tourists in Ambon, the locals seemed quite amused about our size (we are both rather tall). Other than in many parts of the world where people just stare at us with a weird look on their face, people here started to jump up and down next to Toby to find out if they could get as high as he is. We received heaps of heart-warming smiles in Ambon and experienced people there as very friendly. In the afternoon of our second day in Ambon noticed, that the fast ferry we planned on taking, was not running due to some engine troubles. We knew that there also was a flight to the Banda Islands early the next morning. So, we decided to try and get a ticket for this flight. Unfortunately, this flight wasn’t available to book online and there was no phone number to call. Godlief kindly helped us and called a few different numbers but also only got the general airport information on the line. So, we did the only thing we could do and went to the airport. Once we got there, we talked to five different people to find out where to buy the tickets and got five different answers. In the end, we found someone who told us that we could only buy the tickets at 6am the next day before the flight left. We knew that the plane had only 15 seats and weren’t sure to get a seat like that. But what else can you do than try? So, we went back to Godlief’s for the night and the next morning at 5am back to the airport again. We were really lucky to have Godlief’s help on getting to the airport and checking with different people about the flight (English isn’t very well known in Ambon). Anyway, as we arrived at the airport there were already two Swedish people waiting for the counter to open. An hour later some people finally arrived at the counter and we wanted to book our flights. We soon realized that it somehow still would have been possible to get a reservation. After the Swedish people, it was our turn. But how disappointed were we, when they told us that there was only one seat left? All for nothing! Buuut, the luck was on our side that day. One of the passengers just heard about the fact that there were some heavy Dengue cases on Hatta island and decided short notice, not to fly to the Bandas. There were two seats available for us then and with a beautiful and short flight our Banda Island adventure begun.

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Banda Naira

Banda Naira is a very small island with a little town and also a fort that was built by the Dutch when they were trading here. The many houses built in colonial style, surrounded by tropical nature and just next to the volcano towering on Pulau Gunung Api give the distinctive character of this village. At some places, you can imagine vividly how the town must have been like all those years ago. Time seems to run slower here and people just seem to be more carefree. The village of Banda Naira offers a small market, about 7 restaurants, some shops, an ATM and a lot of very friendly people. We enjoyed the simple lifestyle at the Banda Islands a lot. We chose between three restaurants every day (mostly we went to the one called Nusantara though J), there were some fruits available on the market and you could buy a cold drink or simple things like mosquito spray when you needed it in the shops. But compared to our western lifestyle we did not have an endless amount of consumption opportunities and therefore just had not to make those many decisions every day. I know this sounds a little weird. As if the decision of what to eat or whether to drink water, beer or wine for dinner were that big of decisions. But if you think about it or get to experience a different lifestyle, you realize how many consumption decisions there are actually to make every day. To us, this lifestyle was just very relaxing. When talking about tropical Islands, many think of white sand beaches, blue water, and palm trees. Banda Naira is one of the many beautiful tropical islands, without the picture like beaches we know from traveler magazines. There are a lot of beautiful beaches at the more remote Hatta Island where we have been diving once. We didn’t go to this island, as there were a few heavy Dengue cases at the time and we were recommended not to go. Luckily, we didn’t feel like missing out on anything by not visiting the famous Hatta Island, but this would definitely the place to go around here for remote sand beaches.

The Spice Islands

The Banda Islands are one of the few places in the world where nutmeg grows naturally. Back in the Dutch colonial times nutmeg was worth even more than gold in Europe and therefore a very valuable trading good. Still, the Banda Islands produce nutmeg and sells it overseas now in the name of Indonesia and not the Dutch anymore. Other than in the western world, not only the most inner part, the nut of the nutmeg fruit is used here. The outer yellow peel is used to make jam, syrup or candy. The red flower like part that is wrapped around the nutshell, is used for perfumes. Only the small inner part is in the end that what is exported and that what we know as nutmeg. Surprising how much different products can be made out of one fruit, isn’t it? The other typical food is the Kenari nuts. Those nuts are tropical almonds, that are a little smaller and softer in texture than the European ones. The huge Kenari nut trees grow at the same plantations as the nutmeg trees, protecting them from the tropical sun. The nuts are used to cook savory and spicy sauces like in other types of Asian cuisine peanuts are used. Of course, those are not the only ingredients used in the spice island’s kitchen. Cinnamon, cloves, ginger, chili, lemongrass and pepper may also enrich a dish’s flavor. Getting hungry? Me too…

Bandanese People

Whereas Bandanese people are not rich, there is also no real poverty. As there are not many goods to spend money on, you don’t necessarily need as much for a living. Some people seem to be happy earning just enough money every now and then to get by. Others, especially younger people, want a different life for themselves and head off to one of the big cities like Makassar or Jakarta, to find a well-paid job. As beautiful as the Bandas are, they don’t offer a lot of job opportunities. So, with a closer look at Banda’s society, you notice a missing generation. There are the young people up to their early twenties and then again people that are 40 and older. These circumstances may not be that big of a problem right now, but certainly, place a challenge for societies’ future development. One other challenge Banda’s society has to cope with is their waste disposal. Like on many islands states, waste in the ocean is a big problem on the Bandas too. I learned about some of the challenges people face here when talking to the dive shop’s owner about the topic. He supports his partner (a marine biologist) and her association for protecting the Banda Sea. They try actively to reduce plastic waste in the ocean. For that, they not only needed to provide infrastructure but also motivate people to deposit their waste accordingly. Apart from very sensitive discussions with the towns Major, the different kind of thinking, different values, and priorities of the local Bandanese society is a challenge. This is certainly due to a completely different lifestyle than we have it in Europe, that evolved over hundreds of years, but as well out of a lack of education. Many people living on small islands like the Bandas don’t even know how beautiful their underwater world looks like and certainly don’t know what all the plastic waste does to the marine ecosystem. Especially young people do get educated but it is just not the time yet when they build the major part of society and until they are the ones to decide how to act. The worrying part is, that our oceans don’t have another ten or twenty years time to wait until people act. Of course, also older people are asked to deposit their waste accordingly. But as we all can imagine, it is harder to change their habits. They are more likely to have a hard time to understand why they suddenly shouldn’t throw their waste in the ocean anymore and why someone from Europe should know any better (somehow an understandable reaction, isn’t it?) To explain all my thoughts on this topic, would be way too much for this article. But if you are interested, find some more information about plastic in our oceans and on the Banda Islands on this recent article.

Staying at Blue Lagoon

The Island with the biggest population and therefore the most infrastructure is Banda Naira. The small island is in the middle of the archipelago called Banda Islands. We decided to stay on this island and started to look for accommodation for the night. Walking with our big backpack on the back and the small one in the front we gave up to everyone that we just arrived and got quite a few accommodation offers. Eventually, we went with one guy and he leads us to an only partly built hotel with a very nice view of the volcano and decent rooms. So, we stayed. Soon we realized, that this place was a little weird, as there were no employees around what made it extremely quiet. As we just didn’t feel as comfortable at this place we headed off to have a look at some other options to spend the next night at. We did some research before we came here and wanted to have a look at the dive shop “Blue Motion” and the partner hotel “Baba Lagoon” first. As we walked in the nice and cozy garden area we already loved it. We still did have a look at some other places but in the end, decided to stay at Baba Lagoon. What was only for a few nights at first, turned out to be three weeks in the end. We love it to have our hotel at the same place as where the dive shop was and we also had an exceptionally nice stay at Baba Lagoon. The rooms are very nice, you get good breakfast and the best: the staff is very friendly and easy going. The hotel and the dive shop are operated separately but everyone is helping each other out if needed so that you would think that they actually belong together. As there weren’t any tables for only two people to have breakfast at, it was easy to get in touch with other guests. There was also enough space though to sit on your own, for those who didn’t feel like mixing with others. As we got to know most of the people staying at the hotel (also because most of them were diving too) life at Blue Lagoon felt for us like sharing one big house with friends.

Diving on the Banda Islands

Diving can be held accounted for a big part of our relaxed lifestyle on the Banda Islands. The Bandas are famous for their clear water and amazing visibility as well as for their healthy coral reefs. Even though we didn’t experience the best visibilities during our stay (the weather = wind was pretty bad), we had a lot of amazing dives with great visibility too. There may not be as much different sea life as in Raja Ampat, but still, an enormous amount compared to other places. Plus, when diving with Blue Motion you just get a much more comfortable and safer service than in Raja Ampat, what is in the end almost as important for a great overall experience. But of course, we also saw a lot of amazing stuff. Like the mandarin fish that can be seen mating at dawn just in front of Blue Motion at only five meters depth. Or the several meters tall sponges and the huge sea fans growing everywhere. There were also schools of pump head parrot fish, tunas, jackfish, nudie branches, manta shrimps, eagle rays, reef sharks, sea turtles and much more. Our absolute highlight was seeing the school of melon head dolphins during our surface interval break near Hatta Island. There must have been about 50 to 100 dolphins swimming with our slowly moving boat, jumping and playing with the waves. When we got in the water with our masks on, we even had the chance to see them under water. Three of them approached me about two meters close having a look at that weird thing swimming on the surface before they turned around again. Just an awesome day we had there and probably the most memorable on our whole trip. As I already mentioned, Blue Motion diving is very professional and we always had a good time on the dive boat. The local guides could show us a lot underwater, took safety seriously and were still a lot of fun and always in for a laugh.

Transportation to and from the Banda Islands

Before we decided to visit the Banda Islands we knew that transportation there could take a while and was dependent on the weather. It turned out that we caught an exceptionally difficult time transportation wise. Flights from Ambon to Banda Naira only run twice a year for three months each during the high seasons. As it is not always the same company operating those flights they all need to start off new and may have some troubles in the beginning. The flight we caught was the second one that year, which was probably also why no one knew anything about it in Ambon. The plane should go to the Bandas and leave twice a week. But during the three weeks we were there it flew only two or three times. The other option is to go there by Fast Ferry (about 8 hours) or the slower Pelni Ferry (between 12 and 16 hours, depending on the type of boat). The Fast Ferry should also do the trip to the Bandas two times a week. It did run only two times in the three weeks we were there though. A few times it didn’t run because the waves were too high for this boat, one time because there weren’t enough passengers on the ferry and the other times they had engine problems. The Pelni Ferries are very reliable and cheap but obviously, take a long time and are not exactly what one would call luxury cruises. They run irregularly (about once a week) and as displayed on their homepage. Depending on the Ferry’s size there are some private cabins. They cannot be booked in advance and vary in their standard. Some are crew member’s cabins, offered for the night to make some extra money. Others (on the biggest ship) are 2ndclass (4 beds) and 1stclass (2 beds) cabins with a private bathroom and dinner included. This sounds nice and certainly is much safer and more comfortable than sleeping on the deck or in one of the huge sleeping rooms, but there are heaps of cockroaches too. They are rather small, so not too bad. It is still not nice though, to have them in your bed. So, as you may have guessed, we decided to take the Pelni Ferry back to Ambon. We got lucky enough to catch the big Ferry and to get a 2ndclass cabin. Apart from the cockroaches, we had a really good journey back to Ambon. As you can see, the lack of reliability makes it hard to plan a journey to the Banda Island which is connected with a long-haul flight. We recommend, to do this journey only, if you have at least three weeks of holidays, as it will take three or four days of traveling each way (depending on the connections). Eventually, there will be a bigger airport on Banda Naira, what would reduce travel time remarkably. We do hope though, that this airport won’t be built for another few years, as we are sure that the island’s character will change with the growing number of tourists visiting the islands then.

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