The Banda Islands: Land and Sea

33 comments
Asia, Indonesia, Southeast
Banda Besar viewed from Hatta Island

Banda Besar viewed from Hatta Island

Chapter 4, Part 9

We were in the middle of the Banda Sea, the deepest body of water in Indonesia with some parts going as deep as 7,000 m. The violent waves reared up the small boat, filled with Fiona from the Netherlands, Torben from Germany, Eric and Annie from France, James and I, and two local crew. The farther we left the calm waters around Banda Neira and Banda Besar, the more intense the force of the waves crashed against our boat. A month earlier a Polish journalist that we met in Ternate warned us about how high the waves in the Banda Sea could reach, and now we were experiencing it firsthand.

Seasickness became a part of any of my travels that involved boats, until Banda. I was too focused on holding onto the wooden beam across the center of the boat, with salt water splashing over my face and body every now and then, and the boat rocking violently alternating between the starboard and port, my usual seasickness didn’t even bother to kick in. Torben, on the other side, showed no concern at all and kept trying to mount a water insulation to his underwater camera. If only I were that calm and composed.

One hour later, finally we arrived at Hatta Island, also known in the past as Rozengain. “This is like that TV program, Don’t Tell My Mother,” James told us with a clear sign of relief. In the meantime, accompanied by our boatmen and their local acquaintances, Fiona decided to find a place to sit and recover from the queasiness caused by the rough ride. It didn’t take long for the rest of us, however, to walk through the white sand beach and jump into the calm and clear water.

The beach’s turquoise color was suggestive of a beautiful underwater world that lay beneath the surface. I had previously snorkeled in Komodo National Park near the island of Flores and off Menjangan Island to the northwest of Bali; both places hosted some of the most beautiful underwater gardens in Indonesia. Yet, I was still very impressed to see the scale of the beauty at Hatta. Floating above a network of table corals, some as big as a human body, which formed a colorful carpet with a multitude of other coral species where a wide array of fish swam around, indifferent to a few humans watching them with admiration, was a surreal experience. Trumpetfish, goatfish, Moorish idol (Gill in Finding Nemo), butterflyfish, vagabond butterflyfish, Clarke’s anemonefish, triggerfish and masked puffer were some of the fish species I spotted. They were frolicking around the reefs up to the point where the shallows dropped into the dark and mysterious depths of the Banda Sea – or as the fellows in the same animated movie call “the Drop Off”. Unfortunately, unlike at Menjangan, I didn’t have any underwater camera with me this time.

I was not the only one who was having a good time. Hatta was Fiona’s first ever snorkeling experience – which obviously set a really high bar for her future underwater adventures. Meanwhile, Torben swam a bit further to the south of the beach and spotted two turtles. But all of us envied Annie’s futuristic-looking snorkeling mask which would suit Hollywood’s science-fiction movies. A few days later James and I met Monica from Switzerland who had spent four nights in Hatta and witnessed some spectacular sights: one day she saw whales swimming near the surface, and another day mobula rays jumping out of the water.

A Pristine Beach on Hatta

A Pristine Beach on Hatta

Skipjack Tuna at Banda Neira Market

Skipjack Tuna at Banda Neira Market

Fresh Fish for Sale

Fresh Fish for Sale

Swordfish at the Market

A Swordfish at the Market

Vibrant Colors of Fresh Produce

Vibrant Colors of Fresh Produce

Clear Water at the Pier of Banda Besar

Clear Water Near the Pier of Banda Besar

Back in Banda Neira, Mount Api loomed in the background wherever we went. Its latest eruption was in 1988 which lasted for three weeks and claimed three lives. It left a path of destruction which also damaged the coral reefs on the northwestern part of the island. However, due to the Banda Islands’ location at the heart of the Coral Triangle (dubbed “Amazon of the Seas”) as well as its deep seas which brought cool water to neutralize the effect of global warming, a four-meter wide coral which would normally take 50 years to grow, only needed 15 years. In a very short period of time, the coral reefs around the volcano had recovered as shown in an Al Jazeera documentary.

Living in a country with the most volcanoes in the world, many Indonesians are accustomed to witnessing volcanic eruptions in their backyards. The volcanoes wreak havoc and take lives, but they always provide replenish the earth for new lives to flourish following each eruption. In spite of their remoteness, the Banda Islands are blessed with soil so fertile that until the 19th century they were the only places on earth where nutmeg grew.

On the island of Banda Besar, across a narrow strait from Banda Neira, nutmeg plantations abounded. Once cultivated by the local Bandanese, then owned by the Dutch during the colonial period, before being transferred back to the locals, each plantation consisted of many nutmeg and kenari (wild almond) trees – the latter grow much taller than the former and act as a canopy to prevent direct sunlight from hitting the nutmeg trees. While nutmeg is used as a spice, the locals use kenari (known in the Philippines as pili nut) in their cooking for its rich and earthy flavor.

Mount Api Looming in the Background

Mount Api Looming in the Background

Unripe Nutmeg

Nutmeg, Yet to be Harvested

James and Fiona Walk around A Kenari (Wild Almond) Tree

James and Fiona Walk around A Kenari (Wild Almond) Tree

Kenari (Known in the Philippines as Pili Nut)

Kenari (Known in the Philippines as Pili Nut)

Roasted Husks of Kenari

Roasted Husks of Kenari for An Aroma Enhancer

A Village on Lonthoir (Banda Besar)

A Village on Banda Besar

Fruit

Mysterious Fruits on Banda Besar

Cashew

Unripe Cashew

Torben Walks toward A Dilapidated Warehouse

Torben and A Dilapidated Warehouse

Nutmeg and Clove from the Bandas

Nutmeg and Clove from the Banda Islands

From the ruins of Fort Hollandia on Banda Besar, the majestic view of Mount Api and the shallow waters between Banda Neira and Banda Besar unfolded before our eyes. With a height of only 640 m above sea level, Mount Api seemed to be a much easier climb than the 3,726-meter-high Mount Rinjani on the island of Lombok. I soon learned that I was wrong.

On our fifth day in the Banda Islands, Torben, Fiona, Eric, James and I decided to leave Banda Neira in the morning for Mount Api. The hike started relatively easy with a few steps and dirt paths to follow. Half an hour later, it became increasingly difficult, and after the first checkpoint Eric decided not to continue the hike and returned to Banda Neira instead. From there, it got harder and harder with every step we took.

Solid ground had now become loose scree where two steps up we made were followed by one step down. The higher we went, the more we had to depend on whatever roots or tree branches there were to grab. Doubt usually starts creeping into your mind in such situations, and at that point it surely did in mine. Underestimating the difficulties I might encounter, in the morning I decided to wear my normal shoes instead of the ones for hiking – making the hike even more arduous.

After seemingly endless torture, two hours later we finally reached the summit – a barren land filled with rocks and covered in clouds. Clouds, they turned out, became our biggest disappointment for they persistently blocked the view of the islands and the sea below. We waited, and waited, and waited… until suddenly there was an opening big enough for us to see Banda Neira, the eastern part of Banda Besar, and several small islands nearby. The airstrip on Banda Neira – the only one in the whole Banda Islands – jutted out into the sea, serving infrequent flights to Ambon. On the highest point at this remote part of Indonesia, Banda’s natural treasures were spread all over the islands, on land and in the sea.

Mount Api viewed from Fort Hollandia

Mount Api viewed from Fort Hollandia

School Kids on Banda Neira

School Kids on Banda Neira

Mount Api on A Sunny Day

Mount Api on A Sunny Day

Spider

A Small Spider Spotted on the Slope of Mount Api

Gunung Api

Banda Neira Viewed from the Summit of Mount Api

The Sole Airstrip in the Banda Islands

The Sole Airstrip in the Entire Banda Islands

A View Near the Airstrip

The Sea Gate to Banda Neira

Looking Out to the Waters Surrounding Banda Neira, Banda Besar and Mount Api

Looking Out to the Waters Surrounding Banda Neira, Banda Besar and Mount Api

Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

33 thoughts on “The Banda Islands: Land and Sea”

  1. Am I ever glad to have discovered your blog, my friend! You described your boat ride in the rough sea with so much drama and then went on to climb Mount Api using colorful language one could almost feel your excitement. I can’t wait until I read your next post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Always appreciate your kind and encouraging comment, Peter. That boat ride is one of the most frightening things I’ve ever experienced in my life. But at that time I could only hope that our skipper knew what to do and it was just another commute for him. As for the climb, it taught me to never underestimate anything no matter how easy it might appear.

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  2. Oh my goodness Bama that boat ride sounds epic! I felt like I was hanging on right with you. The water looks so beautiful and clear. I think we should have to spend a great deal of time exploring Indonesia.

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    • It was very intense! My brain told me to stay in the middle of the boat no matter what, and that helped suppress my seasickness. But it really was worth all the torture for the underwater gardens of Hatta Island were so beautiful they’re still the best I’ve ever seen by far. The thing about Indonesia is it’s very sprawling, so you should spend several months — and visits — to do it justice. Whenever you plan a trip to this part of the world, please drop me a message, Sue. 🙂

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    • Makasih, Trees. Harus ke Banda karena indah sekali. Hope you’ll be able to visit this part of Indonesia sooner than later.

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  3. hi bama salam kenal. saya selalu amazed sama narasi dan foto di posting kamu hehehe. oh iya foto2nya selalu berhasil bikin saya ngiler pengen kesana hahaha..

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    • Halo salam kenal juga. Enaknya saya panggil apa nih? Fitri? Makasih ya sudah menyempatkan baca postingan saya karena saya sadar sih postingan di blog saya bisa terasa agak terlalu panjang, hehe.. So far, dari tempat-tempat yang pernah saya kunjungi di Indonesia, Kepulauan Banda ini memang yang paling berkesan meskipun jauh dari mana-mana — atau justru mungkin malah karena jauh dari mana-mana. 🙂

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    • I’ve read that too. But usually for me fresh air keeps the seasickness away — that’s why I prefer sitting at an open air deck.

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  4. I became immersed in this post Bama. Wonderful story telling and photography. The more you write about the Bandas and about Indonesia in general the more I am enticed. It’s definitely on the list!
    Alison

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    • Thanks Alison! This chain of small islands is no ordinary place. So far it is one of the most intriguing and fascinating places I’ve ever been in Indonesia — and I believe it will remain so. My next post will be on the people I met during my two-week stay in the Bandas.

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  5. whoa, Bama, just another wonder epic adventure, eh!! Boats…love em. When you mentioned how deep the water was here, I wondered if there were a tectonic plate there that would cause such deep water…and yeah, there is! What an amazing world…indeed! I’ve seen cashews and cloves on trees before, but I don’t think I’ve seen nutmeg…so thanks for that!

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    • Badfish! I can imagine you staying in the Banda Islands for weeks. It’s quiet, nature at its best wherever you look at, the people are so nice and friendly, no need to hurry… it’s pure bliss. Thanks to that tectonic plate the Bandas’ were created — and provided the perfect condition for nutmeg trees to grow. It’s a long way from Abu Dhabi to the Bandas, but if you do go you will be rewarded. Thanks for reading!

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      • Bama…thanks again, I’m going to have to do some reading on that area…especially the tectonic plates and what they did, or how they moved. That interests me. And “bliss” interests me, too, so maybe I’ll head out that way sometime. Do they have an airstrip for Garuda to land, or is it by ship only?

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      • Garuda doesn’t fly to Banda Neira because the airstrip is too short. You can fly to Ambon (the nearest city from the Banda Islands) and take the fast boat which runs twice a week. I took the cramped, slow and Titanic-like Pelni ship to get to Banda Neira. But I decided to take the fastboat to return to Ambon.

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      • Got it. So, you’re saying I shouldn’t just pop on over there for the weekend next month, right? I like taking the slow boat, when I have time. Took the fast boat to the Gili islands off Lombok, just seemed the best way to go at the time. That’s the trip my camera fell out of my backpack and landed at my feet in the ocean…it fried its brains out on the spot.

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      • It would be too much of an effort to reach the Bandas only for a short weekend. I suggest one week at the least — and make sure you have your camera strapped to your neck or wrist this time. 🙂

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  6. Those sea shots are beckoning me – the clear water rippling onto the sand is beyond inviting. The rest of the post was pretty appealing, too! 🙂 Even the scary X-shaped spider.

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    • Spending a few days on Hatta would have been perfect. We only did a day trip from Banda Neira, yet it was one of the highlights of our two-week stay in this calm and beautiful corner of Indonesia. I can imagine you reading your books there while watching the sheen of the rippling water from the veranda. 🙂 Thanks for reading, Lex.

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  7. WOW. I saw the sea shots and clicked to read right away. The photos paired with the words make a beautiful match, makes me want to fly to Indonesia straight away. This is amazing! I can also tell how immersed you are in being observing and appreciating the culture. Makes my heart warm 🙂

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    • Staying in the islands for two weeks helped me understand the culture better, pay attention to little things around me, and soak in the tranquil ambiance of this remote chain of islands. Glad my story warms your heart! 🙂 Thanks for reading and for leaving such kind words.

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    • I really appreciate your kind words, Elaine. I’m glad through my posts on the Banda Islands, people who used to know nutmeg only in its powdered form can now see how the tree looks like.

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    • Hi Febriar. Thank you sudah mampir di sini dan menyempatkan baca ya. Traveling ke destinasi impian bisa terwujud lebih mudah dari yang kita bayangkan kok, asalkan kita bikin rencana dan timeplan yang matang. 🙂

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  8. Pingback: The Faces of Banda | What an Amazing World!

  9. Bama, the historical significance and the remains of the Dutch occupation are reason enough to visit the Bandas, but as you show in this post, the islands are also jaw-droppingly beautiful. I think they will always be one of my favourite corners of Indonesia, if not the world, and I’m so glad we got to spend two weeks there last year!

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    • Me too, those two weeks in the Bandas is among the most memorable travel experiences I’ve ever had so far. One thing I regret is not having an underwater camera to capture the beauty of the coral reefs around Hatta. Maybe the next time we go we should have diving certificates in hand. 🙂

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