|Vega’s humanitarian visit to Banda|
In front of us lay a small archipelago with a total land area of less than 40 square miles that once changed the course of our entire world. The search for these islands brought about the fall of ancient empires and the accumulation of vast riches. These are the Banda Islands, for hundreds of years the only source for the world's most sought after spice - nutmeg.
Now, these islands, that once enticed a queen to gamble her crown jewels and were at the heart of several vicious European wars are only a forgotten backwater with a population of warm friendly people always ready to assist and very proud of their island's history. After all, one of these islands was once traded for another island in North America called Manhattan with all of what is now New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Long Island thrown in to sweeten the deal.
As early as 300BC Chinese, Malay, and Arabic traders visited these islands trading rice and sago for nutmeg, mace, and cloves that were highly valued in their own countries and for export. Those spices often continued their journey from China by camel westward along the Silk Road or by sea to the Persian Gulf where they were transferred to caravans that carried them to the Mediterranean. There they were distributed from Constantinople, Genoa, and Venice at exorbitant profits. As early as 100AD the Romans sent ships of their own as far as India seeking to break the Arab monopoly on Nutmeg and Mace from these islands.
These are the fabled Spice Islands that Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Magellan, and many others searched for. Today there are traces of this rich history wherever you look. Old fort Nassau, first started in 1512, whose walls proudly proclaim 1670 as its year of construction, now serves as a short cut from the beach to the main road. Cannons dated from the 1700s lay abandoned beside the street. Rare exotic Ikan Banda (mandarin fish) can easily be seen by snorkeling along the old harbour walls and, of course, everywhere are nutmeg trees under their shading Kanary trees - themselves the source of the Indonesian almond.
If these short lines have tickled your desire to visit this amazing place, then read on. This is one destination you will love to discover and hate to leave. Just be sure to allow yourself enough time to truly savor these lovely islands and there relaxed style of living.
The best time to visit the Banda Islands is during the southeast monsoon with September/October and April/May being the best months of all. Arrival is easy and straightforward. After all for thousands of years sailing ships made this a regular port of call to load their precious cargos of nutmeg and cloves.
Approaching from the south, leave the islands of Run and Ai to port and the volcano Gulung Api to starboard making your way around the north coast until the second entrance between the islands of Gulung Api and Banda Naira bear almost due south. That point is located on the eastern side of Pulau Karaka. Pass between the red and green lights into the deep water bay between the islands. By staying to the middle of the channel you should see a least depth of 15 meters.
At the anchorage waypoint the choice is between close in and shallow at +/- 5 meters or further out and deep at +/- 45 meters, both provide good holding and are well protected from almost all winds. If the fishermen advise you of a better place, best listen to them, as their advice has always been spot on for us.
If you are invited to moor Mediterranean style with an anchor from the bow and the stern tied to the palm trees - politely do it. That is the best place to be, but only do it if invited by the owner of the property. These moorings are usually free and provided as a kindness to passing travelers. So do be polite.
There is another entrance between Banda Besar and Gulung Api to the south that looks enticing, but having used that entrance once I found the depths were not at all what was on our charts and the holding ground not very sure. Later, we found that the last eruption of Gulung Api in 1988 changed the entire bottom profile especially at the entrance. My advice is stick to the northern anchorage, which is better protected.
Once you are safely anchored checking in is easy. Banda is not an official entry point so they only have the Harbormaster and Navy, for now. The Harbormaster usually does everything for you so you do not need to visit the navy installation just beside the new petrol station. We found the officials to be very helpful and friendly.
When you leave the port captain's office and pass under the archway to the street stop, look around. In front of you are two shops that sell phone cards and top-ups. Banda just received mobile phones last year. The system did still have a few glitches when we were last there, but those should soon be solved. There are also a several Internet cafes that have sprung up in the past year. The local bank now has an ATM that is working, though a tad bit slow. They take most credit cards.
Slightly to your right is the big mosque. Turn right and follow the street straight along and you will find several nice shops where you can get bread and other supplies. Further along that same street after passing the Chinese temple is the "Kongsi Klenteng" built in the 15th century and well worth a visit. If you turn to the right you will quickly find the local market, the place for fresh veggies and very fresh tuna steaks at about US$1.50 or 10,000 Rupias for a prime strip of about 1 kg. Banda is not a good place to provision. What is available is fresh but very basic so be sure to carry enough stores with you for the onward passage.
If instead of going straight to the market you turn left at the big mosque, then right at the first corner, you will come to the park. Continue straight a bit and you will find the Dutch Reform Church reputed to be from the mid 1600s. If on arriving at the park you turn left about 3 lanes up on the left you will see a sign for the Mutiara Guest House – Mutiara means Perl – belonging to Abba and Dila. Dila is an amazing cook, so do not miss a chance to have a dinner at their place. If you tell them you are friends of Vega she may even bring out her special nutmeg cake for desert. That route also leads past the restored Fort Belgica on the hill to your left and in front of the old VOC warehouses and offices.
For fuel and lube oil contact Husain Kamis just ask anyone in the port office and he will be around shortly. Banda has a very efficient "Jungle Grape Vine" that gets messages around with amazing speed. If you have an Indonesian hand phone his number is o81247226956.
This is a beautiful safe anchorage with a spectacular view of the volcano Gunung Api. You can spend hours lost in the pristine waters snorkeling right from the boat as exotic tropical fish and ancient shipwrecks abound. Above all, this is a place where the people are so friendly and helpful you will not want to leave.
These islands exist in the worlds largest maritime preserve and their waters are considered to be among the very few in the world that are still unspoiled. Walk along the beaches and collect pieces of old Chinese porcelain washed ashore from those ancient wrecks, or stroll through the town and discover history at every turn. Most of the town's real foot traffic is along walkways and paths between the roads. If you see what looks like a walkway between buildings or going up a hill it most likely is. We found the best exploring is by following these paths.
Another interesting place is the Maulana Hotel, which is also the PADI dive center for the area. Located close to the village center they provide a slightly more upmarket service. You will walk past it on your way from the anchorage to the town center.
Kora Kora were the original Bandanese war canoes. These long thin war canoes holding anywhere from 30 to 50 rowers, a captain, two or more bailers to toss out any water that came onboard, several musicians playing drums and gongs, and a helmsman who sat at the stern and steered with a large paddle. Averaging 22 metres in length with a beam of only 1.25 metres, these war canoes with their high curving bow and stern they are strongly reminiscent of Viking long boats without the sails.
Today, these impressive craft are used for the highly contested Kora Kora races that are regional events with boats coming from several districts to participate. Each boat is painted in its team colors and the teams themselves all dress to match in bright turbans and sarongs. The effect is stunning as they power through the water at up to 12 knots. Two power strokes followed by a rest in perfect timing. When racing they often strike a rhythm that closely resembles the movement of a centipede's feet, a most pleasing and impressive feat to watch. It is well worth asking if any races are scheduled and if so waiting to watch them. In lew of that good fortune they are frequently to be seen in the bay practicing.
The Cakalele are Banda's best-known cultural dances. These are war dances that commemorate the massacre of Bandanese men in 1621 by the Dutch.Almost anyone can tell you when the next dances will be held and where. These are not tourist events, but the local people expressing their cultural identity. The costumes are colourful and eclectic. Many of the helmets, swords, pistols, and other ancient arms are real antiques, some dating from the days of the Portuguese that are only brought out for these special occasions.
I could go on for pages about the discoveries and friends we have made on Banda Niera alone. It seems that every turn of the road or path leads to another historic building, fort, or other interesting place. If that small island is amazing the other islands are even more so.
Everywhere are reminders of the strong Portuguese and Dutch colonial influence; a visit to the old nutmeg plantations on Banda Besar makes an enjoyable day trip where you will see nutmeg harvested exactly the way it was done 500 years ago. Banda is unique, its ambience and the tranquility of times past will captivate you. It is well worth the effort too climb the Gunung Api Volcano or visit the islands of Run and Ai. For visits to outlying islands it is best to use local craft, which are inexpensive and can show you the best locations for landing, snorkeling, and sightseeing (Abba is the best man to organize that for you).
Every year the 120 year old Norwegian build historic vessel Vega delivers between 15 and 20 tons of donated tools, educational and medical supplies to some of South East Asia's most isolated island communities. Those supplies help support local level community development, health, and educational ser vices.