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Jakarta Post

Returning to Indonesia'€™s nutmeg treasure islands

  • Peter Milne

    The Jakarta Post

Banda Islands   /   Sun, August 18, 2013   /  12:51 pm
Returning to Indonesia'€™s nutmeg treasure islands

The clear waters and stunning coral that are typical of the Banda Islands.

Not many people make it to Indonesia'€™s fabled Spice Islands, the seven tiny Banda Islands in the middle of the Banda Sea, but I'€™m an exception.

I fell in love with the islands when I first reached them in 2004, when they were reeling from the sectarian violence of the early 2000s.

On a trip there this year, I looked back at some of the changes that had occurred over the past decade.

Back in the middle-ages, the Bandas were the only source of the world'€™s supply of nutmeg. Europeans raced to trace and then subjugate the islands in order to create a nutmeg monopoly '€” a goal eventually achieved by the Dutch East Indies Company, the VOC.  

The English tried in vain to resist, but were finally driven to the furthermost island called Run. There, they capitulated in 1620, but England finally accepted Dutch sovereignty when the Treaty of Breda was signed in 1667.

This gave the English control of the island of Manhattan, in return for English acquiescence to Dutch sovereignty over Run.

The Pelni ship Tidar leaves the small port on Bandaneira.The Pelni ship Tidar leaves the small port on Bandaneira.
However, the economic importance of the islands proved to be fleeting. Nutmeg seedlings uprooted by the English were planted in their own colonies, breaking the Dutch monopoly and consigning the Bandas to decline.

The islands returned to prominence in the 1930s, when the colonial government exiled two staunch anti-colonialists, Mohammed Hatta and Sutan Sjahrir, there.

Then during the Soeharto era, the islands became an exotic dive location and tourist attraction for the rich and famous. Hotelier Des Alwi, known locally as the '€œKing of the Bandas'€, played host to the likes of Jacques Cousteau, Mick Jagger and Princess Diana at various times during the 1970s and 1980s.

Then the sectarian violence following the fall of the Soeharto regime destroyed tourism, as the Bandas suffered their own form of ethnic-cleansing.

When I first came here in 2004, not a car was to be seen, motorcycles were rare, and the only way to communicate with the outside world was through one tiny wartel telecommunication kiosk on Banda Neira.

Today the wartel has gone and the locals on Banda Neira, Gunung Api and Banda Besar all have cell phones. Motorcycles race around the small roads and pathways and there is a flashy Pertamina petrol station.


Despite the tiny size of Banda Neira '€” it is only about 3 kilometers long '€” the first cars have started to appear, testament to the fact that Indonesians have never been too keen on walking.

While Des Alwi'€™s old Maulana Hotel on Banda Neira is struggling to attract new business, numerous guesthouses are springing up and spreading to the other islands.

Although talk of the old colonial town of Banda Neira becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site has faded, there'€™s talk of the luxury Aman hotel group looking to open a small boutique hotel on Banda Neira. If that were to happen, then life on the islands really would undergo a transformation.

Many things have not changed on the islands, of course, including their initial attractions.

Women in Lonthoir, Banda Besar Island, shelling kenari nuts.Women in Lonthoir, Banda Besar Island, shelling kenari nuts.
They still have a pristine beauty, with luxuriant slopes of tropical green forests, quiet white sandy beaches, and stunning coral and marine life.

The looming volcanic form of Gunung Api across the bay remains unchanging, just as it was in those days when the first European seafarers would have moored off Banda Neira. The volcano is still behaving itself, remaining dormant since its last eruption in 1988.  

Banda Neira also retains that centuries-old feeling of waiting for the next ship to call.

The town'€™s main street leading to the port transforms itself into one continuous warung when a Pelni ship is expected, regardless of the time of day or night it docks. Local women set up shop to sell freshly cooked fish, rice, sago and vegetables to travelers and townsfolk alike.

By contrast, the small airfield that cuts across the width of Banda Neira remains a sleepy place: cows graze unconcerned by its side, small girls ride their bicycles up and down the tarmac, and couples chat by their motorcycles on balmy evenings.  

Many of the nutmeg plantations also remain, albeit far less intensively managed today than in their heyday. In colonial times, the small indigenous nutmeg trees were found to produce more nutmeg if they were shaded by taller trees.As a result, some plantations today are protected by huge kenari trees, many of which must be over 300-years-old.   

Of course, there are the things that have not changed and are less endearing. Transportation would be the uppermost.

Nutmeg kernels and mace drying in the sun on a terrace on Banda Besar Island. Nutmeg kernels and mace drying in the sun on a terrace on Banda Besar Island.
Arguably, since I first came in 2004, matters have become even worse. The infrequent and unpredictable flights of small 16-seater Cessna aircraft from Ambon appear to have become even more so.

Merpati took over the route in April 2013. Since then, it seems that the service is still struggling to become routine, with a lack of faith amongst the locals that Merpati can even honor one weekly flight.

Meanwhile, faithful Pelni passenger ships continue to ply the route, but often with a gap of two weeks between visits. This means that visitors can easily get stuck on the islands. Not only this, I was shocked by the poor security and general mayhem during the boarding of the ship in Ambon.

The sad fact is that numerous gangs of youths prowl the crowded jetty and throughout the decks of the ship, looking for the weak, the old, or more preferably, foreign tourists struggling with their baggage, to make their brazen strikes.

Although warned by local residents, I did not expect to be confronted with attacks close to muggings. Pelni surely has a duty to better protect its bona fide passengers.

The view from Lonthoir village on Pulau Banda Besar across to Mount Api.The view from Lonthoir village on Pulau Banda Besar across to Mount Api.
In the longer run, the best solution would be for Merpati to succeed in providing a reliable and frequent air connection, while Pelni continues to provide a regular sea-link to enable local residents to carry bulky goods from Ambon and intrepid backpackers to arrive by sea.

What the islands lack in transportation to and from Ambon has contributed to so much of their charm.

Change is slowly seeping in, however, the real transformation that will come with a fast, frequent and reliable air-link is still some years off. When that does arrive, the islands will evolve rapidly, both positively and negatively.

In the meantime, they still offer a wonderful taste of a disappearing Indonesia. Go now if you get the chance.

Oh, and one word of warning: avoid the months of May, June and July. These are the monsoon months when the rains fall more consistently than I have ever seen elsewhere in Indonesia.

 '€” Photos by Peter Milne