Journey to the Spice Islands – Spice Islands, Indonesia, Asia

We recently returned from a trip to the Banda Islands, also known as the Spice Islands. These islands have both a European and a local history. They have long been a major point of conflict for their riches. Getting there is an adventure in itself. This is about the journey.

We are in our mid to late 50s, we don't do hard travel, long bus journeys or speed boats (hard on the back). We know no Bahsa Indonesian, but we are trying to learn. We spend a little extra to smooth the trip out, try to avoid too much moving about, hire porters where possible. The journey was from Europe, with a stopover in Jakarta.

We don't care for basic accommodation in cities. We booked the Cipitura Hotel at $75.00 per night. It was good for swimming and resting after the flight. Also, it was close to the airport, had a pool with an attached shopping mall for SIM cards and getting cash changed; exchange rates in Maluku are abysmal.

Our flight to Ambon from Jakarta was purchased in advance. To get flights from outside Indonesia, you have to email your credit card details to a reliable agency. The risk is yours alone. Indonesian banks don't issue secure web pages for payment. Banker's drafts, money orders, etc. are a pain and expensive. You can get a reservation over the web for so many hours/days, but they will only hold it so long without payment.

Ambon airport is a long way from Ambon. It's possible to go by Bemo. We took a taxi for 150,000 rupiah, about $15.00. On arrival at the airport, the police called us into their office. We expected the usual shakedown, however, they only registered us as being in Maluku, offered travel advice.

It's not possible to book your onward travel from Ambon unless you are actually there, and you can't be sure if the flight to Banda will go – not much point for travel agents to put your name down. They deal mostly with local tourists. For travel information in the area, we found a travel agent in Ambon who speaks English and is connected – P.T. Daya Patel Tour and Travel service, spicetr@qmail.com. Contact Tony Tomasoa. He can give you ferry days, flight days, (if they fly) and make reservations, even though they do expire. Advanced times for boats remain pretty much hit and miss, even on the day of. The most reliable way to Banda is by Pelni ferry which runs once a week.

It takes seven hours to Bandaniera – all within two days when we were there, but that was a 2006 schedule. Commercial flights to Bandaneira are on an 18-seat plane, Mondays only. When we were there, other flights didn't go to the Islands for the next 16 days due to high winds. If passengers are carrying heavy dive gear or are overweight, fewer people get on. When we left the island, there were 30 people on the list for the next Monday's flight.

Getting off the islands has to be planned. A good option, in my opinion, would be to link in flights from Ambon airport directly to Langgur in the Kei Islands. There are daily flights, the Kei islands have some fantastic beaches with accommodation. There is supposed to be an airport hotel in Ambon. The Pelni ferry ships currently go Ambon/Banda/Kei Islands, then around a small loop, two to four days back to the Kei Islands/Banda/Ambon. This gives you two options per week to get to and from Banda, if you can afford 400,000 rupiah, flight costs between the Kei islands and Ambon.

Here are more choices. Hire one of the larger wooden boats around Bandaneira and charter to Seram. The price when we were there was 1,400,000 rupiah and you can share. I think they go to Tehoru, it's the nearest point and takes around six hours. The problems are small boats in open waters, however, some of them are as large as the yachts that sail around. It depends on the weather and your comfort level.

Watch for larger vessels and the oil tanker that does the round trip from Seram to Banda. You can hitch a lift with them. The issue of unreliability, though, is always present. Delays are common. The bigger the boat, the better. See the captain and rent a cabin with someone, or stay on deck. If language is a problem, find someone who can communicate for a good deal before you get on. People who speak English will find you.

Once you get to Seram, it's road transport to Amahai or Namano, then ferry to Ambon. We had to stay a few days in Ambon before we could get a seat on the flight to Denpasar. If you leave, say 1,000,000 rupiah per person with the travel agent, you can phone him from Banda, book your ticket once you are sure of the date. You can also book a hotel in advance. Use the travel agent's airport bus, cheaper than a taxi.

There are many other options in the area, most popular being Lease Islands, and Teluk Sawai bay on Seram. People also go to Ternate and Tidore, alhough I wouldn't recommend them if you want to hang out with tourists.

Was it worth the bother to get to the Bandas? Absolutely. It's a good place for history buffs and snorkels. There's the Museum Siwa Lima – two and a half hours from Ambon – well worth it from what I hear. We went to Namalatu for a dive operation that never took place. People have reported good dives in the area, though. Santi Panti is friendly, non threatening. I will write about my perception of the situation after the conflict in another article.

Pelni Boat
Pelni Boat

It was our first time on a Pelni boat, some folks take it often and choose whichever class they want. If that's you, then no point in reading this. It was my first time. Finding out when the boat was in wasn't easy. Knowing Bahsa would have helped. For a two-day trip, we could only get economy. Purchase your ticket and keep on enquiring when the boat will come in. We were told 1500 hours on Sunday. When we got up on Sunday morning, the hotel receptionist said the boat had left. We were devastated – no more boats for two weeks, no flights on Mondays. What to do?.

The receptionist then phoned the Pelni office, was told a 1200 hour departure. We packed, dashed to the port to be informed that no, the boat was leaving tomorrow. By then, we were getting the hang of it. We stayed around asking questions, eventually finding the boat due in at 2000 hours, i.e. tonight. On Banda they blow the ship's horn on arrival, wake the town – night or day. We arrived at the dock about an hour early, went into the economy waiting oven. Everything was closed, no air conditioning, everyone looking shattered. Eventually, the boat came. When the doors opened, there was a crazy rush for the gangway (to get a bed). People were still coming off!

We hired a porter, told him we were in economy, he took off immediately with us in hot pursuit. He ran straight into the fray at the bottom of the gangway, forcing his way through. Everyone – families, babies – coming and going on the same gangway. It's nothing to see a porter with a full sized refrigerator on his back, fighting his way on or off the boat. Somehow we found ourselves on board in economy class, (which is a rat hole on the Ceramai). The porter dumped our bags, charged us more than the agreed price, forcing us to pay him to go away and stop hassling us.

There we were with overpriced beach mats to sleep on that were "on sale". We weren't happy, that's for sure. Off I went for an upgrade, kept getting lost, couldn't find my wife. Eventually, I got us out on the deck. (Although a seaman, I don't know my way around passenger ships). I found the purser and was upgraded to first class – clean cabin, not to many cockroaches, if you left the light on.

A Dutch lady offered to watch our bags if we didn't find a room. Foreigners are targets. Keeping your entire luggage safe can be a major headache, especially if you sleep. Locals kept their stuff on and around them in descending order of importance. The crew try to get you something better to stay in even if there are no cabins. They know as foreigners, you stick out.

This is basic stuff I already knew but we were exhausted at the time. Once you sort everything, go for a walk around the ship, See where you'd like to stay next time. If economy is fine with you, good. For us, though, it isn't.

What an experience! The next time we go to Pelni, we'll have to deal with new hassles we hadn't anticipated but still, we'll return. We urge others to go also – for the adventure.

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