- By Doug
- In: Tales From The Track
- 26 Apr 2009
Spice Islands I
The Bandas were once the world's sole source of nutmeg and mace, the crimson filigree that embraces the nutmeg kernel. Together with Ternate and Tidore, the islands to which the clove tree was once endemic, these remote jewels of Maluku were the original fabled Spice Islands. Today the cultivation of those spices has spread far and wide and Maluku has lost its lucrative monopoly, but given the invasion, bloodshed and ruin that accompanied nature's boon, perhaps that's not such a bad thing...
We loved the Bandas. A scattering of small islands that surround the still steaming dormant peak of the Gunung Api volcano, the Bandas are hard to get to and aren't a place to consider if you only have a couple of weeks in Indonesia. On the up side, unreliable transport links have shielded them from the crowds and tourism excesses that often plague other more accessible island destinations. We reckon they're the equal of any of the Thai or Malaysian Islands we've visited.
Crystal clear oceans that teem with life aquatic. White beaches that dip to fringing coral gardens which in turn plunge to inky blue depths sometimes only a stone's throw from shore. Great people, emerald jungle, poignant remnants of history. Ancient nutmeg groves guarded by the buttressed giants of kenari trees. That volcano's perfect cone.
Banda Neira was the heart of the nutmeg trade. The main port and trading center of the islands. Arab traders shipped spices via India and the Silk Road to a Europe where they were worth their weight in gold. The Portugese and then the Dutch came to attempt complete control of the trade, the latter by pretty much any means possible. By the crumbling walls of Fort Nassau is a memorial on an evocative patch of ground. Here, in retaliation for resistance, the Dutch had their Japanese mercenaries behead and dismember 44 of the island's leaders and rich men. Continued resistance to Dutch demands that nutmeg be to be sold only to them resulted in the eventual annihilation of the islands' inhabitants, the few hundred survivors fleeing to the Kei Islands. The resulting problem of a lack of labour was solved by importing slaves.
Today the Dutch East India Company's proud edifices are in a state of glorious damp decay, their cemeteries neglected, overgrown and serving as waste disposal areas.
The pace of life here is slow, the traffic a light scattering of motor bikes. We stayed at Vita Guest House, right on the water across from the volcano, with the relative bustle of Jalan Pasar and its shops and fish market right outside our door. Alan at Vita has a covered boat for hire, perfect for chartering for snorkelling or to visit the outlying islands or towns of the big island, Banda Besar. If you're lucky you'll get to fall asleep while Tata plays guitar and sings Ambonese songs to the tropical night.
Boats. From simple dugout canoes to the large, covered diesel powered longboats that sound like helicopters, they're everywhere. There's many more of them than any other kind of transport. No big surprise among islands that probably have no more than 20km of road in total.
In the next post, we jump one for the trip across to Pulau Ai.