THE ULTIMATE STARTING POINT OF this trip in the remote Kei islands of central Maluku took us five days to reach, and although the journey was hardly arduous, our first glimpse of the idyllic tropical Kei archipelago as we approached Langgur airport was definitely a wonderful sight. The turquoise green of the beach shallows stretched out for miles into the Banda Sea which was strung with jewel-like islands ringed by reef and sand.
Our lengthy journey from Sydney had been made on a series of questionable aircraft decreasing in size from an Air Asia Airbus A330 to Denpasar, a Lion Air Boeing 737 to Makassar, then another Lion Air to Ambon and finally a Wings Air ATR72 to Langgur on Pulau Kei Kecil.
THE FIRST LEG, ON AIR ASIA’S recently cancelled route from Kingsford-Smith to Ngurah Rai was much less unpleasant than anticipated. Even with the fiasco of a late gate change at the moment all 300 passengers were queued and poised to board the aircraft we still reached Bali at a reasonable hour with all the best wishes of the Sydney ground staff in the local vernacular of their customer base “Hope youse have a good flight…”
In fact it was good, without so much as a tremble of turbulence, but following the same theme, just at the last moment as we were approaching the runway our landing was abruptly aborted. And with the kind of explanation from the flight deck which inspired no confidence we spent an excruciating ten minutes circling around for a second crack at it. Quelle horreur.
So it was with slightly clammy palms we had our visas stamped and collected our bag before running the gauntlet of taxi touts, grateful that we didn’t need to utilise them, out of the terminal and into the tangle of streets which was Tuban.
It was twenty-four years since we had set foot in Bali and although there was little to inspire us in this neighbourhood, it was an easy place to find our travel legs for this trip.
We turned a few corners and found a room in the first likely looking losman we came to – Nyoman at Purnama House showed us to a very clean room in a compound centred around a large Hindu shrine. It was 170 000 rupiah and we were still penniless so finding an ATM was our next priority – then sate. By that time it was dark and we sniffed out a small pasar malam on Jalan Devi Sartika and ordered two plates of Dave’s favourite initiation meal. It was 30 000 rupiah for ten sticks and nothing beats a smokey sate kambing with hot fluffy rice on one’s first night in Indonesia.
At dawn the next morning we found our way to the beach and, sitting on the rubbish-strewn sand amongst the prahus we took in the scene – outriggers bobbing in the waves; surfers making their way out to the reef break; old men chatting in a beachside bale; and the mountains of Java becoming clearer as the sky lightened. We took our breakfast in a simple warung – a delicious 10 000 rupiah nasi campur dispensed by an overworked ibu and an assistant just keeping up with the demand for her gorengan. The tahu isi was exceptional. Amongst our fellow diners was an airline pilot with an Air Asia badge and we eyed him suspiciously wondering if he was the perpetrator of our recent distress…
We took a deep breath, went back to Purnama House, packed our things, and walked back to the airport. At the domestic terminal we distracted ourselves browsing through the tourist tat and came upon a treasure – a fat copy of Morten Strange’s “Birds of Indonesia”. Dave simply had to have it and he walked away beaming. Pity it cost $50 and weighed almost a kilo … life is better if one knows which bird is which.
THE FLIGHT TO MAKASSAR WAS short – just over one hour with nice views of Lombok’s Gilis and Gunung Rinjani en route, and a very different diaspora of passengers from the previous day. It was a rough landing at Sultan Hassanuddin Airport – the pilot seemed to be having trouble lining us up to the runway and kept re-adjusting our air speed so we landed with a skid going way too fast – it felt like our cheeks were flattened to our faces with the G-force it took to bring us to a halt. Inside the terminal we entered a scrum at the carousel with the passengers of three other arrivals including a plane-load of returning haji’s who smelled strongly of the arduousness of their journey. Then we found our way to the Damri bus stop. It was a long wait in the midday heat for our chariot so we passed the time obliging photo opportunity requests and practicing our language skills. The drive into town was also long – it was over an hour before Dave called out “kiri” to the driver and we launched ourselves into the throng of Makassar.
After twenty-five years nothing looked familiar – even the name of the city had changed from the Ujung Pandang we had visited so long ago. We headed into Chinatown and looked no further than the flashy-looking Hotel Agung in Jalan Jampea.
By the time we checked into our 170 000 rupiah room it was after 4 o’clock, we were thirsty and desperately hungry having not eaten since our breakfast at 6:30AM. Makassar was a foodie town so our eyes were wide as we stepped back out on the hunt for sustenance. Just a few blocks away on Jalan Gunung Lompobatang there were several warungs specialising in konro done various ways, and a friendly ibu beckoned us into her establishment. She quickly fanned up a plume of smoke from her roadside barbeque and asked our preference. I opted for sop konro and Dave chose the bakar – what came to our table looked like something the Flintstones would eat. Dave’s curve of slow-cooked, barbequed buffalo ribs came smothered in peanut sauce with a plate of rice and a bowl of the soup that mine turned up in. We may have overdone it a bit. But we managed to eat all 130 000 rupiahs worth, the scraps on our plates looking like some cavemans midden…
We walked on, stopping in the Lapangan Karebosi to recover. There we people-watched to our hearts content – runners and walkers did laps of the green space, footballers trained, and others sat like us relaxing. There were martial artists and cosplayers doing their thing, and we enjoyed the company of Sabda, a young woman who worked as a journalist for one of the local television stations.
As the sun set we moved on, drawn to Losari Beach and the endless row of kaki lima that snaked off into the distance along the sea wall. We took a table and whiled away a pleasant evening sampling a portion of pisang epe (grilled finger bananas pressed flat and coated in a syrup of palm sugar and coconut milk) and a jus alpokat (an avocado shake). The sunset was beautiful and the atmosphere magical – it was the perfect end to our day.
Our body clocks were still adjusting to the two hour time lag so we were up early again the next morning. Out on the street at 6 o’clock we were even too early for the market we found on Jalan Bacan, but it was a good time to be out and about. Nerves of steel were necessary for the hapless and rare pedestrian in Makassar – any footpaths were rendered unusable by overflowing businesses and parked motorcycles forcing anyone brave enough to walk into the traffic stream. Savouring the pleasantness of the car-free morning streets we wandered along Jalan Sulawesi until we found a noodle shop open for business. A Chinese breakfast of pangsit mie was exceptionally good, presented by a perfunct auntie was a bowl of fresh noodles fragranced by an array of sauces, steamed prawn dumplings, thin slices of red-roasted pork and a fried wanton. It came with a life-giving bowl of chicken broth and a glass of tea, all for 38 000 rupiah each. We worked up a sweat until our bowls were empty, then lingered until the city started coming to life.
We returned to the pasar Bacan which was by then abuzz. The scene was timeless – at the end of the alleyway a row of becaks waited to take shoppers home after making their purchases from the array of fresh produce. We chatted with the frog vendor – apparently frying was the preferred method, and checked out the mud crabs, blue swimmers, giant prawns and a variety of fishes. We hadn’t yet consumed any kind of vegetable matter since we arrived in the country, so we eyed off the sayur-sayuran on offer – fresh and abundant were greens and all kinds of exotica like lotus roots, papaya flowers and tamarind. Starved of fibre and worried about scurvy we came away with half a papaya, a huge hunk of nangka and a mango madu; and we made our way home munching on a couple of warm pukis ( griddled cakes of rice flour and coconut ).
Thus began a day of serious mooching – rest day without flying anywhere. We sipped a fruity Torajan iced espresso in Toko Ujung and caught the breeze sitting on the sea wall at Pantai Losari. Looking out at the Celebes Sea to Pulau Lae Lae it was like the previous evenings night stalls were a dream, vanished without a trace. Just like my chilblains, which had already shrivelled into non-existence.
We lunched nearby in Jalan Datu Museng, in a cavernous meal hall named Lae Lae. Out the front a man was labouring over a smoking grill covered in various genus of fish, a cigarette hanging from his lower lip as he turned his charges to barbequed perfection. We headed for the cooler chests and picked out a nice trevally and a tilapia which were on the grill before we even found a place to sit and order some accompaniments. On our table we ended up with the said ikan bakar, three different tomato sambals, kangkung tumis, lemon basil, kalamansi for squeezing and an inspired jus kelapa ( coconut water blended with ice, palm sugar syrup and perhaps a touch of santan to produce an appealingly frothy head ).
During the afternoon we made a marathon bid to find Warung Bravo across town in Jalan Andalas. We somehow took a route through the crazy warren of pasar sentral and passed by a bus depot in our wanderings, amazed to see buses preparing for journeys as far away as Gorontalo, Manado and even Bitung – distances we couldn’t fathom in a bus… The local specialty of es pisang ijo was a banana cooked inside a lurid pandan dumpling served with a dollop of coconut custard in a pool of icy pink rose syrup, and Warung Bravo’s version was highly recommended. It was undeniably good and we bought half a kilo of salak in the pasar to add to our fruits collection at home.
Our Makassar mooch had taken us fifteen kilometres far and wide in the tropical heat, high-fiving locals, waving left and right, responding to a symphony of “hello misterrr” like a pair of misplaced rock stars. Maybe the reason we survived the traffic was because the people were so friendly they took pains not to run us over.
The next day we were back in the air and up with the mosques muezzin to catch our one and a half hour flight east to Ambon. A short walk from home we found Pangsit Mie Sulawesi, a traditional Chinese coffee shop ready to serve breakfast. Kopi susu and teh tawar accompanied our bubur ayam, the purely Chinese version topped with red-roasted pork and tau kwei with a poached egg under a steaming bowl of chicken infused rice congee.
Suitably fortified we checked out of Hotel Agung and presented ourselves at the Damri bus stop at 7 o’clock as advised by Samto at the ticket box the day before. It turned out he was a tad over-cautious because the torturous trip which had taken so long on the way out, took only twenty minutes back, so we had four and a half hours to wait for our flight… And it was running late…
IN OUR SEAT POCKETS WE found kartu berdoa, a prayer card listing the appropriate multi-religious prayers for recital before potential catastrophe. Our fellow passengers were very excitable, like they were out for a Sunday picnic, so boarding was chaotic and landing bizarre. We touched down hard at Pattimura Airport and everyone squealed with undisguised delight. Adults and children alike laughed with the unbridled joy of people on a ride at an amusement park as we slammed onto the tarmac.
I chatted with Markus, the baggage claim inspector, while Dave entered the scrum at the carousel, and before long we were walking down the road away from the terminal on the lookout for somewhere to stay. About 700 metres away at the end of the runway we found Penginapan Michael, it was without any kind of signage and despite us having stopped right in front of it to ask directions from an elderly local authority, he claimed no knowledge of it. Luckily a neighbour intervened and invited us in, and Emma, the lady of the house, showed us to a very basic room for 100 000 rupiah. Deciding that there weren’t many other options we put our bags down just as our plane gave its engines full thrust in preparation for take-off within stone’s throw of where we stood. The house shook.
It was by then 4 o’clock, seasonally adjusted, so it was fortunate there was a rumah makan Padang a short distance further down the road to save us from starvation. We each got a generous plate of rice topped with a selection from the dishes stacked up in the window – fried tuna steak, sayur tumis, fish curry gravy, homemade sambal and steamed singkong leaves. It was absolutely delicious and cost only 33 000 rupiah for both of us. We relaxed for a while on the front porch which had a view of the runway, then wandered back to the neighbouring warung which specialised in terang bulan. A novice was talked through the preparation of our treat by an expert pemasak and he did pretty well – the crispy pancake was chewy and moist inside, abetted by a generous quantity of margarine, while the chocolate and peanut topping was held in place with a drizzle of condensed milk.
Against the odds we spent a comfortable night at Penginapan Michael. There were no nocturnal departures from Pattimura Airport, just a few inconsiderate roosters and several downpours on the tin roof to create some ambiance.
In the morning we shared a quick beverage with a couple of other guests, one of whom had spent the night on the floor in the living room, then wandered off for a walk to look for something better than the bread and jam on offer at the breakfast table.
Pedestrians aren’t well catered for anywhere really, so we walked to the nearby village of Laha dodging vehicles, chickens and pigs through the morning rush hour. We found a warung run by the ibu imam for a breakfast of nasi kuning and a passive kretek while we waited out a downpour. The rain eased but further pit stops were necessary on the way back – in a shelter under a breadfruit tree with some happy school kids, and again in the small market. There was a break in the weather when we had to head for the airport, but once there it really closed in and our little turbo prop sitting on the tarmac suddenly looked pitifully inadequate to deal with the conditions…
Maybe it was that Buddhist incantation we’d selected from the kartu berdoa the day before, but take-off was smooth and the clouds thinned as we travelled south-east, parting to give us our first bird’s eye view of the main objective of our trip as we passed ten kilometres above the Banda Islands.
SOON AFTER, THE MESMERISING BEAUTY of the Kei archipelago came into view and we buzzed in low over Pasir Panjang, the pilot granting us a teaser of where we were headed before touching down to a beautiful sunny afternoon on Kepulauan Kei.
Karol Sadsuitubun Airport was newly constructed in the middle of nowhere with no transport in or out except for a cartel of taxis. Our stand-off lasted twenty minutes with neither party particularly thrilled with the outcome – we paid 100 000 rupiah to a young man with a lead foot and a cranked up sound system to take us twelve kilometres into town. Hotel Dragon was certainly not our first choice of accommodation on this paradisical isle, but our desired bungalow on the beach was occupied so we thought we might wait it out in Langgur. Our room was expensive at over 300 000 rupiah, but it had a kind of colonial grandeur with suite-like proportions.
With what was left of the afternoon we went on an energetic reconnoitre ending up at the harbour in Tual across the bridge on Pulau Dullah. Harbour staff were helpful with advice on the all-important question of how to leave this far-flung archipelago, and we got our bearings attracting plenty of attention along the way. The people resembled a mix of Indonesian and Papuan with curly hair and wide smiles. The twin towns of Tual and Langgur, however, offered little to hold our interest, the waterfront location barely lending to its appeal. In the place marked on our map as the tourist office we found a pile of rubble. Deciding not to linger after all, we set about conducting some necessary business the following morning…
Hotel Dragon fed us a breakfast of nasi goreng then we set off for the Pelni office following the directions given to us at the harbour the day before. Along the harbour we ran into Tukan, of airport cartel infamy – we were surprised to see him behind the wheel of a vehicle because we had taken him for a hanger-oner, a toothless drunk, but this day he was sober, and we met him yet again at the Pelni office. We managed to buy two tickets for the liner KM Tidar departing for Bandaneira in two weeks time – we had been hoping for kelas satu but apparently there was no longer any such thing, so we secured ekonomi tickets, unsure of what to expect due to conflicting reports from the ticket sellers – the worst case scenario filled us with dread. At least it was only an eleven hour voyage…
We went back to the Hotel Dragon to pack, stopping for a ketam hitam (black sticky rice with coconut milk) along the way, then headed for the village of Ngurbloat at the southern end of Pasir Panjang to seek out alternative accommodation. We took a city angkot to Pasar Langgur, then found a cross-island angkot which eventually took us to Ngurbloat. The young driver looked like he would take off at the speed of light, but he was obviously well aware of the danger posed by our bald tyres and the fragility of the rusted-out vehicle which required a gentle touch – we even had to have two goes at a speed bump made from marine rope. All passengers were driven to their door with kindness, and once our lodging was identified we had to stop him from driving through the gate and across the yard to the grand colonial-style bungalow.
MAMA TITA WELCOMED US TO Villa Monika at the front door and showed us to a big airy room. We’d barely unpacked when Tukan turned up – our very own Mister Smedley, keeping a close track of all tourist movements. We had lunch with the other resident guests (a Bavarian named Stefan and his family from Stuttgart); a simple meal of ikan goreng, buncis tempe and telur balado, then went to check out the beach.
It was a grey afternoon with storm clouds hanging low, but Pasir Panjang still looked stunningly beautiful. The water was an amazing shade of limestone green with a deep blue streak offshore marking a stretch of seagrass. The sand was like rice flour, fine and powdery, and at high tide the beach was narrow, backed by shade trees – coconut palms, casuarinas and sea almonds. Beneath the trees were thatched shelters for weekend picnickers – idyllic spots to relax and enjoy the mid-week serenity. The exotic sounds of Tanimbar friarbirds and coucals came from the jungle behind, and a flock of Great Frigatebirds soaring around us had Dave reaching for his recently acquired copy of Morten Strange’s guide.
Back at the villa there were two extra guests for the evening meal – Gabriel and Eliza from Italy. Dinner was nutritious but bland, the only saving grace a delicious smoked fish.
It was a dark moonless night and the stars shone brightly. There were rhinoceros beetles and we walked into the pitch darkness a short distance from the village to find the giant flying crickets which Mama Tita described to us – they had twenty centimetre long antennae.
After Stefan mentioned that breakfast the previous day had included strawberry-flavoured cheese, we suggested to Mama Tita that nasi goreng might be a good idea for the next day. She happily complied and after our satisfying morning meal everyone set off in different directions – the other guests moved to the more desirable lodgings further up the beach, and we took advantage of our village location, setting off to explore the region to the south. We hiked as far as the spring-fed lake of Danau Ngilgnof. Along the way we found Ngilngof lagoon, sparkling green and hidden in a mangrove forest; and passed an inlet of low tide sand flats. Wildlife spotting was also good – we saw flocks of flying foxes, butterflies as big as birds, and a bounty of birdlife, identifying over ten different species including pied imperial pigeons, Wallacean drongoes and a barred dove. The villages of Ngurbloat and Ngilngof were extremely well kept, maintained with tidy fenced gardens blooming with bougainvillea, and the paths and roads we followed were paved with broken coral. Our hike generated plenty of local interest – we felt a bit like politicians out on the hustings – I was once even greeted by name by a passing motorcyclist… “helloooo Diaaaaaan…” We hadn’t even been in residence for 24 hours yet!
After four hours of exertion we were well hungry for lunch and the departure of our fellow guests meant that the meals improved exponentially. Mama Tita read us well, providing delicious dishes of cumi-cumi kecap, pecel terong, and tempe goreng – it was spicy and finger-licking good. At 350 000 rupiah for full board we now had the spacious bungalow to ourselves – two cavernous bathrooms with a bak mandi big enough to swim in, the wide front verandah, and a dining room which could seat twenty. We were the first ever Australian guests.
We settled ourselves under a pandanus on the beach for the afternoon – finding a quiet spot away from the maddening crowds which had come from Tual for weekend recreation. Even though we were no more than fifty metres from Ngurbloat village not a soul passed our patch of sand and we only shared our space with some hermit crabs, a black sunbird and a huge spider with ten centimetre long legs. As the sun dipped toward the horizon conditions on the beach were paradisical, the gently lapping waves overcame the sound of the fifty-strong dangdut samba going on in the recreation zone, and the centre of our solar system inched its way into the Banda Sea with indescribable grace.
Back at home Mama Tita was cooking dinner and warming to her theme, adding chillies, ginger and garlic with wild abandon – she brought out our meal with a smile “cukup pedas!”. We had ayam goreng, beans fried with chillies, and a fiery dabu dabu. The crickets sang us to sleep and we woke to a breakfast of pisang goreng and pandan roti with fried
OUR MUCH ANTICIPATED ROOM AT the other end of Pasir Panjang was due to be available so we spent the next few hours moving. We made a quick reconnoitre to check it out, running the gauntlet of the early Sunday arrivals in the recreation zone “foto please misteeer…” and by 11 o’clock we were swimming in the sea, settled into the old cottage at Coaster.
This small group of bungalows was located on the beachfront at the far northern end of Pasir Panjang beyond the somewhat less clean and charming village of Ohoililir. Ketty was the caretaker and we found her cleaning our room when we arrived. The cottage sat on a limestone ledge with a few steps leading down to the pristine beach. The brilliance of the pure white sand filtered up through the shade trees and we looked out to the pale turquoise of the sea. Lodgings worthy of a nine day stay, even if there was a scorpion living in the bathroom. And we made the most of our sojourn with a balanced mix of activity and relaxation.
We established some favourite haunts over our two week stay in the area. The thatched shelters along the beachfront always demanded an hour or two of our time if we were passing by. We could recline and relax watching the tide ebb and flow with languid regularity, or find shady spots on the sand in peace and solitude, strategically positioned for a dip in the ever-alluring sea.
However our days panned out, they always ended on the beach, the colours of the sunsets changed day to day, but there was reliably a v-line of cormorants which flew northward along the length of the beach every evening just after the sun sank, and tiny crepuscular bats fluttered around inside our verandah as darkness descended.
Just beyond the outskirts of Ngilngof on the edge of the mangroves, we frequented a quiet beach with morning shade under the coconut palms and a variety of birds depending on the tide – we saw egrets and reef herons and one morning a flock of over fifty wimbrels. It was a ten kilometre round trip so it also provided some exercise and we could buy kue in Ngilgnof to supplement our diet – embel, dadar enten and kue lapis, all with fresh coconut.
In the other direction, north of Coaster, the white sand disappeared at high tide and it became only passable by swimming. If, however we followed the track behind the cottages we could continue to the tip of the narrow isthmus which separated the sea from a beautiful lagoon. It was an area of coral cliffs and chasms which we could explore Indiana Jones-style. The jungle was penetrable, dominated by strangler figs, lianas and pandanus, it was garden-like with some feint foot tracks leading to the water around deep clefts which connected via underground passageways to the lagoon. In the bottom of one twenty metre deep hole in the middle of the jungle was a clear blue pool of water with two sea turtles swimming in its depths – an astounding sight.
Communal meals in the dining room, which had a pleasant elevated view of the sea, were usually good, if somewhat bland. The company varied like the food – sometimes it was a sociable feast, sometimes dull and meagre, and all combinations thereof. Once we had a banquet of ayam goreng, buncis tumis, tahu pecel, stir-fried sea-snails, serundeng, dabu dabu and a magnificent red snapper barbequed to succulent perfection. Another time it was just the two of us with a delicious barbequed ikan sakuda, cumi-cumi goreng, sambal tomat and sawi tumis. After several days we became familiar with Enge, the cook’s, repetoir and some of her best work included; lad (a fresh salad of seaweed seasoned with lime, shallots and chilli), pecel ayam, perkedel ikan teri, pecel terong, and bunga papaya (papaya flowers gently fried with turmeric and santan). Breakfasts were something best forgotten – a few slices of roti with a film of processed cheese and a boiled egg, a bland omelette instead if we were lucky, and a few bananas or a jeruk.
When we first arrived we found Stefan and his family and the Italian couple in residence, as well as a pair of Germans who prided themselves on their rudeness. After a few days they were all displaced by Torsten and Yani, an Indonesian/German couple; and Jasun, travelling with his Ambonese father Fred – they were from the Netherlands. We also met Penny, a retired Englishwoman who enjoyed the retreat of the doctor’s house next door. Next came another Dutch pair, a mother and son who had hired a driver and took all their meals in Tual; and a German couple Yanosh and Eva, who were planning to open a dive school. In due course, all but the divers were replaced by a group from Jakarta, two women and an Indonesian/Singaporean couple who kept mostly to themselves; and Aurial and Flo, jet-lagged after flying thirty three hours directly from Paris. Finally an antisocial couple from Austria arrived creating an air of depression in the dining room, completing the downward trend from gregarious to forbidding. Tukan turned up periodically, delivering guests and taking people on excursions – one night he visited our verandah and unexpectedly joined us for breakfast one morning.
At Coaster we were somewhat closer to the aforementioned weekend crowds – so if we ventured out on a Saturday or Sunday we made slow progress and had to look our photogenic best. the recreating residents of Tual we’re quick to seize the moment, usually polite but sometimes running at us shouting “foto misteeerrr” to claim their prize. We were hugged, squeezed and manhandled into position, one enthusiastic lady embraced us both in a headlock such was her excitement. And our appeal was universal, from young Muslim women wearing hijabs, shirtless tattooed youths on motorcycles, and housewives with broods of children in tow. Even when we were passed by a police unit there was a chorus of “hello misterrrr”. Midweek things were much quieter, but our appearance on the beach in the late afternoon could still stir up a crowd – family groups could overcome their shyness to push a spokesman forward to make the familiar request. One afternoon a picnicking group became so distracted by us on the beach that an opportunistic mongrel moved in and devoured their lunch, much to everyone’s amusement.
We made an enjoyable excursion one day with Yani and Torsten to Pulau Bair – a small island in the far north of the archipelago. We set off at 9 o’clock with the ever-present Tukan who drove us to Dullah across the bridge on the neighbouring island. He was a careful driver, keeping safe speed and honking his horn at regular intervals, pointing out points of interest along the way. Dullah was spread along the coastline, a long row of houses either side of the road, Muslims on the sea side facing the Christians on the other. We stopped randomly at a place where a boatman could be found near a warung selling gorengan and snacks. We were handed over to Daeng, a Bugis man from Makassar, thus suitably qualified to take us out to sea – even if his boat didn’t look so. A worn-out fibreglass runabout held together with bits of wood, the windows long gone, but the canopy still serviceable. With a bit of tweaking the engine fired to life and we set off, stopping en route at Daeng’s home on a nearby island to collect some life jackets. There was a light wind and the sea looked beautiful as we continued, staying as much as possible in the lee of islands and taking a wide berth of the numerous shoals easily identified by their mesmerising turquoise colour. We were accompanied by black-naped terns and frigatebirds, closer to our destination we passed a pearl farm which played havoc with our propeller. After forty minutes we reached Pulau Bair, an ancient coral reef risen from the sea. At the northern end a lagoon had been eroded from the limestone, entered at high tide across a sand spit which sealed its entrance.
Inside the hidden lagoon the scene was impossibly beautiful, limestone green water surrounded by undercut cliffs and pinnacles of rock balanced delicately on coral-crusted heads. We clambered up a rock face, inappropriately clad in flip-flop,s to a vantage point and were amazed to see dark patches in the azure water swirling in synchronicity – they were shoals of millions of fish taking protection in numbers. At our feet was a miracle of Mother Nature, a freak of beauty rarely seen.
We settled ourselves onto a floating thatched raft and slipped into the water swimming amongst the fish which swarmed around us unbothered by our presence. Sometimes they parted a way for us to swim, other times we could see nothing but silver-green fish teeming all around us, as if we were part of the school. We waited on our raft for the tide to rise and a round midday a wind squall passed over snapping the rope which moored our pontoon and setting us adrift with a heavy tail wind. Dave and Torsten heroically towed us back to shore while we wondered how the other visitors who had set off in their longtail were faring – their vessel had no canopy.
Once our boat could pass into the lagoon we continued on to the narrow mouth at the far end passing clefts in the rock revealing pools and passageways dripping with pandanus. On the far side of the island we motored out to an unlikely looking spot in the deep blue sea where Daeng encouraged us to put on our snorkelling gear. Doubtfully we jumped in but as we stroked into the shallows we saw some nice coral heads with good colour and a few small reef fish, notably parrot fish and neon tetras.
With the tide having risen we could take a more direct route back to Dullah. The wind had increased in the open water, chopping up a bit of a swell which caused our vessel to creak in agony with every slam into a wave, and a wash of water to be thrown over us as if from a bucket.
Back in Dullah, Tukan was summoned and we headed full steam for home, stopping only to buy breadfruit at a roadside stall. Having only snacked on the previously mentioned gorengan (the standout being a fried ball of mung beans and shredded coconut) we hungrily munched on the fried breadfruit as we watched the sunset from our beach.
We made another excellent excursion under our own steam to the kolam renang at Evu, twenty five kilometres away. Ketty hired us her scooter for the morning and we motored off unsteadily following her sketchy directions. We hit top speeds of 45 kilometres per hour on the open road, with me greeting and waving on the back and Dave doing his best at answering the friendly toots. But we took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up following the scenic route, seeking advice from passing angkots and villagers along the way. We passed an out-of-place Balinese temple and stopped off at Goa Hawang for an hour-long interlude.
The limestone cave had a cavernous opening and stairs led down to a deep spring-fed pool with crystal blue water. It was cool and refreshing, swimming as if levitating the water was so clear, and when we ventured into the dark recesses behind a giant dripping stalactite we disturbed tiny bats which flew around the top of the cave.
Not far beyond there we came to Evu and found the local swimming pool. Like at Goa Hawang we had the place to ourselves – a fifty metre pool fed by a spring and surrounded by palm trees. A dog looked after our motorbike, sniffing it then going to sleep next to it while we settled ourselves in a cabana by the pool and enjoyed another swim. The water was also very clear with a carpet of green moss on the bottom and different kinds of fishes swimming around. It was so pleasant we could have stayed all day, but vendors started to appear with tyre tubes for the after school recreation crowd, and so we got out while the going was good, reclaimed our scooter from the dog and headed home on the correct road. Most of the way we were accompanied by Karlos, a young guy from Ohoidertutu who rode beside us making conversation with me while Dave did his best to keep us upright. Before our turn-off we pulled over for a photo opportunity and he gave us his bracelet – something he had made from soft black coral – a sentimental kenangan from a complete stranger, such was this place Kei that we had come to…
IT WAS ON ONE OF our walks to Ngilgnof toward the end of our stay that we met Frengky, a local pearl farmer turned fisherman turning entrepreneur. We were resting at the bridge over the pretty mangrove creek when we got to chatting and he invited us to check out his nearby building project. The simple wood and bamboo construction out over the mangroves in the bay had already caught our eye on an earlier visit, but it was locked up so we could only rest in the shady garden. Now we were given a grand tour. Frengky had built the bungalow himself as a weekend retreat for he and his family, it was rustic but more than habitable so we seized the moment and made arrangements with Frengky to move there the next day.
Accessed by a gangplank the front door opened to a hallway which led to a large thatched outdoor living room decorated with buoys, fishing nets and giant clam shells. At the rear was an enclosed bedroom and a tidy bathroom with a large window which shared the lovely view. Out over the bay another elevated walkway led to a covered seating area – the bird hide which had originally attracted our attention. At high tide the entire construction was over the water, fish swam beneath, mangrove trees shaded from above and in front the view took in the bay with the entrance to Ngilgnof lagoon opposite, and the sea beyond. It was about half a kilometre out of Ngilngof, completely isolated and quiet, and there we spent our last two nights on Kei Kecil.
We checked out of Coaster, much to everyone’s surprise seen as there was barely anywhere else to go, and hiked off with our bags after breakfast the next morning, taking the high road so it was just a thirty minute walk.
When we arrived Frengky was tidying the garden and had been busy preparing our lodging. He had taken a lot of trouble to make it nice for us, bringing a large wooden table to the living room and doing some kitting out with toiletries and refreshments. It was clean and neat as a pin. His wife Silva came to help us settle in and we discussed some possibilities for our eating arrangements, then we were alone, just us with the breeze from the bay, the lapping water and the cries of the seabirds.
We whiled away the entire day relaxing in our mangrove nest watching the tide slowly recede, emptying the entire bay, exposing sand flats for hundreds of metres. Fish gathered in the tiny pools left remaining and the seabirds moved in to hunt. Colourful blue and orange crabs set to work excavating their exposed homes and mud skippers plopped in the puddles.
At lunchtime Silva returned and set up a kitchen in the structure in the adjacent garden which Frengky intended to be the dapur. She and her housemaid Dolly prepared us a simple lunch of ikan goreng and fried vegetables which we ate at the new table before resuming our repose.
In the late afternoon we took a stroll through the coconut plantation to Ngilngof which turned out to be more social than energetic. We’d barely hit the road when a passing angkot stopped for a chat, Tony was at the wheel, interested in our presence in Ngilngof – he worked in the mines in Papua periodically and also in Sydney – when he wasn’t driving an angkot in Kei… Down in the village we met Beni, who owned a karaoke bar and bungalow in the Pasir Panjang recreation zone, and on the way back we took shelter from a passing sun shower with yet another local who was gob-smacked that we were staying at Frengky’s house in the mangroves. Our stay in Ngilngof was so offbeat that even Tukan never tracked us down…
As darkness fell Frengky gunned the generator to life, but it was thankfully short-lived and soon we were alone with the moonlight, the flying foxes and the sounds of the night. Beneath us the water began gurgling back in to fill the bay and life was stripped back to its most simple – no electricity, no running water, no neighbours – but we could get a 3G signal from the tower across the bay. We slept in abject peace and solitude.
At dawn the tide had withdrawn again and we went for a beachcomb on the sand flats before breakfast. Silva and Dolly rustled us up a two course feast of roti coklat and nasi goreng to have with our tea, so we had plenty of energy to put on our shoes and go for a long walk. We followed the road past the lagoon and the lake to Ohoinamar on the other side of the bay, a three hour round trip including rest stops. Almost the entire village of Namar was distracted by a funeral, so we had a look around, checked out the panorama back across the bay and hiked back practically unnoticed by anyone.
We had lunch at Silva and Frengky’s house that afternoon – their hospitality showed no bounds. Our meal was set out on the best crockery and cooked as they would for themselves – ayam kare, ikan goreng, sambal tomat, sawi tumis and a spicy salad of carrot and cucumber, all seasoned with fresh herbs and spices and tasting of love.
Back at our mangrove nest we spent a leisurely afternoon adding the common greenshank and sacred kingfisher to our bird list, while some local lads whom we’d met earlier returned home across the flats with an imperial pigeon from their hunting trip. We had logged twenty-seven birds for the Kei Islands not including the familiar calls of the koel and channel-billed cuckoo which we heard in the early mornings.
In the evening Frengky joined us for sunset, we pulled up our chairs and Silva brought a selection of fried tubers – yam, singkong and taro – and we talked into the night, pushing our language skills to the limit, and gaining infinite insight into the place to which we had come.
Breakfast was delivered to our table again the next morning with much care taken in its presentation. Perhaps the photo Dave had shown Silva of my version of nasi goreng had stirred up a competitive edge. We had an easy day ahead of our departure – we took a last turn around town, checking out the Goa Santa Maria, a quiet clearing in the forest reserved to venerate two Dutch priests; and sitting by the waterfront for a chat with an old lady who did her best to fill us in on the local gossip, she had only one tooth and claimed to have been born in 1914, but she looked a spritely centenarian…
The tide was in by late morning so Frengky took us for a spin in his fishing boat before we left. We motored across to the lagoon opposite, gliding through the calm waters, their colour never ceased to beguile us. It was a very pleasant half hour excursion.
Saying our goodbyes to Frengky and his family was heartfelt, and Silva even gifted a kenangan to me – a traditional bracelet of mas kei, so everyone in Indonesia would know that I had been to Kei.
As we already knew, angkots back to town were infrequent, so calls were made to hone their locations. We waited an hour or so, spending the time doing a spot of fishing in the living room, before Tony called in as the next to pass our way. As we bade farewell to Frengky and greeted Tony it felt as though we were amongst friends, and we rode into town chatting amicably until we were ready to ditch – “kiri Tony”.
We topped up with six million rupiah at the ATM and stopped for a late lunch at a rumah makan Padang – rendang sapi, sambal terong, ayam goreng, nangka and daun singkong while reminiscing over the Minang region with the Sumatran waiter. He fetched Dave an es pisang ijo from a cart across the road, then we continued our journey, jumping into one of the passing city angkots which ran like an army of ants from Langgur to Tual. At the harbour we ditched again, surprised by how busy it seemed in the face of where we’d come from. Two weeks earlier the pelabuan had felt like a sleepy backwater.
AT FOUR O’CLOCK THERE was plenty of activity on the dock to keep us entertained for two hours until our ship was due to arrive from Dobo in the Aru Islands. Containers unloaded, porters massed and people arrived by the angkot-load bearing mountains of cardboard boxes taped up and tied with string. We stationed ourselves on the waving platform and took turns with our prospective fellow passengers to keep vigil for the kapal Tidar’s arrival. It was an hour and a half late, appearing out of the inky blackness of night lit up with festoon lights and honking loudly.
Boarding was fairly civilised – we stood back to observe the initial crush before mounting one of the two gangplanks which serviced two thousand passengers. Notably there was only one other foreigner on board – presumably the Argentinian who had been staying at Beni’s karaoke bar. After studying our tickets we found our deck via a complicated series of climbs and descents, foiled by doors rusted shut and locked corridors, stepping over the tide of humanity travelling ‘deck class’.
When we found our cabin we were overcome by a surge of gratitude to those friendly chaps at the Pelni office who had sold us our tickets two weeks earlier. It turned out they had been joking about our berths down in the bowels with the kretek-smoking masses, and instead they had allocated us a two-person cabin on the top deck with its own private window and bathroom, for the price of two economy tickets due to its dilapidated state. Our lodging was definitely past its prime – the door to the cabin lay broken under my bed, the carpet squelched wet underfoot and if we wanted to use our toilet we had to pay the cabin boy 5000 rupiah to unlock the door – faded grandeur was an understatement. But we were thrilled to have our own space, shared only with a battalion of non-smoking cockroaches who wouldn’t mind at all if we turned the light out. We made ourselves comfortable and settled down for the night.
Announcements came periodically about our departure status and at 10 o’clock the horn sounded and we slipped out of Tual and into the night, two hours late. It was very smooth sailing on calm waters, the only minor irritation being the piped music with the same dangdut tune on repetition for the entire twelve-hour voyage…Until the family across the hall woke up at 3am to tend to their apparently nocturnal children, one of whom sounded like a brain-fever bird and put himself at great risk of having his noisy toy shoved down his throat. I compromised by screaming out “tutuplah”, which worked surprisingly well and we could sleep again until 4:30am when the call to prayer came through the public address system inside our cabin at a volume which threatened to split our eardrums – we would have thought it unnecessary when most of the passengers were Christian.
At dawn the air was fresh and warm out on the deck, and the masses were in varying states of wakefulness, some still snoring on cardboard mats, others standing guiltily next to pools of urine, all ankle-deep in piles of rubbish. Dave collected our breakfast ration from Deck Four and claimed he had visited Dante’s Hell, so as we ate we again gave thanks to those chaps at the Pelni office in Tual…
When our destination came into view a couple of hours later we were cutting through deep blue water. The Banda Islands were tiny specks in the two thousand metre deep sea, the rim of an ancient volcano with a new cone in the centre of the group, its tip touched by low cloud. Excitement grew on the outer decks as we weaved our way into the protected harbour of Bandaneira, picturesquely situated across a narrow straight from the volcano, Gunung Api.
The port area had whipped itself into a frenzy for this fortnightly arrival of the Kapal Tidar. Porters jostled for position on the dock and the boarding passengers crushed themselves against a fence with a few trickling out of the mayhem. When our gangplank was lowered it was as if a cork had been popped from a bottle of champagne and we spilled out with all the bubbles.
EAGER TO DISCOVER OUR NEW environment we wandered out into the throng and along the adjacent Jalan Pelabuan, a melee of pedestrians, motorcycles and vendors hawking exotic foodstuffs – smoked fish, kenari halua, fermented fish paste, nutmeg jam… It was only three hundred kilometres across the sea, but we had arrived in a different world.
We wandered on, finding our target the Mutiara Guesthouse, escorted by its owner Abba, openly coveting my maskei bracelet, for the last hundred metres. The Mutiara was an old Dutch villa tastefully decorated, with a courtyard at the rear and a pleasant garden in front, in a quiet laneway below the four-hundred year old fortress. We agreed on one of the boutique front rooms for 200 000 rupiah, Abba made us a nice cup of tea and we set to cleaning off the funk of a night at sea.
We then had a lazy afternoon – lunch at the Delfika Cafe, ikan bakar, kangkung saus tiram and terong saus kenari, fried baby eggplant with a devine kenari nut sauce. Then we took a mooch around the town which we were relieved to find had taken on a relaxed atmosphere since the departure of the Pelni liner.
Down in the market area along Jalan Pasar we explored the warren of streets along the waterfront, buying some bananas and checking out the local produce which featured kenari nuts, cinnamon bark and dried nutmeg fruit in abundance. Go-downs filled with nutmeg and cloves scented the air in a way unique to the Bandas. Further back, the streets were ordered and lined with colonial buildings – all grand doorways, colonades and shuttered windows – often lived-in and well-maintained, charming and elegant, but still a reminder of when these islands were ruled with an iron fist. As was the Benteng Belgica sitting on a hilltop above the town with manicured lawns and pink bougainvillea intimating innocence. The other fort, Benteng Nassau was being painstakingly rebuilt by a team of workers perhaps as it would have been originally in 1608. The people looked very different to where we’d just come from – the Dutch genocide of the Bandanese was thorough. Mosques replaced churches, women dressed unattractively in hijabs, there were very few cars, and we didn’t see a single dog on the street – here the cat ruled supreme.
We finished the day with a simple meal at a bakso cart, made with the flair of Luke Nguyen by a Chinaman named Abdul for 10 000 rupiah.
Our breakfast the next morning was very posh, Abba included in our room price a 7am repast at his sister establishment, the Cilu Bintang Estate just down the road – the most upmarket hotel in the islands. Faced with the dilema of choice for the first time in two weeks, we let the waiter decide for us – fruit salad and a ‘mixed pancake’, a delectable creation – a heavy but crispy pancake cooked with banana and kenari nuts, sprinkled with cinnamon and served with nutmeg jam.
Our plan to climb the volcano evaporated when we emerged from breakfast heaven to find the summit capped in cloud. So instead we set off to explore Pulau Banda following the only obvious road. It took us past the airstrip, across the runway and on through gardens of nutmeg and cinnamon and towering three-hundred year old kenari trees, the road climbing and descending the hilly spine of the island. Eventually we came to Pantai Malole, a beach of black lava rock where the road narrowed to a motorcycle path. It was shady and pleasant passing gardens of banana and singkong until we reached the village of Lautaka nestled in between the lava hills. The path then became a foot-track and we continued to the northern headland where we found a fifty-metre tall navigation tower with six storeys of steel ladders climbing to the platform above.
I was only brave enough to scale two levels, but Dave reached the red beacon on top for wonderful views of the surrounding islands and the coral on the reef below. With binoculars he could even see the fishes well enough to identify them.
We returned at a leisurely pace, stopping to chit-chat along the way. At Pantai Malole a fisherman named Gun showed us his catch of colourful reef fish; some ladies sitting in the shade by some sun-drying mace offered me one of their excess children to take Home to Australia. And Dave was thrilled to spot our first sighting of a Banda myzomela – a fine addition to his bird list.
Back in town we had a light lunch of nasi ikan at Cafe Namasawar – tuna in a fragrant gravy and choko fried with mung beans. We finished it off with a take-home rojak from the lady at the end of our street, the simplicity of her stall belying the delicious complexity of her dish. Laced with a single chilli and a pinch of trasi the sweet, nutty fruit salad was tangy with unripe fruits including spicy nutmeg, which set it apart from all rojaks before it.
We spent the afternoon relaxing in a cabana at the Maulana Hotel, formerly the grandest place to stay in Bandaneira, having hosted the likes of Jacques Cousteau and Princess Diana. Employees Tayat and Has kept us company, telling stories about life on the Bandas, and the volcano eruption in 1988. Tayat remembered a Dutch guy we had met in Flores in 1992 who was working as a chef at the Maulana at that time!
We ended our day on the same posh note that we’d started it – with dinner at the Cilu Bintang. Wait staff fussed over us and the seven other communal dining guests, who made pleasant enough company – a mix of nationalities, Dutch, Indonesian, American and even an Australian! We started with cinnamon soup, a clear vegetable broth heavily scented with kayu manis and cloves. The buffet featured a barbequed fish and an array of vegetable and salad dishes – gado-gado, cap cay, tomato, cucumber, egg and kenari nuts in a fragrant mayonnaise, kentang belado and terong saus kenari. It was a nice evening and a late night by our standards.
THE VOLCANO, GUNUNG LEWERANI, LOOKED clearer the next morning, so we set off after breakfast with a cup of nutmeg coffee for some added boost. We found a willing boatman at the jetty near the market to ferry us across the narrow strait, a one hundred metre deep abyss of blue. Once ashore he pointed us in the right direction and the climb was steep, immediate and unrelenting. Basically it was an hour and a half long scree scramble to the 640 metre high summit, with the cover of forest for most of the way, an excellent sighting of an orange-footed scrub fowl on the mid-slopes, and ferns and orchids carpeting the final stretch to to the rocky apex. We were surprised to find a group of four Indonesian climbers at the rim, which fell away to small crater and a large caldera. The actual peak was a jagged outcrop jutting above, steaming with fumeroles which heated the ground and the air to an uncomfortable temperature.
Hundreds of Moluccan swallows soared around the peak punctuating the silence with the sound of life, and the breeze, when it blew, contained a hint of mountain cool, displacing the faint smell of sulphur. The clouds sweeping across the summit allowed us only fleeting glimpses of the spectacular views – green forests and deep blue water beneath us, the neighbouring islands set out like a map all around us with every shoreline crusted with reef shallows.
We sat for two and a half hours, our jaws dropping every time we were granted a view until finally the sky cleared and the panorama was all revealed at once. Having waited so long we were ecstatic, tears of joy stung my eyes as the full sense of where we were standing was realised. We made a full lap of the crater rim taking it all in before beginning the torturous descent which offered no pleasure except the satisfaction of completion. Every step turned into a slide sending rocks tumbling and arms flailing. We clung onto roots, ferns, saplings, anything to arrest a free-fall down the slope. The zealous muezzin from the mosque in Bandaneira prayed loudly as if for our safe return – his too-familiar wailing call accompanying us for one-third of the way down.
Back at the bottom, on legs of jelly, we wondered how to get back across the strait. We wandered along a path to a small village where we were rescued by a sweet lady with the voice of a town crier. She proceeded to a clearing in the trees where the jetty opposite was visible and started yelling and waving “mariiiii, ada penumpaaaaang, dua misteeeeer!!!”
It took a while and she was forced to employ all resources available to her, but soon enough a boat was summoned with her son, a boy of about twelve, at the helm. We landed clumsily near the pier, our young boatman trying to impress some giggling girls, and we stumbled away falling into the first warung we found for a couple of plates of nasi ikan and a soul-reviving es teh manis. Things improved further after a take-home rojak and the removal of our wretched clothing which we had to decide whether to wash or bin.
We sat under the cinnamon tree in the front garden for the rest of the afternoon barely able to muster the inclination for an evening stroll to the Nutmeg Cafe for an icy nutmeg juice.
WE WERE FEELING A BIT stiff at breakfast the next morning. We strolled up to the benteng to stretch our muscles then wandered down to the pier to see if the public boat had come across from Pulau Hatta. Boats were pulling in from far-flung villages for shopping sorties before returning at midday. But the one from Kampung Lama didn’t turn up on this particular day.
Before we’d even begun to contemplate our options we were approached by Bihari, the owner of a nearby guesthouse, trying to rustle up interest for a charter to Pulau Hatta.
600 000 rupiah split between us and a young German couple was fairly expensive, but we opted to go anyway, setting off as soon as a boat could be found.
We motored off over the plunging blue depths, skirting Pulau Banda Besar then across open water to the hidden island of Hatta. We saw a whale as we approached – it was in the middle distance blowing and surfacing so we could see its massive bulk. We reached Kampung Lama after just over an hour, the deep blue giving way to coral shallows at the last moment of our voyage.
OUR BOAT PULLED UP ON the beach and we jumped ashore – our accommodation options all side by side on the sand. All three losmen were practically empty so we took our pick, choosing a room in a white-washed bungalow at Rozengain Vitalia for 150 000 rupiah per person, full board. Its owner, Sopian, we had already met by chance in Bandaneira a couple of days earlier, he was a really nice bloke and the room was not only comfortable but located right in front of the best coral garden in the Banda Islands.
The place was a snorkellers paradise – the coral began a few metres from the beach, getting better closer to the drop-off which was about thirty metres out. In places it was a dizzying vertical plunge into the sapphire blue abyss; in others it tapered down a coral crusted slope, and in one spot there was an underwater arch – a blue hole which took my breath away.
The coral garden was made up of a variety of organisms, notably colourful sponge, fan and tree corals teeming with tiny green fish. There was plenty of marine fauna to look at – large schools of beautiful trigger fish and fusiliers amid regular appearances of bold-coloured treasures – rainbow stripes, sunshine yellows, cobalts and white polka-dots; unicorn fish, sweet lips, Picasso fish, Napoleon wrass, trumpet fish, christmas-tree worms, feather stars, lion fish, moray eels, and best of all – sea turtles, the first time I had ever seen them whilst snorkelling – and we saw them every day. There were many anemones on the reef, some populated with families of clown fish. We saw a variety of species – the classic orange, black and white; orange with a white flash on the spine; large black and blue ones; and a miniscule Nemo, house-proud in a tiny translucent anemone – all were a delight to see.
Low tide was the best time for aquatic exploration. Entry could be made rather dramatically at a point fifty metres down the beach where the drop-off came to within a metre of the shore, so we could literally dive in from the sand where we were just ankle-deep in water, to float over unplumbable depths. At high tide our preference was the western reef, either way the current taking us on a free ride along the wall, for a swimming workout on the return. If the timing was right we could hear the call to prayer from the village mosque as we snorkelled, and once we had a spa from the bubbles of a group of divers who randomly landed on our shore.
One morning before breakfast we were treated to the spectacular sight of a thirty metre blue whale passing by the beach. It was only about ten metres beyond the drop-off, not even fifty metres from our room, so close that we could hear it breathing at each surfacing, its smooth bulk gliding out of the water. Our snorkelling forays thereafter were more alive with possibilities of what could be seen…
Hatta was a small island of about five square kilometres, sparsely populated with Moslems practicing a relaxed version of Islam. They were clove and nutmeg farmers, collecting their fragrant crop from the trees in the forest above the beach and drying them in the sun on the path which ran between the two villages of Kampung Lama and Kampung Baru. The menfolk were handsome, muscled from paddling dugouts and manual labour, usually carrying large knives, always wearing a smile and ready with a friendly greeting. There were no cars and only half a dozen motorcycles; and electricity was only available for a couple of hours in the evening – so there was only tranquil peace and quiet. In the night there was the sound of the occassional fruit bat squabbling in the kapok tree and the gentle swooshing of the sea. The place felt very safe and, like the villagers, we rarely bothered to lock our door when we went out. As with the rest of the Bandas, there was nowhere for any prospective thief to run – the only connection to the outside world beside the occassional Pelni liner or freighter was the twice weekly express boat to Ambon or the twice weekly twelve-seater flight – and they only ran weather permitting…
Our activities on Pulau Hatta were restricted to snorkelling, walking along the path through the nutmeg forest to Kampung Baru, and looking for birds on the jungle-backed beach to the west. The spectacled imperial pigeon was our elusive nemesis, taunting us from the treetops, then flying off before we could get a binocular to this bird which fed on pala fruit and supposedly tasted of nutmeg. Less exciting were the pet pelican and white-breasted sea-eagle we came across in Kampung Baru.
Leisurely chats around the dining table or on the beach under the ketapang tree also passed the time between our twice daily snorkelling forays. And swinging in the hammock as the sun set was de rigeur, the muezzin singing about the wonders of his god as the sky turned to fire in the finality of each day.
Our meals which came to the table on our communal verandah with punctual regularity were a bit hit and miss. The worst we had to endure were the greasy breakfast pancakes, a chew and swallow ordeal perhaps to test our parametres of tolerance. Lunches and dinners improved by several degrees after I dropped a not-so-subtle hint to Sopian’s wife Acar “kami sangat suka makanan pedas”, and demonstrated my interest in what appeared at our table. There was always two kinds of fish and vegetable dishes, fruits of the sea and of the garden behind the kitchen – kangkung, choko, eggplant, bittergourd and papaya flowers. Small fish fried and cooked belado, or huge hunks of giant trevally barbequed like t-bones to tasty perfection. Everything tasted better with Acar’s spicy sambal spooned over top – soy sauce and lime flavoured with sliced chillies, shallots and lemon basil.
For the first few days we shared the company of Stefan and Mirielle, a friendly French couple who were keen divers. The German honeymooners whom we arrived with took the deluxe wooden bungalow at the losman next door and the penginapan in the other direction, which Sopian also oversaw, hosted two more Germans.
We were also surprised to find Hans, the kepala desa of the village of Taar near Tual, with whom we had spent the evening on the ‘waving platform’ waiting together for the Kapal Tidar to arrive in Kei. It was he who recognised us, and much knee-slapping laughter followed – he was Sopians cousin…
After Mirielle and Stefan departed, Jario arrived. A German/Italian who looked like a cross between Hritik Hoshan and Alby Mangels. Hans and Sopian struggled under the weight of his luggage, a spear fishing kit worthy of a Japanese whaler. Within hours of his arrival they were off on a fishing trip in Sopian’s boat, returning with a bountiful catch a few hours later – forty kilograms of tuna, giant trevally, long-snout emperor, midnight snapper, mangrove jack and barracuda… Acar didn’t know where to start. She looked perplexed as Hans took charge of the butchering and everyone gathered around to watch. We ate sashimi and barbequed tuna then viewed the videoed action on Jario’s computer. He free-dived down to twenty metres for up to two and a half minutes, laying in wait for his prey then shooting with deadly accuracy. He surfaced to the surprised faces of Hans and Sopian waiting in the boat, unsure as to how to land a catch impaled on a metre-long spear with a buoy attached.
Jario claimed to have discovered fishing heaven on Pulau Hatta, so he remained for the rest of our stay, adding an extra element of interest. He would go off on hunting trips each day, returning with enough fish to feed the entire village. Blue-fin trevally, Maori sea perch, red sea bass – his greatest conquest was a dog-tooth tuna weighing 22 kilograms. There was so much excess that Sopian began making trips to the fish market in Bandaneira to sell it, and we benefited with fresh sashimi and delicious chunks of the catch of the day barbequed, fried or cooked belado.
One morning Dave joined them on a fishing expedition, he and Mehmet, a local school teacher, watching from above, floating hundreds of metres from the boat as Jario hunted below.
We ended up staying for a week, and leaving was actually a bit of a wrench. All of our favourite sea creatures came out to say goodbye on our lampu merah snorkel – a turtle, the clownfish, and a moray eel. And our farewell on the beach was heartfelt, Acar giving me a hug and a cium.
WE LEFT AT 5AM, HITCHING a ride with Sopian who was taking Hans to connect with the return voyage of the Pelni ship to Pulau Kei. We had only the light of a half moon to guide us, the boat stirring up phosphorescence which sparkled in the dark water. By dawn we were back in Bandaneira, first dropping off some papaya at someone’s house, then Hans at the port, then us near the jetty where we easily picked up a public boat to Lonthoir on Pulau Banda Besar, a short ride across the strait.
WE LIKED LONTHOIR IMMEDIATELY, WANDERING through the neat and tidy village to find Homestay Leiden at the bottom of the old Dutch stairway which led to the top of the village. Usman, a local school teacher, had two rooms available for guests in his house, and he welcomed us with a cup of cinnamon tea and homemade kenari cookies. It was like we had left the loving arms of one family to land in anothers.
Usman liked to talk very much, he had six children and, unfortunately for us, his wife Yani was away in Makassar visiting relatives. She was the cook who would have fed us delicious meals, instead we had to rely on Usman who seemed mortified at having to go it alone with the full board arrangement. There were no other places to find a meal in Lonthoir. He tried hard – coming up with a very simple nasi goreng for our lunches and buying nasi kuning from a neighbour for our dinner, supplimenting it with kue ikan and kangkung cah, which he did well. He also made a reasonable fish soup with fresh nutmeg fruit on the second night.
Breakfasts were good – coffee spiced with nutmeg, mace and cloves, and fresh toasted buns from the lady across the road with a telur mata sapi and homemade nutmeg jam.
Usman’s house was large and comfortable – it was in two sections joined by a covered breezeway which acted as the living room. His children were indifferent to our presence – exposed to enough foreign guests for us not to be a novelty, but too few to overcome their shyness.
There was plenty for us to explore in the environs of Lonthoir. At the top of the old stairway the path forked, we could stroll to the Benteng Hollandia, or walk through the old Kelly plantation, both worthwhile activities.
The Dutch fort, built in 1640, was perched on an eerie overlooking the village, the sea, and Gunung Lewerani with a black lava flow scarring its southern flank. The old ramparts were reclaimed by the jungle and made an atmospheric spot to sit and take in the fabulous view. On the way home we passed Ali’s house and at his insistance sat on his porch for a long chat – he was eighty and lived alone, so it was nice to be able to offer an old man some company.
The planation was also established at the time of the Dutch. Three hundred year old buttressed kenari trees shaded the nutmeg forest which was a sheer pleasure to walk through. Birds tweeted and butterflies flapped around in the shade – even at midday it was a cool respite from the tropical heat. The fifty-metre tall kenari trees hosted figs and monstera, the ground was carpeted in a lawn of grasses and ferns, with coconut and chocolate trees randomly scattered across the vast perkebunan. Leafy foot tracks led in all directions and we walked for hours to the far reaches of the plantation, stopping to rest in the nutmeg collectors huts and to chat with the farmers gathering pala, cengkeh and kenari. All knew Usman and he in turn was interested to know who we had met on our walk. We added the probable sighting of a Moluccan goshawk to our birdlist and were welcomed home by Usman with an icy nutmeg juice and kenari cookies.
Pantai Balakan, the beach at the back of the island, was easily accessible along the path which continued over the spine. Nutmeg trees gave way to pandanus and ketapang trees on the forest-backed beach, protected by a rocky reef, blessed by an afternoon sea breeze, and deserted except for some children beach-combing amongst the flotsam and jetsom.
Sunset was nice to watch from the Lonthoir pier and on one evening we were invited to join a small group on a ‘spice tour’ from Bandaneira. The guide, Chen, was friendly and keen to chat, and the group were happy to have the Canadian arsehole amongst them diluted by the extra company. Usman provided afternoon tea and the sun fell to the horizon between the islands of Ai and Rhun. The next day Chen called in to the homestay again, this time with a more friendly group of Dutch and Indonesian tourists.
Past the old mosque and along the sea wall we walked one afternoon to Jembatan Sentral for a nice view across the water to Bandaneira. The fort sat proudly on the hill behind the town and yachts moored in the harbour. Along the way we had a leisurely rest with Mama Theo who had a roadside stall. We sat together in the shade on a bamboo platform eating rojak and chatting with every interested passerby. All got very excited to see three Ambon white-eyes singing in the tree above – we scrambled for our binoculars while everyone else leapt forward to try and bag one…
Sitting on the front verandah with Usman when we got home was a simple pleasure to end the day, children played badminton, people headed home, then to the mosque for the maghreb prayer, and most either stopped for a chat or a friendly greeting.
We stayed for two days, enough time for a fairly thorough exploration and to get to know our verbacious host very well. By this time we could imitate a Bandanese accent with its distinctive Italian-sounding rythmn and even inject a local word or two. We had learnt a lot from Usman, it was just a pity that we didn’t get to meet his wife.
The kepala desa joined us for breakfast on the morning we left, he was taking care of an overnight guest from Ambon, and we all left together, leaving Usman to go back to his life – he had taken the last two days off work to host us…
We jumped on the public boat going to Bandaneira, there were few other passengers for the crossing, but it was all happening at the jetty in Neira when we got there. The boats from Pulau Ai had just pulled in and the pier was loaded with passengers and goods – bananas, taro and fresh vegetables. Pulau Ai was our next destination, so after establishing a departure time we went off to attend to some matters of business. I waited with our bag while Dave set off to find the Airfast office at the airstrip. It was busy there with everyone on the tarmac for the Wednesday morning departure and the best we could do was a waitlist for the following Friday week – so it didn’t look promising for the oversubscribed twelve-seater. We shopped for some essentials then went back to the jetty to catch our boat. We were kept well entertained while we waited. We met Kiki, the NGO worker from Ambon whose incompleted survey on Pulau Ai we were still carrying around in our bag – she was pleased that we were finally going to Ai. And Alex, a very fat Ukranian had just arrived on the said twelve-seater. He was an expert information harvester and spontaneously changed his plan to go to Ai after hearing how good Hatta was, and it so happened that the Sinar Hatta had come to town that day – our instinctive self-preservation mechanism took over.
OUR BOAT ACTUALLY LEFT FIFTEEN minutes early – something usually unheard of in Indonesia. We motored out of Neira and into the sea behind the volcano in the opposite direction to Hatta. Again there were few passengers, perhaps they had left on that mornings kapal cepat to Ambon, and we were there in less than an hour, sailing on smooth waters to reach yet another island paradise.
The village of Ai sat on the northern shore and we pulled in over crystal clear blue water glinting with the promise of coral and fishes. I was pulled off the boat and onto the pier with a courteous flourish, and a couple of hoteliers met us in the hope of landing the only two paying guests to arrive.
Haji Mohamed won the day; we had a look in at Usman’s friend Ardy’s place, but we couldn’t pass up the seafront room perched on the second floor above the beach at Greenpeace Homestay. Although it was not actually a homestay – Mohamed lived with his wife several blocks away at the top of the village – the local nutmeg tycoon. He commuted with our food offerings like a bird feeding his hungry chicks. It was a buyers market at just 200 000 rupiah per night for the two of us including all our meals – a special deal if we stayed for five days. Five days…no problem. We stayed for six.
Haji Mohamed welcomed us with coffee and buns hot from the oven filled with nutmeg jam, and roti goreng, fried balls of bread stuffed with potato and fish. We sipped and snacked taking in the fabulous view from our verandah. A fisherman caught a cuttlefish on the pier, the beautiful Banda Sea lapped at high tide in front of us, an enormous ketapang tree lazily dropped it’s orange leaves onto the sand, and the beach meandered away to the east where Gunung Lewerani rose from the sea, it’s impressive caldera visible from our new vantage point.
At night the scene was even more magical – we could stand on our balcony and see the phosphorescence sparkling in the water below. Schools of fish feeding on the reef glowed in the darkness of the moonless nights, illuminating themselves by their movement, and all along the shore each lapping wave ignited sparks. It rivalled the beauty of the stars above.
On clear mornings the sun rose like a phenomenon exactly behind the volcano, it coloured the sky then appeared like a fireball out of the crater as if it had just exploded.
It turned out that Mohamed was a good cook. His wife was away in Ambon, so he did the catering for us himself, presenting our meals with care on lots of little plates at our table. Everything was good – he made the best terong kenari we’d sampled, the ikan belado was spicy, and in the vegetable soup were little fish balls made with sticky-rice flour.
After a couple of days we were joined by another guest, Heiner, a stoic East German who we spent the rest of the week with, so Mohamed brought in some extra help. Fatma cheerfully took over the cooking duties in Mohamed’s kitchen, and we finally saw some fruit. Except for Mama Theo’s rojak we hadn’t tasted any fruit in six days, so plates of jackfruit and papaya were a welcome sight. Fatma was also skilled in the kitchen, carrying the big tiffins back and forth with our rations. “Dian – makan!!” She made coconut soup with pumpkin, green papaya or eggplant; egg-drop soup with choko and beanthread; pecel with singkong leaves, green papaya and snake beans; tempe with beans; sayur papaya tumis and kari ikan.
For breakfast each day Mohamed brought tea and a pot of coffee to our balcony with a plate of various rotis and pastries for us to consume while the two passenger boats busily loaded for departure on the beach below.
The people of Ai made their living farming cash crops as evidenced by the fresh produce leaving on the boats every day. Following the tracks which led into the islands interior we found the gardens of singkong, bananas and nutmeg shaded by the everpresent kenari trees. We chatted with the kenari collectors and ubi farmers surprised at our interest in their activities, and we finally identified our elusive bird in the treetops as an elegant imperial pigeon.
The village was dotted with reminders of their colonial past. The seventeenth century fort still stood in good condition – the site of the village power generator. There were crumbling administration blocks and a church with an overgrown cemetery used perhaps appropriately as a rubbish dump and ubi garden.
The village boys never tired of fishing from the pier, they had hand lines and tiny spears, and their excited voices rang out every time they caught a five-centimetre long tiddler or a hapless angel fish. Sometimes they even rounded up a school and caught individuals in their bare hands. When the public boats returned from Bandaneira they became playthings, aquatic climbing frames and diving platforms to hone their acrobatic skills. We habitually took a late afternoon walk on the beach, Pantai Loje, as everyone came out for a mandi laut before sunset. Beachcombing there turned up shards of ceramic and pottery worn smooth by the sea amongst the coral and shells; and children played in the water, their laughter contagious as they posed for photos before their sunset round-up.
The coral garden in front of our room, the house reef, was sufficiently good that we could amuse ourselves there without bothering to check out the island’s other snorkelling sites. The reef sloped down to the drop-off and the corals were surprisingly good. It was quite different to Pulau Hatta’s reef – different species proliferated. Visabilty was excellent and on a sunny day it was like being in an aquarium. Really good was a duck-dive near the drop-off to look back up the coral slope from below. Especially memorable was one afternoon snorkelling to the sound of the local gamelan orchestra practicing in the rumah adat – we couldn’t have been anywhere else in the world but Indonesia. Fishes weren’t so abundant, but there was still plenty to see. There were lots of moorish idols, Dave saw a spotted eagle ray, we both saw a turtle and a one and a half metre Napoleon wrass.
A cheeky trigger fish snuck up behind Dave and bit him on the toe, and two days later a fish answering to the same description launched a full-blown attack on me, coming straight at my mask at full speed with teeth bared. It wasn’t a small fish and even when I retreated it took pursuit, following in my foaming wake as I kicked furiously away from it.
Traumatised by our individual experiences we didn’t dare snorkel alone again, and we kept well clear of the titan’s territory.
On the west coast, the beach of Pantai Panjang was a quiet spot which looked out to the island of Rhun, famously swapped for Manhattan by the English to the Dutch in 1667. It was good for beachcombing and at low tide we could find the fossilised imprints of corals in the rock, and search the tidal pools for interesting sea creatures. We took photos, while the locals took a crow bar, smashing into the reef at any sign of a tentative tentacle.
On a remote beach to the west, Pantai Sebila, we were met by the remarkable sight of a pious local man wearing a scull cap and jelibya talking animatedly with a voluptuous Frech woman clad in a bikini. We joined them in conversation for a while, then they walked off together down the beach completely unaware of how bizarre they looked. That beach was a nice place to relax in peace and quiet listening to the birds and identifying the exotic species – lemon-bellied white-eye, Banda myzomela, rufous night heron…
On day four Mohamed went to town on the boat for some shopping and returned with a new guest – Alex, the Ukranian. Quelle horreur. Before he’d even settled into his room we found him at our dining table like Augustus Gloop shovelling our precious lunch into his gargantuan face, spitting it everywhere as he told us about the woes of his trip to Pulau Hatta. As with everywhere he visited, it didn’t work out well for him – he claimed that he’d been yelled at by the German man in the wooden bungalow whom he’d somehow mistaken for Sopian. He shared our table dressed “Putin-style” for which he at least apologised, dripping sweat and mopping his brow at regular intervals. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when he left on the boat the next morning. He fell on the slippery deck causing much mirth amongst the onlookers on the jetty which in turn led to an explosion of unsophisticated expletives. The boatman waved at him “hello – jatuh!” and they motored off, leaving Mohamed to try and repair the door lock that he’d broken.
THE MORNING WE DEPARTED PULAU AI turned out to be a mass exodus of foreigners from the island. Along with the other passengers were four Germans, three of whom only arrived the day before, and us – the entire tourist population in fact. We motored off at the usual 7 o’clock departure time loaded with taro, branches of bananas, and a motorbike, awkwardly loaded from the beach with the aid of a bamboo stick. Bereft of guests the islands hoteliers waved us off, and within an hour we were back in civilisation wandering the laneways near the market looking for a room.
We had determined to stay elsewhere to the Mutiara and settled on the waterfront option of Penginapan Pantai Nassau. We had a comfortable room with a fan for 200 000 rupiah, the tiled verandah shaded by a couple of coconut palms had an uninterupted view across to Pulau Banda Besar with Gunung Api looking over from the west. The best thing about the location was the increased distance from the mosque – the sound of the muezzin carrying across the water from Banda Besar was what reached our ears, a muffled melody instead of an ear-splitting crackling din. Hasni and Eda, our hosts, provided the very best nutmeg coffee for breakfast, served on the verandah with steamed kue – tapioca cakes filled with coconut custard and dadar enten. Kingfishers hunted for their breakfast in the banana garden next door, and sailors dry-docked their schooner on the morning low tide for some maintenance. The only other guest during our stay was Rezni, a businessman from Makassar. Not knowing how long we would have to wait for onward transport we settled ourselves in, enjoying the freedom of being able to choose what and when we ate, and looking at our reflections in a mirror for the first time in two weeks, surprised at how leathery we’d become.
We spent most of our time in Bandaneira hunting down good food options and gathering information for our imminent departure. The crew of the kapal cepat were super helpful, inviting us on board to sit on the santai deck while we quizzed them about our options. Reza at the Nutmeg Tree Dive Shop inspired us about Seram. Abba at the Cilu Bintang provided hope about our waitlist for the Friday flight – and a jar of nutmeg jam to take Home.
For a pleasant morning excursion we arranged with Reza for a boatman to take up out to the lava flow at the northern foot of Gunung Lewerani for some snorkelling. It was an impressive site with the black lava scar running down the side of the mountain and into the sea where it suddenly turned into a forest of stag-horn coral continuing down the slope for as far as we could see. It was a sunny day and visibility was excellent, at low tide the coral crust started at the water line and plunged down, with table corals clinging to the folds of lava. Way above us we could see the jagged peak jutting above the caldera, shocked at the precariousness of where we had once stood. And from the jungled shore we heard the sounds of birds ringing through the forest as we snorkelled. Twenty years previously the sea would have been literally boiling with molten rock – and now it was teeming with life. Particularly there were many black trigger fish, plus two baracuddas, and best of all, two black tip reef sharks – one small one near the surface that was for my eyes only, and the second down at about ten metres, quite large for a reef shark, moving stealthily beneath us. We were excited at our only sighting of sharks in the Banda Islands.
The boatman took us to Pulau Karaka on the way back. At low tide that site was very up-close, good for studying the minutae and further out it bedazzled with multitudes of parrot fish like an underwater rainbow. Dave also saw a two metre moray eel. The corals were prolific and diverse, here spread across a sandy shallow bottom, with completely different species to the lava flow site.
Back at the dive shop we had already run into Sesar, Sopian’s neighbour on Pulau Hatta, and then we met Usman who was just starting a new job for Reza leading ‘spice tours’ in Lonthoir! It seemed everyone was somehow interconnected with only one degree of separation from us!
One day we ran into Acar in the market, it was becoming less strange to hear my name called out with the ring of friendly familiarity, and very nice to be publicly embraced. Dave’s name was all too difficult, but mine was easy to remember – everyone had a relative called Dian. Acar was shopping while Sopian chased tourists and their boat was parked by our verandah when we got home later – so we waved goodbye again!
In the market Warung Makan Saung Kering could provide a good lunch of nasi ikan with an assortment of delicious morsels of fish, vegetables, tempeh, tahu and peanuts. Sweating on bench seats, the atmosphere was very traditional along with the price – 15 000 rupiah per meal.
Along Jalan Hatta a kaki lima set up each evening specialising in martabak. For 20,000 rupiah we could buy a bungkus of the crispy egg-filled savoury which we then took home to eat on our waterfront verandah, dipping the pieces into cucumber and chilli relish.
Opposite the pelabuhan we found a small eatery with nasi kuning for breakfast. 10,000 rupiah for a plate of fragrant yellow rice with spicy fish, potato straws, peanuts and abon ikan. And a very cute audience of infants tirelessly smiling and waving at us “hello misteer”.
The Nutmeg Cafe did one of the best pancakes in town, either cooked with kenari nuts or smeared with nutmeg jam. Chef graciously shared her recipe with me, and her tiny daughter gave me a sweet kiss on the cheek!
One evening at the jetty we met Agil from Pulau Ai’s Green Coconut Guesthouse, he was on Kiki’s conservation team and knew of the rampant titan trigger fish on the Pantai Loje reef, he reported that one of his guests was inflicted with numerous wounds from the legendary sea monster.
On Thursday we went for a walk to the airstrip to check on our chances for the following days departure. We walked down the tarmac to find the offices completely deserted. A guy in the meteorologists station seemed surprised that no-one was around and directed us to air traffic control, but there we found only the antiquated radios on an old wood bureau crackling in the silence. After an hour or so a random pegawai turned up and told us that Kaharuddin, the ticket seller, probably wouldn’t turn up, but offered us directions to her house. So off we went in the general direction, answering the friendly enquiries of “mau kemana” with “cari rumah Kaharuddin”.
We tracked down her house and the precious ledger with our names scrawled onto the relavent page. After some names were penned in and calls made it was declared that one seat was available, with a question mark over another. Further enquiry was necessary and we were sent away with the promise of “hubangi kalau ada atau tidak”. We left with long faces resigned to the kapal cepat thinking that there wasn’t a shred of hope, but about an hour later a call came through with ibu speaking loudly and clearly so there could be no mistake “besok- okay – jam tujuh”. Our persistence had paid off. Great, we would be on our way the very next morning. Terrible, we would be on our way the very next morning! Leaving the Bandas behind forever.
That only left one afternoon to say farewell – to taste again our favourite things, buy oleh-oleh, and bid selamat tinggal to those who had befriended us. We had a meal at the Saung Kering, and a take-away rojak with extra pala which we enjoyed with a sweet icy nutmeg juice at the Nutmeg Cafe.
We bought essential ingredients for my pantry – dried nutmeg, pala dodol, nutmeg jam, kenari nuts, crystalised nutmeg fruit, and beautiful fresh red mace – bunga pala.
We ran into Jario by chance on Jalan Pelabuan and had a good catch-up. We met the man from Pulau Ai who had been talking to the voluptuous bikini-clad French woman – he asked if we had seen her… And Acar and Sopian were in town, parked at our penginapan, so we sat together in our waterfront garden for the afternoon while Sopian tinkered with his boat engine and little Fita methodically consumed her special treats – agar-agar and susu coklat.
At the harbour we watched a Perintis ship unload, primitively hauling sacks and boxes from the hold with a cargo net, the unfortunate passengers sitting under a tarpaulin on the hold cover awaiting the next leg of misery – seventeen hours to Ambon. Grateful that we didn’t have to use that option we watched it depart with Man, a local English teacher crestfallen that we were leaving the next morning and therefore unable to meet his students.
Near the Pelni office we enjoyed our last Bandanese meal in a simple bamboo warung under a tamarind tree. We chose a fish – something which would have looked good on the reef, but also looked good on the barbeque out the back. While our ikan bakar was prepared Dave went off to buy a cone of suami, grated singkong steamed into a bread-like consistancy. “suami pergi beli suami”, everybody laughed – an old joke… The fish was expertly grilled with crispy skin and oily flesh, presented with a spicy sambal and perfect with the suami – everybody approved. Our meal cost just 20 000 rupiah. And while we ate, our boatman from the previous days snorkelling trip dropped in – everywhere we went we met someone that we knew.
WE WERE UP EARLY FOR our morning departure with just enough time for one last cup of nutmeg coffee and a roti goreng before leaving for the airport. We walked through town to the top of the strip and down the runway, the shortest route, waving to the fire rescue pick-up inspecting the tarmac along the way. An unorthidox arrival point for passengers, we were directed through the back door of the check-in counter where the ground staff were preparing for the twice weekly event, a flurry of activity which lasted all of two hours. We bought our golden tickets for a ludicrously cheap 330 000 rupiah, checked-in, and weighed-in, then watched and waited with the twelve other passengers with mounting excitement as the arrival time drew near. Our luggage was wheeled out in a wooden push-cart, the siren sounded to clear the runway, and a few minutes later the twin otter touched down. We were all pressed to the windows watching the passengers alight for a photo shoot. Everyone posed for a picture – even the pilot! Men in fluoro vests were photographing ground staff, others were removing ear-muffs to smile for selfies! Then it was the departing passengers turn to do the same – we felt obliged in fact…
Within minutes we were all loaded in, the engines fired and we were taxiing, scooting off up the runway watching the pilots in the cock-pit in front of us with consuming interest. As we took off it was hard to know which way to look – at the pilots pulling down on the throttle, or Bandaneira which we were about to soar away from. Nerves dissolved into breathtaking excitement as the islands we by now knew so well disappeared beneath us.
After just half an hour the Lease Islands came into view, then Ambon and Pattimura Airport which we approached at 90 degrees before banking sharply to touch down with a skid. Once we’d taxied to a stop the pilot turned to the cabin with a winning smile “Welcome to Ambon”. It’s not often that the passengers get to thank the pilot personally.
In the terminal we hit the ground running, our bag appeared instantly, we found an ATM to make three withdrawals from, then went to the Lion Air window to purchase a couple of tickets to Denpasar for two weeks hence. We asked for some transport advice then wandered out of the airport gates to flag down the first passing angkot.
There was almost a touch of culture shock as we drove along, we crossed streams flowing from the mountainous interior of Leihitu, the smell of drying cloves heavy in the air, and were offered only tight smiles in lieu of open friendliness.
At Paso we ditched, pointed down the road to Tulehu with an “I love you” from the driver. We then jumped straight onto the next passing angkot for another twenty minute ride to the port. We were dropped at the gates and once we’d established our departure point and time, we ambled back to the main road for lunch. There were a string of Padang restaurants and, dazzled by the choice, we randomly opted for Fajar Indah, eyeing off the plates of dishes stacked high in the window. For a total of 50,000 rupiah we had fish curry, sotong, and singkong rica-rica, our rice slathered with delicious rendang gravy. Our fingers burned with the spicy heat after we’d finished, reminding us of how good it was as we headed back to the port.
We had to wait several hours for the next stage of this busy travel day. There were conflicting opinions about what time the Cantika Torpedo would leave for Seram. At one o’clock a ticket seller arrived, stirring up some activity in the waiting hall. We chatted with Kasmaruddin, on holiday from Manado, until 2 o’clock when it was time to board. The Express Precilla 99 took three hundred passengers. Roaming vendors good-humouredly spruiked their offerings of drinks and snacks, and the boat slowly filled over the next couple of hours. Our allocated seats were on opposite sides of the vessel, causing much consternation and seat shuffling. At 3 o’clock the captain switched on the engine sending the stink of the toilet through the air-conditioning system – all reached for scarves, choking back the noxious fumes in disgust. Eventually the smell either faded or we all got used to it – anyway it didn’t dampen the trade of the vendors… “jagung manis”, “pisang goreng panas”, “roti kaya, pop mie, pop mie, aqua”.
The air-conditioning did little to relieve the stifling heat on board, but at 4 o’clock we departed, meaning only another two hours to endure. Sylvester Stallone kept us entertained, there was no sound, but Indonesian sub-titles so we added some words to our vocabulary and noted some softening of expletives according to our lip-reading skills.
IT WAS DUSK WHEN WE arrived in Amahai, we joined the crush to escape the Precilla, then were bombarded by a wall of taxi and ojek drivers, easily identified wearing motorbike helmets. It was a bit of a jostle to get through the crowd and our momentum kept us going, out through the gates, heading instinctively away from the melee until it began to thin. An angkot parked for a quick exit offered us a ride, and there was a nice lady on board who we knew from the seat shuffling fiasco, so we climbed in for the six kilometre trip to Masohi – the administrative capital of Seram, and all of Maluku.
It was dark when we got there, dropped off at the bus terminal and clueless as to where to head from there. We asked directions to a hotel that Usman had recommended but we found another one first, the staff at Penginapan Risal surprised at finding us on their doorstep. It doubled as a brothel but was very clean if we ignored the tell-tale stains on the walls. At 110 000 rupiah it was fine for the night, with a ‘tornado’ fan and a toilet masyarakat.
An evening reconnoitre of the neighbourhood revealed very friendly citizens and a purveyor of good terang bulan operating out of the back of a roda empat.
We slept well despite the fact that our bed collapsed beneath us and we had to move our mattress to the floor. Our hotelier, Fajar, was mortified to hear of our misadventure in the morning and insisted on noisily nailing it back together while we sipped our breakfast tea. The bad news from Fajar was that a kijang to Sawai, our chosen destination, wouldn’t leave until midday – another day of waiting five hours for a transport connection. We went to the kijang stop to check. It was true. We could charter, but that would cost 700 000 rupiah… 500 000 with almost no negotiation. We went off to think about it.
The morning market was in full swing, and the produce was fresh and healthy-looking. There were colourful mounds of ubi jalar, singkong, labu siam, pisang and jeruk, super fresh lemongrass, ginger, kencur, and galangal.
Inside the market building were ladies selling all kinds of breakfast snacks and we were easily talked into trying lopis, a local delicasy of finger bananas inside a dough of singkong steamed in banana leaf, then chopped and topped with a mountain of fresh grated coconut and gula merah. They sat us down at an empty market stall and kept plying us with treats – onde-onde and cups of water. We couldn’t eat it all and had to leave with a bungkus.
With all the noise in the market we didn’t immediately hear our phone ring – it was Jumat, a kijang driver who had lined up another two passengers to Sawai, so we were on for 400,000 rupiah, double the regular fare, giving us the right to turn it into a non-smoking vehicle – after some gentle persuasion…
After organising fuel and luggage we were away by 9 o’clock, across to the mountains and then up through teak forest and beyond into the Manusela National Park. Jumat cranked up the dangdut and sat on the horn at every twist in the road as we wound our way up into the mountains, climbing to 1200 metres before a dramatic descent back to sea level. The road was in reasonably good condition with the ocassional landslide and subsidence which Jumat could pre-empt no matter how well-concealed. For 120 kilometres we had a running commentary from the passenger next to Dave… “masih jauh – masih jauh”… then after our rest stop… “Sawai tidak jauh lagi – tidak jauh lagi”…
We had to take a detour to drop off the other passenger, along the way dodging a particularly recent landslide and driving under a fallen tree, but on the way back another tree had come down next to it and, being second on the scene, Jumat was quick to help the parang weilding motorcyclist on the other side. With the two of them hacking at branches and clearing debris, others began arriving so that when they finally chopped through it there were many hands to haul it out of the way. We revved our engine ready to cruise through when one of the other fallen trees higher over the road gave a loud creak and a lurch, sending everyone running out of the way, but, unperturbed we ploughed through artfully dodging the landslide at the same time.
IT TOOK THREE AND A HALF hours to reach Sawai, the large village of rusted tin roofs crammed along the shore of Teluk Sawai, most of it on stilts over the water. We drove into the village on a path intended for pedestrians, just squeezing past the houses honking noisily all the way. He didn’t just drive us to our door, but through the gates, and then tried to carry Dave’s bag – we had to draw the line somewhere.
The Lisar Bihari Guesthouse was made up of four connected stilt houses, each with six to ten large rooms. There were only four other guests, and no others on the second night, so we had an entire house to ourselves with a deck where we could relax and take our meals. Beneath us were a few small corals scattered amongst the sea grass with fish swimming around. To the west steep cliffs rose up, ringing with bird calls and the hum of cicadas.
We were housebound for the remainder of the day, lunching on ikan kecap, kangkung cah, and choko with sea snails in santan curry, then sitting and watching the rain fall all afternoon, pitter-pattering on the atap roof.
We had intended to stay for several days, and the place certainly had the potential for a good sojourn, but several factors worked against it. The people of Sawai were generally unfriendly and the Lisar Bihari staff were positively sullen – we soon tired of trying to extract smiles. Signs in each room warning of the potential of theft were particularly off-putting. The manager, Dino, was a slimy character unwilling to negotiate the room price despite his lack of guests, and most displeased with our refusal to spend another million rupiah on a picnic tour. But worst of all – the food wasn’t good…
The steep all-inclusive price of 600 000 rupiah per night couldn’t even satisfy our basic nutritional requirements of fruit and vegetable. The first days lunch was the only good meal we saw, and breakfasts was an abomination of bread and pineapple jam, hardly sustaining for a big morning of birdwatching.
We walked for six hours back up into the Manusela National Park. Covering 26 kilometres, we climbed to 700 metres, on the prowl for the feathered natives of Seram. Blyth’s hornbill was our best find, and we saw lots of them, soaring above our heads sounding like small aeroplanes and perching conspicuously with their loud, honking calls. We also saw plenty of eclectus parrots, Moluccan red lorys and a sulphur-crested cockatoo. Giant butterflies flapped along the roadside and vehicles rarely interrupted us.
AFTER JUST TWO NIGHTS WE left, disappointed with our accommodation, unable to stay any longer, and sorry that we’d made the considerable effort to go there. We paid the vacant-eyed kitchen staff and walked out without so much as a “terima kasih”.
In the parking space near the mosque we put our bag into the morning kijang and waited for the 7.30am departure back to Masohi. There were five other passengers, two of whom vomited most of the way. At our rest stop they refilled their stomachs for the onward journey, and we began seeking advice about our next leg. We had decided to head to Saparua in the Lease Islands and it was determined that further enquiry would be needed in Masohi.
We reached the small city by 11.30am – back in friendly territory – even the driver was nice, charging us the local fare and ensuring we were deposited in an appropriate location. At the bus terminal we explored our first option by taking an angkot five kilometres down the road to to a pier used for speedboats to Saparua.
As soon as we got down from the angkot we were advised that we had missed the boat. Some helpful onlookers were also able to advise that we should return at 7 o’clock the following morning, that it would cost 60 000 rupiah for a ticket, and that we should join them in their house for refreshments. We felt that we should have just amused ourselves in Masohi instead of undertaking the Sawai episode.
WE JUMPED ON AN ANGKOT back into town, now familiar with where we had to go, and headed for the Penginapan Nusa Ina, Usman’s recommendation which we didn’t quite make it to last time. The Nusa Ina was a classic old losman with rooms around a central common space and the cheapest accommodation for this trip. 85,000 rupiah for a room with two double beds, a fan, and an enormous mandi. Alfin, the owner, sat bored in the breezeway outside, and an even more bored eclectus parrot chewed corn in a tiny cage.
We went out to find food. Walking back through the market we were met by friendly greetings at each step “hello misteer”, “how are you, misteeer”, “belanja, misteeeer”. We marched into the first rumah makan that we came to and ordered a table full of dishes, the place was packed with diners and understandably so. We had baby squid in chilli sauce, kare ikan, and four vegetable dishes, tempeh goreng sambal, beans and tahu, gulai nangka and cucumber pickle. An excellent meal for 35 000 rupiah. We had spent the last two days being ripped off and now it felt like we were the ones doing the ripping off! Fruit starved, we did some shopping in the market, buying three ripe papayas for just 5,000 rupiah and a sirsak for 10,000 rupiah. We’d never tasted sirsak before, so the vendor picked us out a good one and told us to eat it with ice. At home Alfin inspected our purchases and put the sirsak straight into the freezer – “nanti”! It tasted like a fruit salad, but chewy.
We spent the afternoon enjoying our fruits and relaxing our stiff walking muscles. I caught up with my journal and Dave chatted with the lady-boys who ran the adjacent hair salon.
Our late afternoon stroll around town saw us back in the market, this time in the back laneways. It was a really great pasar, busy inside with all kinds of wet and dry goods – even a rubber stamp maker hand-carving the rubber. Becaks plied the adjoining streets which the market spilled out into, making it look as it would have done for a hundred years. The vendors were a lot of fun, selling us sweet corn, fried breadfruit and fresh markisa. We returned home, again loaded up with fresh produce – Alfin must have thought we’d never seen fruits before and brought us afternoon tea with hot pisang goreng.
WE WERE AT THE SPEEDBOAT pier at 7 o’clock the next morning, as instructed. Alfin fed us tea and puffy-cups then we caught an angkot back to the pier where we found a small group of people and luggage, but no boat. The wooden jetty poked out through the mangroves from a sandy beach, so it was a nice spot to sit and wait.
At 7.30 the speedboat arrived – we didn’t know what to expect of the ‘speedboat’, and what turned up was something in between what I had envisaged (a kapal cepat?) and what Dave had imagined (an open longboat?). Confusingly, instead of racing toward it in a mad frenzy, everybody continued to sit patiently waiting. A man in a small hut made a list of our names, and then after a couple of hours, some imperceptible signal saw everyone spontaneously begin sauntering toward the boat – “berangkat”.
The boat was a ten metre runabout and 32 of us crammed into it with our luggage. Four 40 horse power engines were coaxed into starting by two men, sending plumes of acrid smoke into the faces of the nearby passengers. Wordlessly everybody grimaced then closed their eyes and set to enduring the voyage. Sometimes it’s good not to know how long something is going to take. All sat motionless except for the occassional fart, only stirring when we neared our destination. We drew into the first landfall on Pulau Saparua – the village of Mahu, from where we took the angkot which met the boat to Kota Saparua, a twenty minute drive away through swamps of sago and cengkeh gardens.
WE GOT DOWN AT THE market and checked out the town’s three hotels, settling on Penginapan Durstede right on the beach next to the Dutch fortress. It was somewhat rundown, but good value at just 100 000 rupiah. Mauren and Ongen were our affable hosts, and our room faced the beach across a lawn frequented by chickens, dogs and cows. Mauren’s father spent the days mending fishing nets under the shade trees by the sea wall. Outrigger canoes were dotted along the sand, and the beautiful blue water in the bay provided a permanent sea breeze and a perpetual gentle swooshing sound. The water was warm to swim in – it felt like about 30 degrees, but it was still refreshing with the cool breeze. The view stretched from the fort, out to the headland of Peperu then across the sea to Nusa Laut, the furthest island in the Lease group.
The only other guests were Marten, a friendly Swiss guy with five centimetre-long eyebrow hairs, and a couple of men from Bandung who were conducting the national census. There were some other foreigners in Saparua – the few we spoke to were from Holland, visiting relatives – Indonesian expatriates or married to locals.
We sniffed out a few good places to eat. There were better choices than the obvious Pondok Makan Dukung Raja, although their ayam lalapan was quite good. On Jalan Belakang we could find rojak, and right across the road was a stall with an assortment of dishes including gado-gado with kangkung, sawi, beansprouts, tahu, cucumber, snake beans, ladles of peanut sauce and a dollop of spicy sambal. Pakai nasi – enak!
Opposite the market was a lady with a stall selling nasi kuning for breakfast – we could buy a bungkus for 10 000 rupiah and take it home to eat at our table by the beach. With ikan kuah, serendung, tempeh kacang hijau, mie, emping and a slice of cucumber, it was perhaps the best nasi kuning we’d had in the Maluku.
One day Mauren made us a lunch of ikan bakar – fish that Ongen had caught; colo-colo, made with lime, kecap manis, sugar, onion, chilli and tomato; and papeda, a glutinous glue-like mass of sago starch. Ongen enjoyed the novelty of meeting people who had never tasted pepeda before and sat down to watch us eat it, slapping his hands together, laughing as we worked out how to manipulate it onto our plates and into our mouths. The meal was a delicious experience.
Wednesday was market day in Kota Saparua, and boats arrived from all the outlying villages and islands to trade. The pasar was buzzing with activity, and we joined the throng checking out the produce on offer, both familiar and strange to us. There were enormous yellow fin tuna, bonito and mackerel, as well as smoked fishes and sea snails. Fresh vegetables and spices were bountiful, and there were all kinds of sago products – powdered sugar and pressed moulds, balls of flour and mounds of fresh wet sago pressed into palm leaf baskets weighing about 30 kilos each. We bought papaya and bananas, and had breakfast in a warung, a hearty meal of rice, mie, pickled vegetables and ikan kuah.
Everywhere we walked the air was fragranced by the floral scent of drying cloves, it was the midst of the harvest season and the streets were literally paved with the exotic spice.
We found a quiet beach beyond Paperu, a picnic-sized patch of white sand five kilometres away on the other side of the bay. It was shaded by sea almond trees and backed by coconut palms and pandanus, with a few colourful perahus stacked on the beach. We walked there twice to relax and enjoy the solitude of an unknown slice of paradise.
On another morning excursion, we took an angkot to Haria, to find out if leaving Saparua was as difficult as reaching it. Our reconnoitre turned up two options, and a town more appealing than scruffy Kota Saparua, with a deep harbour and a beautiful outlook across to the headland of Haria Perak. We watched a spear fisherman from the jetty in the clear water hunting bubara, and sat in the shade checking the frequency of the speedboats as tiny munias built nests in the shade trees.
In the afternoons, when school was out, the local kids came to play – they were drawn to us like the Pied Piper and we spent our afternoons amusing them – they followed us along the beach, they took us to the fort, or they climbed in the trees at our place. It was fun for everyone – except Ongen, who chased them away when they got too rowdy…
Anywhere that we stay for more than a few days is often hard to leave, but when we are so warmly accepted by the people of a place like this, we are truly sad to say goodbye. We had enjoyed our four day stay in Saparua, and thanks to our reconnoitre, our departure was smooth.
IT WAS SATURDAY MARKET DAY, so we lucked an early morning angkot to Haria. The driver was frantically unloading fish and kangkong from his vehicle so that he could make as many runs as possible back to the pasar. We left our room at 6 o’clock and by 6:30 had bought our tickets and were sitting on the Bahari Express awaiting imminent departure – it was unlikely to be late because it was the very same vessel which made the voyage to Bandaneira later that morning. We met some people that we knew on board – the post master and her parents whom we had met at the fort with our children; and of course, the crew whom we had sat with on the santai deck a couple of weeks earlier in Bandaneira. The engineer brought us kenari sweets before powering up the engines for the hour-long crossing to Tulehu.
The port was busy when we arrived with two departures pending, but back in familiar territory, we shouldered through the chaos and walked to the road where we picked up an angkot going to the city. It was strange to have spent so long in the Maluku without having been to Ambon. Twice we’d managed to skirt around the city without venturing in, so we were curious to finally visit – and to end our trip there.
THE ANGKOT SET US DOWN at Mardika, a congested cacophany of commerce, and we set off into the throng, wide-eyed after two months in small island towns and villages. We searched a bit more than usual to find a good room, rejecting several windowless cells to come up trumps at Penginapan The Royal in Jalan Anthony Rebok, where 175 000 rupiah bought us a light, breezy room on the fifth floor with air-conditioning and a television for nightly Bollywood entertainment.
It was already 10:30am when we finally got settled, so we found ourselves an overdue breakfast of nasi kuning with caffeinated beverages, then got our bearings by visiting the nearby port before being driven back to our room by the midday heat with a couple of bags of susu kedalai and some fresh jackfruit.
Ambon was an ugly city, dirty and unkept, still bearing some of the scars of the twenty year old conflict strife. The buildings were a disparate mix of modern, unattractive construction, or dishevelled and patched up with ironwork. Footpaths were peppered with open drains ready to swallow the unwary pedestrian. But the roadways were very user friendly, pulsing with public transport – green angkots clearly labelled with their destination; becaks still in common use; and ojeks, motorcycles at every step offering to take us anywhere we wished to go “ojek misteeer??”. The city sprawled along the waterfront of Teluk Ambon, then spread up into the hills where it dispersed quickly into mountain villages.
The people, however, took pride in their city and, like all Malukans, were proud of their identity – they were Malukan before they were Indonesian. And they were happy and friendly, it seemed incomprehensible that they were killing each other with machetes in recent history.
Downtown the Mardika area was the largest market in the Maluku and a proper exploration took hours, revealing both disgusting squalor and culinary delights. The low point was the fish market, operating in a swill of fetid muck, the stink of which threatened to expel the contents of our stomachs. But the catch of the day was fascinating to observe with everything from mountains of prawns and squids to giant trevally and rainbow displays of parrot fish. Dave liked to show off his new talent of identifying the species by their local names, leaving the mongers impressed and keen to add to our vocabulary…
By this time we knew what most of the vegetables were, although the range of roots was confounding, and we always enjoyed checking out the fruits on offer, buying nangka and pomelo, and drinking fresh kelapa muda, filling out stomachs with litres of pure coconut water, then scraping out the jelly with skillfully carved scoops – at just 5ooo rupiah per coconut we made return visits to this machete-wielding friend. Many fruits were still out of season and therefore scarce and expensive, we heard prices of 50 000 rupiah being quoted for new season pineapples, while cloves were being handled by the shovelful.
With it’s entrance hidden amid the market stalls, we chanced upon the Mai Nusu, an old time coffee shop and karaoke bar built on stilts over the harbour. We breakfasted there one morning, watching the nautical comings and goings, the aroma of our tea and kopi susu almost masking the odour of the water, as we dipped our fried breadfruit into little plates of liquid palm sugar, served to us with the utmost courtesy by a man who looked like a crusty pirate.
The city had a strong cafe culture with plenty of well-patronised coffee shops catering to all demographics…
At the busy Trikora Monument intersection, Rumah Kopi Trikora was a convivial breakfast stop. Noisy but atmospheric, they served coffee with traditional cakes and snacks – palm sugar cake, porcis, curry puffs filled with fish, lemang (sticky rice with mung beans and peanuts wrapped in banana leaf). The tea and coffee were good, even if the ladies struggled to grasp the idea of tea without sugar.
Further along Jalan Said Perintah was Kopi Tradisi Joas, an old-fashioned coffee house built around a treed courtyard. With marble tables and wooden chairs, and a barista straining traditional Indonesian coffee into long-handled steel scoops, it was the best of Ambon’s venues, especially on a rainy day. The kopi susu jahe knocked our socks off – the thick milk coffee was fuelled with ginger and needed snacks to absorb some of it’s potency. The gogos were so good they had us scrambling for a recipe – fish floss wrapped in sticky rice and grilled in a banana leaf.
At Kopi Tradisi Cafe Cangkir we could have a breakfast of nasi kuning with a choice of coffees. Best was the kopi rarobong, a devine concoction of thick black coffee spiced with cinnamon, ginger and cloves, sweetened with condensed milk, decorated with creamy kenari nuts floating on top – and served with a cloud of kretek smoke.
The Rumah Kopi Sibu-Sibu was a good spot for morning or afternoon tea. Although almost everything on the menu was unavailable… “tidak ada…”, we enjoyed kasbi tone, a sticky roast cassava cake, and a coklat susu es, iced chocolate made with condensed milk and cinnamon. The clientelle were almost exclusively Indonesian expatriates – local faces speaking Dutch in a trendy cafe with whirling fans and posters of famous Malukans. At breakfast time the item availability was no better, a tight-lipped “kosong” answering each request, but after a filling pre-load of nasi kuning at Warung Salsa, we could finish off our morning meal with a piece of kasbi tone and the house speciality – kopi susu Sibu Sibu, a mocha creation of thick coffee, chocolate and spice with a milky froth on top.
We could also get fresh juices in eateries all over town. We developed a taste for sirsak, sweetened, iced and frothed, it tasted refreshingly sublime. Our old favourite es alpokat was available, and mangoes were just coming into season – a little drizzle of condensed milk around the glass set it off nicely. We even got fresh juices in the Matahari Swalayan – best was the lurid jus buah naga – purple dragon fruit. Warung Aneka on Jalan A.Y Patty became our favoured venue at 15 000 rupiah per juice, and they did a good es campur as well. On Jalan Sam Ratalungi we chose a smokey but salubrious coffee joint for an afternoon juice which turned into lengthy social intercourse with Antus, a volleyball teacher from Hila, when we all got stuck by a thunderstorm.
One afternoon in the Matahari department store we were interviewed by some local university students while we were doing some shopping. We also ran into the post master whom we’d met in Saparua, shopping with her husband who was surprised at his wife’s new acquaintances; and also, even more amazingly, we met Hasni whom we’d stayed with in Bandaneira – he was in Ambon visiting his brother… We ran into him several times more over the next several days…
It also wasn’t our only interaction with university students. It seemed the entire Pattimura campus had been tasked with improving their English that weekend and we featured in countless interviews across the city.
A car pulled to a stop at the Peace Gong when we were spotted, for a curbside interview; we were stalked along Jalan Sangaji by a large group of very shy students who found the courage to pounce when we paused to buy a cup of ketam hitam. We were even followed into our hotel by another gaggle of boys keen to complete their assignment . Another group found us near the Francis Xavier church, but in their excitement didn’t know what to do with us. The recordings would have surely been inaudible against a backdrop of traffic and frequent comical interjections of “hello misteeeer!”.
At the Sibu Sibu we were interviewed at our streetside table. We tried offering Peitre at the next table as another worthy subject – he was from Holland, but his heritage was Ambonese and even though he spoke fluent English, and didn’t even know Indonesian they rejected him with a laugh.
Further out of town we were accosted twice by a group of lads and a pair of girls whilst shopping in the Maluku City Mall – by now we were developing star quality, disarming them with questions of our own, and correcting their question sheets for them. Most of the students spoke incomprehensible English, and off-camera we could only communicate in Indonesian with them, with the selfies and group shots being the most time-consuming part of the procedure. We saw very few other foreigners in town, so all the playbacks would have doubtless featured the same two interviewees…
Ironically we were also stopped for photographs by younger children, usually girls, whose primary school English was far more advanced and confident than the university level students.
During our week-long stay in Ambon we found plenty of activities to keep us occupied and, of course, many good places to eat.
Back in Jalan Said Perintah we found Beta Rumah, a small eatery hidden behind a taxi wash zone, but inside was a buffet of local Ambonese cuisine – delicious dishes lined up on banana leaves. We made more than one visit and everything was good – stir-fried banana heart, ikan kuah (whole fish cooked in a broth of fresh turmeric and herbs), and kohu-kohu, a salad of fresh coconut, long beans, beansprouts and smoked fish, flavoured with shallot and lime. We also enjoyed papaya flowers with kangkung; ikan asar masa paleo (smoked fish in a santan soup with lemongrass and herbs); and the best dish of the trip, unassumingly tucked into a back corner – ikan kandondong, dry-fried bonito with kandondong leaves and ground coriander. Ubi jalur, boiled cassava and rice made the perfect serving suggestion and Ibu Tin watched over her customers with a proud smile – she knew how good her food was and clearly enjoyed sharing it.
Another good choice for local cuisine was Rumah Makan Ambon, tucked in behind the Balai Kota and busy with office workers. The ikan kuah had kenari nuts in the broth, and the smoked fish in the paleo infused the soup beautifully. We had a variety of sweet potatoes, taro and plantain with our kohu-kohu, papaya flowers and kasbi leaves. It was all kicked off nicely with sambal petai.
For something less local we enjoyed a meal at Rumah Makan Padang Ayah, just a block away down Jalan Cempaka. Ikan goreng with curry sauce and rendang gravy, steamed singkong leaves, and an inspired sambal terong for 15 000 rupiah per plate – delicious.
We also indulged in the odd bubur ayam, nasi kuning and soto ayam at various locations around our neighbourhood.
For some exercise to clear the smoke from our lungs, one day we hiked into the hills behind the city. We made Soya Atas our nominal destination, but found we could go further to the peak of Gunung Sirimau at a cool 500 metres altitude.
The Sunday morning choir broke into song as we arrived at the historic church, dripping with sweat after following the windy six kilometre road. Along the way everyone was out in their finery on their way to mass, the pastors smiling at us benevolently, elders wishing us a “selamat pagi” and children practicing their English … “Hello misteeer”, “How are you, misteeer?”, “my name is?” and a very scholarly “I am fuck”.
We continued for another kilometre along a pathway through the picturesque village off Soya Atas to the hilltop viewpoint – a tranquil garden with colourful flowers and butterflies, an animistic altar, and a soundtrack of birds and cicadas. Fruit doves, drongos, swifts and sunbirds.
Inspired by a story told to us by an old man in Soya Atas, we visited the War Cemetery the following morning. Upon hearing of our heritage he told of how his father had helped to rescue two Australian soldiers who had parachuted into the mountain village when their aircraft was shot down.
There were, however, no such happy endings at the cemetery, except that where the war dead lay to rest in the Tantui memorial was a beautiful place. Over one thousand Australian troops were buried in a garden shaded by five gigantic flowering acacia trees. A team of full-time gardeners kept the site immaculately manicured, in stark contrast to the surrounding city. Sooty-headed bulbuls and metallic starlings tweeted out their approval from the tree-tops, while the neighbouring local graveyard was a treeless disgrace.
For one last visit to the beach, on this beach dedicated trip, we made a day excursion to Pantai Liang – a fine stretch of sand at the far eastern end of Leihitu, about forty kilometres away by angkot. The recreation zone was a skeleton of its weekend potential, with empty warungs and shelters, warning anyone seeking solitude strongly against a Sunday visit.
We picked out a shady spot on the sand and spent the morning relaxing and swimming, watching the tide come in and the water turn more and more turquoise as the sun got higher. The occassional ferry slipped by from the nearby port of Hunimua to Seram, just across the water, with it’s mountainous head in the clouds.
On the way back we wondered about the hot spring in Tulehu which Ongen had told us about…With still a few days ahead of us in Ambon, we decided to pay a visit to the Balai Kota, the City Hall, seeking tourist information. The stern-looking military man at the front desk answered “lantai dua” to our request, and we were escorted through the building by a soldier to a distant office on the second floor. The staff looked astounded at our arrival in their office, as though we may have been the first tourists to ever appear there, but after their first desperate question about whether we spoke Indonesian was answered in the affirmative, all relaxed and we were offered chairs and their undivided attention. Shirley and the girls were able to fill in the gaps of information we needed and provide some additional unsolicited ideas, more from personal experience than official blurb. They were surprisingly helpful and we left satisfied with a map and a pariwisata goodie-bag.
So, fully informed, we set off the following morning to find the hot spring. We arrived early to maximise our chances of a peaceful experience, taking an angkot to the turn-off in Tulehu, then walking thirty minutes to the spring. All was quiet when we arrived – the hot water fed into a clear stream, walled into a pool in a gully surrounded by towering sago palms. We got changed and plopped in, surprised by the sensation of a hot water immersion. We did a few laps, had a bit of a soak, watching the butterflies and listening to the birds, then…quelle horreur…a school excursion arrived.
Controlled mayhem ensued as twenty infant students and their parental entourage descended on nature, turning it into a circus. I fled, Dave was surrounded, teacher reminded all to be polite to the ‘om bule’. The hot spring lost its appeal pretty quickly. Dave did his duty posing for photographs and providing an extra subject of interest for the excursion, and eventually after much splashing fun they had their play-lunch (fist-fulls of roti inadvertently dunked into the spring), then left, waving goodbye in a cloud of talcum powder. We enjoyed another hot dunking and although the birds and butterflies didn’t return, the peace and quite did, so we departed on a positive note.
On the way home we got down from our return angkot at Lateri to find a seafood restaurant recommended by Shirley. Dua Ikan had a wooden terrace built out over the bay at the far end of Teluk Ambon, and a jetty with steps leading down to netted pools full of fish. We opted for a fresh bubara, and so were given a baited rod to catch our lunch. Dave has never been much of a fisherman, but even in these foolproof circumstances nothing would bite and we had to scoop out our preference, carefully avoiding the moorish idols and lion fish. Our catch was quickly splayed, smeared with chilli sambal and grilled to perfection, then presented at our table with dabu-dabu, cap-cay and udung asam pedas, hot and sour prawns. We dined with the fresh breeze from the bay and an outlook to mountainous Leihitu – 247,000 rupiah was expensive, but it was very good.
Another worthwhile excursion in the opposite direction, was to Latuhalat at the southern tip of Leitmur. An angkot dropped us off at Pantai Collin on a strip of coast which we had flown over on our way back from Bandaneira. It had looked great from the air, with waves breaking over rocky pools and beaches. It was a beautiful area and the road was appealingly shady with big sakun and mango trees, so we took a walk to Pintu Kota, a rocky headland with a natural arch in it, overlooking a bay pretty with pandanus and coconut trees. Next to the arch two caves pierced through toward the next bay which we could explore at low tide, as well as climbing over the arch. After all that strenuous activity we sipped on an expertly carved green coconut at a picturesquely perched warung and watched the KM Ngapula slip past out into the Banda Sea on it’s way to Fak Fak.
WE HEADED TO THE AIRPORT a day ahead of our scheduled departure. Reporting at the check-in counter at 6am presented some logistical issues, so it was easier to spend the night in one of the small penginapans by the gate at the Pattimura Terminal in Laha.
Leaving the Royal around midday we just made it to Mardika before the rain started, jumping on an angkot in the nick of time before an hour-long downpour deluged the island. It was still showering when we got to Laha, making our search for suitable lodging a bit dismal. We stayed at Penginapan Kembar where 150 000 rupiah got us the perfect room for a wet afternoon. There was a large covered sitting area out the front where we could watch the comings and goings, and a rumah makan next door with a smoking char grill. So we had a surprisingly good meal of barbequed fish with a delicious home-made bumbu, colo-colo and raw slices of cucumber, snake beans, cabbage and eggplant. And a very lazy afternoon followed…
OUR DEPARTURE THE NEXT MORNING was very straightforward with just a stroll across the road to the check-in counter. There was, however, plenty of potential for error from that point on.
Our Lion Air 737 took off right on time at 8 o’clock and we landed on schedule at Sultan Hassanuddin in Makassar with exactly twenty minutes before our connection to Denpasar departed. Unlikely as it was, we were seated on the Denpasar flight with seven minutes to spare after a shuttle bus whisked us between planes on the tarmac and we took off on time without fuss.
Even more amazingly, our bag turned up on the carousel at the other end!
So we found ourselves back in Bali with a three day buffer before our return flight to Sydney.
We decided to head into the city to spend our time, and given the dire state of public transport we were forced to take a taxi to Denpasar, twelve kilometres from Ngurah Rai Airport. The starting price was an absurd 275 000 rupiah, but the further we walked from the carousel the cheaper it became, and we ended up with a ride for 120,000 rupiah. Komeng kept up a cheerful banter as we whizzed through the light Sunday morning traffic to the capital. It was like a stepping stone back to normality – the streets were clean and orderly, nobody stared at us or called out “hello misteeer” .
WE THOUGHT WE’D GO UPMARKET for the last few days of our trip, so Komeng took us to the Inna Bali – the island’s original tourist hotel. Built in 1927, it was grand and well-maintained with gardens and a nice pool area. Our room was palatial, fully furnished with a deep verandah, and the price including a full breakfast was a bargain 250 000 rupiah per night – an internet special for the three nights of our stay.
It was lunchtime by the time we settled in, and after skipping breakfast that morning we were starving.
Nearby in Jalan Yudistira we found Warung Wardani where 37 000 rupiah bought perhaps the best nasi campur in the city. The men we shared a table with wanted to know if it was our first visit to Wardani, so it felt like some sort of initiation when our plates were put down in front of us loaded with delicacies. Long beans cooked in coconut milk, chicken curry, prawn rempeyek, sate lilit, poached melon, sambal telur, gulai nangka, and a fiery sate ayam. We bought mangoes from a lady on the doorstep then went off for a walk to check out some of the city.
There were paved footpaths to walk on with frangipani and mango trees lining the streets and Balinese temples dotted everywhere. Gamelan music occasionally tinkled in the background and soapstone statues of demonic guardians decorated with flowers and robes popped out from elaborate doorways.
Denpasar smelled of frangipani and incense. The city had lots of green space, and near to the Inna was Lapangan Puputan, a large park where we could sit and watch the Balinese world go by. People came to exercise and socialise, and at the end of the day the park filled with people, balloons and bubbles. Vendors sold snacks and the atmosphere was cheerful with family groups – even downtown the city was lived-in, livable and attractive. It was a world away from Ambon.
Dave finished his day with a martabak telur – with the hours ticking away to our departure he was set to have as many of his favourite Indonesian dishes as he could…
We woke up the next morning as if in a dream between thick, crisp sheets in luxurious surrounds. We took breakfast in the pavillion by the pool – a very posh bubur ayam with fruit salad, guava juice and coffee.
The day ahead was busy but relaxing at the same time. We visited a couple of nearby temples to begin with and witnessed a very nice puja at the Puri Jaganatha – the state temple, built of coral and smelling heavily of frangipani.
We walked quite far, doing some shopping at taking lunch and Babi Guling Candra. There were only two items available at this lunchtime hot spot – ayam or babi guling. The babi guling was a fitting end to any self-respecting pig – surrounding a mound of rice was an array of pork delicasies – sate lilit, spicy spit-roasted pork with crispy skin and stuffing, intestines filled like little sausages, various offal krupuks, sate babi and some kangkung to satisfy the vegetable quota. 45 000 rupiah for biasa – Dave paid 50 000 for spesial with an extra serving of guling.
We bought trousers, a hat and a sundress; we refuelled with iced avocado and mango juice; we cashed in on some accessories; topped up with an icy air tebu (sugar cane juice); and filled a basket at the Swalayan Tiara with goodies – sambals, tea towels, coffee bubuk, matcha Kit-kats, lilit sticks, dan lain lain…
We finished our day at the Kereneng night market which was thronging with shoppers and diners. We couldn’t go past the sate ayam – one portion at 20 000 rupiah was enough for two of us, and we finished off with a terang bulan, the thick pancake heavy with margarine and coconut oil, and flavoured with peanuts, chocolate and banana.
Our fridge at the Inna was starting to look like a market stall – we had a stash of fruits – mango, purple dragon fruit, salak, strawberries, and guava. So we had a feast of fruits before breakfast the next morning which also happened to be Dave’s 49th birthday. He read his birthday texts, and even got a surprise “happy birthday” from the reception staff who had noted his birthdate from his passport at check-in…
We walked a couple of blocks to the neighbourhood pasar Satrya, a lively morning market busy with shoppers looking for fresh produce and temple offerings. We sat opposite the entrance enjoying a couple of bowls of soto ayam dispensed by an expert ibu who tickled my ribs and clucked her disappointment at my lack of children – she had eight…
Further down the street the bird market was well underway with all kinds of exotica caged for an easy bird-watching session. White-eyes were plentiful and mynas were popular, hopping around in pretty wooden cages. There were parrots, song-birds, and specimens like the fairy bluebird sought after for their beauty. A cage of sleepy white-eyes were woken with a tap on their prison “bangun – jam kerja!”. Rabbits, rats, reptiles, cats, fishes, monkeys, squirrels and even a sad-looking luwak were available for sale – much of it endemic protected wildlife…
Next we took a stroll along Jalan Gajah Mada to the Bhineka Djaja, a coffee shop with streetside tables on the busy main drag, good for people-watching and coffee sipping. They had an espresso machine and fresh milk…Out the back they ground local beans to order, so the smell was as great as the taste.
Nearby, Jalan Sulawesi beckoned with it’s colourful textile stores lined along the street like a kaleidoscope of commerce. The array was dazzling and we had a good trawl through, draping, assessing and asking the advice of like-minded shoppers – the sewing and quilting set from Melbourne were in their element. It was strange to hear Australian accents – in the previous two months we had met only one other Australian, and now we were suddenly surrounded by them. We bought two metres of linen and some skirt fabric. The local ladies vending on the street were also happy to chat, checking out what we’d bought and where, making sure that we hadn’t been ripped off!
We sat for a while sipping air kelapa muda with them then set ourselves for a hike across town to Renon for lunch. It was a warm day, so with umbrella raised we trekked up jalan and down gang, at one stage even navigating our way through a hospital when we got lost! Our target, Warung Mina, was a seafood restaurant boasting ikan segar and a garden setting perfect for a birthday lunch. We opted to dine lesehan style and settled ourselves in a bale in the palm garden where we had cooled down with an iced ginger tea by the time our meal arrived at our table. A delicious grilled gurame with a lemongrass sambal and lalapan, cumi goreng tepung, and a karedok salad – a winning combination.
We ambled homeward in the shade of dark thunder clouds which cooled the afternoon for a pleasant stroll. This part of the city was greener with lots of trees, wide boulevards and shady pavements.
We also made some further exploration of our own neighbourhood. Since fire destroyed the massive Pasar Badung six months earlier, the market had dispersed into the surrounding streets, turning the nearby laneways into a thriving wet market, busiest in the afternoon.
We ended up covering another twelve kilometres that day, finishing it off with a dip in the pool and a suitable piece of birthday cake from the Conato bakery – a coffee torte with a cherry on top.
On the last day of our trip we weren’t all that keen on leaving. We were enjoying Denpasar, and we started the morning at the Pasar Satrya again, buying some jajanan for the plane journey and taking breakfast at a nasi campur stall squeezed into an alleyway. Chef was very fat and worked our selections into mounds of rice with chubby fingers, “bisa makan pedas?”. All the dishes were traditional Balinese, seasoned with fresh herbs and absolutely delicious. I had urap, fried bittergourd, terong and cakalang with a salty chilli and lemongrass sambal. Dave had a sample of every dish she had made – over a dozen delicasies. “Makan asli Bali!”, she laughed, foreign customers in this corner of one of the most touristed islands on earth were obviously a rarity. She charged us 18 000 rupiah for our exceptional breakfast.
For some exercise we walked along Jalan Gajah Mada, did a lap of the wet market and sat at the Bhineka Djaja savouring one last cup of kopi Bali susu while we strategised the remainder of our departure day. We took a long walk down Jalan Thamrin, zig-zagging our way back, amusingly running into people we had already met in the past few days – one lady wanted to check that we had found appropriate birthday cake for the previous days celebration…
Many people were out and about, dressed beautifully in temple clothing for a special religious programme that day, so the streetscape was more colourful with extra offerings of flowers and incense. We had enjoyed our short stay in Denpasar and actually could have easily stayed a few days longer, but our sixty days were up and the decision was out of our hands.
WE CHECKED OUT OF THE Inna at noon and found Ketut, a taxi driver, on our doorstep willing to take us back to Ngurah Rai for the same amount we’d paid in the other direction. The traffic was heavy, and it took an hour to cover the short distance, taking us away from the pleasant capital and back to the tourist trap of Kuta.
We waved goodbye to Ketut and swirled into the funnel of the airport, having our final taste of Indonesia from a bungkus of nasi campur which Dave hastily grabbed from the alleyways in Tuban across the road. At the check-in counter we smiled politely and spoke our finest bahasa to change our two seats at opposite ends of the plane into ‘hotseat’ upgrades on our Kuala Lumpur leg – for no extra cost!
Our language skills and local knowledge that had been so invaluable to us over the past two months was about to become completely redundant.
We swirled further down the funnel, changed planes in K.L. and were finally spouted out the other end, our lives richer, our hearts fonder.