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Bandaneira, God Must be in The Kitchen

It was drizzle morning in Ambon when twin engine small aeroplane, DHC-6-400 Twin Otter, start roaring.  Only 8 on board from Pattimura Airport heading to Banda Neira, a 23-square-mile archipelago consists of 8 dots in Moluccas map.

With only half seating occupied, almost everybody got their window seat. Thanks to the wider window not like many others Viking Air’s made that has small one. Later that I know this plane once to be used for Alaskan Aerial Tour. Soon the orange glow morning slowly came vividly clear over cloudy sky. The plane was flying low. Breaking wave looks like a white sparkle over the dark blue slate of Banda Sea.
After almost an hour flying, small green islands appear in the hazy distance. Romantics fantasy popping up in mind about spice-laden jungle, turqoise water, and heroics stories some accounts wrote about Bandaneira. This sparsly remote islands has been attracted every spice adventurer as far away from China, Arabia, later Europe to traveled for native nutmeg –or so called green gold- for at least 1,500 years.
As the plane landed smoothly, nutmeg blossom fragrant smells faintly in the air. Dimonim Air first stop from Ambon once a week on Wednesday early morning to Bandaneira before continue to Amahai and back to Ambon. Short runway of Bandaneira Airport restricts air traffic, here make difficulties for bigger aeroplane to landed.
Another way to reach Neira is by boat. Fast ferry boats serve Port of Tulehu to Neira twice a week on Tuesday and Saturday depart at 09.00 AM and reverse on Wednesday and Sunday at the same time. While bigger liner operate by Pelni usually once a week but cost you overnight on board on12-15 hour sailing from Ambon.
Somehow those effort paid off once you set a foot here. Stood tall up head is Gunung Api, an active volcano surrounded by greenies island of Banda Besar and Neira. Enchanted panorama in the golden morning rays.
By short riding a motor taxi, I met my best friend Reza Tuasikal. He own a very well-decorated resort by the sea, The Nutmeg Tree Hotel & Dive. One of very few accomodation in Neira that built in a great level of fineness. Reza’s place actually an old Dutch house, has four room which now personally designed. He preserved the old structure and material of the house and adding some nik nak here and there to create a complete nostalgic nuance in the house.
“What are you planning to do here?” he rammed a joke to me as I was coming without plan. That was our second attempt to be in Neira since last year we brought out boat, KLM Kurabesi Explorer, with some guests on board. Yes no-plan this time at all. Well not that kind of impulsif traveling tough, we just realize how deeply in love with this islands and want to travel back here and explore more to fill up our appetite of wanderlust.  
And it is always good to be back somewhere people treat you like family. Another aquintance, Abba the owner of Cilu Bintang Estate, knew we were here. He offer a dinner at his place. So just before dinner time, we take a stroll the city to Abba’s place. No need car here. Neira is only a distance walk from end to end.
At the highest peak of the island laid an old Fort of Belgica, built by Pieter Both –the first Governoor-General of Dutch East Indies- on 1611. Pentagonal shape fort is one of many Dutch ruins schattered in every corner of the island. Abba’s place just right in front of Belgica gate which also beside another fort, Nassau.
Music played when we came. Complete range of local dishes served in big table; grill chicken, calamari, a huge grouper fish that still in the fire, also Bandanese specialities, paria or bitter gourd and egg plant with kenari nut sauce. Bandanese use kenari to make sauce, curry, including hot milk coffee and cake topping. It gives subtly nutty somewhat earty taste.
White chip raw kenari in the wild protected by hard shells of the fruit. It is a native species around Moluccas and can be easily found in Bandaneira. This evergreen tress of Canarium asperum can grew up to 40 meters tall.
Old-fangled Trees
So in the next day, I planned to see kenari trees in the nutmeg plantation. An english teacher live in Lonthoir Banda Besar I call him Om Upang, pick us early morning and take us to his place. It was 15 minutes water taxi ride crossing the lagoon. This slim wooden boat they called pokpok as the engine sound “pok pok pok pok”.
Upang’s house is also old house which already renovated to accommodate tourist who come to Lonthoir. Many people came to his village for spice tour. Upang’s place is the only accomodation can be found in Lonthoir.
This village known as where most Banda’s nutmeg growth. Back in 1600’s, when Dutch finally gained control of the island after beat out the rest of European who firstly found spice in early 1500’s, there was 36 perk –nutmeg plantation- ruled by perkenier in Lonthoir. Establishing the feared Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC), Holland rulled all of Banda except small island in west Banda Besar called Run which British governed then traded into exchange to the Dutch for Manhattan.
By late 17th century , Banda virtually became the only place in the world where nutmeg produced. VOC marked a great success for Holland in spice trading with 60.000 percent markup in pocket.
While Bandanese facing horrific tragedy in fighting their rights and take a toll of their people’s life. Des Alwi in his book wrote several battles beetwen Dutch, British and Bandanese leader. One of the story describe how 44 Orang Kaya –rich people- of Banda barbarously being murdered in front of Fort Nassau.
But when Dutch lost his controled after war during 1810-1817, British got theirs hands some seedlings, began to plant nutmeg in Sumatra. Tough nutmeg’s trees in Lonthoir keep growing, the production was begin to descent into obscurity. Now, the jungle thicket seems more wild than cultivated.
Upang invites us to join a stroll through his block. We snake a dirty path under the groves. Nutmeg trees growth randomly around big kenari trees that provide shady canopy. Nutmeg doesn’t like direct sun exposure.
“That one may be already 200 years old,” said Upang pointing 25-centi-meters round blackish nutmeg’s tree trunk. Vegetated more than 20 meters high under kenari tree. And it is still fruitfull. While, kenari trees growing giantly could be more older than nutmeg tree
People here struggle to maintain their heritage. Nutmeg plantation now ruled by government, divide into small block with each 50 nutmeg trees and rent it to the local. Upang run one block of nutmeg.
“It is almost harvest time. Nutmeg can be harvesting three-times a year,” said Upang showing some yellow peach-size fruit hanging in the leafy branch. Once it ripening its fruit began to split by the slits that reveals a flash of crimson within. Fresh nutmeg smells like a sharp hints of licorice, papermint with a slice of lemon.
From his block, Upang earn not less than 15 million rupiah from dried nutmeg. In addition, bunga pala or fuli or so called mace, also sold 30.000 rupiah per kilogram, plus kenari nut that can be picked everyday all year round value around 50.000-70.000 rupiah per kilogram. Not a big business but good enough for Bandanese to preserve their blessings of Spice Islands.
Unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to meet Pongky Van Den Boerke, the 13th generation of Van Den Boerke family. Pongky’s anchestor is one of perkernier in Lonthoir. Untill now he keep running their plantation and nutmeg processing in a traditional way.
Visiting Fort Hollandia concludes my day in Lonthoir. The fort face to face with Gunung Api. From this point, cone shape volcanic framed perfectly in the middle of turqoise water with blue ocean behind and cotton-candy cloud in the sky.
Yes, Bandaneira is not only about underwater attraction where nowadays flocked by divers who are searching for schooling hammerhead. Honestly, this was the reason why we sailed last year to Bandaneira. But to me, it turns out like a place with more than an option for only shark encounter.
The rich of Bandaneira sea life might not be compared to Raja Ampat. But it has everything: human size grouper, giant clam, the pretty mandarin fish, including blue hole and some overhangs full of corals in the wall. Uniqueness of remote pristin underwater still need to be explore more. To me, Bandaneira is the next paradise on earth. (ran)

KLM Kurabesi Explorer sail to Bandaneira around October-November at the very best weather in the region.
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