Banda, Ambon and the Wakatobi islands

JJMoon Diary
Barry and Margaret Wilmshurst
Mon 24 Aug 2009 10:21
Time passes and quite a bit has happened but not all of it very exciting or conducive to literary endeavour.
About 70 boats called into Banda over a period of a week or ten days.  Word got around that the islands were interesting; not to be missed.
Our second attempt to join the tour to the nutmeg plantation was a failure like the first.  In spite of our booking, by the time the tour boat reached JJ Moon it was overloaded, hijacked by forceful personalities on yachts tied to the quay and there was no more room.  All dressed up and rarin' to go, we watched the eager party sailing across the strait and were a bit taken aback.  Later there were apologies all round.  We managed to join at our third attempt and the wait was worth it.  Abba, our guide, is an enterprising man with goodish English and a keen appreciation of the possibilities for the development of tourism on his island.  We watched boats being built, climbed up through the village to the old Dutch fort commanding one entrance to the anchorage, and visited a nutmeg plantation where the owner demonstrated some of the finer points of his trade.  Later we paid another visit to Abba's guesthouse to enjoy his wife's cooking with a dozen others.  Our host was interesting in explaining his plans and ambitions.  We hope some of these are fulfilled - it seems there is considerable potential for restrained tourism and increased prosperity for these islanders.
Ambon, on the island of the same name, has a population greater than Darwin's, but is not so clean!  If something is not needed in Indonesia it is thrown into the sea, which in places is covered in plastic and other rubbish.  We were told that before our arrival there had been a massive clean-up, but it wasn't obvious!  The dirt and rubbish are enough to turn even the most unreconstructed reactionary into a raving environmentalist.  Ambon is not a beautiful town but we enjoyed our stay because the locals were so keen to be helpful and give us a good time.  We struggled through the crowded, tightly packed market, found a good internet cafe in a hotel in the centre and a very satisfactory restaurant near the quay. 
To get to the supermarket from the internet cafe we hailed a becak ("bicycle rickshaw").  It was immediately obvious that there was insufficient room for both of us so we hailed a second.  Mags' driver pedalled off confidently and was soon well on his way.  I had some difficulty getting into my seat; there was little headroom under the hood and I sat clutching my backpack with my chin on my chest and my knees close to my nose.  I did not cut a dignified figure through the streets of Ambon.  My driver stood up on his pedals and grunted with the effort.  He made a terrible fuss, grimacing and gesticulating to his colleagues at every stop.  On arrival he demanded a double fare.  We tried to bargain but he was adamant - we got the impression he had never been so put out.  We gave him his double money - Mags thought it was worth it for the entertainment value alone - but he still looked grumpy. 
There was some concern that too few boats would turn up but in the end there were 60 on the quay so we put on a reasonable show.  One highlight was the farewell dinner held at a good fish restaurant a mile or so along the road.  We all piled into coaches and with a motorcycle police escort, sirens wailing, local traffic waved imperiously aside, we were whisked to our rendezvous.  After local musicians had done their stuff and a singer had made a very good fist of western standards from the thirties we were invited to observe an important ceremony.  The national Fisheries minister from Jakarta was being honoured by the province of Malakula of which Ambon is the capital.  It seems he is doing a good job in preserving stocks and developing the industry which the local people were acknowledging by awarding a sort of "local knighthood".  He appeared to be a good natured man, joining in the dancing later.  The speeches were not too long, and local people and visitors alike seemed well satisfied.  It had been a privilege that the government of Malakula had chosen to carry out this important ceremony in our presence.  Afterwards we were fed very well, embussed and taken back to the harbour in style.
Wangi Wangi is the largest island in the Wakatobi group, a national park.  There is little indication on the chart of any significant human habitation and we thought we were going to a quiet spot for a bit of snorkeling and diving.  On arrival we found a bustling town of 60,000 people.  Indonesia is a large and very populous country!  Again, the local committee could not have been more helpful and keen to please.  Their anchorage is very deep and anticipating a large number of rally boats they were busy throughout our stay laying down moorings.  Unfortunately they were new to this game and found themselves on a sharp learning curve.  On our second day the wind piped up a little and three moorings sailed away with rally boats still attached.  Another three went walkabout before we left.  The committee was very apologetic and the design was changed.  No boat drifted very far and no damage was done but there were some minor adventures, alarums and excursions.  We played our part in the rescue of one boat whose crew were ashore but our own troubles usually occurred in the middle of the night.  We shifted from our original mooring to one of improved design but it was anchored in 60 metres (that's very deep) and was tied to its pair of concrete blocks by a very long riser.  Although the large pink polystyrene buoy looked to be a safe distance from our neighbour, when the wind died and the tide turned we drifted down her starboard side, round her stern, where I had to fend off with the boathook, up the port side and back to our original position, all between 0200 and 0300.  Fortunately the anchor alarm was effective in alerting us to impending problems and the various incidents during several night watches enabled us to develop close fraternal ties with Ron and Robin on Dalandra next door.
The Wakatobi islands are an official rally stop but the body of the fleet was still in the north of Sulawesi and we were ahead of the game.  Like everywhere else in Indonesia the local people were preparing for Independence Day celebrations and the yachties, being keen, inquisitive and a little pushy soon indicated their willingness to join in, if invited.  The invitation was readily given and a substantial group found themselves within the body of a march among 80 other groups.  The locals had been practicing for weeks but, alas, the yachties were lacking in military skills.  Over seven kilometres our group shambled through the town, smiling and waving, in amongst a fine body of local men and women.  To be fair the yachties were a little handicapped by having a local leader who could not keep step or time to his own whistle but perhaps there was little excuse for those who did not even try to keep in step.  Of course when the call came to "halt" the yachtie group bunched up and tripped over themselves.  There were some in the group (including the mate of JJ Moon) who felt uncomfortable at what might have been construed as lack of respect, but the happy outcome was that the townspeople lining the route laughed as they had not done for ages and the group featured, without criticism, on local television later in the day.  The poor showing of our marchers was not enough to prevent the Regent (the head of the community) inviting the whole fleet to the official celebrations at the football ground and to a party at his house two days later.  To be frank this was rather heavy going but again we were very grateful to be given the opportunity to observe and take part in significant community events in another culture.  We took a guided trip round the island where among other things we saw the beginnings of a resort and conference facility being developed in a picturesque spot by the Regent and a large area of seaweed farming where the fishermen had been persuaded to change their means of livelihood (and to stop dynamiting the fish).  Despite the wandering moorings we greatly enjoyed our time on Wangi Wangi.
Hoga is another island in the group a short day's sail away.  This has a reef of world renown to snorkelers and divers and is home to an important marine biology research facility.  Scientists and students come from all over the world, many from universities in the UK and New Zealand.  There is little else on the island except a restaurant and a small dive centre so when we were invited to a morning lecture to be given by the research centre manager we piled ashore with the group's usual eager anticipation.  Unfortunately, the young English woman who manages the centre took the opportunity to give us all a frightful ticking off for the sins of previous visitors.  After a bit one couple decided that they had had enough of it and went back to their boat and those who stayed had to endure a second round within the lecture theatre before the main business of the morning: the work and organization of the centre.  It was all rather distressing, particularly as nobody present had been guilty of any of the infractions complained about and the discourtesy shown was in marked contrast to the attitude and behaviour of every Indonesian we had had dealings with so far, from a government minister to the most junior official.  It's a very nice island and Mags has done a couple of dives but we are all keeping well clear of Madam.