Blog, Indonesia

The Islands where Money Grew on Trees

After six whirlwind days in Debut we are setting out to sea once more; bound for a group of islands where the trees produce a product that was once more valuable than gold. A visit to these islands would have set the sailors of old up for life. But what do they hold for the modern day sailor?

A brisk wind propelled us through the maze of fishing boats, nets and floating platforms, and out into the open ocean. The Indonesian Archipelago of more than 17,000 islands is spread over thousands of miles. Thousands of miles that we have just 4 months to traverse. Four months to explore one country may seem a lot but given the distances involved and the fact that Florence sails at around 7 miles per hour, we find that we are actually on a pretty tight schedule.

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Our location in the Bandas Island Group. There are thousands of miles ahead of us to reach Malaysia, which we need to cover before the change of seasons in November.

As if sensing the rush and our eagerness to reach the historic Bandas islands, Florence ate up the miles. A potential two night passage was turned into just one overnight, and a beautiful night at that. As night fell, the sea took on a magical green glow, lighter than the sky. We have seen bio-luminescence sparkle as we or objects around us move through the water before. This was something else entirely; the whole ocean gave off a constant, flat green glow. A natural phenomenon we have never seen before and may never see again.

The magical atmosphere continued as we approached the towering Bandas volcanic islands the following day. Volcanic islands islands make for difficult anchoring as the depths usually rise steeply to shore. It was with great relief that we were greeted by friends Gemma and and Andi from the catamaran Paws, who offered us a secure spot alongside them; tied between a ships mooring and coconut tree ashore.

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‘Florence’ alongside ‘Paws’
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Sun Setting over the Volcano behind ‘Florence’ and ‘Paws’
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Our boats were moored in front of ‘The Nutmeg Tree’ hotel, restaurant and dive centre, an incredibly welcoming place where we enjoyed some delicious dinners for less than 3GBP per main meal.

There were many reasons for wanting to visit Banda, chief among them was the opportunity to meet up with the crew of Paws who we had met and become firm friends with last year in Vanuatu. While we headed to Australia, they went North across remote parts of PNG to Indonesia, where their mainsail tore badly. Ultimately the best solution was to have one made in Australia and shipped up to Indonesia, not an easy task. In the words of our agent: If you need spares in Indonesia, best to order them a year in advance and not hold out hope. Although smaller and slower than most shipping leaving Australia, Florence became the best solution to carry their new mainsail into Indonesia, providing the perfect excuse for us to meet up with Paws once more.

Our second welcome to Banda was via the rally; lots of speeches by local dignitaries followed by a real highlight for us, Kora-Kora (traditional war canoe) racing. We were privileged enough to be invited to take part in the race. As we tentatively stepped into narrow, unstable war canoe, the Indonesian crew eyed us carefully. The competition between villages here is fierce. Having left half of their usual crew ashore in exchange for some dubious looking sailors, they were clearly wondering how much we were going to slow them down. A little practice paddle and the smiles of relief showed on the faces of our paddling partners “you strong”, “you paddle good” they grinned.

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A traditional ‘Kora Kora’

As the 3 Kora-Kora’s manoeuvred into starting positions in the harbour a serious air came over the boat, they may be carting a boat load of tourists with them but village honour was still at stake. These 3 teams are heading to the National Championships next month so they train hard. “Satu, Dua, Tiga” Suddenly the pace of the stroke was frantic as we accelerated away. Visibility of our progress was hidden by the spray and rain, all we could do was keep our heads down, suck in oxygen and keep the pace with our burning arms. A clash of blades would be fatal to our cause. Shouts of glee echoed around our boat and the tempo went up again. Our arms were on fire, the pace was unbelievable, water flying everywhere. At the finish we collapsed on our benches, exhausted, we had given it everything. Our crew members grinned happily and gave us the thumbs up. One guy had paddled so hard that his solid wooden paddle had simply snapped in two!

The rally sped away, allowing for us to explore the Islands at a more leisurely pace. As the original spice islands, the history in Banda is as rich as the food. This was once the only place in the world where nutmeg grew. Traders would risk their lives to sail the Southern Ocean for the opportunity to purchase nutmeg here, sail back to Europe and sell it on the European market with a 60,000% mark up. The spice was so lucrative it was worth more than it’s weight in gold and just one bag could set a man up for life. Money literally grew on trees. Such high rewards came at great risk, with only one third of ships actually making it back to Europe and many of those crew dying from tropical/sea related illness. With such high rewards, the islands were soon ripe with greed. The Dutch East India Company slaughtered or enslaved most of the locals, built a fort to protect their hold over the islands and monopolise trade. This continued until the value of the market was destroyed by nutmeg being planted in other locations closer to Europe, increasing supply and completely devaluing the spice. Chatting with a farmer in the plantation, we agree how sad it is that so many people lost their lives for the sake of greed. It’s striking to us how islands once so exploited by people arriving in boats can be so welcoming to us modern day sailors.

Despite such greed and fighting over nutmeg production, the local people of Banda have continued the tradition of producing nutmeg and other spices. Cloves, Cinnamon, Tropical Almonds and Nutmeg lay drying in the sun outside nearly every house on the island of Banda Besar. The smell is intoxicating. A nutmeg farmer shows us how to collect the spice from the tree and smoke it to produce the best quality. For less than a pint of beer, we buy an amount that 400 years ago we could have exchanged for a house. We can only hope that our chances of returning to Europe aboard Florence are greater than one in three.

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A local boat to Banda Besar, the main Spice Island in the good company of Gemma, Andi and Ellie.
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The fort on the main island of Banda Neira was rebuilt following major quakes and volcanic eruptions.
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A lot of the old colonial buildings, features and furniture are still in place on the islands.

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4 thoughts on “The Islands where Money Grew on Trees”

  1. Great that you have visited the Banda Group – so much rich history yet modern day poverty – it’s hard to fathom. If you‘d like to learn more about these fascinating islands that were the centre of world trade for so long, i can recommend „Nathanial‘s Nutmeg“ by Giles Milton. It’s available on Kobo etc and depicts the history of these islands from the little known perspective of an English adventurer. Maybe you guys have something in common with Nathaniel!? N‘joy!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So good to read. Evocative. The spice. That location Moore outside the restaurant 🙂

    A big hug from us, so good to follow your travels. Please give a big hug to the lovely Gemma and Andy from the crew of Bella Luna. Miss…
    You are champions for taking their mainsail up to them from OZ. That is a big mainsail!

    Mark xx

    Liked by 1 person

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