Banda Islands: Sounds Like a Plan
Plans are just that; plans. Where you really end up is another thing altogether. Our plan was (and we were looking very forward to it) to go to the Banda Islands. From Ambon, they’re accessible by plane or by speedboat. At least that’s how it should be but, for whatever reason, the speedboat doesn’t run at the moment. As for the plane, we read that Susi Air was flying to the Bandas. Travel agencies don’t sell tickets for small airlines like Susi Air so the only place to get the ticket is at the airport. For some airlines (not Susi) you can in theory buy your ticket online but in Indonesia buying tickets online with a foreign credit card is a headache.
At Ambon airport we learned that Susi Air didn’t fly to the Bandas anymore, now it was Airfast but the tickets were sold through Aviastar. Ok. While we waited for the clerk to show up (“open” doesn’t necessarily mean that someone’s there to sell you a ticket, just like “closed” doesn’t mean you can’t buy a ticket), we studied the schedule stuck to the window. The schedule, however, was only partly accurate because there were extra flights on two more days (maybe because the speedboat didn’t run?). Finally, the clerk showed up and we bought a ticket and called a hotel in Bandaneira to reserve a room and pick-up from the airport.
This was the best we could have done: Thanks to the nice owner of the hotel we learned a few days later that all flights to the Bandas had been canceled for the next two weeks. So no way to go to the Bandas unless… by speedboat, which was running again, at least once a week. However, we didn’t want to be stuck on the Bandas and I wasn’t keen on a four hour boat journey on rough seas. Therefore, even though we would have loved to, we decided no to go to the Banda Islands. So once we had our passports back from Ambon immigration office, we headed straight to the airport and boarded the next plane to Ternate.
Ternate – Halmahera – Morotai
From Ternate it’s a short boat ride to Halmahera. North of Halmahera lies Morotai Island, a quite big but only sparsely populated island with sleepy villages along the coast, impenetrable jungle in its interior, and a lot of history. During the second world war, Morotai saw some heavy battles between the Japanese and Allied forces. It was also where one Japanese soldier, Nakamura, hid for as long as thirty years, believing that the war was still going on, until he was finally discovered in 1974. Today, not much reminds of the days of war, just a few rusty tanks and some ammunition in private collections. And a statue of General MacArthur on one of the small islands off the coast of Morotai.
What to do on Morotai?
Very excited and with big hopes – we had heard a lot about how beautiful and how great a destination Morotai was – we arrived on the morning boat (after a bumpy and nerve wrecking ride) in Daruba, the island’s main town. The tourism office is 3 km out of town and was closed. With no idea where to go we ended up at the police station. Two policemen showed us a map of the island and told us where to find accommodation. After a while the guy from the tourism office showed up (someone must have called him) and brought some brochures.
He also happened to be the guy who ran the bungalows on Dodola Island but didn’t seem very interested in promoting it. Anyway, the prices for transportation to and accommodation on the island plus the fact that we would have had to bring our own food and water discouraged us from going there. Fortunately, really, because the accommodation was far from what we hoped for, as we saw the next day. Quite disappointed, we decided to stay in Daruba. With our few words of Bahasa Indonesia we managed to organize a boat trip for the next day to three of the islands off the coast of Morotai (it’s the same price as going to Dodola and back). The guide: the same guy from the tourism office, of course. There don’t seem to be any real tourist guides on Morotai, at least none that speak English.
Beautiful (and Strange) Dodola Island
First on the list was Dodola Island. We wanted to be there at low tide because that’s when big and small Dodola are connected by a long strip of sand. This looks amazing and the water is so clear and warm, you don’t ever want to go out once you’re inside. While the guy and his friend prepared delicious ikan bakar, we explored Dodola.
The bungalows are (were? They look pretty rundown) a government project and everything just screams corruption. The bungalows, some half empty or partly damaged, are big, with a tiny bedroom and a spacious living room jammed with large pieces of furniture. But: there’s no electricity on Dodola so there’s no point of sitting in the living room of a dark bungalow. However, even though there’s no electricity, there are… street lamps! On an island! They’re powered by solar panels, although I doubt they actually work. And don’t expect palm trees, because there are none. But there’s a huge concrete jetty – which no boat uses – with a kind of an arch of triumph at its end; if you walk through the arch, you walk into a tree.
Dodola island has huge touristic potential but right now, it’s a disaster. With some serious private investment it could be turned into a paradise.
After lunch, we headed to Kokoya Island where we spent a long time in the water trying to find cold currents to cool down; the midday heat is almost unbearable. On the way to Zum Zum Island (or General MacArthur Island) we admired the corals underwater – the water is so clear you can see so much just from the boat! Too bad we still don’t have snorkel gear.