Now really off the beaten path

Sunday, September 22, 2013
Banda Neira, Maluku, Indonesia
In the presentation by the "Pilot und Flugzeug" magazine about this trip, the excursion to Banda Neira was booked as an option for those more adventurous. The runway had not been inspected and the hotel knowingly sub-standard. About the only thing known about the island was that it's remote, the airport can only be landed on in good weather because there’s no approach in to it, and that the runway, at 900m, is the shortest one of the whole trip. Sounds like a deal!

We set off at what I thought was early, but we were still the last ones off the ground . We’d heard from other groups that the Tower in Ternate didn’t serve up folks as fast as those that took advantage of the optional handling (and paid the optional $150 charge). We opted for patience and cash saving, so Johannes went up to pay the landing fees. It took a while, but eventually only the mandatory $31 was paid and we were on our way.

Leaving Ternate was spectular. It really it a beautiful island dominated by the lone cone of the volcano. All around are other small islands, most uninhabited. I can imagine sailing this area of the world, with lots of time, patience, and scuba gear would be an incredible experience.

Our flight was largely without radio contact until we neared Ambron (WABB), and even then of course they didn’t have radar to help with position reports. Once in their airspace we were cleared directly to Banda Neira. As the ninth plane they’d dealt with that day with the same, odd destination, we weren’t any novelty to them any more . We were off airways and in some cloudy weather and light rain over one island with some higher mountains, but we stayed at our assigned altitude and loved that the G500 moving map reassured us that we were higher than all our surroundings. The closer we got to Banda, the better it got, and about 50 miles away the sky conditions cleared.

Banda Neira is too small to be in the Garmin database, so we had to manually program it in with coordinates. Still, the airport operator was quite friendly on the radio and excited to have something to do. Aside from our nine planes, they get only sporadic air traffic a couple times per week from “nearby” Ambron as demand and weather allows. Banda is a set of islands, each seemingly with at least volcano, with Banda Neira being the smallest but most densely populated of the bunch. We found the runway and landed in the proper (uphill runway 28) direction. Thanks to the upward angle of the runway we had no problems with the short landing distance . Fortunately we were only 9 planes because any more on the apron would have been very tight.

Our hotel was waiting for us to with their car so off we drove to the hotel. Along the way we passed the jail (one person currently in it), market stalls (vacant), and many smiling faces. This was a sleepy island very off the beaten path. The folks were seemingly delighted to see us as it gave them a novel change from their normalcy. Our hotel was indeed basic, and too basic for many of the others in our group, but having stayed in some complete dives in Agua Azul, Mexico and Florianopilis, Brazil, it seemed perfectly acceptable to me. We were just in a different world.

After settling in the Cheyenne crew (minus Jan) and I set off to a Dutch colonial fort. The islands were valuable commodities back in the spice trading hey-day primarily because of the Muscat. For that reason the Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese had built settlements and fortifications on the islands beginning already in the 16th Century . Many kids wanted to practice their English with us and they were all smiles for pictures. No one seemed distrusting and everyone genuinely happy to have us on their island. The town had lots of nicely kept quaint houses along paved roads. Of course there was poverty and litter strewn about, but in regardless Banda made a really enjoyable impression.

The entire group enjoyed tasty dinner at the hotel and as always folks traded flying stories. Lots of rounds of beers were served and everyone was getting along great. Jan pointed out that it was rare to have everyone together so deep in to such a group flying tour. Usually by now something would have come up or folks would have diverged. Here though all nine planes were chugging along and we were all smiles.

The following day we all used as we pleased. For me it was used up swimming just off the hotel, writing this blog, and putting my feet up. Late in the afternoon five us went with a local guide, Abba, to a neighboring island. It was fun to be aboard a typical boat and not one spruced up for tourists. There were at least 8 kids aboard to, so again plenty of fun picture opportunities.

The idea behind the tour was to see a muscat plantation, get a bit further afield, and grab a hilltop vantage point at sunset. It was really worth it. Being on the water was a good time, seeing all the friendly people willing to interact was refreshing, and having Abba explain more about the daily life on the islands was insightful. We saw all kinds of fruits and vegetables being grown, even just wildly. The islands were incredibly lush. Highlights of the three-hour tour were the holy water fountain the kids were playing in, seeing the massive almond trees, and the sunset view from the decrepit old fort. 
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