Discovering Zen on Hatta Island (Banda Islands, Maluku)
We had our first run-in with bad luck on Hatta island. But before I get ahead of myself, let me tell you a little about Hatta island–the jewel of Banda Islands.
We’ve loved the looks on people’s faces when we tell them that we were going to the Banda Islands for our honeymoon.
Eyebrows furrow and blank looks all around. One was even suspicious that I was actually pulling his leg.
No one has heard of the Banda Islands before. I don’t blame them. I didn’t too–until I ran a deep search about Indonesia’s lesser-known islands, especially the small ones that deliver huge rewards.
History has coined these islands as the fabled Spice Islands and is not without sound reason. Today these islands may be almost unheard of, but they’ve played an important role in the European history from the 16th to the 18th centuries.
Located in the far eastern shores of Indonesia, somewhere sprawled across the Banda Sea, closer to West Papua than Java, these ten islands are home to one of the most prized and fought-over commodities in the past: nutmeg.
Did you know that nutmeg was more expensive than gold in ancient times? Just the sale of a small amount of nutmeg in Europe could make a man rich beyond his dreams.
As nutmeg trees grew exclusively on these islands then, wars have been raged and blood was shed over the control of the islands. In the end, a treaty was signed to end the Dutch-English hostilities and the Dutch gave up New York (it was called New Amsterdam under the Dutch rule) for Pulau Rhun, one of the Banda islands, which was under the English.
The first leg of our adventurous honeymoon was smooth. The two flights from Kuala Lumpur to Makassar and then from Makassar to Ambon city were punctual. When the Garuda flight touched down Ambon, a friendly taxi driver drove us through the rush hour to Tulehu harbour where we were due to catch the elusive twice-a-week express boat ride to Banda Neira, the main island. If we were late, we could have missed it and there wouldn’t be another boat till Saturday. And if the ride was cancelled, we also would be stranded. According to legit sources and later through another guest, it was not uncommon for the boat to get cancelled. Thankfully, it wasn’t–an hour later than scheduled, we were on our way.
Upon getting to Neira, we had asked around the island for boat departures to Hatta. A shopkeeper said 11.00 a.m., another one said 2.00 p.m., another said 12.00 p.m., and so on. After an exhausting round of asking for information, it soon became clear that we were never going to get a straight answer. That night, we slept with information running through our heads, wondering how we could plan our next day.
Thankfully during breakfast, the owner of Mutiara, an affordable and vintage colonial guesthouse (270,000 IDR a night for a double bed with air-conditioning, en-suite bathroom and breakfast inclusive) that we had spent a night in, told us that there would be a public boat leaving for Hatta on midday and we trusted him. He’s after all, Abbah, one who knew almost everything that went on around the Banda Islands.
At the pier near the wet market of Neira, we found the boat easily–it was painted bright blue and was called Sinar Hatta. Getting to Hatta would cost us 40,000 IDR per person and the journey would take an hour.
It was a challenge to get to the boat–you would need to walk along the plank to and through another boat before getting on it–but we managed. Thankfully our backpacks weren’t heavy. We had arrived slightly early–it was only half past eleven–but we thought we could wait. Besides, it was a lovely day with plenty of sunshine. Another thirty minutes wouldn’t be a problem.
But thirty minutes grew to an hour and then and a half. It was almost 1.30 p.m. before the captain turned on the engines. Locals clambered in quickly and filled the boat with their cargo: Indomie boxes (might contain something else inside), fresh fruits and vegetables in plastic bags, cement sacks and rice sacks. A middle-aged Caucasian man with an enormous suitcase struggled to climb in. That was it–us three tourists, heading to Hatta island with a group of locals. Later, we found out that the other man was from Portugal and had been travelling Asia for a while now. He had even visited most of the region in the 70s and 80s, thus arming him with infinite tales to tell and he was happily dishing them out one by one as the boat plundered through the waters.
We’ve come to Banda Islands for our honeymoon for one reason: to snorkel at the much-talked about Hatta Island. Snorkelling along the wall drop, just 5 metres off the shore, is supposed to rival the reefs at Raja Ampat, Flores and Wakatobi. We could hardly contain our excitement. Dreams of swimming languidly amidst vibrant corals and sea creatures of all shapes, sizes and colours had occupied our sleep since the day we left Germany for Southeast Asia.
It’s finally coming true. Who needs Maldives and Seychelles when you can have Hatta?
FULL HOUSE ON HATTA ISLAND
The lush island loomed in front of us when the boat pulled up to the shore. While there was a fair bit of construction going on the stretch of the beach where Kampung Lama’s centered and rubbish and driftwood were strewn around the latte macchiato coloured sand, the water was fifty shades turquoise and clear. We didn’t mind the noise and the first sight of thrash. We thought the water looked promising.
A ponytailed local man came out to greet us, indicating that the more popular stretch of homestays on the right side of the island were full.
Full? How could it be full? Banda Islands aren’t Bali. Could he be mistaken?
Together with the Portuguese, we decided to verify the man’s claim. We started with the final bungalow at the end of the beach and started knocking on doors. From the main path, we couldn’t exactly differentiate between homestays and locals’ homes. There were no signs. Those we could make out as homestays, we enquired. After enquiring with 2-3 homestays, reality came crashing down. He was right–those wooden beach bungalows by the beach are full. As each homestay only have two or three rooms or bungalows, it was obviously easy why they were all occupied.
“Where are we going to stay, eh? Maybe they’ll let us crash at the mosque?” the Portuguese joked. We shrugged. We’d come too far to go back. No, no–there must be another way.
The local who’d initially greeted us now directed us to his homestay: Mata Bambu 2. He had another room left for us while the house painted with the red shutters next door could put something together for our Portuguese friend.
On first glimpse, the room at Mata Bambu 2 looked alright. The double bed was large, with mosquito net tacked to the sides of the bed. There was a very small table and a narrow window. On closer look, the room became a prison. The narrow window provided no light or ventilation. Without a fan, we would later realize how doomed we would be.
All guesthouses on Hatta offer only homestay experiences–meaning, a room and three meals a day. At Mata Bambu 2, we paid 150,000 IDR per person for each night. We weren’t the only guests. The other two rooms were dominated by a family of Russian and Ukrainian ladies–who, if were neater and friendlier–would have made the whole homestay experience pleasant but they weren’t. Neither of them smiled nor spoke English. Their wetsuits, sarongs, sandals, masks, fins and even their bras clung onto the every chair and floor surface available. Also, their hostile presence hovered at the entrance to the living room constantly, blocking us from looking at the sea when it rained. Which meant, when they were there, we actually had to either sit in the kitchen or retreat to the shoebox of our room that provided us with no ventilation.
The floors were constantly damp and sandy. The squat toilet, was dark, filthy and filled with the occasional spider and millipede. By the end of the afternoon, we’d already wanted to leave.
PARADISE ONLY EXISTS IF IT ISN’T RAINING ALL THE DAMN TIME
That very afternoon of our arrival, it poured. We’d barely managed 10 minutes of snorkelling before the sky burst open. Strong wind blew and the sea went from fifty shades of turquoise blue to fifty shades of grey. For a sort of lonesome island paradise without modern conveniences, you could say, it totally sucked.
After all, we’d come all the way just to see this:
But instead, we got this:
And later did we know, the weather would stay the same for the next few days: grey, rainy and choppy seas. It also meant bad conditions for snorkelling–strong currents, bad visibility and less than ideal water temperatures.
We were bummed. We could also not turn around and leave because there wouldn’t be any public boats till the weekend, which was supposed to be three long days later.
FINDING SARAH’S HOMESTAY
Taking advantage of the lack of ideal conditions of the sea, that afternoon, we took a walk instead. We wanted to see the homestays on the stretch along Kampung Lama–which were supposed to be full–and ask if anyone might be checking out tomorrow. Both Chriss and I had decided that if we were going to stay indoors all the time due to the rain, we might as well do it in somewhere welcoming and comfortable.
As we walked past a bungalow, an elderly lady who was sitting on a plastic stool on the balcony, threw us a smile as she lifted her head from the pages of the book she was reading. We took it as a good sign. We then walked towards the main road to see if we could find a ‘lobby’ to the homestay. There was a house with a door opened but we weren’t sure if this particular stand alone house had anything to do with the wooden bungalows in the front. We poked our heads in and saw a few scrawny kittens playing around the living room.
“Hello?” No answer.
We gave up, walked back out before a very tiny lady who was barely 140cm tall–a local–came out from the yard’s gate, beaming and waving at us.
“Cari kamar? Come in, come in!”
She took us back into the house and showed us the only room available. It was a room next to the kitchen but the windows were large and wide, the floors impeccably clean and the whole place was flooded with light. She then shyly made us sit down while she made us coffee.
Unfortunately, the two bungalows in front were occupied, but she was happy to let us have the room that we just saw for 150,000 IDR. When asked, how come it was available now, when there was nothing available on this part of the beach when we looked?
She giggled and replied in Indonesian, “Because Sarah’s shy!”
It was weird to hear her talk about herself in third person but she was friendly and motherly–as if she only wanted the best for her guests. The whole house was also much neater, cleaner and better ventilated than the other. I checked the bathroom–while it was still a squat toilet and a large tub for bath water, it was clean one.
In between our conversation, a pale and tall lady emerged from another room. She introduced herself as Petra from Czech Republic. She told us that she’d been staying there for more than three weeks now and had only good things to say about Sarah and her place.
“And Sarah makes the most amazing food ever! You just have to stay to find out!” said Petra swooning.
That closed the deal. We were going to move to Sarah’s tomorrow, first thing in the morning. We begged Sarah not to give our room away.
That evening, we dragged ourselves back to Mata Bambu 2, ate our dinner politely on our own and then retreated back to our stifling room and didn’t get much sleep. Outside, the storm roared once more.
ZEN MOMENTS AT SARAH’S HOMESTAY
We made new friends easily at Sarah’s. Apart from Petra, who was like a walking encyclopaedia of Banda Islands (she spoke flawless Indonesian too), there were silvery-haired Karl from Vienna who occupied the first bungalow and an elderly German couple from Berlin. It was the wife, Shireen, whom we’d seen on the balcony yesterday. They were almost in their late 60’s and had been occupying the bungalow at Sarah’s for almost a month now! We’d have very much like to do the same, to wait out the crappy weather and enjoy the beauty that we’d come for but our schedule wouldn’t allow it.
Mealtimes at Sarah’s felt like dinners in a summer camp. Sarah would let us know that it was time to eat and we’d all gather around the dinner table, looking like hungry vultures. Shireen would then dish out soup for everyone while Petra handled the rice. Sometimes I helped out. It was a real joy to eat with this group–there was always good conversation and lots and lots of food: at least two different types of vegetables, a soup, two fish dishes and so on.
Our room turned out to be so much better. At night, since there was no internet, no TV to watch (we didn’t bring out laptops) and no restaurants to hang out in, we sometimes just lie in bed and talked. It was funny how much more things Chriss and I could still discover new things about each other, despite already having spent so much time together. And when we ran out of genuine personal information to share, we just made topics up as we went along. This wouldn’t have happened at home. There was always social media and Netflix in the evening to devote our attention to.
We did sometimes snorkel when the rain let up or whenever the sea got a little calmer, but it still took some effort to experience the underwater world while battling the waves. However, the sheer proximity of the reef drop to the shore was extraordinary. It was colourful and lively with a lot of healthy corals and assorted reef fish of all shapes and sizes. I can imagine how breathtaking it’ll all be when the weather is perfect.
There was also a long stretch of sandy beach would was great for slow romantic walks on low tide.
Trekking to Kampung Baru, the newer village, also makes a nice walking activity. You’ll go through a shady area where blossoming papaya, jackfruit and banana trees flank both sides of the path. When you get to the village, you normally find curious kids and adults shouting Hellos and smiles all around. Most of them gather outside, sitting around to chat, to do their washing or to play.
There was a calm bay where the public boats dock and kids play in the water. Time passed slowly and easily in the village. Everyone seemed to have a task to keep them occupied: be it peeling mace, cooking, washing, swimming or building new guesthouses. Or some were just happy as they were: sitting and enjoying the present moment.
When we got tired of walking or when it rained, we would also hang out at the balcony, drink tea and watch the sea. We even had a chance to peel mace from the dried nutmegs–a meditative activity which was both calming and relaxing. There was nowhere to go, nothing to do, so why not just focus at the task at hand?
Being taken away from modern technology also made us pay attention to simple things. Like observing nature and seeing how it changes. One minute it pours, the next minute it stops. Watching the transience of nature reminded me on how nothing stayed the same forever. Knowing that, why couldn’t we embrace change instead of resisting it? Permanence is an illusion; there was nothing permanent about life and nature has explicitly showed it to us.
We were rewarded for our mindfulness. On our last evening, in between watching the sea keenly for a while, I caught a sudden movement in the sea. A dolphin was diving in and out of the water, and all of a sudden, hundreds of dolphins were doing the same. A large school of dolphins was simply swimming past, right in front of us and all we did was gape at them until they all disappeared into the horizon.
What a spectacle and what a lovely end to our time at Hatta. We are still disappointed with our bad luck with the weather but we are glad that we managed to salvage some amazing moments from it. In the end, it was all an adventure and most of all, it gave us a tale to tell.
BEFORE YOU GO, HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Best time to go
November and December are apparently the best time of the year to go.
January and July are the worst time to go and probably no transportation are available anyway.
April to May and Sept to October are supposed to be shoulder seasons.
We were there from 1-4 March 2017, where the weather was promised to be good but it turned out to be fickle. According to the guests, it was awesome all the way from mid-February till we came. Did we bring the rain with us? 🙁
Boat Departures to and from Hatta Island
To get to Hatta, first you must get yourself to the main island Neira.
From Neira, boats usually depart about 12-1 p.m. but it doesn’t go daily and especially not on Fridays (it’s prayer day for Muslims). Ask around the harbour to check out the days. As they’re not exactly frequent or scheduled, it’s best to ask a day before.
From Hatta to Neira, boats normally leave about 8 a.m. Again, days of departure vary but when I was there, it didn’t go on Thursday nor Friday. If you do immediately need to leave the island for urgent reasons, you might be able to arrange a private lift with Sopian, the owner of Rozengain Vitalia guesthouse or with snorkelling boats that might come from Neira.
Public Boat: 40,000 IDR (the journey takes an hour)
There are no ATM machines on the island so make sure you take enough cash, especially those who plan to stay for weeks or months. There is however, one ATM machine in Banda Neira. It accepts both Visa and Mastercards. Do take note that you’re limited to only one withdrawal transaction a day.
Plan to give your vacation in Banda Islands some time
From our experience, a short five-day trip may be a little stressful. It wasn’t easy getting in and out of the islands, boats can be cancelled on a whim and so on. For example, we were hit with bad weather and there was nothing we could do about it. If we had time, we could have waited it out.
You can’t book these homestays on the Internet
Hatta is the real getaway island, where some people might stay forever. Due to lack of space, homestays get full pretty quickly. The best thing is, when you’re in Neira, you can always ask guesthouse owners/managers to help you call up the places in Hatta to enquire.
Here are a few of the homestays:
- Neira Dive
- Sarah’s Homestay
- Rozengain Vitalia
- Mata Bambu 1 and 2
There are one or two more homestays to stay in but I don’t know their names.
My recommendation would be Sarah’s, due to her amazing hospitality and her meals. Mata Bambu 2’s meals could not compare: it didn’t have much variety and ingredients used weren’t the freshest. I also questioned the cleanliness of the food.
For further information
Here’s an excellent website with updated boat/flight schedules and information for your Banda Islands getaway: