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Where’s Wallace? Heading East To Banda

Sophie Digby sails east to Banda with Seatrek adventures. Alex Akimov @misterr_alex

SeaTrek adventures? The adventure part sounds fabulous, but the live-aboard part conjures up endless scuba diving excursions, full of Neoprene and Nitrox enriched air … and for some of us diving to the depths of the deep, old blue is just a tad too far from the mini bar!

However the idea of expert-led cruises is right up my alley, or should I say channel?

This particular adventure was to be led by a personal hero of mine, the ever entertaining and hugely knowledgeable Dr. Lawrence Blair of the Ring of Fire fame. My other much-loved documentary of his – Myths Monsters and Magic – seals the deal, and on board I go! Thankfully, he still has some CD copies of the latter and, even more impressively, I still own a DVD player!

So here we are, following in the very steps of pioneer Sir Alfred Wallace, an equal and contemporary of Charles Darwin and the theory of Evolution. Wallace, sadly, never really “made it”, as he lacked the necessary snooty connections to the landed gentry of the day, and for his sins, he has erroneously been relegated to dusty British Museum libraries instead of being truly recognized as the co-pioneer (alongside Darwin) of the theory that challenged ‘God created all in seven days’, which was the much sponsored theory held by the Crown and Church of that era.

Thankfully we are here to follow, just follow and not necessarily make any new inroads of our own – although I am pretty sure we possibly left a few imprints throughout our own very excellent journey. Thankfully, SeaTrek Sailing Adventures has done all the groundwork for us and this little “venture” was ably, and most nobly, led as I mention above, by none other than Dr. Lawrence Blair.

Bali to Ambon, 1,535kms as Lion Air flies. Arrive late p.m. and head portside to the street-side market all a bustle with becaks, bemos and barbers. Immediately we are transported back in time to the last century. Night falls and Ambon uncovers an Indonesian poet’s and philosopher’s haunt called Sibu Sibu. Here it is all about the ’70s, ’70s heartthrob posters on the wall with a matching ’70s pianist playing ’70s Indonesian tunes – heartbreaking, romantic and strangely familiar. From the menu it is the coffee with kenari nut and ginger that catches the eye and we add a nutmeg juice to take away – sadly yes, it was served Indo style – in plastic! The City Hotel was our overnight stopover – a fabulously new, totally affordable hotel with amazing service, run by the very affable Albert – thanks for the loan of the hotel driver, Albert – a great tour guide!

Early next morning we board, berth and find our sea legs. The cabins are spacious enough – consider a 12-day cruise, with an approximate three changes of clothes per day, I had managed to fill a large and a smallish suitcase! Never one for reading the small print I did not know there was a free laundry service (two pieces a day). With pegs and wicker drawers I unpack and I am glad to note that it all fits with room to spare! I looked around and I was hugely impressed to find that my cabin on the Ombak Putih – White Wave is name of this phinisi– comes complete with no less than two double USB ports and two international-plug sockets!

Life on board and off … island to island, fort to fort …

All-inclusive, bar the booze, the food on board the Ombak Putih was a great mix of western and Indonesian cuisines. ‘Those what chef’ in this galley really know what they are doing! Breakfast, lunch and dinner – all enjoyed on the ample forward deck, under the shade of a canvas. The imported or local wines are reasonably priced and do put Seminyak wine costs to shame! (Import at IDR400k, Plaga at IDR200k, and a choice of 14 cocktails at IDR50k).

Activities are based on two per day, morning and afternoon (sometimes three) and include museums and monuments, forts built by former colonisers – the Portuguese, the Spanish and of course the Dutch, with the marauding Brits staging the occasional take over. The walks into plantations of nutmeg, clove and the kenari tree – which bears a nut that is a distant second cousin to the almond – are interesting, educational and anthropological – oh, the privilege to be led by an expert in his field.

Passing through the villages, to the once uber-protected spice estates, the adventure takes on a divine olfactory dimension – wafts of drying cloves and burning coconut husks float on the breeze becoming even more pungent in the midday heat! These are the Spice Islands after all and, these spices were ideally used to fight disease, improve eyesight or as a natural aphrodisiac and hallucinogen and as such were worth more than their weight in gold! The violence and squabbling that went on for more than three centuries attest to their worth.

Breaking up the history lessons were our very memorable snorkeling trips, each one unique, and each one breathtaking – literally! Think black-tipped reef sharks, large Puffer fish, Razor fish, endless hues of Parrot fish, turtles even sea snakes – Lawrence mentions that the Banded Sea Krait, with enough venom to kill 70 men, is a rather gentle beast at heart and ever so shy – not sure I will ever be willing to put that to the test, although I gather he has, many times. Then there was some outstanding coral, wondrous and diverse, although sadly, on one of our water treks we did see evidence of blast fishing, which obviously damages these amazing underwater gardens.

There was an arduous climb up Mount Api, that still steams away daily, and last scared the population of Banda a mere 30 years ago. I only got a third of the way up before my sedentary Bali life caught up with me. Two of the group made it to the top, and would have received a certificate from Des Alwi, former head honcho of the Bandas, however since his passing this unique recognition no longer exists.

Local school visits were very much on the top of our list. To take books and balls and volleyball nets to these outlying island children. Meet, greet and sing a song. This was definitely a highlight enjoyed by all. Huge smiles of welcome and constant cries of “Hello Mister” and foto foto foto meant we all came away with huge grins on our faces, full hearts and an even fuller memory card in our cameras … heartwarming.

Lastly, our group jump overboard as we crossed the equator at dawn did indeed tick everyone’s bucket list.

Expertly-led …

Down time, sometimes afternoons but mainly evenings, after spending time up on the top deck watching the sun paint crazy contours in the sky, with the ever-necessary help of various types of cumulus, was as the trip suggested, expertly led by Lawrence who, with that delightful English accent and ease of speech, imparted vast amounts of knowledge.

His evening talks started with a short synopsis of the evening’s theme and was followed by one of his enlightening documentaries, or those of Bill Bailey, British comedian who often “New Years” on Banda. His soireé on Sir Alfred Wallace and the Spice Islands was illuminating. Having lived on Bali for over 20 years I realise how sorely lacking in national culture and history I am! His tales of close encounters with scary underwater creatures and dragons held us spellbound. And his ongoing quest to discover unknown species of Birds of Paradise and Tarsier monkeys left us all boggle-eyed in admiration, much like the Tarsier itself.

Travelling companions…

Our group was made up of 12 valiant adventurers, (from the ages of 27 to 85 years old, the latter definitely proved to us that one is never too old) and each from various points of the globe and, since our mobile phone signal went from erratic to non-existent this global mélange of men and women made for highly interesting dining conversations.

Apart from Dr. Lawrence, other experts on board were SeaTrek’s two tour guides, Caroline and Anastasia, who seamlessly organized each and every moment of the day and evening. With walkie-talkies in hand, they carefully ferried us on and off the Ombak Putih to each of the various adventures, cold towels and welcome drinks were on hand and ready on re-boarding.

The experienced crew of 14, led by Captain Agung, seamlessly went about the day, either caring for each guest, or cabin or day trip, all the while keeping the vessel ship shape and sparkling, always with wide smiles and warm welcomes. It is the dedication of this fabulous team that brings elegance and quality service onto this live aboard and unquestionably opened my mind to the fact that not all live-aboards need to be “roughing it under the stars”…

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