The top of Banda Neira’s dormant airstrip is where we realised what the middle of nowhere actually felt like. It was akin to being in a bubble: here on one of Indonesia’s most inaccessible outposts life moved a half-pace out of sync with everywhere else.
Behind us loomed the island’s iconic volcano, Gunung Api. Across a small stretch of sea lay scimitar-shaped Banda Run. All around us the usual tropes of tropical island life – snatches of rainforest, a smattering of fishing boats gliding across a shimmering cerulean sea – were in evidence. The nearest port in Ambon was eight hours away. All flights had been cancelled for the foreseeable future. There were to be no quick exits, which meant we had time to kill.
Our early forays revealed the islands’ past importance. At one point the Bandas were the world’s only source of nutmeg and mace, garnering the interest of Portuguese, English and Dutch colonists. Through Banda’s architectural style, distinctly shaped fort and grisly murals it was clear this unassuming place had a storied past.
Buoyed by rumours of a secret beach, we ventured further afield. Banda Neira is a small place, so it was inevitable we’d find the village of Tanah Rata. Set in peaceful tranquility under a thick canopy of trees, it seemed deserted. Or so we thought.
Suddenly a small figure appeared on the path. She was quickly joined by a young man. Before long, it felt as though the village’s entire child population had tentatively emerged, Munchkin-like, from their hideaways.
‘Selamat pagi,’ we ventured encouragingly, wishing them a good morning. They responded in kind and, ice broken, swarmed around us. Yapping excitement filled the air as pidgin English and Indonesian phrases were unleashed with reckless abandon.
The group’s dynamic was quickly established: the diminutive duo we initially encountered assumed control of the youngsters. The girl we nicknamed The Boss such was her dominant personality. ‘You can call me Dennis,’ her companion offered with a nod of insouciant cool. As the pair jostled to take our hands in a subtle game of one-upmanship we sensed the formation of new power couple on the Banda Islands.
Our new friends joyfully pointed out Banda’s flora and fauna. Special reverence was reserved for the ubiquitous nutmeg trees. The kids’ vivacity was intoxicating. With every new song and special handshake they shared the island embraced us a little more. As our bodyguards guided us along dilapidated brick roads we felt progressively more in tune with Banda’s special unspoken frequency.
Before long, a crescent bay appeared, affording clear views of Gunung Api. This was the fabled secret beach. As we navigated the craggy path toward it, the sound of receding children filled the air. The Boss and Dennis, squabbling slightly, were leading their merry band back to Tanah Rata. We were alone beneath the midday sun’s heat, wondering what kind of benevolent spirits we had just encountered.