Oman In The Seventies

Some time ago I posted a blog about Ibri in Oman in 1979 and a reader has asked me if I have any other photos of Oman from that period.

I have been through a few of my old photo albums and found these snaps taken by me on a vintage Kodak Instamatic camera. Sorry for the poor photo quality (blame the photographer) but they give an idea of what the place was like at that time.

The old road linking Muttrah to Muscat via Riyam was the only way to get to Muscat until the corniche was completed. Photo taken around 1979.
The mobile post office at Medinat Qaboos in 1979/80.
Not 100% sure of the location but could have been Muttrah High Street in 1979.
One of the gates to the walled town of Muscat. The streets were decorated with British and Omani flags in honour of the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Oman on 28 February 1979.
Muttrah Corniche on the same day in 1979.
Muttrah Corniche looking in the opposite direction. The grey American cars are the motorcade of Sultan Qaboos and Queen Elizabeth.
Salalah in 1976/77.
The British Bank of the Middle East’s Salalah Branch where I worked for two years from 1976-78. Many roads in Salalah were not tarmac at that time.
The main shopping street in Salalah. There was not much to buy so a good place to save money.

I may have some more photos somewhere which I’ll share if I find them.

The Lit & Phil – Newcastle’s Best Kept Secret

Last November I was wandering in the heart of Newcastle when I came across this building, the Literary & Philosophical Society or Lit & Phil as it now brands itself.

As you can see, there are a couple of blue plaques outside. The first tells us that Sir Joseph Wilson Swan, chemist, and physicist first demonstrated his invention of the incandescent light bulb here in 1879. Nearby Mosley Street was the first street in the world to be lit by such electric bulbs. When the Lit & Phil first started it was more a place for debate, lectures, discussion and experiments. The library grew later.

The second plaque marks the Robert Stephenson Bi-Centenary in 2003 and tells us that the Literary & Philosophical Society was established in 1793 and that this building, designed by John Green, opened in 1825. Robert Stephenson (railway engineer and son of George Stephenson, the ‘Father of Railways’) was President of the Society from 1855-59.

Since I had a spare half hour I took a look inside. The staircase in the impressive lobby displays some portraits and statues. The gentleman on the right was Earl Grey (1764-1845, a Northumberland man and Prime Minister in the 1830s during which time his government oversaw the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. And yes, the tea is named after him.

The statue in the middle is not of a Roman but of James Losh (1763-1833) a lawyer, reformer, abolitionist and businessman who was vice-president of the Lit & Phil in 1802. I wonder what sort of man would want to have a statue of himself made in a Roman toga but since he was dead when the statue was made we can forgive him.

The other portrait, the one one with the vain looking man revealing a bit of thigh, is of Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex (1773-1843) who laid the foundation stone of the building in 1822. He was the favourite uncle of Queen Victoria and quite a colourful character. He married his first wife without telling his dad, King George III who later annulled the marriage. He had a mistress or two and when he married his second wife it was again in contravention of the Royal Marriages Act and she was never recognised with the title Duchess of Sussex.

The interior of the Lit & Phil is lovely. It has the air of a private members London club, like the Reform Club that Phileas Fogg belonged to in Around the World in Eighty Days. It is actually older than the Reform Club but unlike that august organisation it is open to anyone and you can read books on the premises free of charge.

If you want to borrow books you have to become a member for a fee of £133 per year (concessions available). That might seem expensive for what is basically a library especially when you can join Northumberland County Council’s network of libraries free of charge. But the Phil & Lit does have a certain cachet and it has a huge collection of 200,000 books and you are encouraged to browse and stay as long as you like with comfortable seating, tea, coffee and cake and a quiet atmosphere for students and book lovers.

Their music library is the biggest in the North of England and the Lit & Phil is a popular venue for musical events.

I would recommend a visit if you are ever in Newcastle upon Tyne. You can find details of their location and services on their website.

Causey Arch

Causey Arch in County Durham is the oldest surviving single arch railway bridge in the world. It was built in 1725 for a group of coalmine owners to facilitate the transport of coal from Tanfield Colliery to the banks of the River Tyne from where it was loaded onto colliers at Newcastle upon Tyne for shipment to London and other markets.

The Tanfield Waggonway which ran over the bridge was a railway with wooden rails with coal waggons drawn by horses. It was converted to iron rails in 1839. Tanfield Railway is still going . It is said to be the world’s oldest railway.

Causey Arch bridge was built by Ralph Wood, a local master stone mason. Since it was the first stone arch bridge of its kind to be built anywhere in the world since Roman times he had no prior experience of this type of construction and he had little confidence that it would not collapse, in fact he was so worried that he took his own life by jumping from the bridge before it was completed.

In its heyday, the bridge carried 930 waggons per day with an interval of only 20 seconds between waggons but by 1770 the Arch was little used and it fell into neglect for 200 years until it was restored from 1975-81.

A section of the waggonway is currently being recreated with the aim of completion in time for the Tanfield Waggonway’s 300th anniversary in 2025.

Aside from the bridge itself, other attractions here are:

Tanfield Railway. This is a volunteer-run heritage railway with preserved steam trains stopping at four stations. You can find details on their website.

A pleasant 3km circular walk starting at the car park, taking in Causey Arch and through the woods alongside Causey Burn. You can see the route on this map:


Beamish, the Living Museum of the North

Hong Kong Centenary Stamp 1941

One of my favourite stamps in my collection is this one. It was part of a set issued in February 1941 to mark 100 years since the establishment of Hong Kong as a British territory.

The main illustration is of The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation’s head office at number 1 Queens Road Central on Hong Kong island. The bank headquarters building was still relatively new at the time and when it was officially opened in 1935 it was the tallest building between Cairo and San Fransisco and the first fully air-conditioned building in Hong Kong. I spent a short time in this building before it was demolished in 1981.

It’s a pity the stamp’s designers didn’t spell the bank’s name correctly since the bank has always spelt Hong Kong as one word.

‘Hongkong’ was the more common spelling during the colony’s early years and stamps issued during Queen Victoria’s reign were spelt that way. The spelling switched to ‘Hong Kong’ on stamps issued from the start of King Edward VII’s reign onwards.

Why the bats in this stamp’s design? Bats are a symbol of good luck in Chinese culture since the Cantonese pronunciation of the word for bat is apparently the same as the word for fortune. (A bit ironic since bats are getting the blame for spreading coronavirus to humans!) Five bats represent the five blessings – long life, prosperity, health, love of virtue and a peaceful death. Unfortunately this stamp had only three bats and Hong Kong at that time certainly didn’t enjoy good luck and just ten months after the stamp was issued Japan invaded and occupied the territory.

The Chief Manager of HSBC, Sir Vandeleur Grayburn, was arrested by the Japanese and imprisoned in the Stanley internment camp where he subsequently died in 1943. Also in Stanley was the Postmaster Edward Irvine Wynne-Jones and Chief Draughtsman William Jones who spent their internment plotting revenge on the Japanese by designing a set of Victory stamps which was issued in 1946.

Bats on this stamp too, and a phoenix rising from the flames.

Tynemouth Priory and Castle

Tynemouth Priory and Castle is a good place to visit. The main highlights here are the ruined priory, the shrine area where a Saxon saint was believed to be buried, a gatehouse, the castle walls, a 20th century restored coastal defence battery and fine views from its cliff-top position.

The priory was founded in the 7th century. St. Oswine (or Oswin), a king of Northumbria and cousin of St.Bede, was killed and buried here in 651. Two other kings were also buried here: Osred II, king of Northumbria, in 792 and Malcolm III, king of Scotland who was killed at the battle of Alnwick in 1093. Malcolm’s body was later reburied in Scotland.

The priory was plundered and partly destroyed by the Danes on several occasions during the 800s and Oswin’s grave was forgotten until 1065 when a priest found some bones under the church and claimed them to be the saint’s remains. Local people began to make pilgrimages to the grave in the hope that their prayers would be answered, and their donations brought prosperity to the priory.

A Benedictine monastery was founded here in the 11th century and within its walls were kitchen gardens, farm animals and orchards as well as cloisters and other buildings for the monks.

The ruined church we see today was started in 1090 and renovated around 1210.

The monastery was ordered closed by Henry VIII in 1539 and most of the monastic buildings were dismantled. Then the site was used as a major coastal fort and was occupied by soldiers right up until 1960.

The gatehouse was constructed following a raid by the Scots in 1388. The ground floor consists of a series of passages and guardrooms while the upper floors contain a great hall and a grand chamber which would have accommodated a high ranking official or royal visitors.

The Percy chantry was built in the 15th Century. The Percys were earls of Northumberland and the ornate chapel ceiling shown here is carved with their family emblems.

This concrete gun emplacement is one of two constructed in 1902 when Britain was concerned about Germany’s increasing naval threat. The gun is a 6 inch steel Mark XXIII.

Looking back at the castle from Tynemouth Pier you can see the 13 concrete buttresses built over 100 years ago to strengthen the crumbling cliff edge on which the coastal battery stands.

This cannon is from an earlier era. There have been coastal defences at Tynemouth since the 1640s.

After visiting Tynemouth Priory and Castle you can wander down to the lovely beach at King Edward’s Bay and perhaps sample some fish and chips at the highly rated Riley’s Fish Shack.

The attraction is managed by English Heritage and you can find details of opening hours and prices on their website.

How To Get to Tynemouth Priory and Castle

The location is marked on this map:

A Northumberland Garden In May

While we’re all locked down Mother Nature continues to do her thing.

Spring comes late at this northern latitude but now in early May our garden in Northumberland is bursting into colour.

I dusted off my video camera and put together this video to record the sights and sounds of Spring.

Hadrian’s Wall Path – Gilsland to Sewingshields Crag

The Hadrian’s Wall Path is an 84 mile (135 km) long trail stretching across the narrow neck of Northern England from Wallsend, Newcastle upon Tyne in the east to Bowness-on-Solway in Cumbria on the west coast.

The trail follows the line of Hadrian’s Wall built by the Romans from A.D. 122 onwards to consolidate the northern border of the Roman Empire. The path passes through some of England’s best scenery and there are a number of Roman forts and museums along the way for the history lover.

So far I have walked the most scenic part of the trail from Gilsland to Sewingshields Crag which includes the best preserved sections of wall, many points of interest and excellent views. The total distance walked was about 24 miles (there and back) spread out over several days.


National Trail near Gilsland. National Trails are waymarked with the white acorn symbol shown here.

Thirlwall Castle, above, was built in the early 14th century using stone recycled from Hadrian’s Wall. Legend has it that during one of the many Anglo-Scottish skirmishes in the 15th century a servant of the castle hid the owner’s most precious possession, a golden table, down a well where it remains to this day, protected by a magic spell.

Typical Hadrian’s Wall scenery. A lonely farmhouse alongside the wall.

The trail passes through working farms and pet dogs need to be kept on a leash if there are any sheep around.

Watch towers or turrets were usually built about every half mile along the wall. This is English Heritage’s artistic impression of turret 45a at Walton Crags around AD 180. Roman Empire to the right, barbarians to the left.

Only the foundations of turrets remain.

Small forts, called milecastles, were incorporated into the wall every Roman mile (about 1.48km). They had gateways to allow people to pass to and from the Roman province of Britannia. This is an artist’s impression of Cawfields milecastle around AD 130.

An outline of a milecastle’s foundations can be seen here.

The builders of Hadrian’s Wall made use of any natural crags and cliffs along its route to improve its defensive qualities. The central sector of the wall follows a craggy rock formation called Great Whin Sill.

Not exactly the Great Wall of China but impressive all the same. The original wall would have been taller. Many of the stones have been removed and reused over the centuries and found their way into churches, stately homes and farmhouses.

This section of the trail provides good exercise with lots of steps and slopes.

Sycamore Gap is probably the most photographed spot on Hadrian’s Wall. The tree grows in a natural gap in the Whin Sill. The tree has appeared in numerous TV shows and in the 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves starring Kevin Costner.

Housesteads Roman Fort was a strong defensive position and contained barrack blocks and a hospital.

You can wander around the ruins of Housesteads Roman Fort and there is a museum to provide explanations of what you are seeing.

Time to walk back to my car.

Far from light pollution, the Dark Skies sites at places such as Walltown Quarry provide a great opportunity to enjoy the star-filled night sky.

If you are interested in walking the Hadrian’s Wall Path you can obtain lots of practical information from this website.

Holy Island Circular Walk

My Holy Island Circular Walk is a 6 mile hike around scenic Holy Island, home to the famous Lindisfarne Castle.

Historic Holy Island is one of Northumberland’s most visited tourist sites. It is a tidal island, meaning that it can only be reached by car at low tide. The causeway linking it to the mainland is underwater during high tide. You can check for safe crossing times on the Northumberland County Council website.

Highlights of the Holy Island Circular Walk

For my hike I parked at The Snook car park which is located at the skinny western side of the island. This area is part of the 4,000 hectare Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve which, in the words of Natural England, is ‘an ever-changing landscape of sand-dunes, mudflats and coastline constantly re-shaped by sea, wind and time’. Alternatively you could park at the main Holy Island Car Park. These are the only places on the island where non-residents are allowed to park.

From The Snook there is a short path through some sand dunes before emerging onto one of the widest beaches you will ever see (at low tide) which appears to go for miles.

As you can see the beach is not too crowded.

The sand-dunes have been plagued by an invasive plant originally from New Zealand called the pirri-pirri bur with sticky spines which like to hook on to clothing and the fur of your dog and can easily be spread to other sites and harm our native wildlife. If you visit during the months of July-October you may have to spend hours de-burring your dog but when I went in March there was no sign of it.

Another plague was this pile of rubbish dumped amid the dunes and spoiling the normally pristine beaches of Northumberland. I was a bit mystified by this dump. How did it get to this difficult-to-access spot and who could have dumped it? It included household items like Cillit Bang limescale cleaner, not something you would take on a picnic. There were crab pots used by fishermen and cans of strong and cheap white cider of the sort favoured by alcoholics. I think the culprit might be a drunken, house-proud fisherman.

The walk continues to a lovely sandy bay with cliffs which are home to numerous seabirds. The island is frequented by wintering waterfowl who feed on sea grasses and marine creatures. Pale bellied brent goose, widgeon and bar-tailed godwits are among the species found here.

Evidence of former mining activity, probably lime, can be seen nearby.

Another calm beach. In summer the salt marshes burst into flower with ten species of orchid recorded on Holy Island.

On the headland is a white brick pyramid, about 25 feet high, called Emmanuel Head built around 1810 to aid navigation in these waters where shipwrecks were common.

From Emmanuel Head, the trail turns south along the rocky east coast of the island, shown here with Lindisfarne Castle in the background.

Farming, tourism and fishing are the main activities on the island today. There are a number of tourist attractions on Holy Island including Lindisfarne Castle, Lindisfarne Priory, the Heritage Centre and St. Aidan’s Winery. I’ll write about these on another day.

These wooden posts mark the walking route over the sands and mud from Holy Island back to the mainland. This is the Pilgrim’s route and for those interested in following in the footsteps of medieval saints and pilgrims this is supposed to be a great experience. Since it would almost certainly mean getting wet feet I think I will save this adventure until the weather gets warmer, if ever.

With light fading and the end of the safe crossing time approaching I walked back to my start point alongside the causeway road. There is no real footpath here and quite a few cars on the road but it is safe enough, though not for this poor deer which presumably was hit by an inattentive motorist.

Nearby Attractions

Lindisfarne Castle
Lindisfarne Priory
Lindisfarne Heritage Centre
St. Aidan’s Winery

See more Northumberland Coastal Walks

Northumberland Coastal Walks

Cheswick Beach on the Northumberland Coast
This photo was taken before Coronavirus. It’s probably even emptier now!

Northumberland has some of the best coastal scenery in England and there are dozens of Northumberland Coastal Walks to enjoy.

The Northumberland Coast Path stretches for 100 kilometres or 62 miles from the golden sands at Cresswell in the south to the historic border town of Berwick-upon-Tweed in the north. Designated as an area of natural beauty, the route passes spectacular coastal scenery, cliff-top viewpoints and some of the country’s top beaches which are usually clean and uncrowded. Highlights along the way include the fishing harbour and marina at Amble, never-ending sandy beaches near Alnmouth, quaint cottages at Craster, the rugged cliffs at Dustanburgh Castle, various coastal golf courses and holiday resorts, Beadnell Bay Bird Sanctuary, Seahouses Harbour from where you can catch boat trips to the Farne islands, spectacular Bamburgh Castle, deserted Rock Sands Beach, historic Holy Island and Lindisfarne Castle and Priory, stunning Cocklawburn Beach and popular Spittal Beach.

Apart from the official Northumberland Coast Path there are other stretches of beach and scenic coastline at Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, Seaton Sluice, Whitley Bay, Cullercoats and Tynemouth in Tyne and Wear and continuing south as far as Sunderland and on towards the Durham Heritage Coast.

You are likely to see plenty of bird life and maybe an occasional seal while enjoying the fresh sea air. The weather is frequently blustery and cold but quite often sunny. Hardy swimmers and surfers take to the chilly waters of the North Sea during the summer months when the more easily accessible beaches are popular with paddling families and sunbathers.

My intention is to walk the entire coast from the Scottish border down as far as South Shields and beyond, dividing the coast up into short day hikes where I park the car and walk ‘there and back’ or in a circular route. Here are some of the stages I completed before the coronavirus lockdown began. I will write about each stage in future blog posts and provide links to nearby attractions.

. Berwick Beach Walk
. Spittal to Cocklawburn Beach Walk
. Cocklawburn Beach to Cheswick Beach Walk
. Cheswick Beach to Goswick Walk
. Holy Island Circular Walk
. Ross Back Sands Beach Walk
. Bamburgh Beach Walk
. Beadnell Short Walk

I’ll add new sections as I complete the remaining stages once life returns to normal. I can’t promise I’ll cover every single inch of the Northeast coastline but I’ll try to include the most scenic parts.


Virtual Holiday in the Spice Islands

I need a holiday but that’s not going to happen while this global lockdown is in place. So I though I would take a virtual or pretend holiday and write a blog post about it.

Where to? I decided on Banda Neira in the Malaku Islands (Moluccas) of Indonesia, about midway between Sulawesi and Papua. It’s a place I’ve been meaning to go to for some time. Thanks to the internet and having already visited many Indonesian islands I can have a pretty good idea of what to expect so I’m writing this blog as if I have actually been there.

My Journey to Banda

I decided to take a ferry to reach Banda. There is an airstrip with scheduled flights from Ambon, Jakarta,Surabaya and Makassar, but the runway looks rather short and some of the smaller airlines in Indonesia do not have the best safety record and flights are always being cancelled or delayed so I thought a ferry might be a better option. A fast ferry leaves Ambon for Banda Neira twice a week at this time of year when the sea is calm but only if there are enough passengers. It normally takes 6 hours but this time it was cancelled. So I was left with the only other option which was to take a slow ferry Government-owned ferry called the Pelni which stops at Banda about twice a month from Ambon. The journey time was 12 hours but can take 19 hours depending on sea conditions. Basic meals were included in the IDR 100k ticket price (£5) consisting of rice, vegetables and tempeh.

Conditions on board were better in Alfred Russel Wallace‘s time when he travelled to Banda in 1857 by Dutch mail steamer. His meals were as follows:

6 a.m. tea or coffee
8 a.m. light breakfast of tea, eggs, sardines etc
10 a.m. aperitifs on deck; Madeira, gin and bitters
11 a.m. substantial brunch
3 p.m. tea and coffee
5 p.m. aperitifs again
6.30 p.m. a good dinner with beer and claret
8 p.m. tea and coffee
free-flowing beer and soda water between meals.

My arduous journey was rewarded when I clapped eyes on Banda which comprises three beautiful islands enclosing a tranquil harbour with crystal clear water overlooked by a classical shaped volcano and jungle clad hills.

During the Dutch colonial era these islands were the chief nutmeg garden in the world at a time when nutmeg was more highly prized than gold. The spice trade brought prosperity to the Dutch merchants living here who were so rich they didn’t know what to do with their money so they built fancy marble-clad houses with wide verandas. There’s not much evidence of wealth these days and the few Dutch houses which still survive are very much faded. Nutmeg is still cultivated here and you can catch a whiff of nutmeg, cinnamon and pepper in the air, along with the ever-present fragrance of Indonesia’s clove cigarettes.

My Accommodation

I decided to stay at the Mutiara Guesthouse in the centre of town for its cosy feel, its convenient location and its reasonable reviews. Breakfast was particularly good, banana pancakes, scrambled eggs, fried eggs or omelette, tasty coffee and fresh tropical fruits.

Better than in Somerset Maugham’s day. This is his description of breakfast in the 1932 novel The Narrow Corner which was set in Banda Neira (he called it Kanda-Meria):

Breakfast in the little hotels in the Dutch East Indies is served at a very early hour. It never varies. Papaia, oeufs sur le plat, cold meat and Edam cheese. However punctually you appear, the eggs are cold … the coffee is an essence to which you add Nestlé’s Swiss Milk … the toast is dry, sodden and burnt. Such was the breakfast served in the dining room of the hotel at Kanda and hurriedly eaten by silent Dutchmen, who had their offices to go to.

DAY 1. Sightseeing – Fort Belgica

After checking in the hotel and freshening up I set out to explore the sights of Banda. My first stop was Fort Belgica, a grey stone castle built on a low hill immediately behind the guesthouse. It was one of several forts built by the Dutch on the Banda islands to protect their grip on the world’s nutmeg trade. It replaced an earlier 16th century Portuguese fort.

The Dutch began their construction in 1611 and it was expanded, strengthened and rebuilt several times since with the current pentagonal design completed in 1673. It survived several earthquakes and volcanic eruptions but surrendered to the British without firing a shot in 1796 and again in 1810, having been handed back to the Dutch in 1803. The fort was comprehensively restored in 1991 and is now a tourist destination.

Fort Nassau

Next I took the short walk to Fort Nassau which was an earlier fort completed in 1609. It was rectangular shaped with four stone bastions and had a moat. It is now mostly dilapidated and overgrown. As you can see from this old photo it was overlooked by Fort Belgica.

Nutmeg Café

Feeling thirsty and hungry by now I took a break at the Nutmeg Café and filled up with some nasi goreng and nutmeg jam pancake washed down with iced nutmeg juice. To tell you the truth I’m not mad about the taste of nutmeg but the juice was refreshing.

Parigi Rante

This is an old well and monument listing the names of 40 Banda fighters and chiefs who were among the many killed in 1621 during Dutch Admiral Simon Janszoon Coen’s conquest of the islands. The names of 20th century Indonesian freedom fighters are also commemorated here.

Rumah Pengasingan Bung Hatta

This small, simple house is where Bung Hatta was exiled from 1936-42 as a political prisoner by the Dutch colonial authorities. Bung Hatta is the affectionate nickname for Mohammad Hatta (1902-1980) who is an Indonesian national hero and was one of the leaders in its struggle for independence from Dutch rule. During his exile he ran school classes on the terrace of the house which is now a cultural heritage monument and museum containing a few items of furniture and possessions of Bung Hatta.

Istana Mini

Just 100 metres away from Bung Hatta’s house is the Istana Mini, an elegant colonial mansion built in 1820 as residence for the Dutch Contrôleur or inspector/governor. The grounds of the residence face the sea and lead out to a small pier where the Contrôleur and his guests would have disembarked. The main building consists of six rooms, all sparsely furnished, in fact, empty. Off to one side is a statue of King Willem III (1817-1890).

Gereja Tua Banda

Heading back to the town centre somewhat I passed Gereja Tua Banda, an old church built in 1873. Inside, the floors are paved with a number of tombstones, mostly of Dutch but some British, many of which predate the church. Many of the tombstones are large in size and elaborately carved, similar to the Dutch graves found inside the ruined church on St. Paul’s Hill in Melaka.

Rumah Budaya Banda Neira

Just along the street, Rumah Budaya Banda Neira is a small local history museum. There are a few interesting exhibits here including a gory painting of Dutch atrocities against the Banda islanders using Japanese mercenaries to do their dirty work. Certainly the Dutch used harsh measures in order to gain monopoly control of the nutmeg trade and some scholars estimate that 90 percent of the local population was killed, enslaved or deported during the campaign.

San Tien Kong Chinese Temple

To round off the day I wandered through the main commercial streets, such as they are. There was not a lot going on. Most of the shops were shuttered for the day, or forever, and they were few in number anyway. The entire population of the Banda islands is probably less than 20,000 so I didn’t expect huge shopping malls. The Chinese population, who always add vibrancy to south east Asian towns and were once numerous on Banda, have largely moved on elsewhere and only a handful of families remain. The Chinese temple was locked up and looked abandoned. Christians too have mostly migrated to other islands following sectarian conflicts in the late 1990s.

I had a quick look at the fish market, all closed for the day but still reeking with dried fish being left out in the open on the waterfront. Then I watched the boats at Banda Neira Harbour overlooked by Gunung Api which is my destination for tomorrow.

DAY 2. Hiking Gunung Api

Early the next day I arranged through my hotel for a boatman to ferry me over the short stretch of water from Banda Neira market jetty to the trailhead of Gunung Api, the perfect cone-shaped volcano whose name means ‘fire mountain’.

The volcano is 640 metres high and is still active with the last major eruption being in 1988, spewing a river of lava into the sea, luckily not in the direction of Banda Neira town. This day there was just a wisp of smoke rising from the summit, merging with low clouds.

The hike started with a sweaty but pleasant climb through spice gardens, bamboo glades and jungle before emerging onto a steep, bare slope covered in loose volcanic scree. This part was exhausting but from around 500 metres above sea level the path became firmer underfoot. With no shade, I was glad of my long sleeves, hat, sunblock and plenty of water.

The view from the crater rim was great, especially looking back over Banda Neira. I could see the airport where the runway looked worryingly short from this height.

I descended without incident and managed to find a boatman to take me back. The whole hike took me about 4 hours up and down. Younger, fitter people can do it in 3 hours.

Peter Piper Picked A Peck Of Pickled Peppers

Since I still had nearly half a day I asked the boatman to drop me at the third of the Banda islands, Banda Besar. As the name suggests it is the largest of the three but thinly populated and mostly covered in jungle.

Above the village of Lonthoir, reached by a 313 step staircase, is Kelly Plantation where I could see nutmeg trees up close.

In the early 1600s nutmeg was more valuable than gold. A small sackful could fetch enough money in London to last a lifetime. Why was nutmeg so valuable? During the black death it was believed to be able to ward off bubonic plague, perhaps because fleas dislike the smell of nutmeg. (Would it work for coronavirus? Probably not). It was also an efficient preservative enabling meat to be kept for longer periods without going off.

As mentioned the Dutch tried every trick in the book to hang on to their nutmeg monopoly, even going so far as to produce deliberately misleading maps to hide the islands’ location. But eventually nutmeg plants were smuggled out and successfully transplanted elsewhere. One man who is often credited with doing this was Pierre Poivre, an 18th century French missionary, trader and adventurer who went on to to become Governor of Mauritius where he established botanical gardens for propagating his smuggled nutmeg, cloves and other spices. This man, whose name literally translates as Peter Pepper, is often thought to be the origin of the Peter Piper tongue-twister.

Benteng Hollandia

Close to Kelly Plantation is another old Dutch fort, Benteng Hollandia.

This fort was built of coral stone in 1624 to guard the sea approaches to Neira and to monitor the activities of the nutmeg and mace trade in the area.

The fort was devastated by an earthquake in 1743. It was later repaired but neglected again from 1811 onwards and today is in ruins. Its hill top position means that it has excellent views towards Gunung Api.

DAY 3. Snorkelling

My hotel manager recommended the best spots for snorkelling in the sparking, clear waters around Banda. The area where lava flowed from Gunung Api’s 1988 eruption is particularly rich in coral and diverse marine life. The lava initially killed off the coral but it has since recovered and regenerated into a beautiful underwater landscape.

I spent a pleasant day relaxing on the beach and snorkelling above the coral. Remembering the fortune-teller’s prophecy in which I am to be eaten by a shark (see here) I didn’t go looking for reef sharks.

That completes my virtual holiday. Having spent some time researching this post I think I now know the Banda Islands quite well and there’s no need for me to visit in real life. That’s saved me quite a lot of money. Thrifty Traveller!