The Pelni Experience – Banda to Kei Islands

The very ship we sailed on

We lucked out with the Pelni on price and timing.  The Banda to Kei Pelni runs once every two weeks.  It is supposed to arrive at 2.00am on Monday morning, leave two hours later and the journey is 12 hours.  Not ideal, but Pelni ferries are not known for their punctuality and by early Sunday evening, word had got round that it was running late (as usual).

It really is a monster of a ferry

We were staying at the Maulana Hotel, literally next door to the harbour, so the hotel manager said he would wake us up when the ship arrived.  This would give us plenty of time to get up and have breakfast before boarding.  However, as it turned out no early morning call was required as the ferry announced its arrival with several loud soundings of its klaxon as it approached the harbour.  You are rudely awakened whether you are catching the ferry or not.

Our luxurious cabin

The Wooky had booked economy seats in advance for 165,000 IDR each (about £8) but I wasn’t feeling brilliant and couldn’t face a 12 hour journey in a cramped and dirty, cockroach infested ship with 4,000 other people. (Pelni ferries are not famous for their comfort either.)  So I begged him (practically on bended knee) to secure a cabin with a private toilet.  All it took was a quiet word with the guys at the Maulana and they promised they would sort it out.

The huge Pelni ship duly arrived at 6.00am and the Wooky trotted off with the assistant manager returning 10 minutes later assuring me all was sorted.  We said our goodbyes to the manager and staff at the Maulana, bid a sad farewell to the Banda Islands, and made our way to the ship.

Moored up and waiting for us to board

We were a little apprehensive about the Pelni. It is fair to say Pelnis have a pretty bad reputation and you hear stories of massive overcrowding, dirty, smelly conditions. poor facilities, and a dangerous lack of maintenance.

Reports of pickpockets abound and although we did hear reliable firsthand accounts of phone and wallet theft, they were opportunist encounters and we were satisfied we could avoid such an experience if we were careful.  Once again, we assured ourselves that we were always fairly cautious, we don’t look rich (because we’re not), and the Wooky looks too difficult (because he is).

There is almost a shroud of mythology surrounding Pelni and a kind of inverted snobbery associated with travelling on one of these apparent death traps.  It is almost a rite of passage to travel at least once on a Pelni ship. Now it was our turn.

An attempt to capture the mayhem

The arrival of the Pelni transforms the little harbour at Bandaneira and that morning as it was getting light the streets were jammed with scooters, food stalls and more people than we had seen during our whole month on the island. Almost everyone we had met in our time there was up and about and it appeared to be an incredibly social occasion, albeit a tad early.

Boarding the massive ship was fairly straightforward and the hotel’s assistant manager led us up to deck 5 where we were met by a porter who then led the way further upstairs, along to the end of a long corridor to a 2 berth cabin with private bathroom and a tiny little window.  We paid the porter 100,000 rupiah (£5), tipped our friend from the hotel the same for his trouble, and once we were finally alone we settled down for the 12 hour journey to Tual in Kei Kecil (Little Kei).

The view out of the window for pretty much the whole 12 hour journey

Our cabin had no door (all cabin doors were removed on this route for a reason which escapes me now but which we were aware of beforehand) so it wasn’t really private.  There were two berths, a desk, power points, a cupboard and private bathroom (with, would you believe, hot running water). We were right at the front of the ship so far away from the ship’s klaxon it was hardly audible.

She arrived late once and I watched her sail into harbour at 5am

We would have happily paid the going rate of about 500,000 (£25) for a cabin for the 12 hour journey, and in fact fully expected to have to stump up this amount when tickets were checked.  However, we seemed to have inadvertently got ourselves a bargain thanks partly to the way business is conducted throughout Indonesia (we obviously paid the porter a backhander) and partly due to a stroke of luck.  I have no doubt we would have had to pay an additional 500,000 IDR had the ticket inspectors got to us but for most of the journey maintenance work was being carried out (which was a miracle in itself) further along our corridor and it seems ladders prevented any ticket inspectors gaining access to our end of the corridor. Those same ladders would also have hindered our escape in the event of an emergency but I tried not to think about that (particularly as the emergency exit just outside our door at the end of our corridor appeared to be welded shut).

Turning around in the harbour to head south

Either way, the journey itself was positively luxurious compared to what we were expecting (and it was extremely crowded in the public areas of the ship, including in all the stairwells).

However, there was a café and supermarket on board, our fellow travelers were friendly, and I didn’t see a single cockroach; I almost felt cheated.

After waiting for an hour the ship finally sounded the horn 3 times and before we knew it we were off.

Leaving a little later than scheduled… as usual

Throughout the journey I spent much of the time flat on my back feeling sorry for myself, reading or dozing, and grateful for the comfortable conditions (and private toilet).  The Wooky set off in search of snacks and found an Indomaret supermarket somewhere on level 8 and came back with all sorts of goodies (chocolate, crackers, crisps and biscuits).

Watching her set off heading south one morning

Throughout the day the Wooky found himself entertaining various visitors who took it in turns to pop in to say hello. Obviously word had got round that there were a couple of bule on the boat and the hairy one could speak Bahasa (we noticed 4 other western tourists which was a pretty low ratio).

As the ship sailed south, the steady stream of locals filed in one by one to chat to us and tell us where they were from, where they had been and where they were going, and why.  Some were spending up to 3 days on the boat all the way to Fak Fak in West Papua.  Most were travelling for work and some excited to heading back to spend time with their families, which they also told us all about.  We were asked the usual questions: where were we from? Did we have children? Where had we been?  Where were we going?  Did we like Indonesia?

Disappearing out of the bay

The 12 hour journey passed relatively quickly and we arrived in Tual pretty much on time at 7.00pm.

If the journey had been surprisingly comfortable (dare I say, bordering on pleasant), the heaving crush and absolute mayhem disembarking at Tual in Kei was a nightmare.  Although the Kei Islands are relatively unknown as a tourist destination they are a fairly large group of islands with a large population.  Hundreds of people were lining up to disembark at Tual and we had to fight our way through the throng.

Our destination Coaster Cottages

We were bustled about by the other passengers many of whom were traveling with a ridiculous amount of luggage.  The crowds dug in their elbows and trod on our toes indiscriminately and we were pushed and pulled in all directions.  We were extra cautious about our bags at this point as we had been warned that the busy embarking and disembarking times were when opportunist thieves operate but we were careful and didn’t feel threatened in that way all.

When we eventually squeezed through the crowd, we had to negotiate our way down a ridiculously unstable, staircase about 12 metres off the ground in order to disembark with people pushing all around.  It was all slightly terrifying.

The veranda outside our room

It took a while for us to get ashore; our backpacks were weighing us down, we were weary and not as surefooted as we would have liked but somehow we managed to make it down the rickety staircase it in one piece.

The heat was oppressive when we arrived, even at 7.00pm, and the harbour was swarming with people.  After some initial confusion about transfer to our accommodation which was cleared up with a phone call to Bob at Coaster Cottages, we eventually found ourselves in a bemo heading out of the city to Coaster Cottages near the village of Oloililir in the middle of a power cut.

The view from the veranda

The final leg of our journey was delayed by about 20 minutes while our bemo driver waited for an opportunity to turn his vehicle around in the narrow road, such was the throng of other bemos, 4WDs, about a million scooters and at least as many pedestrians milling about.  When he finally started his engine, Eminem blasted from the huge speakers in the back of his bemo and we were off.  It was all a bit surreal.

The beach

The power cut continued all the way to Oloililir.  Once we left the city we couldn’t see much (and I have no doubt neither could our driver as his headlights did seem a trifle dim).

When we reached the village we asked two little girls for directions. They were about 8 years old and they both jumped in the bemo so they could make sure our driver knew exactly where to go.  Despite the dark moonless night, the lack of any street lighting and our bemo’s rubbish headlights, we eventually arrived at Coaster Cottages, totally exhausted by our long day although the last hour had definitely been the worst.

We paid our driver and as he headed back to the village with our kind young helpers, we hauled ourselves and our bags up the steps to the guesthouse where we were shown into our lovely big spacious room.  We dumped everything and then sat down for dinner and beer.

Did I mention the beach? This was the reward for riding the Pelni

We were a bit frazzled by this point (and I was feeling a bit under the weather) but the food was good, the beer was cold, it was breezy on the dining terrace, the air was fresher here, and we could hear the ocean.

We had finally arrived at Coaster Cottages, Oloililir village on Kei Kecil, an island we did not even know existed until about a year ago.  We couldn’t wait to see what it was like in daylight.

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