Timor Leste is a tiny country taking over the Eastern part of the island of Timor. Outwardly it may not be an obvious location for a group of young people but it does have a few unique attractions the key one being that it is in fact the newest country in South East Asia becoming independent in May 2002.
Timor Leste has a long and painful history one which is still very much apparent in the present day. Arriving in Dili the first thing you notice is that there is a surprising number of Westerners here. Holidaying though, they are not. They are here with the United Nations as part of the ongoing peacekeeping mission mandated to assist the newly independent Timor Leste. The UN seem very much at ease with each other and the locals. During the day they are often spotted out on patrol and in the evenings can be spotted running along the rugged coastline or at one of the local eateries. Their presence appeared to be centred in Dili but it was outside of Dili when we travelled further into the mountains that we saw more of the evidence as to why they were there.
Dili itself is a pleasant enough capital. Enough sites and attractions to keep a tourist entertained for a day or two. But the true reason we were there wasn’t to see the presidential palace or the Cristo Rei de Dili (impressive though it was), we were there to climb Mount Ramelau. Mount Ramelau is the tallest mountain in East Timor standing at an impressive 2,963 meters. Before you can start a climb of Mount Ramelau you must first experience Timor Leste’s infrastructure (or lack of) in a 4X4 for a number of hours. Certainly not for the faint hearted or those easily travel sick, the journey takes you up the side of the mountain range through the small villages who survive by farming Timor Leste’s largest export, coffee. We arrived at a small village in the early evening which was to be our “base camp” for the night. After a short sleep we were awoken around 5am to prepare for the summit climb. Even at the base camp you can feel the effects of the altitude and though it’s not a difficult climb it certainly isn’t easy. Of course we were spurred on my our tour guide who laughed frequently at how slow we moved likening us to slow-moving cows. Not deterred we pushed on reaching the summit 20 minutes before sunrise. Huddled together against the cold we eagerly awaited our reward for the climb. And disappointed we were not. The sky starts to pink at the corners and spreads quickly inwards to the whole sky is a glorious mix of reds, pinks and oranges. As the sky lightens the mist begins to clear to allow the mountain tops to peek through the clouds. At that moment everyone instantly forgot the bitter cold and focused only on getting the best possible shot (quickly realising this is impossible when you are physically shaking!)
The descent was undertaken at a far more leisurely pace. Even our mountain goat guide had slowed down to a “cows” pace though this, it turns out, was due to a nasty bout of altitude sickness. Having climbed under the blackness of night, our descent was the first time we could take in our surroundings. We had already stopped on the drive to base camp at the Australian war memorial which provided details of the sad history of Timor Leste. The descent down Mt Ramelau allowed us to see for ourselves the destruction inflicted on this small country by Indonesian forces as they retaliated against the referendum for independence. It is said that in less than one month the Indonesian military had destroyed more than 75% of the country’s infrastructure. Most of which, remains in a poor state. From the mountain side as far as you can see there are torched forests, destroyed buildings and gaping roads. And yet, through all this, Timor Leste retains this rugged, unspoiled beauty.
For the remainder of the trip we decided to stay on low ground and explore the beautiful island of Atauro and beaches of Dili. Atauro is famous for its beautiful coral which sits within ten meters of the shore and is almost untouched. One not to miss for any avid snorkeler, the marine life here seems unspoiled unexplored and unreserved. The boat ride from the mainland to Ataruo takes around 1 – 2 hours depending on the conditions. Once on the island the mode of transport is tuk tuks. There isn’t much to see here but there is a charming museum/workshop called Bonecas de Atauro which is a charity organisation providing incomes to members of the community through the production and sale of Boneca dolls and toys.
In Dili the best beach to visit is known locally as Jesus’ backside beach. This is not a comment on how the locals view its condition, but due to its location behind the Cristo Rei de Dili. Impossible to access by road, Jesus’ backside beach remains a peaceful haven for those who can find the hidden path….
We booked a 6 day package tour through Island Explorer http://www.islandexplorer.com.au
We stayed at:
Dili – Novo Horizonte (basic but clean – used my many of the UN)
Atauro – Barry’s Place (eco-friendly accommodation run by an expat. Very friendly family and welcome – would highly recommend)
Base camp – Hatobuiliko Guesthouse
Currently the UN is due to leave Timor Leste at the end of the year. A visit to Dili isn’t complete without seeing the East Timorese Resistance Archive & Museum. The museum sets out the history of Timor Leste and it’s struggle for independence in a largely unbiased manner calling for you to reach your own conclusions on the various failings of the countries involved. You will need at least 2 -3 hours to see all of the exhibitions.