In mid-November, before the rains came, we set out from Dili over the mountains through Gleno, Ermera, Letefoho, Atsabe, Bobonaro, Zumalai and down to Suai on Timor’s south coast, then back home via Same (pronounced Sah-may), Maubisse and Aileu. With Pat at the wheel of our rented Toyota Landcruiser 4WD, and Kiwi volunteers Del and Tony by our side, we hurtled 500km in four days at an average speed of 20km an hour. Along the way, we encountered dire roads, a harsh landscape, grandiose churches, hardy people, exuberant kids. Not a typical tourist jaunt but another fascinating glimpse into the rural lives of two-thirds of Timor’s people.
Click on the photo gallery below for the full story.
First stop, the coffee town of Letefoho in the western foothills of Mount Ramelau, Timor’s tallest peak. The new Catholic church, with its clasped hands steeple, attracts 2000 people to Mass on Sundays.
Religious icons like this Station of the Cross outside Letefoho church are commonplace in Catholic Timor.
The full Stations of the Cross line a pilgrim’s path up to three large crucifixes on a Letefoho hilltop facing a statue of Jesus with arms outstretched. In between, a radio tower ushers Timor into the 21st century.
Below the Letefoho church, young women carry shopping home from market in the time-honoured way.
But when a ride comes along, they’re quick to clamber aboard.
Outside Letefoho, we pick up an unlikely hitch-hiker, this old man in traditional dress pictured with Del. He and two young women are heading for Atsabe, at least an hour-and-a-half walk in the hot sun.
Atsabe is home to these four young Chelsea supporters.
Pat decides to detour through a dry riverbed rather than tackle this rickety bridge.
Arriving in the one-street town of Bobonaro at dusk, we’re grateful to find the only guesthouse open, unlike the only restaurant. The squat toilet’s a challenge for aging joints but the rooms are clean and cheap at $25 a night for two with breakfast of paun (bread rolls) and coffee. Sadly, it’s insipid Indonesian powder although we’ve just passed through prime coffee-growing country.
Tony links up with some other likely lads in Bobonaro.
More Bobonaro residents.
Some Bobonaro folk are in for a good night’s sleep.
Next morning, a road worker guides us down the treacherous track to the Marobo hot springs.
But it’s going to take more than a new road to return the hot springs to their former glory as a Portuguese resort and mountain retreat.
It’s in the high 30s out of the water and even hotter in, so Pat (left), Tony and Del just dangle their feet. The air’s thick with the rotten-egg smell of sulphur. Close your eyes and you could be in Rotorua.
When the rains come, the road to Zumalai seems destined to wash away down the hill.
There are barely 10 consecutive metres of straight road in all of Timor and no sign posts between Dili and Suai. So imagine our surprise when we come across a job lot of signs warning us about winding roads.
Another mystifying sign, given that everyone walks everywhere and we can see no evidence of a school.
Out of the mountains and down on the south coast road between Suai and Zumalai, Del (right) and I rustle up real Timor coffee and snacks.
In sleepy Suai, near the Indonesian border, locals weave mats and snooze away the hot afternoon on raised platforms beneath thatched roofs. The elevated houses protect against flooding and hungry crocodiles in the wet season.
A shy young girl roasts freshly-picked cashews over an open fire on the beach at Suai-Loro.
Two boys offer us a taste of the cashew nuts. They’re delicious if you don’t count the burnt ones.
Physical affection is a lovely feature of Timorese culture, though it’s strictly girl-girl and boy-boy.
Local lads joke with Pat and make themselves at home on our Toyota bonnet.
Then it’s time to pull out the dance moves.
The new wing of the Suai Hotel, run by an enterprising young Timorese man, sports air con and TVs, although it could do with a bit of landscaping. Dinner is tiny crispy fish and rice at the warung across the road.
A grand cathedral in Suai has replaced the church where more than 100 people, including three Catholic priests, were massacred by militia in the violence that followed Timor’s independence referendum in 1999.
Being an altar boy at Our Lady of the Rosary church in Waiwhetu was never like this, thinks Pat.
Woven tais and a traditional head piece draped over a crucifix are the only Timorese trappings in the cathedral.
Graves are often more ornate than houses, ensuring protection from the ancestors.
Tropical foliage brightens up traditional houses on the south coast road after months without rain.
An Australian destroyer ran aground at Betano beach during World War 2, and remnants of the wreck remain. Later, Aussie commandos were evacuated from here. It’s hot, but we don’t risk a swim, especially as Del spied crocodile footprints on the black sand on an earlier visit.
Heavy wooden outriggers are used for fishing all over TImor.
A crumbling relic of Portuguese rule on the eastern end of Betano beach.
The town of Same in the foothills of Kablaki Mountain is still recovering from almost total destruction by pro-Indonesian militias after the 1999 independence referendum.
A swimming pool, complete with spa pool and waterfall, is part of Aussie Brian’s ambitious dream for his new Same guest house, our third night stop.
The Same hills in central Timor feature some of the country’s most spectacular scenery.
Government plans to dot pre-fabricated houses through each of Timor’s 2000+ aldeia (hamlets) for those in need have instead created ghettos away from traditional support, shelter, water and food. Many of the new houses remain unoccupied.
The motorbike in front bears the brunt of dust kicked up by a passing truck as we wind down out of the hills from Aileu back to Dili.
It’s a tight squeeze for large vehicles on narrow roads. Just before Dare, Pat has his own close encounter with a police car and we’re grateful to arrive home unscathed.