Matebian, mountain of souls

The climb to the top of Mount Matebian is the toughest day walk I’ve ever attempted – lucky I didn’t know that when we started. The name of Timor’s second highest mountain means ‘Mountain of Souls’. It’s a sacred place where Timorese believe the spirits of their ancestors reside. Pip’s Tetun teacher warned her that terrible things might befall us if we ‘greeted’ any animals or pointed out the scenery.

Sometimes Matebian is referred to as the Mountain of Death. Japanese forces, who occupied Timor during World War II, created a vast system of caves and tunnels in the area for their camps and arsenals, and killed many people there. The Indonesians did the same when the mountain became the stronghold of Falintil, the Timorese resistance movement. After the Indonesian invasion in 1975, around 20,000 Timorese took sanctuary on Matebian, among them the parents and grandfather of a workmate. Staying on the lowlands meant accepting Indonesian rule, he told me. But after three-and-a-half years, hunger forced his family down off the mountain.

With this history in mind, we set out one weekend in October with Kiwi couple Paul and Liz Fitzmaurice, and Abrau, a Timorese student who I’ve met through teaching English. Click on the photo gallery below to find out more.

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