A Journey Across East Timor, one of the Youngest countries on Earth
By Richard Collette
East Timor. The name of South East Asia’s newest nation conjures images of division, under development and conflict.
That’s if the name conjures any images at all. This is a country that few people know, that few people understand and that anyone who isn’t an aid worker is unlikely to have visited.
Knowing little of the country or its people, I arrived in the capital Dili unsure what there was to see on the eastern half of the divided island of Timor, where I could travel to or how as I traveler, I would be greeted.
I soon found that all of the images I had of East Timor were, in some way or shape, unfortunately true.
The nation occupies just half of a long-divided island, it’s a country that only gained independence in 2002, that suffered decades of occupation under Indonesian rule and centuries of colonization under the Portuguese.
It’s undeveloped, it lacks basic infrastructure and the average East Timorese citizen earns very, very little.
But, while all of this is true, East Timor never failed to surprise me. Traveling across this small nation was difficult, but while the people are poor, they never failed to welcome me into their homes for coffee when it was raining. The roads might be broken and potholed but the natural scenery remains some of the most untouched I’ve ever seen in Asia.
Before I visited, the images I had of East Timor were of protests and conflict. After the trip, I now equate East Timor with white sand beaches, rugged mountains and stoic people trying to make their island home a better place to live.
If there was ever a last frontier for tourism in Asia, I found it in East Timor.
The Journey Begins In Dili
My journey across East Timor began in the nation’s capital, Dili. The city sprawls along the coast, the sea on one side and the rugged, mountainous interior of Timor on the other. It’s the type of city where you are never more than a few kilometers away from a sandy beach, and the Presidential Palace, government buildings all look out over the harbor front where in the cooler evening temperatures people stroll in the sea breeze.
It’s an unexpectedly picturesque setting for a capital, but rather than going to the beach, my first stop in Dili was at the Timorese Resistance Archives and Museum.
This is a museum dedicated to the country’s recent struggle for independence from Indonesia, and to their long colonial history with the Portuguese.
East Timor only gained independence in 2002, and for many in the country, the decade’s long struggle is still very much fresh in their memories. When the Indonesian army left East Timor in 2002, they destroyed much of the infrastructure on their way back across the border to West Timor.
As I would soon experience on my journey across the country, East Timor is still very much struggling to recover.
At the eastern end of the city, along the sandy shoreline and where the mountains begin to rise is Christo Rei, a towering statue of Christ the Redeemer. East Timor is a Catholic nation. The Portuguese colonized the country for almost 500 years, while the Dutch colonized the west half of the island, which ultimately led to today’s division of Timor.
The Portuguese legacy is still very much apparent in Dili and across the country. Portuguese is an official language, while Tetum, the main local dialect is full of Portuguese loan words. The colony was hardly developed by the Portuguese though, and the real lasting legacy of hundreds of years of Portuguese rule is the religion.
I walked the steep staircase that leads to the top of the Christo Rei statue, and from there I could see Dili sprawling along the coast for miles to the west. I was going to head east though, over the mountains and further into the country.
Baucau: East Timor’s Second City
East Timor isn’t exactly set up for tourism. Finding information on transport, schedules and even things to do and see can be a challenge. In Dili, I struggled to even confirm if there would be a bus to Baucau, just 125 kilometers to the east and the country’s second-largest city. There might be, there might not.
There might not be enough passengers, the journey could take 12 hours if the road was even passable. The answers were as varied as they were vague and in the end, I simply rented a motorcycle and decided to go it alone.
This was the moment that I began to realize just how underdeveloped East Timor’s transport infrastructure is. The road conditions were unpredictable. For the first few miles out of Dili, the main highway connecting the country’s two main cities was tarmacked, but beyond that, I was lucky when I found gravel or dirt
In places, the road simply disappeared, replaced by rocks from landslides that had never been cleared. 125 kilometers did indeed take me almost 12 hours, but as dilapidated and treacherous as the road conditions were, seeing the coastal scenery and rolling green hills were almost worth dying for.
Covered in Mud
I finally rolled into Baucau covered in mud, oil and drenched from a tropical downpour just as the sun set. The next morning, I explored East Timor’s second city, admiring colorful Portuguese era colonial buildings and driving alongside the city’s beaches.
Baucau’s unusual and locally popular tourist attraction is the large, outdoor swimming pool that’s fed by natural spring waters from the mountains. Finding crocodile warning signs all along the beaches, I decided to take a safe dip in the pool rather than the ocean before tackling the next part of the road, further east towards a place called Los Palos.
Rain and Crocodiles in Los Palos
East Timor experiences very distinct wet and dry and seasons. I was visiting at the end of the rainy season, and so far had been spared any huge downpours but as I drove into the town of Los Palos in the far east of the island after another rocky, bumpy ride, the clouds burst in the late afternoon.
In the town center locals had gathered under the shop fronts to escape the rain, and I parked up quickly and ran under with them. Soon enough people were passing around hot cups of Timorese coffee, asking me where I was from, where I was going to and which aid organization I worked for.
I said I was just a traveler, and that I was going to Jaco Island, a tropical, deserted and sacred place not far from Los Palos. When the rain finally stopped an hour later I was waved down the road and warned to watch out for the crocodiles.
Timor is an island that is home to huge populations of saltwater crocodiles, and in fact, they play an important role in local legends and customs – the whole island even vaguely resembles a crocodile from above. Just down the road from Los Palos was a huge, sacred lake, notorious for being the site of many crocodile attacks.
The locals fish in the shallows and local belief says that only ‘bad people’ are ever taken by a crocodile. Unfortunately, the sacred lake has one of the highest densities of crocodiles in the country.
While this raises many moral questions – who is a bad person? If you don’t get eaten, are you a good person? – I didn’t share this confidence, or perhaps I’m just not a good person, and with the road to Jaco Island running close to the lake and heavy rain potentially causing flooding and unpredictable crocodile movements, with trepidation I sped off down the rough road to get past the lake before sunset.
The Deserted Paradise Of Jaco Island
After navigating the waterlogged roads and passing far too close to the huge, sacred lake I arrived at the village of Tutuala just as the sun was going down. Tutuala is perched on a high cliff top, the last village in East Timor.
This though wasn’t my last stop, and I still had to make a steep ascent down to the beach at the bottom of the cliffs to spend the night in a local homestay.
Eventually, in the pitch black with only dim headlights to guide me I made it to the ramshackle beachside bungalow where I could spend the night. In the morning, I awoke and I walked to the empty beach as the sun rose over Jaco Island, just a few hundred meters off the coast.
This was my end goal in traveling across East Timor, to reach Jaco Island, although really, the journey itself was the motivation to travel here. Jaco is a literally deserted paradise. It’s a small island, sacred to the locals.
That means that no one is allowed to live there or even to stay overnight.
The sand is pure white, fringed by palm trees and the coral in the clear water is colorful and full of marine life. Local fishermen took me across the short to Jaco and I finished my journey across East Timor on the sands of a deserted island, forgetting for at least a moment that I still had to make the long journey all the way back to Dili again the next day
I’m Richard, The Travel Tramp, an adventure traveler and freelance writer who can’t stop getting off the beaten track. I write travel blogs with a dash of journalism and take photographs along the way!