29th August Timor Leste
The Portuguese first arrived in Timor in the 16th century, with the Dutch following 50 years later, both with a vested interest in the trade of sandalwood and timber. The two powers were to compete for Timor over the next three centuries.
After various conflicts for control, by the mid 19th century, Timor was split into two, with the Dutch claiming the eastern half of the island and the Portuguese the western half, including the enclave of Oecussi in West Timor.
January 1942 saw the occupation of Timor by Japan, a harsh regime involving forced labour and severe food shortages. By the end of the war, 40-60,000 East Timorese had died.
Following the downfall of the Portuguese empire, the dictatorship was overthrown in 1975 in the ‘carnation revolution’ a peaceful takeover, and on the 28 November the existence of the Democratic Republic of Timor Leste was declared.
However, Indonesia was uneasy with the thought of a potential communist neighbour and attacked the capital Dili just 9 days after independence. 27 years of Indonesian occupation followed, at a huge cost of up to 200,000 lives lost from the fighting (a third of the population), and the subsequent disease and famine.
These 27 years saw regular attacks on the Indonesians from the main political group, Fretilin and by early 1999 the Indonesians prepared a referendum for Timor Leste and finally a choice for the people of autonomy or independence. A near 80% vote for independence resulted in the pro-Indonesian militias and Indonesian army to run rampage, with fires raging in Dili and around, and also near the border, causing thousands to flee into the mountains.
This time the media were watching the atrocities unfold and UN troops soon intervened, bringing stability almost immediately. 20 May 2002 finally saw the declaration of Timor Leste as a new nation.
At the Timor border, we hang around in the blistering heat for the border guards to come back from lunch, to have the carnet stamped and our visas issued. As we have visa permission letters, this takes just 5 minutes and we carry on through to Timor Leste.
We’re surprised that border officials don’t check the car at all; we head straight through on quiet roads past tiny villages, the only car on the roads for long stretches, people wave as we drive along the spectacular coastal road to the capital of Dili.
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Being our first new country for 5 months, we wonder what to expect. Having read the outdated version of the LP guide, which painted a bleak picture of the country, including warnings of not to venture out after dark, we set off arriving in Dili a little guarded.
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The accommodation in Dili is expensive and relatively poor in quality compared to what you get for the same money in Indonesia. After looking for hours online we take one of the cheapest hotel rooms for around £20 a night on a quiet area just off the main road. We think we probably have the best deal in town, new rooms, flat screen tv, internet, hot water, and breakfast for half the price of the other shady hotels in town. Later on we go to Castaways restaurant overlooking the seafront, and get a meal which is shockingly expensive, compared to the Indonesian fare we have had for the past few months!
We find most things in Timor Leste expensive, for example a large Bintang or a small Aussie beer will set you back about $4-5. Food prices are also high, probably because the majority of goods have to be imported.
Timor is one of the smallest countries we have been to. Dili doesn’t really feel like a capital, it’s so tiny, but compared to the surrounding towns, it certainly stands out by miles! It was recently anointed ‘City of Peace’ by president Jose Ramos-Horta. Its setting on the northern coast sprawling along the waterfront provides it with a picturesque and laid back feel.
On Timor’s roads, there are UN cars everywhere, mainly kitted out Toyota Land Cruisers and Hiluxs.
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We take a drive along the coast, approaching the Christ statue which sits on the headland on Cape Fatucama, looking over the harbour, and modelled after Rio De Janeiro’s Christ The Redeemer. We take in the stunning bays, passing cyclists training for the ‘Tour de Timor’ cycle race.
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We drive past the presidential palace, costumed warriors wielding spears stand at the entrance doors. Inside is a children’s playground and free wi-fi access to all, the president wanting to share his palace with the people of Timor.
In the afternoon, relaxing in the hotel, Martin starts complaining asking me to ‘Stop moving the bed!’. It turns out I wasn’t and we quickly realise it was an earthquake, which lasted about 30-40 seconds.
Later we find out it was just 170 miles away north in the Banda Sea and was a magnitude 6.8 earthquake, luckily too deep in the earth to cause a tsunami.
Driving along the coast, towards the Christ statue, we find the road has been partially washed away, and decide to head inland a little to make it over the headland. Driving up the narrow path we are greeted with fantastic views of the bay and Dili in the distance. Once over the headland we spot beach after beach, each one unique yet all with tempting blue waters. We spot a track below us from the cliff road, and decide to try and find a way onto it. Sure enough, a mile down the road we descend to sea level and are able to turn onto the beach road.
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The road takes us through sunny bays where lots of locals are picnicking with their families.
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Arriving at the beach at the back of the Christ statue, unfortunately the tide is out, so decide to give snorkelling a miss. With the recent shark attacks in the Seychelles, we don’t take the (small) possibility of crocodiles in the sea for granted and decide to stay out of the water!
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We have a relaxing day, preparing for our entry in to Australia, which requires us finalising the shipping, arranging for the car to be cleaned and making sure the car is mechanically sound prior to shipping.
We take the car to the only Toyota garage in the country to have various bits and pieces fixed, axle oil leak, stabiliser links etc including having the brake pads changed.
Given the prices we had paid for labour and parts in Indonesia was extremely cheap, we did not give the cost of the repairs much thought. However when picking up the car, we are shocked with the prices they have charged for the parts. After an hour of negotiating we manage to come to a price we could live with, but be warned, if you do get your car fixed in Timor, make sure you buy the parts in Indonesia first!
Exploring the east side of Timor Leste, we have about three days to kill before having to be back in Dili to sort out the shipping to Oz.
As we’re leaving the hotel, we are approached by an English guy who turns out to be Keith who we had been speaking to on the Hubb. He is travelling the same route as us in reverse, Right Way Round; we have a quick chat and arrange to meet up later that evening in Bacau.
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We drive to Bacau, Timor Leste’s second city, along fairly good roads. Bypassing the sleepy old town, and passing a small roadside market, we head down the hills to Osalata beach, past drooping Banyan trees, and onto Bacau beach bungalows. The beach is nice but compared to some of the beaches we have seen in the last 5 months, nothing spectacular, although completely deserted. We are shown to a thatched bungalow by an elderly man who speaks relatively good English, just a few metres back from the beach. It seems a bit desolate so we decide to carry on to Com, a beachside fishing village.
Arriving in Com 203km away from Dili, we are greeted by cheeky girls trying to sell sea shells, which is fine at first but as they become more persistent, became quite annoying….
Trying Com Resort and a couple of others we find that the accommodation here leaves a lot to be desired, and is also expensive, i.e. box sized rooms with just a small bed and nothing else, albeit right on the beach. To top it off, there are crocodile warning signs all the way along the main beach road! By now it is 4pm but we think we can make it to the end of the island and Tutuala beach before dark.
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The GPS takes us up rocky roads towards Tutuala beach, the ‘impassable’ shortcut from Com (according to the LP). The road gets progressively worse, it feels more like we are driving over coral. We eventually make make it on to a smooth road near Fuiloro. On route we start to hear a scraping noise coming from the front wheel. Checking, we cannot spot anything wrong, but it’s driving me crazy, and we still have more off-road conditions to come.
We continue to the village of Mehara, where we are directed down 8km of four wheel drive track to the beach. The road is not as perilous as the LP describes, but it would be advisable to only drive in a 4×4 as there are a few sections where you would need a little more clearance than a normal vehicle.
We eventually arrive at Tutuala Beach or Pantai Walu as the sun is setting, and head to Lakumorre Guest House only to be told that they are full, even though the place looks deserted! So it’s back to the community run simple bungalows consisting of a tiny bamboo hut with 2 mattresses on the floor and a mosquito net. However they want $20, so we decide to rough it for the night and camp in the guest house grounds for the evening. Not having camped for 6 months, we are not prepared… when checking our food supplies we find that there is very little for dinner, including a few noodles from Kyrgyzstan, a jar of pesto from India, and a couple of tins of baked beans from Turkey!
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Settling down to sleep, we hear a large crash, and find a huge branch has fallen not far from where we are sleeping. The night is hot and uncomfortable but we wake up to peace and solitude on a serene beach.
Relaxing on Tutuala beach, a group of local ladies are heading out over the shallow rock to collect shellfish. We go to Jaco Island for a snorkel, a fantastic deserted island, although we are not impressed by the snorkelling. If you’re heading to Indonesia, there are many better and more accessible sites than here.
Heading back, the 8km uphill road is rocky and bumpy and the narrow path is surrounded by dense jungle. People stare as though they have never seen a tourist before, even though we see quite a few cars with tourists in them coming the opposite way.
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A lot (not all) of the UN cars drive carelessly on the roads, most of them speeding and over taking on corners, surely the UN should try and keep them under control!
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Stopping to take photos of some traditional houses, a couple of kids walk over to the window saying ‘Sister, give me dollars’. Martin replies saying ‘Kid, give ME a couple of dollars!’ In the whole 5 months of travelling in Indonesia, not one person asked us for money so brazenly, despite being just as poor. The kids here seem to be used to getting handouts from NGO’s or seem well trained, constantly getting shouts of dollar dollar from kids we pass on the road. This isn’t the case with all by any means, some are friendly, waving as we pass but others scream and shout after us. Maybe this is to do with the conflict they have seen and what they have learnt from the adults around them, but some of the villages we get the feeling we wouldn’t like to be stuck in for long.
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Stopping at the Victoria cafe in Bacau, we order some ‘mixed rice’, getting white rice, stewed beef, and a mixed salad, which is good and unexpected!
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Passing on long deserted roads through grassy plains with a scattering of trees, buffalo and horses, the dry plains suddenly get greener. A huge pink church then appears, perched on the hilltop.
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All of a sudden, half the road is gone, fallen away down the mountainside with no signs to warn traffic. If driving at night, it would be virtually impossible to see. We can pick up speed but the near blind corners and huge holes in the narrow road make them dangerous.
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Pushing on through the mountain roads to Dili along the coast, we head straight for our hotel, eager for a shower and a decent night’s sleep. Before that it’s into town for supplies, a group of large uniformed UN officials are hanging around outside the supermarket. Near the beach we spot a crowd gathered but it’s nothing more ominous than a BMX track race. Further down the road is a group of people with some uniformed officers making notes, but this time are not too sure what is going on. We guess here, it could be anything from a minor disagreement turning into something worse, to mini riots on the streets, although we have not seen anything untoward since arriving.
We unload the car and start sorting everything out for our entry into Australia, which is potentially going to be the most difficult country with regard to meeting all the quarantine requirements.
Later on Martin drops the car of at Troy logistics so cleaning of the car can start first thing in the morning. It is expected to take 3 to 4 days. They plan to remove pretty much everything from the interior of the car, all the trim, dashboards, carpets, seats. From the outside they will remove all the lights, radiator, bumpers, roof-rack, even the plastic.
We just hope they put it all back together again as it was!
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5th -11th September
Martin goes to help out with cleaning and later we begin the task of going through all of our luggage, throwing away all food, washing all the bags, shaking out the dust, and making sure there’s no sign of any dust, dirt or seeds. Then we repack everything and hope we have done enough to pass the quarantine check!
We take a walk out for dinner with Keith, Ellen and Ian. The streets are dark, hardly a streetlamp on the road. When we get to Castaways it’s busy, filled with ex-pats, UN workers and locals. The special of chicken with mash and mixed vegetables is delicious!
In the morning Martin heads back to Troy to check on the progress…
The car has been put back together, and is looking good, however when we go to start the car, nothing… nothing happens, it does not turn over. After an hour of tinkering by Troy’s mechanics they finally get it working again; it seems some water had got into the electrics.
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Returning in the afternoon to take the car to the port, I’m given the news of more problems. This time, the car won’t turn off. I start to feel that it’s all going wrong, we can’t ship the car like this, they need to fix it quickly. If we were to miss the ship we would lose $680!
As a quick fix they decide to put in a kill switch in so at least we can get it shipped to Darwin. Chris, the owner’s brother promises everything will be put right once the car is in Darwin; he checks with Troy that everything will be fixed in Darwin. With that news we’re happy for the car to go to the port.
As we drop the vehicle off at the port I’m left with one more surprise, the central locking does not work!! As you can imagine I’m pretty pissed, knowing that we would not be allowed to take the car out of the docks or be able to get anyone in to fix it. Returning to Troy, we again approach Chris who assures us everything will be sorted in Darwin, and they accept full responsibility for any damage caused. (To date Troy Logistics still have not repaired our car or even answered our calls)
It’s Keith and Ellen’s last night here so we all head out to a quiet Thai restaurant which brings back memories of Thailand, a delicious hot red and green Thai curry with fish cakes and spring rolls. Deciding that the night is still young, we jump in a mikrolet to the party on the hill, loud base-heavy music thumping all the way. According to a couple of locals we speak to the festival will be heaving, lots of traditional music and dancing, food etc.
The mikrolet driver suddenly decides he’s not going up to the party, so we pile out and wait for a cab. No cab 20 minutes later, a local suggests we get in his van and will get us there for $5, so off we all go, determined to get there, after all, we had come this far! Unluckily for us, there is no dancing or music, just a few people milling around and some deserted food stalls! 10 minutes later, we are heading back home!
The road following independence has not always been smooth, with various riots occurring, over slow economic reform, low job prospects and a reliance on foreign aid. Today there is stability, which is over shadowed by in fighting between different groups and political parties. The high UN presence gives us an immediate insight into the countries troubles and rocky path to self-rule.
Timor Leste has long way to go before it can be considered a developed tourist destination; above all they need to be realistic …… the accommodation is overpriced, basic and poor value compared to every other country we have been too!
Today’s LP is positive about everything Timor Leste has to offer, we would go as far to say it’s overly positive and biased.
A short cab ride, 2 hours flight time, 1xMars Bar, 1xTwix, a beer and a bottle of wine later, we have landed in Australia!
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Martin & Nicole