Unbeknownst to most Australians, we actually have a really cute next door neighbour in the shape of Timor-Leste (East Timor), however sadly, aid workers aside, it certainly appears that too few people (of any nationality) make the trek to visit this, one of the worlds youngest countries.
It had been on my periphery as a destination, however flights from Australia are limited to one route (Darwin-Dili) and monopolised by one carrier, Air North, who accordingly, charge through the nose.
Nevertheless, a 2013 newspaper article I read highlighting Timor as the 10th least visited country in the world, only added to my determination to get there and help one of our nearest neighbours by contributing some tourist dollars to their economy.
With the need for us to be in Bali for this upcoming wedding, I was also able to dodge the Air North monopoly, as 2 Indonesian carriers fly Denpasar-Dili at much more reasonable rates (we ended up choosing Merpati whose prices return, were cheaper than one way from Darwin).
To put the tourist numbers into context, Timor-Leste reportedly receives approximately 50,000 foreign tourists per year (this information was sourced from the UNWTO Tourism Highlights, 2013 Edition). Gili Trawangan (one small Indonesian island) supposedly receives 100,000 per year, of which 20,000 travel there for diving trips alone!
The customs lady was certainly disappointed when we told her we only had 4 days here, but it was the best we could do with so much concentrated into our very tight schedule.
Our first task was to get from the airport into Dili and on to our accommodation, an apartment out in Metiut. Now we’d read that a fare from the airport into most of Dili should be around $10US, so when our particular driver attempted to drop us off at Dili’s new shopping mall (only a few hundred metres from the airport gates), something didn’t feel right.
We cajoled him into taking us further into town to the waterfront, however Metiut he was adament would require at least double the fare.
So, with little real idea of where we were traveling to, we shouldered our bags (in the 30 degree heat) and began to walk.
…and walk. Laden with packs and in the heat, it felt like a long walk. In time we found ourselves on the outskirts of Dili (that said, I can’t think of many capital cities that we’ve walked through in a couple of hours) and following the coast road to the village of Metiut.
We eventually succumbed to the reality that we were not certain where we were going and asked a few locals (who thankfully knew enough English for us to be understood) for assistance. Unfortunately the ‘Metiut Apartments’ where we’d booked was a very vague name, and the best they could offer was that there were several apartment options in Metiut.
Traipsing further, our bags beginning to feel heavy and our backs covered in sweat, Sarah suddenly spied a sign that stated simply “Apartment for Rent” and thankfully recognised the place from images seen online.
So we squeezed through the main gate and into a seemingly empty compound.
After a few hesitant “Hello’s”, eventually a couple of Timorese appeared, and showed us to our room. Although our room remained ours for all of a few minutes. You see, these 2 young guys it would appear, had been utilising our room, complete with air-con and satellite TV.
We have a sneaking suspicion that they shifted next door to continue their enjoyment of the daytime scheduling, only to discover to their shock, that the TV did not work. Minutes later (after we’d already dumped our bags) they reappeared, and amid some muttered excuse, ushered us into the room next door. Minutes later they again sat comfortably, watching the television (what did we need with a TV anyway?)
Anyway, with our lodgings located, and the chance to refresh ourselves somewhat, what else should we do? Why walk all the way back into town of course! Once we factored in the fact that we were now no longer burdened by our packs, and we actually knew where we were going (somewhat), the return leg definitely felt a lot easier.
So, what were our first impressions of Timor? For us it was exciting! If I’m trying to offer comparisons, it felt like a poorer version of Vanuatu (also absent were the tourists), blended with a little Asia.
Their devotion to Catholicism was also immediately apparent, as the sheer volume of, and effort put into their nativity scenes (this was just after Xmas) for a country that is so resource deficient was impressive!
Our immediate goal in heading to town was simple. Purchase tickets at the harbour office for the local ferry to Atauro Island the following morning, then arrange for a pickup the following day by water taxi to return us to Dili (the ferry only runs once a week, on Saturdays).
The stroll along the waterfront afforded us some fabulous sights of the local fruit market, as well as fisherman attempting to sell their fresh catch, straight from the sea (flies come at no additional cost).
We eventually found the office we sought, and managed to arrange ferry tickets at the standard tourist price of $5US (in case you hadn’t noticed, the $US is the official currency here), although we had mistaken a local cleaners gestures as a signal to remove our thongs (flip flops) before entering, when in fact she had been trying to indicate the opposite (that it was ok to leave them on). Oh well, the cold tiled floor, did feel nice on our hot feet!
A short while later, we found the offices for the water taxi, explained to the clerk that we would like to book a trip from Atauro Island, and patiently waited whilst she went to confirm with the manager. After a short while she returned, and advised that with the date we’d hoped to book being Sunday and there being no other bookings already, no service was currently scheduled. Further to that, he could not be contacted at that time to see if something could be arranged…
We had no phone reception, so took a punt and advised the clerk where we would be staying on Atauro Island, and if the taxi could be arranged, to please contact us through them.
So with our return trip loosely arranged, and the afternoon getting, we had a fitting destination in mind to head, from which to (hopefully) watch the setting sun.
To the east of the capital (actually closer to our accommodation than Dili) on a hilly promontory sits the Christo Rei, a 27 metre high Jesus statue (in fact only 12 metres shorter than Rio’s Christ of the Redeemer statue), which seemed the ideal vantage point.
Looming large as we had viewed it from afar leaving Dili, it oddly enough began to look smaller the closer we seemed to get.
Despite the road effectively straddling the coast, we had already done a lot of walking by now, so it was little surprise when a slightly fatigued Chris (yes, that would be me), rather nastily stubbed his toe and drew a significant amount of blood.
So it came to pass, that I hobbled the remainder of the distance to the Christo Rei, and the ascent up the many stairs to catch it up close (and hopefully a sunset as well).
The view this elevated position afforded us was sensational, although the build up of some cloud put paid to our dreams of a sunset view.
Nevertheless, we were not left disappointed, as the bay around the other side was even more beautiful again (and the Christo Rei itself was much more impressive up close, than the shrinking figure it had appeared on the approach).
After an even sweatier descent, we were part way home, and pretty exhausted when we decided to stop at a place called the ‘Caz Bar’ for a quick bite and a couple of thirst quenching coconuts on the shore.
It was a timely pause for rest, as it was also a gorgeous place to watch the last of the daylight disappear, and quite simply, we needed the rest! The recuperative powers of coconut water can not be underestimated.
From there, it was a relatively short stroll back to our apartment, where sleep was not far from coming.