HAVE YOU HEARD of the lush mountain ranges framed by white sand beaches, turquoise seas and colourful coral reefs that sit just an hour north of Darwin? Perhaps you know about the world-class diving, fishing, sailing, mountain biking and trekking to be had in one of the world’s newest nations?
You haven’t? Don’t worry most of the world hasn’t either and that’s exactly why Timor-Leste is so special.
Over the years I have been fortunate enough to visit Timor-Leste, more commonly known as East Timor, many times. It’s not that I’m a creature of habit, the opposite in fact. I’ve chased my curiosity around the world and back again. I’ve tagged all seven continents and have an insatiable appetite for new places, people and experiences. So why cover old turf nine times over? Good question, easily answered…
East Timor has a knack of delivering up the unexpected. This tiny country stretches less than 300km long and 100km wide, a long spine of towering mountains rising steeply out of a temperate ocean, yet for all my visits it’s never been the same place twice.
When I first stepped off the plane into the warm humidity, it was 2007 and there was a humanitarian crisis underway with 100,000 displaced people living under tattered UNHCR tents in the capital. Every second building was a pile of burnt-out rubble, a mark of a brutal Indonesian occupation. I’ll be honest, in many ways it was a confronting place but despite the obvious turbulence, I quickly fell in love with Timor-Leste.
Today it is a nation with an altogether different story. With a population of just over a million people, buildings pop up every month, painted in bright shades of pastel pink, sunflower yellow or turquoise blue. Dili, the capital, once ransacked by war and torn with violence, is now called ‘The City of Peace’. Gone are the international troop patrols and the fleets of NGO vehicles. In their place you will find a small generation of pioneering travellers delighting in an unusual fusion of Timorese/Indonesian/Portuguese and Western culture and enjoying the fine dining restaurants and creature comforts of the newer hotels. The Internally Displaced Persons camps I once wandered through are now a distant memory, replaced by shiny new shops in a Western-style mall, complete with a Burger King and a posh nightclub.
Yet despite rapid development, Timor has managed to keep its authenticity. Children play on the foreshore and fishermen sell the catch of the day on bamboo poles. The former president drives around town in an open air Mini Moke and young educated women smile, laugh and wave. It’s a country that having just celebrated its 13th birthday has struck the impossible balance between paying homage to a rich history full of tragedy and moving gallantly forward into a bright future.
Timor-Leste is an intrepid destination and it isn’t for everyone. If you are looking for a five-star luxury resort and you are content to share the beach with hundreds of selfie-snapping tourists, this isn’t the place for you. This is a destination that embraces being off the beaten track, literally, and is built for those who relish in the odd cold shower and would rather be in touch with nature than in constant connection to Wi-Fi.
Don’t let the land size fool you either, while small, there is an endless list of things to do in Timor. If you are a hiker, you can trek to the 3000m summit of Mt Ramelau at sunrise and take in the view across the country, looking from one ocean to another with a slight turn of your head. Or, you can circumnavigate the country on a motorbike, visiting the remote districts that lie beyond the reach of the main road. Maybe you’re fit and brave enough to enter the Tour de Timor, a tough multi-stage cycling race. Perhaps you just love a decent coffee and want to trace the prized Arabica beans back to their mountain source and enjoy a strong cuppa with the local growers.
The cold currents of the Wetar Strait wash up over the tropical reefs to give rise to hundreds of kilometers of pristine diving and exceptional marine life. Punctuated by one of my favourite places, the sacred, uninhabited Jaco Island at the very eastern tip of the country is not only that deserted island you see on postcards, but a place where if you’re into fishing you can catch a black marlin a mere 50m off a white sand beach.
Whatever your adventure you will likely find it in Timor-Leste. If you can’t find any information on it, that doesn’t mean it’s not there, it just means it’s waiting for you to find it, and add another chapter to the guidebooks for the rest of us.
I’ve heard rumours of unbolted cliffs yearning to be climbed, trade winds whispering to kite and wind surfers, inaccessible beaches lying hidden for sea kayakers to discover, and old goat tracks through dense forests begging to be formalised into proper trails.
Without doubt, some of my best travelling moments have happened here. I have beautiful memories of handing out school textbooks in a remote village and being mobbed by children in frenzied excitement, or making bubbles with elusive dugongs just a stone’s throw from the international airport. It’s Timor where I’ve navigated through dense rainforest to cast my eyes over secret ancient cave paintings in the newly established Nino Konis Santana National Park. It’s in Timor that I’ve climbed silent mountains and stood above rolling clouds.
Despite the promise of adventure and the obvious beauty, misperceptions about Timor still linger. Mainly, that it is dangerous and certainly not a holiday destination – an outdated view. Today Timor-Leste is bubbling with spirit, hope and happiness. Being one of our closest neighbours, we owe it to the people of Timor-Leste, and to ourselves, to turn a new page because, as anybody who has actually spent time here will tell you, it’s a safe tropical paradise offering up raw adventure, gentle people and a rich history. So pack your boots and your boardies, and get over there quick before the rest of the world finds out.
Getting there: AirNorth Flights departs daily from Darwin, NT
Tourist visas are available for USD30 on arrival
Stay: My favourite is Aeria Branca Beach – try the Beachside Hotel Dili
Language: Tetun, Portugese, English and Bahasa
Climate: Dry Season: May–October
Wet Season November–April
Currency: US dollar