Time for Timor
Blessed with incredible diving and whale watching, pristine jungle landscapes and some of the friendliest people you will ever meet, Timor-Leste is an ideal place for an off-the-grid, cultural getaway.
Airnorth Magazine - February/March 2019
Words by: Michelle Hespe | Photography: David Kirkland
Island in the Sun
I’m flying through the water with the sun on my back, my snorkel allowing me to breathe and my flippers angled in a straight line so as not to slow me down. My diving buddy Neyl and I are holding on to a rope that is tied to a fishing speedboat, and our goal is to catch up with a fast-moving giant pod of melon-headed whales.
The boat stops, I let go of the rope and after a million sparkling bubbles rise in an explosion of light around us, we hear the joyous song of the creatures swimming around, below and before us. There are hundreds of them cavorting about, leaping in and out of the water, tail-slapping and singing to one another. I can’t believe it’s real.
They’re called whales, but the melon-heads – who gained their name due to their bulbous heads with flattish faces – are actually dolphins. They travel in enormous groups (sometimes up to 1000) and are renowned for being quite shy, but today they seem to be enjoying the human company. We swim amongst the shimmering spectacle, marvelling at their other-worldly beauty.
An hour later the dolphins swim out to deeper seas and we board the boat, ready for some fishing and snorkelling along the coast of Atauro Island. The snorkelling around Timor-Leste is famous, for good reason. The crystal-clear waters, abundance of marine life (including lots of Nemos) and intact coral gardens resplendent in a dazzling array of colours, also make it an underwater photographer's dream. On a fine-weather day, the sea is as flat as glass and it’s an easy hour-long boat ride across to Dili.
Back on land, later that day, I explore Atauro Island by tuk-tuk, checking out the busy markets where 10,000 or so locals buy products from the mainland and food such as dried fish, vegetables and chickens from farmers and fishermen. I stop by for a cold beer at Barry’s Eco-Lodge – owned by the man himself who has been on the island for 15 years. I take some time to kick back and enjoy the stunning view of the property’s palm-fringed beach. It’s always abuzz with fishermen, and the thatched accommodation huts surrounded by flower gardens make it picture-book perfect.
I notice there are students everywhere, playing board games, reading books in the shade before whirring fans and enjoying cool beverages and local snacks.
Barry explains his retreat is often chosen by teenagers who have finished Year 12 and are after an alternative to Schoolies. Here, they put down the gadgets and go alcohol-free, getting back to nature, meeting the locals and enjoying one another’s company in a good old-fashioned way.
I don’t want to spend too much time out and about as where I’m staying, Neyl’s Beloi Beach Hotel, is a piece of paradise that has the best views, food and drinks on the island. Neyl, otherwise known as "Captain Imagine", had a dream of building his own Rasta-themed resort complete with a pool and a bar, on jungle-clad land, overlooking the ocean with mountains soaring majestically behind it.
The crowning centrepiece of the resort is the pool. Inlaid with Moroccan-style blue tiles, it’s perched on the edge of a cliff, so while you're enjoying the cool water you can gaze over the island villages. Here, people live as they did thousands of years ago, in thatched huts with abundant vegetable gardens, chickens and kids running about in the forest. If you didn’t see mobile phones in most people’s hands, or a glimpse of a TV here and there through an open door, you might assume you’ve stepped back in time.
Beside the pool is Neyl’s latest addition to Beloi, which has more zen than a monastery. The delightfully dubbed Ponky’s Bar was named after his three little girls, who he calls his “Inky Pinky Ponkys”. You enter the bar-cum-restaurant via a winding path through tropical gardens, and step into a space that is such a surprise for an island that, until recently, didn’t even have tarmac or more than a handful of tourists at any one time.
With dark walls and thatched booths, stools and seats made from recycled boat materials, funky lighting and reggae tunes, the bar could easily be a big city venue. Neyl is proud to say that he and his team of 12 staff created it all from scratch, teaching themselves as they went along. You can perch on a stool on the balcony – which has the same jaw-dropping views of jungle meeting ocean.
The accommodation is clean and simple, with air conditioning and showers. Some rooms are in the main bungalow, and others in converted shipping containers positioned on the side of the cliffs next to the pool. Make time for a massage in the furthest container, which has been turned into a sweet little spa – I am lucky enough to have a heavy thunderstorm roll in while enjoying mine, adding to the feeling of being removed from the world as I know it.
After a few days I reluctantly say goodbye to the gorgeous staff and grab a ride down the hill in the back of the ute, then wade through the water to our awaiting boat. Fishermen and kids wave and shout out farewells. The trip back to Dili is a smooth one, and we are lucky enough to spot more dolphins and humpback whales having a ball. Whale season in Timor-Leste is something else – the magnificent creatures migrate past before hitting the top of Australia and continuing their journey down Western Australia’s coast.
The Big Smoke
After Atauro Island, being back in Dili is a bit of a shock. It’s a thriving Asian city alive and humming with the smells, noises and organised chaos of a somewhat clumsily developing country. But that’s also what gives this special place its charm. Think Thailand in the 70s – complete with beaten-up yellow mini-buses blasting reggae or tinny Timorese tunes, their dashboards crammed with all manner of soft toys, fluffy dice dangling beside prayer beads and random collections of glittering, bobbing ornaments that the drivers can somehow see through.
The city streets are lined with groups of young and old men selling bundles of fish on the footpath, next to others pedalling fresh coconuts. It's pure mayhem if you're driving – the bigger your vehicle, the more right of way you have, and cyclists, buses, motorbikes and pedestrians all dodge chickens and stray dogs looking for a feed.
If you need time-out, there are plenty of ways to escape the heat and chaos of Dili. Timor Plaza is where you can cool off and shop to your heart’s content in the frenetic layers of a thriving shopping mall selling everything you can possibly imagine. Eat local food downstairs, or head upstairs for a sophisticated experience in luxurious surrounds.
Enjoy a cocktail, beer or wine in the Sky Bar or Sky Garden Terrace, or sit back, relax and indulge in a wonderful dining experience at Timor Plaza Hotel’s luxurious Panorama restaurant, which focuses on modern European cuisine, complemented by a great wine and beer list.
The accommodation at Timor Plaza Hotel is some of the best in the country. There are Premier, Superior and Deluxe suites with views of the surrounding mountains, Junior and Executive suites, and apartments for longer stays.
Leste we Forget
On my second day, intent on ridding myself of any lingering preconceptions that many people have about Timor, I take a tour with Timor Adventures to get the lowdown on where the country came from, and where it’s headed.
To get a grip on my location, I walk up 500 steps on the Fatucama Peninsula to visit the 27-metre high Cristo Rei of Dili monument. The statue was proposed by former governor José Abilio Osorio Soares to President Suharto, as a present for the 20th anniversary of East Timor’s integration into Indonesia. Things didn’t go too smoothly from there, and after spending some time sitting under the statue, looking out over the ocean, I take the plunge into some dark history.
Be warned, it’s not easy to stomach what happened to the Timorese people during many relentless periods of conflict – the country was pretty much at war for four decades from 1960 until 1999, and the atrocities that occurred during and after the Indonesian invasion are horrifying. The Indonesians burnt Dili to the ground when they were forced to leave
in 1999, with the aim of destroying everything in their path on their way home.
I visit the Timorese Resistance Archive and Museum and learn about the 250 (at least) pro-independence students who the Indonesians opened fire on while they were peacefully protesting on the day of their murdered friend Sebastião Gomes’ funeral at Santa Cruz Cemetery in 1991. I remember hearing about the Santa Cruz massacre as a young teenager. Sebastião had been murdered after vocalising his opinion on Indonesian occupation during a meeting with other resistance members in Dili’s Motael Church. When the Indonesians discovered the group, he was dragged outside and shot in broad daylight in front of his friends, allies and enemies. Seeing the blood-soaked clothes and shoes beneath photos of the many young, optimistic faces is enough to make anyone cry.
There's a statue in the city (called Estatua da Juventude) depicting a young man holding another who was shot during the massacre. Their names are Amali and Levi Corte Real. Both survived, left the country for around a decade, and weren't aware that the statue had been erected. It was based upon footage of the carnage taken by British filmmaker Max Stahl, who hid his reel of film in the graveyard and then retrieved it after the Indonesians left. That footage changed the history of Timor-Leste as it let people know what was really happening in a country that was cut off from the rest of the world.
Wanting to know more, but with my stomach churning and tears in my eyes, I visit the Chega! exhibition in a jail where } Timorese people were tortured and killed by Indonesians for being brave enough to stand up for their country’s freedom. Today, locals (including Amali) work tirelessly at the institution to preserve the country’s dark history.
Feeling quite burdened by Timor's sad history, I go for brunch at Agora Food Studio, which is a "social enterprise and plant-forward restaurant”, that proudly proclaims its dedication to “growing food and coffee innovators”. It is “guided by the ever-changing equatorial seasons and indigenous knowledge”.
Agora is a Greek word for a gathering place to share ideas, and that’s what I find when I step inside. It’s a buzzing place for people to enjoy beautifully creative slow food meals which are artfully crafted from locally sourced produce. The chef proudly explains each dish to diners, and you can take a look at the rooftop herb garden and the outdoor pizza oven.
I enjoy a homemade kombucha with a plate of delicious goodies that includes falafel-style purple sweet potatoes, grilled locally caught fish, a boiled egg and a light and tangy vegetable salad, alongside fresh avocado on sourdough.
The café and hospitality school is up there with Timor Plaza, raising the bar on Dili’s dining and drinks scene. Things really are changing here, and the staff are as passionate about food as they are about service.
Afterwards, for a late lunch, I visit the Timor Lodge Hotel for a poolside nasi goreng and a G&T to get some relief from the heat. I sit in the big open-air courtyard, then take a swim in the hotel’s large pool with a waterfall at one end. Skinny cats and kittens prowl the premises, no doubt praying for a dropped prawn or a rogue sliver of chicken – a gentle reminder that Timor-Leste is still a Third World country. The food is great and there are never many people in the pool, so it’s a little oasis in a busy strip of Dili.
That night, I visit the beautiful Diya restaurant in the Discovery Inn. It’s a fine dining affair in beautiful, relaxing surrounds and the staff have all been trained to take service to the next level. The portions are generous, and every detail is taken into consideration. There is also an alfresco dining option where guests can be surrounded by tropical gardens and palms, and an upstairs bar on a patio complete with fans and wicker seating. The rooms here are lovely, spacious and decorated with local art and crafts, so they have an authentic Timorese charm.
Before leaving for the airport on my last day, I head back to the statue of the two men that dwarfs the smattering of locals gathered around its base, smoking cigarettes, drinking beers, chatting and listening to music blaring from 80s ghetto-blasters – another reminder that this city is yet to hit the well-trodden Asian tourist circuit.
Some young Timorese girls, giggling and shy, approach me and ask for photos with them. I happily oblige, then spend the next half an hour having my photo taken with every teenager in town, faces beaming as they cuddle into me, making jokes about my skin and clothes. I’m astounded that I am still an unusual sight.
Before jumping in a cab (the blue taxis are modern and metred and it's pot luck with the yellow ones), I look up at the two determined young men immortalised as a symbol of Timor-Leste’s struggle for freedom, and I can’t help but feel sad and happy at the same time. They’ve had a rough trot, the Timorese. But they’re strong, happy, friendly people, and I really do think it’s time for this young country to step into the spotlight and shine.
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