Timor Leste is one of the newest countries on Earth following centuries of Portuguese rule, and more recently, Indonesian occupation. It wasn’t officially recognised as an independent nation until 2002. It is also one of the smallest and poorest countries in the world. We knew that travelling in Timor Leste would be a challenging start to our overland adventure, but we really weren’t sure what to expect from this fledgling nation. Would the people be friendly and welcoming or suspicious of outsiders? There isn’t a great deal of information to be found on the internet other than some blog posts about long, torturous bus trips to the more remote parts, and about the pristine diving (although these all failed to mention the threat of crocodiles). We’ve now spent a reasonable amount of time in Timor Leste (albeit largely in Dili while waiting for our car to arrive) and have put together a few of our impressions of this tiny country below.
Big smiles and friendly waves. Outside of the city everyone is happy to see us and to be near us. In the villages we feel like celebrities, everyone is excited, waving and yelling “mister, mister!” as we drive past. Big flocks of school kids running along beside the car, waving and trying to get high fives. While the people appear shy and a little timid, they were always kind and gentle, and so excited to see Baz. Wherever we have stopped, we have drawn a crowd, whether we are just cooking lunch or setting up our camp. The language barrier can be challenging, as outside the city there is very little English, but everyone does their best, and is so keen to help.
Timor Leste is blessed with some absolutely stunning scenery. While the beaches in the city are a little drab and brown, once you drive an out of town they start to get more picturesque. White sandy stretches, inside long fringing reefs which we have typically had to ourselves; occasionally, we have seen fishermen working along the reef edge or collecting at low tide. But then there are the crocodiles. You just have to mention Timor to any travellers and they will say “Oh you can’t swim there, the crocs are terrible, so many people are killed every year’. Article after article on the internet tell you about how dangerous the crocodiles are. We were very conscious of the danger so would splash in rockpools inside the exposed reef where we knew we would be safe, wondering if it is all just hype and drama. In our two months here, we did not see one, not even in the muddiest, most buffalo filled creek we could find. And believe me, we checked every one we passed with hopeful enthusiasm of spotting Timor’s totem animal.
Hmm what to say? The old adage ‘if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all’ comes to mind. The roads are shocking. Truly terrible. I am sure we will see worse during our trip but we definitely jumped in the deep end here. Nearer the city, the roads are generally wide enough for a couple of lanes, but are largely just dirt, rubble and covered with potholes, and are so dusty. Dust coats everything. The poor people who live along the road edges must suffer so badly from the constant dust. As you get further from the metropolis the roads get smaller and smaller, more and more pot holes. Small bridges have often been washed away and people just drive down into the creek and back up again. Where small patches of bitumen remain it is worse, bumping up and down, on and off hard sections, the car getting pummelled. There are enormous trenches in the middle of the road filled with mud and around many of the steep mountain villages the road is so worn away that the car is lumbering up rocky embankments, the tyres spinning and slipping. And then at the farthest point from Dili, just two dirt ruts, snaking along, new paths cut around when potholes become too severe. And the roadworks! The government has pledged two years of funding to fix all the roads in Timor, that was 18 months ago, and during our time we estimate 80-90% of the roads were still dirt. There is certainly plenty of work happening along some sections of the road network. Piles of rocks which will be used for base block the roads. Groups of hard-working men carrying buckets of hand mixed cement to build meter-high barricades. Sieving river sand, which has been dug by hand, on the side of the road to make the cement. How long can it take to build the entire road system for a country with 10L buckets of cement? Some of the major roads have been completed, but even these are already showing signs of subsidence and slipping; many do not look like they will last very long.
The tall spines of the crocodile’s back running down the centre of the country create a dramatic backdrop to the turquoise blue water of the beaches. It has certainly been a stunning first stop on our journey. The mountain range is wild and ominous, almost impenetrable with its tiny dirt road accesses. But as the clouds pass, your breath will be stolen by the stunning views that appear around every corner. These rugged monsters tumble sharply down into valleys, filled with secret tiny rivers and creeks, with blue water and stunning waterfalls. Eventually these little waterways drain into wide alluvial riverbeds, that (despite the fact that they were very dry at the moment) are impressive in their enormity. Where the rivers and the mountains reach the sea, you are constantly surprised. Winding down the tiny roads you will pop out at a spectacular vista, mountains on one side, calm blue expanse on the other. Every spot private and different; rockpools on the shore line, tiny waves lapping the sand, coral and shell fragments underfoot, the sound of a herd of goats or cows peacefully sharing your stunning views.
Potatoes, tomatoes, mangoes and bananas. Maybe throw in some garlic and onions. Timor did not seem to have its own distinctive cuisine, with most of the food being Indonesian style but made with the available ingredients. We did our best, and tried the street food (see Pigs on the beach blog) where we could, but really there was not a lot of cooked food available. This was particularly true outside of the major towns, where there were almost no restaurants or food stalls. Except for a couple of spots adjacent to some of the big rivers, where 30-40 stalls were set up, all selling the same skewers of meat they had cooked that morning. Why were they all clustered together like that? We were baffled. But there are plenty of produce markets, and fresh fruit and vegies on the side of the road, and so we cooked as best as we could using the local ingredients and the stores from our car. Even the supermarkets have very little food. The shelves are full of instant noodles and washing products. We would love to say we ate this amazing local cuisine here and tried that amazing dish there, but we just couldn’t find much worth noting.
Dili is a busy, bustling, dusty little metropolis. Where the taxis are so old they are held together with duct tape, there is an incomprehensible trend of obscuring all but a tiny slit of windscreen with enormous stickers, and drivers move around in 5th gear even though they are only doing 25km/h. Where the microlet buses cost 50c for a half hour trip but you are crammed in like sardines and the music is so loud your eardrums hurt. Where you can find a restaurant serving just about any type of cuisine that takes your fancy, if you are happy for it to be just slightly strange. Where the cost of accommodation is disproportionately expensive, and almost non-existent. Where fruit and vegie markets spill out onto the road and cars selling spicy meatballs dodge in between. Where the Timor Plaza shopping mall is the place to be seen, and every school kid wants to practice their English. Where there is no time for tourism, only business, but everyone is friendly and so happy to stop and have a chat.
Timor is definitely a new country, the tourism industry is small, under-developed, and has really not capitalised on some of the opportunities the country has to offer. But that is the part of the appeal, the lure of the undiscovered. Timor’s tourism hashtag is even #exploretheundiscovered. How apt. I don’t imagine there are many places in the world that are this unexplored, and yet so safe for tourists and so welcoming. Based on the stunning scenery and the lovely people alone, I would recommend Timor as somewhere to visit. But it is such a new country, and the challenges of travel here are extensive. Without your own transport it would be almost impossible to see much of the country, and even then it is hard going; with bad roads, little food and limited accommodation making it a challenging place to visit. We would definitely recommend it as an incredible and undiscovered place to visit, if you are feeling brave, you will be rewarded.