On a DIY road trip, Patrick O'Neil samples the fledgling nation's highlights — before the crowds arrive.
The lobby of Hotel Timor in Dili has the feeling of Rick's Cafe from the movie Casablanca but with more khaki than suits. The high-ceilinged room is teeming with NGO workers, United Nations staffers clustered around tables and developers circling for their piece of the pie. I've arrived in the country this morning from Darwin, landing on a patch of tarmac speckled with dirty UN helicopters. Overwhelmed by the humidity, I've fled to the only airconditioned room in Dili that doesn't require a key for entry.
There's a hubbub in one corner of the lobby and I'm astonished to see the President, Jose Ramos-Horta, standing just metres away, chatting to a group of Portuguese businessmen as attaches flit about ensuring everyone gets their moment with the leader. As I sip my lemonade, I imagine there are few nations in the world where you can land in the morning and inadvertently share a space with the president by lunchtime.
I'm visiting East Timor as a tourist, one of only a handful who arrive each day, while nearby Bali takes more than a million each year. The rest of East Timor's visitors are here to keep the peace or develop the nation, bringing with them a Scrabble bag of acronyms. Indeed, the most ubiquitous vehicle on the roads is the white UN four-wheel-drive; there is seemingly one turning every corner.
The sight from the foreshore at Dili beach is gloriously panoramic but for two giant tankers anchored off the coast. As I stare at them, a shirtless Timorese man in a hand-carved canoe sweeps across my sight line, stroking at the water with a whittled paddle. The juxtaposition says much about East Timor, a traditional culture attempting to take a giant step into the future.
Tourism is nascent in East Timor but this will change; Lonely Planet is publishing a new East Timor guide in July and Intrepid Travel recently started tours. For now, the country exists on a false economy of US dollars, propped up by the pay packets of the UN and NGO staff. Next year the UN will leave and Timor will need tourism dollars. Its leaders are doing what they can to alert the world that they are ready for visitors. Last June, for example, the first Dili Marathon attracted more than 1000 foreign visitors.
For most tourists arriving in East Timor, diving is the main attraction, with hundreds of dive sites and no chance of running into another group on the reef. I spend my first couple of days on day trips from Dili getting reacquainted with the underwater world and discover vast swaths of untouched reef with bright fish and adrenalin-inducing drift dives. My companions are a miner from Darwin who visits to dive four or five times a year and a young Indonesian NGO worker.
Next morning we hit the road out of Dili in a rented four-wheel-drive - four of us, all well travelled, roll-with-the-punches types. This is fortunate, because East Timor is not a destination for a first-time traveller. The lack of tourism infrastructure means you need a little patience.
A friend who lives in Dili, Chloe Adams, keeps telling us not to get our hopes up, but she seems merely to be managing our expectations, because the four-day drive we embark upon is jaw-droppingly beautiful and culturally vivid. Driving about 250 kilometres takes at least eight hours because of the state of the roads, yet carries us across half the length of the nation.
A child on the edge of a town an hour out of Dili shrieks when he sees us arrive. He dashes down the main street ahead of our vehicle, howling and waving his arms. As he runs, children pour from the houses like a Mexican wave and sprint to the car to greet us. I don't think I've ever seen children so excited. Their parents gaze at us passively but when we wave, they grin and return the gesture. The youngest children stare at us with fascination.
When I told friends I was going to holiday in East Timor, the most common response was: "Isn't it dangerous?" But the biggest hazard I encounter is "Timor elbow", the ache from spending so many hours waving back at the villagers.
In the backstreets of the next town, we find an outdoor restaurant and settle under a bamboo roof. There is power today, so the beer is coolish. Despite myriad alleged options, there are just two dishes. Though we are the only customers, lunch takes more than an hour to prepare but somehow it's part of the charm.
We drive through a series of villages, each one different architecturally from the next, until we arrive in Baucau, a cluster of Portuguese pousadas spilling down a hillside to the sea. In the centre of town, a gutted mansion is daubed with bright paintings declaring peace and independence, and inside two young boys play badminton in a courtyard. We descend to the ocean through farms tended by brightly clad villagers. They stop work and peer at us with apparent bafflement. But they, too, wave cheerfully.
We pull into a guesthouse set just back from the beach. The garden is fragrant and tropical, teeming with flowers and kept impeccably. Adams speaks a little Tetum, one of the national languages, and negotiates a lovely little house for about $12 each a night. As the sun sets, we wander to the beach, where an old Portuguese fortification sinks into the sand and a goat ambles along its highest turret.
Back on the road next day, we seem to pass through every tropical season in a couple of hours: raging sunshine, torrential rain and suffocating humidity under grey skies. When the rain comes, bright parasol-style umbrellas appear above villagers.
Like other Portuguese colonies, soccer is a national obsession and every village has at least one pitch. We roll past a lush field upon which two black-and-white striped goals are surrounded by a lazy herd of goats keeping the grass short.
At Tutuala, the dirt road peters into an eight-kilometre pebble track that winds down to the ocean. The stretch through dense jungle takes nearly an hour to traverse and several times we pass people ascending with preposterous loads of produce. At the base, Walu beach is beyond belief: a perfect beach inhabited by fishermen selling the day's catch. At the end of the road, we pull in to four bungalows near the water.
We sit on cushions under a bamboo shade and share a dinner: a couple of giant fish on the fire, garnished with fresh herbs and chilli. Only two other people are staying, both Australians. "You know, only 1200 tourists visit every year, right," the young woman says. "That's about four a day, meaning we're it at the moment." It's a delightful thought.
Sunrise unveils a more breathtaking vista than we could have imagined: white sand fringing crystal-clear water a dozen shades of turquoise. Jaco, a tiny uninhabited island, beckons in the distance. We employ a fisherman to ferry us across on his gaudily painted longboat. Peering over the side, I can see 30 or 40 metres to the seabed. In the distance, a pod of about 40 dolphins frolic on the surface.
On Jaco, the sand beneath our feet is white powder and, save for another boatload of NGO workers several hundred metres away, the island is ours. We spend the afternoon snorkelling off the beach. Floating above clusters of bright tropical fish and radiant coral, I see an asparagus-green turtle puttering through the water. Minutes later, I see a pair of white-tipped reef sharks.
I expected East Timor at best to be interesting and challenging - I hadn't contemplated finding myself in a kind of nirvana, basking on my own private island.
As the light fades, the fisherman returns to ferry us back to the mainland. After another dinner of fresh fish and a few almost-cold beers, we watch the sun set.
As fireflies flicker among the trees, we decide on a night dip. At first, I think I'm dreaming when I see flecks of light shimmer around my friends' bodies as we paddle in the water but, no, the sea is alive with phosphorescence sparkling off our skin with every movement.
One day, Timor is going to be a tourist hot spot but this night, it's just for us.
Darwin is the departure point from Australia for East Timor. Air North flies non-stop to Dili (75min) for about $730 low-season return, including tax. There are a number of airlines flying non-stop from Melbourne and Sydney to Darwin (4hr), for about $450 return, including tax. Australians obtain a visa on arrival for $US30 ($28) for a stay of up to 30 days.
Hotel Timor has double rooms from $US135 to $US250 a night for the executive suite; timorleste-hotels.com.
Dili Backpackers has single rooms for $US28.75 and dorms for $US13.80; timorleste-hotels.com.
The Pousada Baucau has double rooms for $US75; timorleste-hotels.com.
There are several eco-huts at Walu beachcosting $US25 and sleep two. At weekends, arrive early in the afternoon to ensure you get one; otherwise, it's camping. The owners serve breakfast and dinner but it's best to bring some of your own food.
Dive Timor Lorosae has day trips including two dives near Dili for $US75, including drinks and lunch. Day trips to remote sites are $US165 for two dives; divetimor.com.
As the economy is boosted artificially by the UN presence, East Timor is not as budget-friendly as other nations in south-east Asia. It is still cheaper than Australia, especially outside Dili. Exchanges are in US dollars, which can be drawn from ATMs in Dili but hardly exist outside the capital. You can't swim at certain beaches, including Baucau, because of the threat of crocodiles. Get local advice before swimming at remote beaches.
Intrepid Travel's 15-day East Timor trip visits villages and markets and costs $2700 a person, including accommodation, ground transport, guide and some meals. Departures on September 11 and 25. Two departures in 2012. See intrepidtravel.com.
See easttimorgovernment.com/tourism.htm, osolemedia.com/easttimor, lonelyplanet.com/east-timor.