Independent, raring to go

Timor is slowly being transformed and tourism is on the rise. Heath Aston explores our near-north neighbour's adventure, diving and dining attractions.

THE four-wheel-drive's engine is running but no one is inside. We've left it on the side of the road about 15 kilometres from a town named Aileu, the spiritual home of Falintil, East Timor's revolutionary guerillas. My female companion is hiding in the bushes while I scan the road in either direction.

The air here, about 1200 metres above sea level, is fresh and the views from this mountain road breathtaking - but I'm not thinking about that right now.

The idling Toyota, left just metres from a sheer drop into the jungle below, is the only sound breaking the tranquillity of mid-morning.

Moments later, a vehicle approaches from further up the road. It looks like a NSW police car with its blue-and-white-chequered livery painted across the bonnet but I've been in East Timor long enough to know the 4WD slowing down in front of me is a United Nations security vehicle.

One of the police officers winds down his window and says in a heavy European accent: "Are you OK? Do you need help?"

Not so long ago, this could have been the beginning to a far different story. Many readers older than about 25 probably still associate East Timor to some extent with bloodshed, grisly news reports of random violence and innocent people dying on the streets.

More than 100,000 people, one-tenth of today's population, died in East Timor's armed struggles for independence between 1974 and 2002. Happily, independent Timor-Leste, as the nation is also known, is a far different place.

"My friend needed to go to the toilet and she couldn't hold on until the next town," I say.

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The UN policemen smile and drive on as my companion emerges from the trees, relieved.

Timor-Leste, particularly the capital, Dili, is full of shiny UN vehicles driven by police officers looking for someone to help. There are about 1500 foreign officers in the country, helping to train local police. They seem too plentiful in number for the task but will be crucial in ensuring the peace holds next year when Timor-Leste's young democracy undertakes elections.

Today, the island is peaceful and we push on to Maubisse, a staggeringly scenic hill town surrounded by mountains, one of which is Mount Ramelau, East Timor's highest peak at slightly less than 3000 metres. We lunch at the Pousada Maubisse, a guest house that is a relic of the country's colonial Portuguese period. You can stay here for about $US40 ($38.70) a night and the view from the pool is so astonishing it's almost a crime the guest-house owners let it sit empty.

The downhill drive back to Dili is just less than three hours but feels longer due to slow-moving buses and potholes the size of bath tubs.

For those who like their travel a bit rough around the edges, now is the time to go to Timor-Leste.

With an estimated $US9 billion in the nation's bank, the potholes' days could be numbered. Government spending has risen tenfold in a decade and donor nations such as China, the US and Australia are working hard to lift the country out of the Third World (regardless of what their strategic motives in doing so might be).

Timor-Leste, one of the poorest nations outside of Africa, is now earning $US250 million a month from its offshore oil reserves. Revenues are set to grow once massive oil projects such as the Greater Sunrise field, shared with Australia, are tapped.

Everywhere in Dili are signs of an impoverished nation on the precipice of transformation. The city's main marketplace is a huge sprawling affair in which traders hang up piglets by their noses. Yet on the road between Dili and its airport, the country's first airconditioned, multilevel shopping mall is just months away from opening.

The foyers of the main hotels such as the Hotel Timor are crammed with a mix of business people, government envoys and chancers. It can look like the UN.

Add to that the presence of the actual UN staff and Dili is the most cosmopolitan part of this corner of the world, nestled on the eastern edge of Indonesia and less than an hour's flight from Darwin.

One of the first international investors to plant a flag in Dili was Sakib Awan and his wife, Neelo, an Indian family from Darwin who built the Discovery Inn five years ago. The hotel's restaurant, Diya, offers exceptional food with a wine list ranging from Australia to Portugal. My fish cooked in coconut milk is divine and the chocolate brownie and ice-cream - the creation of Awan's youngest daughter, Ismat, who is studying to be a chef in Sydney - could be served in any upmarket Sydney restaurant.

With visitor arrivals numbering in the hundreds each week, tourist infrastructure is minimal but the Resistance Museum is worth a look for an insight into the tumultuous decades that made East Timor synonymous with tragic struggles.

In Dili, we also stay at the Hotel California, built on a quiet beachfront. Here, the talk is not of foreign investment but of adventure - mainly diving. The diving in Timor-Leste is world class, especially off Atauro Island, say a group of Australian expats I meet and who now call the country home. About an hour's boat ride from Dili, Atauro lies 30 kilometres across the Wetar Strait from the capital on an important submarine channel that reaches depths of three kilometres.

Atauro's south-western edge is a 300-metre cliff face that meets the sea and keeps going down, providing a perfect coral wall for diving and snorkelling. While a group of too-cool-for-school divers from Portugal, Britain, Germany and Japan tank up and disappear into the blue, we snorkel on the surface. The eerie, dark-blue water is packed with coral fish and, with a water temperature of about 27 degrees, you can stay in all day. In the dry season, visibility stretches for more than 40 metres.

The most common refrain we hear from travellers on Atauro is: "This is what Bali was like 40 years ago." Perhaps. If you can't get your pulse below about 70 beats a minute on Atauro, you must be doing something wrong.

One of the few options for accommodation here is Barry's Eco Resort. But don't just turn up, as the place can be booked out for months in advance. Barry's has no website, no interest in advertising and relies on word of mouth.

Dining at Barry's is communal and the guests often include UN staff on a break, diverse in age and nationality. Barry purifies his own water and each resort hut - some of which are split-level and can sleep four - has a solar panel. The island also has a pizza restaurant run by Italian priests, who oversee a Catholic church.

On the return boat ride from Atauro, we spot a pod of pilot whales and a group of dolphins making their way through the Wetar. Our final meal in Dili is a T-bone steak accompanied by Portuguese red wine. I don't think they had that in Bali 40 years ago.

The writer was a guest of Island Explorer Holidays.

Trip notes

Getting there

Airnorth flies from Darwin to Dili, Monday to Saturday, priced from about $200. 1800 627 474, airnorth.com .au. A 30-day visa is available on arrival at Dili's Presidente Nicolau Lobato International Airport for $US30 ($29). The dominant currency is $US. Anything less than $US1 can be paid for in Timorese centavos (1 centavo = 1¢).

Staying there

Discovery Inn, Dili, has double rooms from $US135 a night, including breakfast. discoveryinntimorleste.com; discoveryinn@gmail.com

Hotel California is 10 minutes from central Dili. Rooms are priced from $US80-$US100, including breakfast. californiahoteldili@gmail.com.

Touring there

Island Explorer Holidays hosts adventure tours to Timor-Leste priced from $1145 a person. Includes mountain and island trips and four-wheel-drive tour. The Perth-based company also conducts dive tours. (08) 9322 9561, islandexplorer.com.au.

Smart Traveller advice is to exercise a high degree of caution in East Timor. smartraveller.gov.au.

More information

easttimorgovernment.com.

Eco-tourism is the key

EAST TIMOR appears determined to prevent tourism growing unchecked. "We don't want to attract mass tourism," says the director of Nacional do Turismo, Jose Quintas. "We are vulnerable to mass tourism because we don't have the infrastructure to cope."

In 2009, East Timor recorded 81,000 tourist arrivals. The number grew by just 4000 last year, while this year the figure is expected to reach 100,000.

By comparison, Bali hosts more than 1 million tourists a year.

Quintas forecasts East Timor's annual visitor numbers to top out at about 200,000 within 10-15 years but says the strategy is not to attract high-frequency, low-spending tourists such as backpackers.

Instead, East Timor will market itself as an eco-tourism destination for adventure-minded travellers or those looking to escape commercial holiday destinations. HA

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