Little country limbers up

The fledgling nation has a packed schedule of adventures and races to showcase its natural assets, writes Jock Cheetham.

For entree, cream of minted green-pea soup; for main course, grilled chicken with caramelised onion and spinach; on the side, cold Crown lager. I'm impressed. While most local East Timorese eat at home or at the cheap open-air grills by the beach, expats on international salaries and travellers on holiday budgets can enjoy a surprisingly cosmopolitan menu in Dili.

The best is the urbane and wood-panelled restaurant at the Discovery Inn, where I tucked into the aforementioned meal. My most disappointing is another presidential favourite, the tropical beach-house style Nautilus (overcooked fish, undercooked potatoes and overpriced). Many restaurants double as drinking venues (or vice versa), at which expats and travellers mingle. The best is the Esplanada, with its romantically lit open deck overlooking the Banda Sea. Typical of the mid-range is the Dili Beach Hotel, where the beer is chilled and the party never long from starting in the open-air bar upstairs.

There are nightclubs where Portuguese (and Brazilians) dance until the early morning. But foreigners don't seem to mix much with locals, or each other, outside their language groups.

It's a two-tier town. Partly it's related to language but partly the reasons are economic. The explanation for the wide choice of restaurants and bars in a city of barely 100,000 people could be that there's not much else to do. Dili has little in the way of cinemas, theatres, live music, sport or shopping, and is a capital with few tourist sites.

But I haven't come here to eat or shop. I'm here to discover a country I've known from afar since the early '90s when I became an activist for the oppressed people's independence.

After strolling past the few colonial-era buildings in Dili, such as the Palacio do Governo, a twostorey white building with simple arches along the verandah, my thoughts turn to history - to the relics and memorials from East Timor's 24-year Indonesian occupation.

I visit Dili's Santa Cruz cemetery, the venue of a terrible massacre in 1991, and I'm shocked by how young those who diedwere. Some Australians also visit Balibo in the country's west, where five Australian journalists were murdered in 1975.

East Timor is a destination barely explored, a struggling country of 1.1 million that benefits from every tourist dollar. The big attractions are adventure activities - diving, snorkelling, hiking and cycling - and the openness of the Timorese. A stranger here is immediately a friend.

And so it is when I wander into the Xanana Gusmao Reading Room, a small library near the centre of Dili. I meet a dreadlocked university student, Adilson, and his cousin, Dede. We wander around the corner for a coffee.Within an hour we've hatched a plan to visit their home towns in the east of the country.

The next day I hire a four-wheel-drive and the three of us drive east along the north coast. The road hugs the coast, passing beaches and delightful coastal views as it winds towards East Timor's second city, Baucau. We lunch here with two other tourists. Further east, we stay the night in a beachside shack at Com.

The next day we visit Adilson's home town of Lore, near Los Palos. Conditions are basic and the roads often just potholed tracks. Driving is like riding a bronco. We make it all the way east, to the tip of the mainland. From here we look down on Jaco Island, beautiful and remote.

I'll never forget the three-day trip, not least because we play our only CD, the pop-metal band Scorpions' Crazy World, continuously. I can still hear the songs and I keep in touch with Adilson. But not enough people enjoy East Timor this way, Jose Ramos-Horta believes. So the president dreamed up a packed events schedule to turn on the tourism tap.

One of the first was the Tour de Timor, a gruelling five-day mountain-bike race last year around half the country. I was pleased to be filming the race from the back of a motorbike and fourwheel- drive, rather than cycling in 30-degree heat. I'm sure most of the 300 riders from around the world (mostly Australian) would not otherwise have visited. The second annual race is on September 13-17.

In June, a Kenyan, Philemon Rotich, won the first Dili marathon, claiming the $US5000 ($5542) prize. Rotich had arrived without any money for accommodation and at the airport spotted Ramos-Horta, who asked him to stay at his place. In July, the country revived the 425-nauticalmile Darwin to Dili sailing rally after a 35-year hiatus. John Hardy, from Darwin, skippered Even Karma to a record-breaking win in a competing field of eight yachts.

Early next month, the country will host the Timor-Leste Dive Photo Contest, covering 12 dive sites in and around Dili. Timor's reputation for its diving is based around sites where you can spot seahorses or take night dives with turtles. At K41 there are coral bommies, small coral gardens, Napoleon wrasse and spotted eagle rays. And plans are under way for an adventure challenge in November that will include cross-country running, sea kayaking, mountain biking, rock climbing, abseiling and ocean swimming.

But it's too hot for me, so I head to the hills. Timor's mountainous interior is a relief from the coastal heat and provides a glimpse of rural cultures. My favourite retreat is 2000 metres above sea level at Maubisse, a few hours' drive from Dili. I first saw the town from a helicopter. The Maubisse pousada, on a hill in the middle of the dramatic valley, is one of the most satisfying in East Timor. The rooms are basic - as is the town - but the pousada fills up at the weekend. From Maubisse it's a two-hour drive to Hato Builico for the walk to the 2963-metre summit of Mt Ramelau. The locals revere the mountain with songs, poetry and an annual pilgrimage.

The mountains, criss-crossed by tracks used by local people, are a great place to trek. I walk into a hamlet with dirt-floor huts dotted among subsistence crops.My hosts insist on giving me the only bed in a hut that houses a family of 12. A lack of accommodation andwater in the bush, especially in the late dry season, meanswalkers should engage a guide or tour company and plan ahead carefully.

Closer to Dili, Atauro Island is two hours by ferry and a great day trip or weekend break from the city. There's not a lot to do but I swim and enjoy the peace. Visitors can take a day trip on Saturdays but should buy advance tickets. For a longer stay, there's an eco-resort.

And back to dining in Dili. A lot of taxi drivers go home early, so it's slightly scary looking for a cab after dark. But despite the Australian media squeezing every drop of drama out of the conflicts over the past 11 years, East Timor is peaceful. So dine well but dine early.

FAST FACTS
Getting there
Air North flies from Darwin to Dili (1hr 15min) for about $600 return including tax. Jetstar flies to Darwin from Sydney and Melbourne (4hr 30min) for about $390 return. Australians can obtain a $US30 ($33) visa on arrival for a stay of up to 30 days.

Staying there Esplanada Hotel in Dili has double rooms for $US115; see hotelesplanada.com. Dili Beach Hotel has double rooms from $US100 and two-bedroom apartments from $US110; see dilibeachhotel.com.

More information See freeflowdiving.blogspot.com; ecodiscovery-easttimor.com; timorleste-hotels.com/tours.

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