Within minutes of landing on Atauro island, off the coast of Dili in Timor-Leste, I'm using my body in a way I haven't in some time. Perched on the edge of the tray of the old blue ute that has collected us from the dirt runway, my thighs are switched on as I try to keep my feet firmly planted. My core, too, as we bump along the dusty, palm-lined road towards the eco-lodge we'll call home for the next three nights.
As someone who spends much of her time desk-bound, this active holiday to Timor-Leste with Sharing Bali & Beyond provided the perfect escape hatch. Living in a world increasingly dictated by machines, connecting to my body seemed not only nice, but necessary. Aside from niggling pain in my neck and back from countless hours spent slouched in a desk chair, I noticed a mental flickering of late. I could only attribute this inability to concentrate on one thing for more than 10 minutes to the constant demands of my devices, coupled with not moving my body enough.
We arrive at our eco-lodge, a homey place that's fully off-grid and where sandy paths and permaculture gardens connect huts just metres from the ocean. I'm shown to mine, a basic bamboo structure about four-metres-square, with a grass roof, lattice windows and a clean, communal bathroom. I'm instantly grateful for its compactness, knowing it will force me to spend most of my time here outdoors.
When I meet the six other women in our group later in the afternoon, I realise almost everyone has come here to find parts of themselves that may have rattled away during life's rough ride.
There's the mum with breast cancer, the recent empty-nester, the domestic violence worker craving cerebral escape and the woman who left her comfortable life and law career behind to travel the world and discover her next step.
All of us hope that being on this island, cut off from the world and pushing our bodies harder than we have in a while, will save us in ways great and small.
Our first session with Sharing Bali & Beyond's fitness trainer, a tall, gentle ex-policewoman named Jo Sharp, is a yoga practice on a concrete pontoon jutting into the ocean. It's twilight, the setting sun throwing diamonds across the sea, and as we stretch our bodies I think how bizarre it is to feel so peaceful in a part of the world that historically has been anything but.
Timor-Leste, this 1.3 million-person, ethnically distinct half of Timor island that's otherwise part of the Indonesian archipelago, has a painful past. In 1975, just nine days after the country declared independence after 400 years of Portuguese colonial rule, Indonesia invaded. The world turned a blind eye while as many as 183,000 East Timorese died, before the country finally achieved independence from Indonesia in 2002. Watching the carefree faces of the kids laughing at our yoga moves from the shoreline, it's hard to imagine the sorrow of this time.
But as I lie in my single bed later in the evening, the sea breeze raking through the gaps in my hut, I read a book called Timor Runguranga that helps me better understand this country.
"Timor-Leste is a microcosm of the world we live in," it says, "inviting us to embrace the runguranga (messiness) of life, instead of resisting it as if we could keep on organising everything into neat packages." I fall asleep with this reminder that the world is much more graded than we might like it to be.
Next morning we're up in the dark. We've all had restless sleeps, unaccustomed to the sound of crashing waves so close to our beds. Our group is silent as we trudge along dirt paths in the dark, stars still pricking the sky. Karen Willis, the petite, freckled, bubbly founder of Sharing Bali & Beyond knows what's coming, and gives us a pep talk. "Just take things one step at a time," she says as the sky brightens, and the mountain running across Atauro's spine materialises ahead of us. "Remember we can do anything we want, if we just do it bit by bit."
It's a lovely thought, but almost impossible to evoke when thighs burn and sweat runs down your torso like a river. We're red-faced, we're sore, but we're a determined bunch.
With chatter and pikelets pushing us on, we soon conquer the ridge and are climbing down the gravelly face of the mountain. By the time we reach our destination of Adara Beach, via one of the most picturesque stretches of coast I've seen, dotted with coconut palms, papaya trees and cactus, we're on a high. We throw ourselves into the ocean, some of us still wearing our hiking gear, and lie on our backs in the warm water, faces tilted to the sun. Our simple lunch of fresh barbecued fish, vegetables and noodles, eaten under the palms on a wooden deck facing the ocean, feels very well deserved.
As our days on the island stretch on, I feel my body getting stronger as we do high-intensity interval training on the beach, swim in the ocean, take daily sunrise walks, and hike for hours to reach the top of Mount Manucoco, the island's highest peak.
Atauro Island has been described as having the most biodiverse coral reefs in the world, and we take a small boat out to snorkel over them. The coral gardens throb with life, and time disappears as we bob over the jumble of dusky pink and magnetic blue corals, fish, sea snakes, turtles and small sharks peering inquisitively from their marine hideouts.
Back on solid ground, I take my daily bucket shower in the eco-bathroom then lie in the hammock on my balcony, the sea breeze shifting around me and rustling the dried palm leaves covering the roof. My body is tired, but in a good way, one that's putting my usually busy, chatty mind to rest.
At dinner each night, served in an open-sided communal dining room, we share the highlights of our day. It's the simple luxuries that arise again and again. The ability to watch a sunrise for a full half hour with no distractions. The sense of achievement when reaching the top of the mountain on a hike. Not having to wear make-up or shoes for days. Slipping into midday naps without guilt.
With our bodies fatigued and the complications of everyday life stripped away, we have the headspace for these small things. Luxury is usually coupled with overindulging, but being here in Timor-Leste I've realised it can sometimes be the exact opposite. Paring back to almost nothing, so we can see the world more clearly.
FIVE OTHER NATURE-BASED EXPERIENCES IN TIMOR-LESTE
Considered sacred by the Timorese, this 10 square-kilometre uninhabited island off the eastern tip of Timor-Leste is the jewel in the country's crown. The six-hour drive from Dili, through hills and winding coastal roads, is an adventure in itself.
At 2963 metres, this is East Timor's highest peak and a fairly easy three-hour hike, after a three-hour drive from Dili. The panoramic views from the top are especially lovely at sunrise and sunset.
MAROBO HOT SPRINGS
In the isolated village of Marobo, these natural hot springs are set among Portuguese ruins. The terraced mineral-rich pools with dramatic mountain views are well worth braving the potholed roads to get to.
ILE KERE KERE CAVES
Enter these caves, set inside the Nino Konis Santana National Park, and you'll find fascinating rock paintings dating back 13,000 years.
JESUS BACKSIDE BEACH, DILI
Set beneath the 27-metre Cristo Rei statue, the world's second largest Jesus statue, this white-sand beach is surrounded by mountains and feels deserted, despite being a five-minute drive from town.
Nina Karnikowski travelled as a guest of Sharing Bali & Beyond.
Air North flies from Darwin to Dili, an 80-minute flight, for about $488 return. See airnorth.com.au
Sharing Bali & Beyond's five-night Timor-Leste adventure, including three nights in an eco-lodge and two nights in Dili, is priced from $1750 a person, twin share, including boat transfers, snorkelling and guided hiking, three fitness sessions and more. Flights not included. See sharingbaliandbeyond.com.