Landing in Timor’s capital Dili was exciting! You tend to wonder, who in their right minds would venture out here – a war torn nation that’s merely 10 years old which seemingly lack the most basic modern comforts like running water, electricity and paved roads! Apparently there aren’t many crazy globe trotters like Pramodh and I.
Entry visa for all nationalities can be obtained at the airport – Whoop! Whoop! – this usually never happens to Sri Lankan passport holders, hence the jubilation.
Waiting outside to pick us up at the airport was Ali, our driver for the next 5 days.
Dili is a small city, with no high rises and traffic. Glimpses of Timor’s troubled past is still visible in some buildings decorated by bullet holes. The UN has just left the country but there were still a number of NGOs and aid workers who are not very welcome by the locals. Lets just say the hefty salaries and hardship allowances that exapts get paid can create some animosity. There was a slight feeling of tension as we drove around Dili visiting some of its tourist attractions like Christu Rei and the Tais market, but this is a country awakening, trying to find its identity after years of war, so it deserves some leeway.
We drove east of Dili to Baucau, Timor’s second largest city on a breathtaking road – for the most part it’s by the sea or on cliffs overlooking the beautiful Indian Ocean. There seemed to be so many sea bathing or snorkeling stops and fishing villages, which I could have photographed forever, but of course Pramodh refused to stop.
3.5 hours later we arrived in Baucau and spent the night at Pousada de Baucau an old very pink Portuguese mansion now turned hotel. Baucau’s surrounding beaches are beautiful, but we were here only because it was the mid-way point to our ultimate destination.
The next day after breakfast we set off to Tutuala the entry point to Timor Leste’s crown jewel – Jaco Island, but not before running into someone who seemed to be the mayor or some VIP of Baucau. His armed guard with their very visible weapons and back up ammunition were our breakfast companions!
Our 5 hour drive was eventful to say the least. To give you a summary, here is my list of incredulous and spectacular things that happened:
1. We were given attitude from a herd of goats on the road – yes goats! Seeing animals blocking the road is not a new sight to me, but it’s never been like this – this heard of goats formed a line in front of our car and just refused to let us move!
2. We witnessed some amazingly constructed traditional Timorese houses. These houses are built on stilts with high roofs adorned with beautiful ornaments and decorated with wood carvings. Why houses on heels? To protect people from crocodiles! Did I forget to mention the crocodile infestation in Timor? My apologies, apparently there are many salt water crocs in the surrounding waters. Timor even has a folklore of how a the island in the shape of a crocodile!
3. Paddy fields on the beach – this may not be weird in some countries, but coming from Sri Lanka both an island and a place filled with rice plantations I had never seen one on a beach, right next to the gushing sea waves.
4. The road from Tutuala to Valu beach – or the lack of it. There is an 8km stretch which is pure jungle! We met a convoy of 3 land cruises just before Tutuala and followed them all the way to Valu beach. There really was no road and if not for the invention of 4WD, we’d probably have to walk through thick bushes and jump over large rocks. The ride was bumpy and there were areas that didn’t seem to support a vehicle, however, eventually we got there in one piece and were rewarded for our troubles. As we reached the edge of the jungle, there waiting to greet us was this breathtakingly beautiful view.
Jaco is a sacred island on the eastern most tip of Timor Leste. Timorese believe in an ancient legend in which a young boy saved a crocodile’s life and in return when the crocodile died, he turned into an island (Timor) to create a home for the boy. The head of the crocodile is Jaco Island which makes it sacred for the local people. The easiest access point is Valu beach on the mainland. Since it’s sacred, no one lives there and you can only visit it during the day. Valu beach itself was amazing, we couldn’t wait to cross the small straight to get to Jaco.
There were fishermen with boats lazing on the beach and for $10 one of them agreed drop us off in jaco and come back to get us a few hours later.
Jaco by far is the best beach that I have seen. Ever. Period. It is the definition of pristine. The sort that you see on travel brouchers but can only be obtained after heavy photoshopping, but this was the real deal. The only visitors here are the expats who make the occasional weekend trip from Dili. We had the entire island to ourselves with the most perfectly long stretch of beach and aqua waters.
I was sceptical about getting in the water, what with all the crocodile stories, but I ignored the images of Lake Placid that were flashing in my head and got into the true blue waters and snorkelled for hours. You don’t need a lot of gear to see corals and fish, just peer into the water and you’ll see plenty.
When visiting Jaco, however, there aren’t very many accommodation options to select from. There are two very basic guesthouses that offer a roof over your head, a much needed mosquito net and some basic food. There is no running water and I wasn’t brave enough to explore the toilets, the sea had to do. I was somewhat mentally prepared for this, so we didn’t mind it.
We spent the day lazing around, reading, taking long walks on the beach, collecting shells, star gazing and waking up to a stunningly gorgeous sunrise.
The treacherous road back to Dili awaited us, but the beauty and peace of Jaco was well worth our troubles.
The trip to Timor was an eye opening one for us. Coming from a country ravaged by war, I felt for the Timorese and their struggle. Yet it’s a country with immense natural beauty and culture waiting to be discovered.
Hope you’ll let the world discover you Timor Leste, hope you heal.