I was in Dili, the seaside capital of East Timor and I was looking to travel across this small, rarely visited and underdeveloped island nation.
East Timor is the last frontier for tourism in South East Asia. The eastern half of the divided island of Timor has long been known only for conflict, corruption and war and the few tourists that do make it here rarely leave Dili. I knew that there had to be more to this country than that, and I wanted to travel across the island to see.
I’d already seen all the best of the things to do in Dili that I could find. I’d visited beaches, resistance museums and abandoned colonial prisons, and now I wanted to get on the road. I wanted to get out across the island to the far east, where I’d heard rumours of a deserted, white sand island that few tourists had ever set foot on.
The Long Road East From Dili
Getting on the road proved to be a challenge in East Timor. The country is Southeast Asia’s newest and one of the region’s smallest nations. They only achieved independence from Indonesia in 2002, after a bitter, decades long conflict that caused untold destruction.
The Indonesians occupied East Timor in 1975, right after East Timor had declared independence from the Portuguese, who had themselves spent hundreds of years colonising the place.
Portuguese colonialism and the ensuing decades of occupation by Indonesia left the country struggling and destitute when the East Timorese finally gained their freedom. On the way out, the Indonesians destroyed all the infrastructure they could. Years later, and even the main highways are still in a sad state of disrepair and in some places completely nonexistent.
With buses hard to find in Dili and transport options limited, I decided to rent a motorcycle to travel across East Timor. I soon found out that it was a long, long road from Dili to the east. Where there was even a road that is.
Guerilla Fighters in the Mountains of Baucau
I followed the coastal road from Dili to East Timor’s second city, Baucau. Despite being the second largest city in the country, the road was for the best part gravel, dirt and rocks and for the worst part, not even there.
125 kilometres of motorcycling took almost 9 hours, but the scenery was spectacular and I was crossing a country that sees almost no other visitors attempt to travel it. At Baucau, I turned inland. I drove into the mountains to ride through remote villages in the rugged interior of the country on my way east.
This was guerilla territory. The Portuguese called these mountains Mundo Perdido. In English, the Lost World. The high peaks, constant cloud and fog make for incredible landscapes, and for the East Timorese resistance who fought the Indonesians for over two decades this landscape made for incredible hideouts. This was where they waged their war for independence.
Motorcycling along the rough roads here, I needed a place to stay the night. There were no hotels or guesthouses, but I was soon taken in by an elderly local man named Adriano.
Adriano had an extraordinary story. Long into the night, in the mountains of Timor, he told me the story of his 24 year long war. From 1964 until 1999, he fought for FRETLIN, the guerrilla group which is now one of the country’s major political parties.
Adriano pointed at the hills and mountains that surrounded his house. They were the same mountains that he’d fought and lived in. He introduced me to his wife and told me how they had both met in the mountains while fighting the Indonesians. She had been captured though, and Adriano only saw her covertly three more times in twenty years before independence.
After their long, long war, they were reunited in a refugee camp in 1999, and now, despite receiving several honours from the government for his efforts in the war, they live a quiet, rural life in the mountains, living the life they missed out on for decades.
The next day I carried on with my journey, leaving Adriano behind but now beginning to understand more of this intriguing country than I’d ever known before. His tale was extraordinary to me, but to many in East Timor who have experienced decades of conflict, it is simply life as normal.
From the mountains, I travelled back down to the coast and made my way to the last major town in the east, Los Palos. This was a place once known for its intriguing local customs, culture and in particular for the spiritual, traditional stilt houses. The Indonesian occupation destroyed much of that, and now only a few traditional, wooden houses remained in isolated villages in the countryside.
The people of Los Palos, quick to welcome in a tourist, were also quick to warn me that the last stretch of my journey to the island I was searching for went through Lake Ira Lalaro, a sacred place, but a place renowned for having the highest concentration of deadly saltwater crocodiles in the country. And the road went right past the lake.
Timorese culture is inseparable from crocodiles. They even say the island looks like a crocodile. The lake I had to pass through, was the scene of the highest number of crocodile attacks anywhere in the country, not only because of the large population of them living in the waters but because the locals waded into the water to fish. Timorese culture insists that only bad people will be taken by crocodiles. If you have lived a good life, then why would a crocodile attack you?
This raised a particular set of moral questions. Was I a good person? Who could decide who was a good or a bad person? If a good person is taken by a crocodile, are they now a bad person?
These distracting thoughts were with me as I motorcycled from Los Palos towards the lake. The road runs alongside the huge swampy, marshy area of water, with trees and dense bushes offering countless hiding places for these stealthy beasts to lay their ambush.
With the sun slowly setting I rode on but was slowed by potholes and flooded roads. Eventually, as the light faded, I rocked up to a set of bamboo bungalows on an almost deserted beach to spend the night. This was the farthest point east that I could travel overland in Timor.
The White Sands and Crystal Clear Waters of Jaco Island
I woke early in the morning and across from the beach I could see Jaco Island. I walked along the white sands by the ocean until I found a group of fishermen who were lazing around under palm trees by the water, their fish drying out in the sun nearby.
For a few dollars, they revved up their engines and took me across the short strait to the island, leaving me marooned there on my own to take in the scenery.
Jaco Island is the furthest easterly point in East Timor. It’s a small island, just a ten minute boat ride away from the mainland. No one lives here, no one is even allowed to stay overnight because it’s a place that’s sacred and important to local beliefs. It’s fringed by incredible white sands, surrounded by turquoise waters and a coral reef.
And I was the only person there. It’s literally a deserted paradise. Few people travel to East Timor and even fewer travel this far out to Jaco Island. This was really off the beaten track, but it was spectacular. Like nowhere else I’d ever seen in Southeast Asia.
The Long Road Back To Dili
The fishermen eventually returned to take me back to the mainland. Jaco Island was really something else, but I was glad I wasn’t abandoned on the sands. There was no one else around.
I’d risked death on the roads, met with guerrilla fighters in the mountains and dodged crocodiles by the lake to make it to the end of East Timor, and the experience was worth every danger and frustration I’d met on the way. The only trouble now, was that I had to make the same, long journey all the way back to Dili again.
If you are interested in visiting East Timor, check out The Young Pioneer Tour’s itinerary here.
I’m Richard, The Travel Tramp, I’m an adventure traveller who can’t stop getting off the beaten track. I write travel blogs with a dash of journalism and take photographs along the way!