Day 1 – Darwin to Dili.
Day one of the trip was all about getting into Timor-Leste and getting ready. Flights on Air North were good, smooth and fast making the trip easy. Arrival into Dili was also easy, in fact, I don’t think I have ever had a better experience arriving into a foreign country. A $30 visa on arrival and three small forms later; immigration, health declaration and customs and we are in.
Tomorrow the fun really starts getting back to Balibo after 21 years.
Day 2 – Back to Balibo
Starting the day finishing up all our prep, the morning in Dili saw some work on the bikes (new back tyre and fork seal), a trip to the shops for some supplies and the purchasing of a local sim card and mobile data plan.
We were then off out of Dili towards Balibo. Departing at 1230 and arriving at the Fort at 1700. Along the way we stopped for drink at Loes, checked out the old Aussie base at Aidabeleten and visited some local salt farms. The roads from Dili to Batoe Gade, were good but rough up the hill to Balibo.
Finally, we are already impressed with the Fort Hotel at Balibo. The staff are welcoming, the food is great, the beer cold and the sunset, among the best
Looking forward to exploring the town tomorrow.
Day 3 – Balibo and Railuli
Staying at the Fort in Balibo for two nights has given us our first chance to catch our breath since arriving in Timor-Leste. It’s been a great base to head down to the border, to the “Red Roofed Schoolhouse” as Ben my travel mate calls it. He reminisces driving his armoured vehicle on the same road over 20 years ago when things were a lot more dicey. An unannounced visit to the village of Railuli was an amazing experience. Over coffee served we tried to converse with the no English speaking locals and with our poor Tetum, it made for quite an amusing exchange.
One of the things I have enjoyed returning to Timor-Leste, but didn’t expect before I arrived, was the smells which have triggered a lot of 20-year-old memories. Every smell I find myself saying to myself “oh, I remember that”. Some I don’t even know what they are, but still remember them. The cooking and the vegetation, riding through remote villages, it’s been great.
After today’s public holiday marking the date of the 1999 referendum, tomorrow we are looking forward to visiting the markets around Balibo and then heading down to Memo and Maliana on the bikes.
Already, this trip is delivering more than we expected.
Day 4 – Balibo and Maliana
21 years ago, I was standing in Maliana watching the locals rally for their parties in the country’s first elections. Then it was just two years since the referendum to become independent. Today, I am standing in the same place and a man who speaks English says hello and comes over for a chat. He tells me that he is part of the team charged with conducting Timor-Leste’s census. In 2001 Australians drove around in tanks. Now we are riding around on bikes chatting to the locals about the issues of the day. It is quite remarkable to witness.
I find that as we ride around the country often people that speak good English will come over to say hello and ask where we are from. The locals seem generally inquisitive and friendly. I think they also enjoy a good laugh as they listen to us try to speak Tetum.
Day Five of our Timor-Leste experience and we have toured Balibo with Mario from Balibo Trails. Rode down the hill to Tonobibi and then on to Memo. Had a chat with some Timor-Leste Border Police at the old Australian Memo Check Point. Rode into Maliana and spoke to an Australian living and teaching there. Ate chicken on the side of the road before spending the night at a Christian training school. Tomorrow we are headed towards Bobonaro.
Day 5 – Maliana to Suai
While the plan for Day 5 was to finish at Hato Bulico ready to climb Mount Ramelau, after a lunch visit to Bobonaro town centre, we adjusted and headed down to Suai via Mape.
It’s been a big ride today over the mountainous roads from Maliana. The highlight of the day; finding and paying our respects at the memorial of Corporal Stuart “Monsta” Jones, a Cav reconnaissance soldier who died on the 9 August 2000, serving his country and assisting the Timor-Leste people bring the stability we see today to their country.
After Monsta’s memorial, we visited the Marobo hot springs, and Bobonaro town centre before continuing the journey to Suai.
Of interest, I have observed since leaving Balibo that there is little to no infrastructure for tourists. Asking a local in Suai who spoke great English after living in Australia for a while, why there so few guest houses or hotels around Suai, his reply was simple, “no one comes here to visit, there is nothing to see apart from the odd crocodile on the beach”.
We ended the day speaking to Timor-Leste Veterans preparing for a local Memorial Day to the victims of the massacre here in Suai on the 6th September 1999.
Tomorrow we head to Hato Bulico.
Day 6 – Suai to Hato Builico
After not much sleep due to the heat and noise we were glad to depart our guest house in Suai. I have been excited all trip about hiking in the mountains around Mount Ramelau, so was happy to be heading towards Hoto Builico.
We started the day with a visit to a Kiwi memorial, that was erected to honour the New Zealanders that served here; followed by a local breakfast on the side of the road at Zumalai. We witnessed some cock fighting around Boltama and enjoyed the drop in temperature as we went from sea level to 2000 meters above by the end of the day.
The riding was also good today with everything from a four-lane freeway to winding mountain roads, rough tracks and foot trails.
Our accommodation in Hato Builico is quiet and comfortable and it will be an early start tomorrow climbing the mountain.
Day 7 – 3rd September 2022 – Mount Ramelau
Leaving the guest house at Hatu-Builico at 0530 I was a little surprised to find it took me until 0700 to get to the end of the road and the camp ground that the locals use when climbing the mountain. Even though my photos don’t show it, the sunrise was good as I walked enjoying the morning.
Once past the campground, you really start to get into the climb. It’s steep in sections but the bonus is the track is great. On the way up I passed many locals coming back down from watching the sunrise. I reached the Open Air Church near the summit by 0920 where I had a rest, hitting the summit just after 1000.
The mountain is great. Apart from climbing up the 1000 meters in elevation in just 6.5 km, I’d consider the hike easy to moderate.
While the mountain is spectacular and I would have enjoyed its company alone immensely, by 1400 it became clear the highlight of the day would be the locals on the hill. The amount of young people at the summit and the “Mother Mary Statue” was surprising. On my way back down I stopped to watch some young men building a traditional house. After I asked to take some photos which they happily obliged, they then brought me coffee and lunch. After the food was finished and cameras put away, they asked me to please spend the night with them on the Mountain.
So, looks like I’m staying and will climb back down to Hatu-Builico and my bike again after sunrise tomorrow.
Day 8 – Sunrise Mount Ramelau and return to Dili.
It was a cold night at 2800 meters above sea level so I was happy for the early start to head back to the summit and take in the most amazing sunrise. Shortly after I arrived the locals started to stream in. All up there was probably well over two hundred people. I was told that was because it was a Sunday. With the intersection of religion and weekend recreation, lots of Timorese pilgrimage there. Surprisingly the numbers didn’t detract from the experience, with me even getting a few requests for “foto mister”.
After the summit sunrise, it was time to make the ride back to Dili.
I stopped on my way back down to have coffee and breakfast with my new friends the builders and talk to the many young adults who wanted to practice their English before getting back to my bike around 10am.
The ride back to Dili was again great. Rough dirt roads slowly changed into reasonable 2 land sealed roads and it wasn’t long before I bumped into Ben also headed in the same direction. We made a quick stop at Wild Timor Coffee (we are returning there to film again Tuesday) and the Dare Memorial Museum.
Back in Dili, we still have a lot more planned for the next few days, but for now, I’m just looking forward to a good hot shower.
Day 9 – Exploring Dili
Today we woke up in the comfort of Hotel Timor again and while we had to change hotels mid-morning due to the HT being booked out; our new two bedroom Villa for $170 USD a night is a great setup. It is basically a house with a kitchen, two ensuited bedrooms and a laundry perfect for cleaning all our gear before returning to Australia.
It was great to speak to a local school back in Tasmania via video call to talk about Timor-Leste today as well as continuing to meet Aussies living in Dili to learn more about the country in our travels. For great food and conversation we highly recommend both the Ha Ha Café and Castaway Bar.
But probably the most interesting thing to happen to us today was our change in plans on our way to Cristo Rei, the statue of Jesus Christ overlooking Dili to take in a sunset, to find the FALINTIL Drag Bike event 2022.
When a country has time for the arts or sport like this it shows a country moving forward. Looking around and seeing all the families and bike enthusiasts, it was a great reflection; “there certainly wasn’t events like this here 23 years ago and it’s good to see them here now”.
Day 10 – Dili
An early start to get to the Cristo Rei before dawn and the day was packed with exploring from there.
After coffee and breakfast at the Beachside Hotel at Areia Branca Beach we stopped to check out the fruit market and the Church of Saint Anthony of Motael, opposite the Statue of Youth. We then visited the Archives & Museum of East Timorese Resistance. Well put together with great displays and some real Timorese feeling, this is well worth the visit.
Lunch was at the Agora Food Studio, where the food was great and the local Timorese work to practice their English.
The afternoon saw us back off into the hills to return to Wild Timor Coffee, spending more time talking with Jack the local manager about all things Timor and coffee.
From there we made our way to Remexio to explore a battle site that the Australians had fought with the Japanese during WW2.
All up, it was a big day absorbing the island that is Timor-Leste. The culture, customs, places and people that make Timor-Leste so unique and perfectly suited for an adventure travel experience.
Day 11 – Dili
Our last full day in Dili started early again with some photos at the Statua Presidente Nicolau Lobato and the beach before enjoying a morning coffee at Letefoho Specialty Coffee Roaster.
We then used some time to clean gear but with our bags mostly packed by lunch, we headed back out to check out the local Dili driving range and grab some lunch at the well-known Turismo Resort. The afternoon was filled with a last ride around town and the returning of our little KLX150’s that have been so reliable over the last 11 days.
This trip has been an amazing experience on so many levels. I have learnt more about this country in 12 days than I did in 6 months of my army deployment. It’s going to take me a while to go through my photos and videos and share my favourites.
Side Note: After commenting today on my surprise that the only beer you can buy in the whole country is Bintang, I found a supermarket that sells a few Aussie beers, so naturally I had to indulge.
Day 12 – Timor Leste to Australia
After a few cancelled QANTAS flights and an unexpected hotel stay in Adelaide, we made it back to Canberra.
Timor-Leste. What a great adventure experience. The people were welcoming and the vistas, roads and mountains epic. Our only regret from the trip; it should have been longer.
Over the coming weeks we will be creating and sharing some video footage of our time in Timor. Thanks again to everyone who helped make this experience a reality, Young Veterans, Village Bakehouse at Port Fairy, Point Assist, Aquilifer Leadership and our Go Fund Me donors.
After visiting again, I can say with confidence that those Australian service personnel who gave time to Timor-Leste over the last 25 years have helped make a difference for the better.