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By Sally Bolton 

The challenge:

Dili to Maubara, a coastal town 50km west of the capital.

And back.

The mode:
Bicycle

The challengers:

A six-person crew divided into Team Imported: Jamie, Marum and Darian, riding bikes from Australia, and Team United: Julia, Andy and I, the less serious cyclists of the crew, riding Indonesian-made United bikes, the only (reasonably) decent bikes available in Dili.

The obstacles:
Intense tropical heat, early wake-up calls, Dili traffic, bikes of dubious quality, high probability of flat tyres, road hazards including goats, pigs, chickens, dogs and small children.

The pay-off:

A leisurely afternoon at the Maubara fort, a delicious swim in the ocean, a lovely overnight stay at the nunnery, a fresh coconut water refreshment stop, and countless high-fives from schoolkids along the way.I love riding bicycles. I love riding bicycles by the beach. I love a leisurely ride from Santa Monica up to Pacific Palisades or down to Venice. I love bicycles with baskets and bells and vintage styling. I love bicycles in cheerful colours like cherry red or bubblegum pink. As for gears, what would I ever need those for?

So what was I thinking suggesting a weekend ride to Maubara, a sleepy beachside town roughly 50km west of Dili?

I’m still not entirely sure, but it was a fun ride.

We set off from Dili at 7.00am Saturday. In the cool morning air we sped through the first twenty kilometres on a smooth flat road that hugs the Tibar bay. Schoolkids stopped to high-five us along the way. Bouganvillea trees added bright splashes of colour to the landscape. Small details, easily missed when you are speeding along this road in a Toyota Hilux, stood out. Shooting range-targets repurposed to make a gate. The ruins of colonial buildings, almost hidden from the road. Rambutans for sale at the roadside fruit stalls.

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The only serious hill was a short sharp climb just before Liquiça, with the reward of spectacular views along the coast when we reached the top, and a fabulous downhill glide into the outskirts of Liquiça.Liquiça, the first major town west of Dili, offered us ice-cold drinking water and a leisurely rest stop before we pushed on for the final 15km to Maubara. Aside from the water, we also picked up a seventh crew member who cycled with us halfway to Maubara, performing impressive feats of bicycle acrobatics along the way. His antics kept us entertained as our energy drained with the rising heat.

And then we were in Maubara! Mission accomplished. We spent the next three hours lounging under the massive trees inside the old Dutch fort, working our way through everything that was available on the menu from the restaurant inside the fort. After some serious rehydration this involved delicious Timorese coffee served in luxurious white china, fresh bread and pikelets, followed by rice, salad, fish and chicken for lunch.Eventually we embarked on the final five kilometres to our accommodation at the nunnery. These were by far the worst five kilometres of the ride, and possibly of my life. The oppressive afternoon heat made each stroke of the pedal torture. I desperately searched for even a hint of shade along the road to provide a brief respite from the sun, but came up with nothing.

Finally the sign for the nunnery appeared, but first we had to make it up a steep, rocky track, without knowing exactly how far up the hill the nunnery was. Staggering into the nunnery slick with sweat, I was incredibly grateful that I did not have to get back on a bike for the rest of the day.

Our support crew arrived from Dili a few hours later, bringing with them precious supplies of cheese, wine, fruit and chocolate, as well as a change of clothes, swimmers and towels. A late afternoon swim in the sea was followed by wine and cheese at dusk on the terrace, with spectacular views over the Ombai Strait to the Indonesian island of Alor. After dinner prepared by the nuns we had recovered enough energy to launch into a competitive game of Pictionary before calling it a night.

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Sunday morning was a slow start. We didn’t leave the nunnery until 8.30am, with the sun already beating down savagely. My goal had been to make it to Maubara. I was not at all convinced that I would make it all the way back to Dili. I was pleasantly surprised that I did, although it was a far tougher ride than the previous day owing to the heat.I set small goals for myself along the way: if I could make it from the nunnery to Maubara, I could probably hitch a ride back to Dili there. Then I decided I could probably make it to from Maubara to Liquiça, and reassess the situation. By the time I reached Liquiça, it seemed easier just to continue on to Dili.

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Rounding the Tibar bay we passed a man selling fresh coconuts by the side of the road. We cycled on for a few hundred metres before deciding that fresh coconut water was exactly what we needed to power us on for the final push into Dili. Back we went to the coconut man, who expertly opened the coconuts with his machete. We happily dribbled water down our chins as we drank straight from the coconuts. A few more deft strokes of the machete opened up the coconuts for us so we could scoop out the flesh.

Arriving back into Dili, there were two options to reach my house: the direct route via Comoro Road or the scenic route via Beach Road. I had just enough energy in reserve to choose the scenic route, sticking to my resolution to avoid travelling along Comoro Road (aka ‘the Parramatta Road of Dili’) whenever humanly possible. The final stretch along the beachfront, with spectacular views all the way to Cristorei, was a beautiful end to the ride. Although technically the final, final stretch involved pushing my bike the last few hundred metres to my house, up a ‘hill’ that most people probably wouldn’t classify as a hill. But after cycling close to 110km, I was willing to adopt a fairly broad definition of a hill.

We finished off the weekend tour with a Lebanese lunch at Little Pattaya, my favourite restaurant on the Metiaut beachfront strip. Lying almost supine on the cushions at the low tables, I had just enough energy to lift a fork to my mouth but not quite enough to engage in meaningful conversation, despite Julia’s best efforts.

I have absolutely no intention of ever attempting the real Tour de Timor, a five-day, 450km circuit involving some insanely steep climbs along the way. I still don’t entirely understand the function of gears, and how it is humanly possible to cycle up some of the hills on the route. But I’m very happy that I’ve added East Timor to my list of great places to enjoy a leisurely weekend ride by the sea.

Photo’s by Humberto Marum