By Sally BoltonOn my very first Saturday in Timor-Leste I was sent on a day-trip to the mountain town of Maubisse. As the mikrolet climbed the dalan super-mie (literal translation: super-noodley roads), waves of nausea distracted me from the fact that the driver was lapsing into micro-sleeps. On several occasions we skidded to a stop mere millimetres away from precipitous drop-offs. It was one of the most terrifying journeys of my life. By the time we made it back to Dili late Saturday evening I was mentally shattered, but thankful for being physically still in one piece.For my second Saturday in Timor I was hoping for something a lot more relaxing, and a lot less life-endangering. But when my new boss invited my friends and I on a hike into the hills above Dili I couldn’t possibly say no.
Rob and Katerina were in training for a week-long hike across Timor-Leste from the north to the south of the island. While my day-pack contained a few litres of water and a sandwich, they were carrying 16kg on their backs. And they were still approximately twice as fast I was. They had planned the hike referencing google maps, and also had a handheld GPS unit to track our distance and elevation.
9.30am: The path that we were following was nothing more than a rough track, but I had every confidence that our semi-professional leaders knew exactly where we were going. My confidence was boosted further as we passed people heading down the track, on their way to Dili. They confirmed that we were heading towards the village of Balibar, but they did seem a little confused as we explained that we were lao halimar (walking just for fun). At that point I was a little confused too, as the fun of relentless climbing had worn off in the first ten minutes.
But as we climbed higher we were rewarded with increasingly spectacular views of Dili, the surrounding mountains, the beaches, and the nearby island of Atauro. This was during the great rice crisis of 2009, also known as the rice-is, and the harbour was full of ships waiting to offload rice ordered by the government from Vietnam.
10.30am: The track led us towards a concrete building, which turned out to be a health clinic. The clinic was closed that day, and the location felt incredibly remote. I couldn’t see any houses nearby, and I wondered where the patients would come from, and how far they would have to travel, to reach the clinic. But soon it all made sense. We were on the outskirts of Balibar, and as we entered the village a crowd of kids confirmed that there were many families who must appreciate the clinic.
Balibar is accessible by road, and visitors are not uncommon, although I think it was a little unusual for eight sweaty malae (foreigners) to turn up on foot from the opposite direction, having hiked from Dili. We stopped to buy drinks from a kiosk, play with the kids and chat with a teacher from the school.
11.00am: From Balibar we followed a dirt road which linked up to the main road connecting Dili with Aileu and points further south. We stopped for a rest under the Albizia trees, shading a coffee crop, and contemplated our next move. From here we had the option of hitching a ride back to Dili, or continuing on, following a ridge to the west. We all decided to push on, and we were joined by a few schoolkids and villagers on their way home. To the north the views over Dili were amazing, while to the south the mountains rolled ever onwards and upwards.
12.30pm: We stopped to eat in a hill-top village, in the shadow of an uma-lulik (sacred house), supplementing our packed lunches with snacks bought from a village kiosk. Revitalised from lunch, Jamie and I enthusiastically led the group several kilometres in the wrong direction, our first and only navigational blunder of the day. Instead of continuing west on the same track, we should have been heading north, but we quickly backtracked and found the right path thanks to some help from the villagers. The new path was narrow, rocky and overgrown, and we had to break into single file to negotiate the descent.
2.00pm: After some serious bush-bashing we emerged into a sloping field, where a farmer was harvesting gigantic cucumbers the size of my head. He invited us to stop for a rest, and offered us some cucumber, which was ridiculously refreshing in the afternoon heat. From there we had a quick climb to a terraced green hilltop with a large wooden cross on top. I think this was Foho Fatossuka, 863m above sea level, but our total ascent for the whole day had been a lot more. Fortunately it was all downhill from there.We found a very steep and overgrown path leading down to the seminary at Dare. On the way down we met some guys harvesting palm sap to make tua (palm wine). They explained that the path is used each Easter by hundreds of people making a pilgrimage from the seminary to the hilltop cross. The following weekend the track was going to be cleared and cleaned up in preparation for Easter. As I looked back up the hill I was secretly grateful that I was climbing down, not up, the steep slope. I was also thankful it wasn’t raining that afternoon, as rain would have quickly transformed the path into something akin to a waterslide.3.30pm: We emerged from thick vegetation, blinking into the sunlight, to find ourselves in Dare. Scooting around the seminary, we waved at the kids shooting hoops on the basketball court and passed by a fabulously kitsch grotto before plunging further down the hillside. Down, down, down we went for an eternity, or perhaps just an hour. The track finally levelled out at a dry, rocky riverbed buzzing with activity as young children trotted towards Dili balancing large bundles of firewood on their heads. We followed a track beside the riverbed for a couple of kilometres before reaching the outskirts of Dili, and walked for another kilometre or so through Bairro Pite until we found taxis.
5.00pm: I arrived home a good ten hours after I’d left, in desperate need of a shower and filled with the tantalising promise of very little movement of any kind for the rest of the day. It had been a pretty serious walk (lao lahalimar?) but for the most part I remember it as a whole lot of fun.
On my third Saturday in Timor-Leste I slept in until midday, and spent the rest of the day at the beach.