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Crocodiles and motorbikes- two things that scream East Timor!
You get to meet some interesting people doing pretty remarkable things in East Timor and Dave and Shirley Carlos are no exception. They run Timor Adventures, East Timor’s first and only motorcycle touring company. I think you’re going to love reading about their story and their tales from the road.There’s also some handy tips about starting a business in East Timor. But be warned, setting up a business in East Timor is not for the faint-hearted. It’s taken Shirley and Dave three years and all their savings to make it happen. You’ve got to be extremely committed and passionate, and these two certainly are!
Dave and Shirley Carlos

Dave and Shirley Carlos from Timor Adventures

Enter Shirley.

Why did you first go to East Timor and what made you want to setup a motorcycle touring business there?

Shirley: We have strong personal and family ties to East Timor. I first travelled with a relative in 2008 and fell in love with the country but with limited time found it very difficult to get all the way around the country using local transport. Dave is a keen motorcyclist so I encouraged him to tour with a mate on bikes. They had a fantastic adventure and like me fell in love. We’ve always worked in community services and education; we both were up for an adventure and were looking for a way to participate in Timor Leste.

How many tours have you now run in East Timor?

Shirley: Dave is currently leading our 6th tour and we have 5 more scheduled this year. This is our third year of operation. The adage that it takes 3 years to establish a business seems true.
Pigs in east timor

Pigs, piglets and goats- you get the idea!

Have you hit any animals on the road yet?

Shirley: We have had loads of near misses. On the way to Baucau I had a horse bolt across the road in front of me.  We’ve clipped the wings of many a chook. Goats are really skittish, they have a tendency to panic half way across and double back. Buffalo definitely have right of way. Dogs are the worst; they never give up their warm spot on the road you just have to go around them. Your eyes are everywhere when you ride!

What is the funniest story you’ve got from a tour?

Shirley: Well I think the famous mummy rock throwing story rates a mention.  It was unseasonably wet and a huge boulder bounced on the road narrowly missing a rider and quickly followed by a mini landslide.  We couldn’t decide whether to go back, wait or gun it. A couple of guys arrived on the other side of the pile of rocks. I decided to take matters into my own hands and started hurling the rocks with superwoman strength off the road. Dave got the idea and helped all the while yelling keep away keep away. The guys on the bikes just sat and waited, the second there was a path clear enough for them they sped off. Our friend who’d had the near death experience did the only decent thing, had a smoke while he filmed what has made me a home movie star, Shirley the rock throwing mummy.

What is your favourite part of the tour?

Shirley: Catching up with all the friends we have made along the way and getting to practice my Tetun. Sitting back and laughing at each other after adventurous day riding sharing tall stories about near misses with pigs, goats, boulders ….

How confident of a rider do I need to be to partake in one of you motorcycle tours?

Shirley: You do need some experience under your belt and the right balance of confidence and caution. It’s no good going at it full bore, that’s not the point anyway. We’ve had a broad range of riders from experienced off road riders to less experienced commuters and they have all enjoyed the ride. The key is to ride your own road and take your time. Some practice dodging potholes before you come is a good idea.
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A palm lined road you’ll ride along on a Timor Adventures tour

We get a lot of questions from people who want to run a business in East Timor, do you have any practical tips for these people?

Shirley: It takes a lot of time and patience. Relationships and reputation are really important. Learn Tetun and understand not everyone does things the way you do. Understand that the internet is going to let you down all the time. Work with local partners.Don’t get involved unless you can demonstrate there is a real benefit to Timor Leste and not just yourself. The Timorese didn’t fight for independence to have others come in and steal their assets. Sorry I get a bit carried away on that topic.

How does you business work being an Australian owned? (e.g. regulations, visas etc…)

Shirley: It’s difficult. The catch is we can’t get the appropriate visas without having our Timorese business registration.  Business registration is possible but it’s a long process which is not always transparent. Once we are registered we will be able to employ Timorese staff and build our infrastructure.There is a scheme called Trade Invest for overseas investors but this requires a large bank deposit so it’s not for a small business like ours.

How long did it take you to get the business up and running?

Shirley: The first three years were planning, testing and relationship building; we invested all our savings and all our time into that first 3 years. This year we are beginning to recoup some of that initial investment as our tour numbers are increasing but we are still in transition and both still have other jobs.
Motorbike Timor Adventures

A motorcycle taking in the view and the rainbow!

What are your plans for the next few months?

Shirley: Dave has already moved to Timor Leste for the season and I will join him with our teenage daughter soon. We will base ourselves in Dili for the season. We are taking turns running motorcycle and 4WD community tours. When not on the road we will take turns looking after our daughter, promoting the tours and working with others on projects such as mapping historical tours, developing village based accommodation, and a network to encourage trekking tours. We are also planning ahead for the 2013 season in partnership with the Alternative Technologies Association, Alola, the Uniting Church and the friendship group network to run volunteer tours where people will get to make a practical contribution and connect with a local community as part of their holiday.

What do you see as the future of Timor Adventures?

Shirley: Timor Adventures is establishing itself as a responsible tourism operator in Timor Leste. We will continue to expand on what we can offer people interested in adventure, community, volunteer and historical tourism.Timor Adventures will provide real employment to Timorese people and bring money into the districts. Having an education background we also aim to provide on the job training for lead riders, drivers, tour guides and accommodation providers.

What do you say to the people who are hesitant to travel to East Timor given its past?

Shirley: Make your decision an educated one. Get up to date with where Timor Leste is today, this year marks 10 years of independence and so far the democratic elections have been peaceful.There are no certainties in the future for any country. Whilst in Timor Leste last year I watched with horror images of mob violence in down town Manchester and as far as I know there was no travel warning issued for my old country.I know it is very hard to shake vivid images of destruction and violence from the past but they are the past. For now all I can say is things are peaceful and I feel safe in Timor Leste. 

Anything else you’d like to add?

Shirley: Communicating confidence is really important.  I implore everyone who loves Timor Leste to start talking as if they do.
I remember reading something Xanana Gusmao said. He said his country could be viewed as one of the poorest in the world, but he disagreed because if wealth is measured in terms of the things that matter, having time for family and the time to connect with the beauty around you then you are rich. By these standards Timor Leste is rich.We love Timor Leste. It is a wonderful place to explore and we would encourage anyone with a sense of adventure and curiosity to visit.

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Thanks to Timor Adventures for all these glorious photos
Some of my best memories are from trips I did on the back of a motorbike, it’s the best way to see East Timor. Timor Adventures still have five more motorcycle tours for this year, but hurry, spots are filling up fast. And if you’re more of a ‘bicycle’ than ‘motorbike’ sort of person, you can ride alongside in the 4WD support vehicle or join a car-only community and cultural tour. Check out their website for more details.
Got a good story you’d like to share with us? Contact us if you’d like to be out next Q&A