Freshly independent, Timor-Leste is Asia’s newest drawcard.
Dawn’s light dances across the mountains as Rabilau village elders chant and pound their drums, their feathered headdresses gilded by the rising sun. Flashing betel nut-red smiles, they lead me and my six fellow travellers into a circle where we hold hands and kick together in a joyful rhythm that’s more Nutbush than can-can. The music peters out and we’re called to an altar where village chiefs touch our necks and foreheads in a traditional blessing. As they deliver their address in the Mambae dialect, our tour leader, Anas Madeira, translates: “They want you to know that this ceremony, the Matak Malirin, makes us family and that you’ll always have a home here. No matter when you come back, they’ll remember you.” And he means it. “I was born near here but as a baby, my mum sent me to an orphanage to keep me safe during the conflict,” says Madeira. “When I came back, 14 years later, this same blessing ceremony made me part of the village again. It’s real. And you’re only the third group of travellers these people have ever met.”
This kind of authentic connection underscores Intrepid Travel’s expedition into South-East Asia’s newest country. After centuries of Portuguese occupation and decades of conflict with neighbouring Indonesia, the tiny nation of Timor-Leste became independent in 2002. Today it has a peaceful, laid-back vibe and you won’t find any five-star resorts or hordes of holidaymakers. “Our infrastructure is just starting to develop,” says Madeira. “And that’s the beauty of it – everything’s still original here.”
The nine-day trip starts in the capital, Dili, about 80 minutes’ flight from Darwin, where the 27-metre-tall statue of Cristo Rei towers over sandy beaches and monuments to freedom fighters abound. Construction sites, coconut carts, stately government buildings, new boutiques and tarp-roofed stalls converge here. There’s optimism in the balmy, 33-degree air as we visit the Timorese Resistance Archive & Museum and night markets before resting in simple digs at the Timor Lodge Hotel. We head to Ataúro Island then Maubisse, where Rabilau is located, in the mainland’s central highlands. The 4WDs in our convoy make light work of the precarious roads on the way to coffee plantations, the Pousada de Maubisse Portuguese homestead and hilltop shrines where Indigenous animist altars stand alongside Catholic crosses.
The tour was created in partnership with the Market Development Facility – a multi-country initiative that supports communities growing their economies – so there are plenty of opportunities to give back to the locals. I buy handicrafts from Projeto Montanha, where young people learn art, crafts and cookery, and grab an espresso from Letefoho, which supports a co-op of coffee growers. At Dili’s Ahi Matan, we taste indigenous ingredients in classic dishes, such as batar tuku belar (popcorn stew with moringa leaves and grilled tuna), etu hakmarik (cassava rice) and lekirauk ikun, a zesty cordial made from a rhubarb-like mountain plant. On another day, we stop for a hearty lunch of batar da’an corn grits, Maliana rice, spicy tempeh and tangy mango salad at Dili’s Agora Food Studio, a social enterprise training farmers in sustainability. “Our food brings everyone together to nahe biti – or in English, spread out a mat – to share stories and connect,” says Paula Torres, one of Agora’s directors.
During our overnight trip to the former prison island of Ataúro, about 45 minutes from Dili by speedboat, we discover that its five remote villages are home to 8000 residents who subsistence farm and fish. As we pull into the beach at Beloi, it feels like stepping back in time: the white sand is deserted except for a handful of locals and Aussie expats who’ve come over from Dili. Behind them, thatched shacks are backed by a dirt road, where we hop into the only vehicles around – a pair of tuktuks that take us to modest overnight homestays.
While there’s plenty to do here – you can trek up Mount Manukoko, shop for handicrafts at the Boneca de Ataúro co-op or go diving – sipping a coconut juice between ocean swims is just as valuable. This place forces you to embrace life’s simplest pleasures: going to bed early because the electricity switches off at 10pm and slowing down because ferries to the mainland only come three days a week. And while crocodiles are sometimes seen around Dili, Ataúro’s 28-degree seas are croc-free and part of the Western Pacific’s Coral Triangle, earth’s most biodiverse waters. (A 2016 study by Conservation International found Ataúro has 643 species of fish, some of them new to science.)
Snorkelling off Beloi, I glide over rainbow-hued shoals, giant clams and ornate coral gardens. Madeira chuckles at my awe. “Everyone needs to snorkel Ataúro’s reefs,” he says. With nothing but blue sky above and marine wilderness below, it feels like I have South-East Asia’s newest, friendliest playground all to myself. For now, at least.
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Image credit: Rachelle Mackintosh