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TRAVEL - Unspoilt East Timor Steps Out of the Shadows
Ur Australian Financial Review den 15 juli 2005
By Sue Williams Hope burns brightly in East Timor, where visitors are still a rarity among an amazingly friendly population, writes Sue Williams. As the rented 4WD bumped up rough roads into the remote mountains of East Timor, children raced out of mud and daub huts in little villages to stare at the rare sight of tourists driving by. A few shyly waved, then shrieked with excitement to see their visitors wave back. We threw a few lollies to them and their smiles were as bright as a summer day. "Obrigadu! Obrigadu!" they called. Thank you! Thank you! Outside the capital Dili, overseas holidaymakers are still comparatively unusual in the world's newest nation. In the 1960s, the former Portuguese outpost was just another stepping stone on the rite of passage through the rest of Asia to the United Kingdom. Today, after more than 24 years of a bloody war of independence and at last at peace, tourists have been slow to return. Perhaps they've been frightened off by tales of the brutality unleashed on the East Timorese. Perhaps it's the idea that East Timor has been left as one of the poorest countries in Asia. Yet for those adventurous travellers willing to look beyond the scars of its recent past, there awaits a marvellously unspoilt destination, with a stunning natural beauty and an amazingly friendly and welcoming population. Being Australian is a considerable plus since many East Timorese still consider us as their saviours. "Australian?" a child says to me when we stop for a lunch of whole baked fish delivered minutes before by a local fisherman at a roadside cafe in the small town of Baucau, 120 kilometres east of Dili. He grins, then gives the thumbs up. "Australian good!" It's the one million East Timorese who provide much of the lure on this lushly vegetated island, a quarter the size of Tasmania, with winding, single-lane roads snaking through emerald rainforests and villages dripping with scarlet bougainvillea. Excited to see visitors back at last, and with most people speaking Tetun and Portuguese, words become the least important part of any exchange. Smiles and warm handshakes are so much more eloquent. The people don their colourful national dress of brightly woven sarongs and scarves whenever the slightest opportunity presents itself. "Times may be hard, but we have much to celebrate now," says an elderly man on the road to Laga, further east. "Before it was not possible." Visitors will also find much to celebrate. Along the north coast, east of Dili, the vistas from the clifftops and shoreline are stunning. The water is turquoise, clear and safe for swimming. In some parts the reef is close to the beaches, offering a fabulous array of coral, fish and other sea creatures. Great dive sites include the Secret Gardens, 30km east of the capital, Dollar Rock close by, and K41 another 10km on. Further east is Com, with top fishing, snorkelling and a comfortable resort. Wharf pylons offer a wealth of marine life, and sea turtles are a common sight. At the easternmost tip is the village of Tutuala with another fine white beach, lying directly opposite Jaco Island, which boasts a magnificent stretch of coral reef. For a small fee, villagers will take you across in an outrigger canoe. Closer to Dili, there are plenty of dive boats to Atauro Island, 30km offshore and clearly visible from Dili harbour, a peaceful haven with good walking and excellent diving along untouched reefs. Dolphins, whales and dugongs can usually be seen. There's also a simple eco lodge, with cabins costing about $US25 ($33), which can supply guides, boats and snorkelling equipment. Dili itself is low rise and battered by war, yet still with a crumbling colonial magnificence. Along the harbour front, the rusting hulls of wrecks provide perfect diving boards for kids to fling themselves into the water. The floating Central Maritime Hotel is an experience. Originally a luxury cruise liner refurbished into a 133-room deluxe hotel, each comfortable although compact cabin has an ensuite and airconditioning. The food is first class, and there's also a fitness centre, sundeck, swimming pool and a cocktail lounge to watch the sun set in a glorious blaze. Watching over all is a 27-metre statue of Christ perched on a hilltop overlooking the city, a gift from Indonesia. It's a good walk up, and the views are magnificent. The legacies of Portuguese rule are often just as impressive, with buildings such as the 1627 garrison now serving as the East Timorese Cultural Centre. The most eye-catching edifice is the graceful arched government buildings close to the waterfront. Yet it's the people who remain the country's greatest asset. Their warmth and natural hospitality shines through. Father Marcos de Oliveria, for instance, leads a 975 square kilometre parish of 50,000 people, three orphanages and 47 crumbling or partially destroyed schools. Based in Laga, he struggles to feed and educate the children. But he's still happy to chat to any visitor. And any donations are gratefully received. Back along the roadside, the flashing smiles of children offer a glimpse into the heart of East Timor, and the hope that burns ever more brightly for a future as happy as it is now free. CONTACTS Getting there: Air North (telephone 08 8920 4000, www.airnorth.com.au ) flies from Darwin to Dili 10 times a week, with flight times of about 90 minutes. One-way tickets cost between $355 and $403. There are also flights from Denpasar, Bali, to Dili, taking about two hours. Com Beach Resort: (0011 670 332 4227) about $80 a night for superior-class rooms with ensuite bathrooms. Dive Timor Lorosae: (0011 670 723 7092) Operates regular dive trips to Atauro Island from Dili. Boat Charters: (0011 670 723 4806/5581) Organises boat, fishing and dive trips. Eco Lodge, Atauro Island: (0011 670 723 6085). MegaTours: (0011 670 723 5199) Offers a number of tours around East Timor.