East Timor in 2004 was very much a wild-west destination for backpackers, having only just gained independence from Indonesia not so long beforehand. The temptation to visit was overwhelming, untouched by tourism it would be great.
This was not an easy place to go to back then, scarred with tribal violence and bad infrastructure, but for the adventurous traveller it was the perfect off the beaten path destination. There was also a mission to get to a paradise island.
East Timor had been ruled by Indonesia but gained independence which was something the Indonesian government did not like, and so gangs in East Timor loyal to Indonesia set about killing and rampaging through the country. Eventually the U.N. stepped in and Australian soldiers were put in place to control the violence.
The East Timor Adventure
I had been travelling with an American friend and we had ended up in Flores Island in Indonesia with our Indonesian visas running out. We looked at options and figured heading over to East Timor would be a good idea, not just for a new visa but also for the adventure. It had been a few years since the major violence but there were still dangers, but we thought the risks were worth it.
Jumping a ferry across to West Timor (the Indonesian side of Timor Island) we spent a night in the port city of Kupang before taking a bus the next day to the East Timor border. The Indonesian border guards were looking on us somewhat displeased that we were going to East Timor but let us through. Crossing no-mans land we went through the East Timor checkpoint no problem.
After a fun bus ride half leaning out for some of the trip we arrived in the capital Dili, where it was a mission to find somewhere to stay. East Timor was not set up properly for travellers yet, and asking around we ended up in a mans house who had some spare bedrooms where the few backpackers that did come through stayed. It was pretty ghetto but we were budget backpackers so didn’t mind.
The only other traveller around was a French man. East Timor was devoid of travellers.
Wandering around Dili you could see the Australian soldiers out on patrol to keep the peace. There were many burnt out buildings and a general rough vibe to the place. We spent time having drinks and trying to talk with locals while hitting up nearby beaches.
Transport options were very limited, and leaving Dili we ended up on the side of the road trying to hitch rides, but eventually a barely working bus rolled by and we got on and went driving through the countryside. It was a beautiful country once you got out of Dili, with beaches and tribal villages passed by.
The bus did break down en-route to our next destination which was the provincial town of Baucau in the east. But getting to Baucau late at night after the bus was repaired, we found there was no electricity and the town was in total darkness. Wandering the streets totally lost and with no idea where to stay, we decided to just start knocking on peoples doors and ask to crash on the floor.
Then like a scene from ‘Apocalypse Now’ some almost totally naked men showed up, emerging from the dark onto the street. They had tribal patterns painted on their skins and were carrying spears. Fuck, this was totally random. We couldn’t understand each other but using sign language explained we needed somewhere to sleep. They directed us up the street and we ended up at what would be called ‘The Greenhouse’, because it was a house painted green (go figure).
The owners showed us into a simple room with two comfortable enough beds and we paid them a few dollars. Knackered I fell into a deep sleep. Turns out that they had actually kicked their children out of the room for us to sleep. I’ve always felt guilty about that!
Taking a look around Baucau the next day there was some more burnt out buildings but also some small markets. The town is positioned with half of it by the sea and the other half up on the hill. They don’t have enough electricity so take it in turns which half gets it for the night. We had arrived in the dark part.
Walking to the beach there were people out swimming and we got talking with some nuns who were out taking a dip. There were some colonial ruins around as the Portuguese used to colonise Timor Island.
We had found out that a few weeks previously a bus full of people had been killed on the road that we would be travelling down next. It was a reminder of the violence lying just beneath the surface, that although it wasn’t happening in front of our eyes, it was still there. The gangs were still very violent (and still are to a smaller extent today).
Determined to go on, we went up to the road leading out of Baucau and tried hitch-hiking. There was not much traffic but after a while a slightly crazy old Australian man stopped and gave us a lift in the back of his pickup. He handed us beers to drink as we went driving in the twilight of the day.
Turns out this old Aussie guy was running a place in the far east of the country to cater for Australian soldiers looking for a weekend break from the city. He had a few old shipping containers he had turned into rooms, which were absolutely horrible to sleep in. There was no electricity at night and so no fans, and with the hot tropical heat inside a metal container, it was roasting. I slept drenched in sweat all night, but it was the only place to stay in the area.
He helped arrange a trip with some local fishermen out to one of the most beautiful islands I have ever visited – Jako Island.
Jako Island – East Timor Paradise
Going out in the fishermen’s small boat (which you can see in the photo below) we went fishing while on the way to the island. Having read ‘The Beach’ by Alex Garland in 1998 on my first trip to Asia, I had always wanted to find the perfect island, and Jako was uninhabited and unspoilt, and also in the middle of nowhere.
This really was way away from everything. Spending a long time there just wandering around and chilling out was worth all the effort. It was paradise on earth.
You couldn’t stay on the island as it was not allowed, which I thought was a good thing as it would help preserve it. So we headed back with our new fishermen friends to the Aussie’s place and downed some drinks.
Our island mission had been completed.
Leaving East Timor
We managed to get back to Dili in one day from the east, and to be honest I don’t remember all the details about how we did it due to a bad hangover. Nether the less we were back in the capital and staying at the same place we had before.
After only meeting one other traveller so far in our time in East Timor we met two Canadian brothers who were backpacking around Asia. They were very fun to hang out with for a while.
One evening they came back to the mans house out of breath. They had been chased down the street by a group of men with machetes and knifes, who were now gathered outside and banging on the owners gate to come in.
The people chasing them had apparently thought that they were trying to steal from them or something like that, which the Canadians said was bullshit, they were just after the foreigners. Thankfully the man of the house confronted them and got them to go away. I believe the Canadians were very relieved, to put it mildly.
After some time in Dili organising a new Indonesian visa we left the country and went back to West Timor. I knew I would return to East Timor someday in the future when hopefully the country was back on its feet, but this trip was a great introduction and gave some good insight into the culture.
If you are planning an off the beaten path adventure like this to a potentially dangerous place, like the eastern part of the Congo for example, then it’s always important to keep up to date with security information. The best way to do this is by speaking with the local people as they will have much better information on what’s going on in their area.
Otherwise making the effort to get away from the normal destinations people go to is a highlight of travelling, enabling you to see a country before tourism kicks in.
I don’t know what East Timor and Jako Island are like today, so if anyone has been there I would be very interested to know. Or have you had an adventure similar to this? You can mention it in the comments.