Thursday, October 18, 2012

When My Ship Comes In

Before leaving Dili for my little tour of the country I had spent a few days owing around town in my (misguided?) quest to try and get to Australia without flying, the elusive Holy Grail of overland travellers. In fact just before leaving Indonesia I had received an e-mail offering just that from a private yacht planning to skirt north around New Guinea and hit Australia's east coast. Unfortunately the timetable was such that I would have had to have gone immediately, thereby forfeiting the possibility of seeing East Timor and Caroline. Although it pained me the choice was obvious. So instead I had to resort to printing out some flyers with my contact details and going round the city's hotels, dive centres and other places where foreigners congregate in the hope of catching the eye of someone with a boat … going to Australia … soon. A long shot I knew, but in the absence of a marina where yachtspeople could moor and be easily approached it was my only hope. I didn't fancy my chances as the main sailing season had already passed; but hope springs eternal.Upon returning to Dili one of my contacts told me that a boat heading in my direction is scheduled to arrive the next weekend. And so I have made that my deadline: if I don't manage to get a ride on it, or with some other boat that may turn up until then, I'll cut my losses and fly. In the meantime I had to find a way to keep myself occupied...

The statue of Maria atop Mt Ramelau, Timor's highest peak, catching the sunrise over a sea of clouds. I could use some divine intercession to help me find a boat to Australia.

I was aided by my friend Nico who lives in Oecussi, who was coming over for the weekend to climb Mt Ramelau, which, at just shy of 3000m, is East Timor's highest mountain. Although he had been up several times before and the climb is not at all challenging, his reason was to see a religious procession. Always one for seeing local colour I jumped at the opportunity and joined up with him and Laura, a Portuguese friend of his who works at the embassy in Dili. Saturday morning at the market where buses depart was surprisingly quiet. The country had run out of petrol and diesel the day before and it was strikingly visible in the lack of traffic on the roads. We weren't even sure if we could get a ride up to Maubisse, the main town in the mountains some 70km to the south. Eventually a truck with benches down the side and half a tarp for cover showed up and all of us waiting passengers piled in. The road from Dili climbs almost immediately, passing the presidential compound, and an hour and a half later we could still see the city nestled in the bay  1000m below us. Once we passed the crest we were into coffee country, where thickets of coffee bushes lined the road shaded by tall albizia trees. Coffee is Timor's only export apart from oil and gas. Apparently it's quite good and even Starbucks uses it in some of its blends, but yields and expertise are low.

Some five hours later we finally reached Maubisse, a little tired and exhausted from the diesel fumes. But we still needed to get to the trailhead at the village of Hatubuilico. Despite thorough enquiries there was no onward transport to be had. We also learnt that the procession had been the week before. Still, we had come this far and wouldn't even contemplate turning around. Instead a man with a truck offered to take us to his village at the end of the road a couple of valleys over, from where it would be possible to walk. The road wound steeply into the upwards offering lovely, bucolic, mountains views at every turn. Nestled amongst the slopes were the most authentic villages I had seen in my time in East Timor: large, round and with conical, palm-thatched roofs supported by a central pole poking through the middle sporting a carved fetish. Due to the cooler mountain climate the small, terraced fields supported crops familiar to Europe: potatoes, cabbages, carrots and other root vegetables. The rest was pasture for horses.

Some traditional mountain dwellings around Maubisse.

We reached Hatubuilico after nightfall, pitched our tents and went to sleep. Seeing as there was no procession my companions were sleeping in whilst I awoke in the middle of the night to reach the summit for sunrise. With the windchill it was freezing at the top, but I was just happy to experience something other than excessive sweating. On a clear day it's possible to see the Timor Sea to the south and the Wetar Straight to the north, but instead I had a sea of clouds that glowed orange as the sun rose. Then it was back down to Maubisse to catch the Sunday market, the most important in the mountains, attracting people from far and wide. As with the houses traditional clothing is more in evidence here than in other parts of the country: colourful, woven sarongs, scarves wrapped around heads, cocks cradled under arms (cockfighting is very big in Timor), and a curious penchant for cowboy hats.

An old man from the mountains come down to Maubisse's weekly market to do his shopping and catch up on the local gossip.

Other days have been slightly less glamourous; taken up with housesitting whilst the plumber's been in to empty the septic tank, short day-trips out of Dili to nearby towns and a bit of reading whilst awaiting the fateful day when I will learn whether my ship has come in or not.

No comments: