Sunday, April 19, 2009


Mon 02/03
It was a 6am flight to Dili. Nuff said.

As we stand outside Dili airport looking pretty foolish, Ann spies a group of Kiwi military and wanders over to have a chat. We’re pretty sure the only way into town is a taxi, but decide to be neighbourly and ask the Kiwis anyway. They look pretty bored after all. To our surprise, one of them makes a few phone calls and enquires about hotels while we stand around talking. It’s only after he answers his phone on the drive into Dili (he offers to give us a lift into town and then drops us at the hotel) that we realise he’s a Wing Commander. He and his driver give us bit of a guided tour, and after Lucas says something like “So.. we mustn’t have beaten you guys in anything lately.” confesses that yes, they’d just lost the local Bledisloe cup to the Aussies (Frisbee). Pretty sporting of them we thought.

Dili is chaotic. They’re ripping up footpaths all over town, which makes walking anywhere pretty difficult. So there are about a million taxis, 2 million UN 4x4s and an incomprehensible, but typically Indonesian one way street system. In hindsight we wonder why there aren’t any becak. They’d probably suit Dili.

In a strange similarity to Darwin, there seem to be a lot of people sitting around doing nothing. The Timorese generally seem good natured however, while also managing to not smell like they sleep in a public toilet.

Tue 03/03
We’re going to be here longer than we thought, so this morning move to a cheaper hotel and say goodbye to the internet. This is the cheapest place in town at US$35 for a basic room with shared bathroom and breakfast. We were hoping to pick up the bikes today but have been told by SDV (the local distributor) that the boat won’t arrive until tomorrow. Pickup may not be until Thursday. Bummer.

Sitting by the side of the road next to the Lita supermarket, as you do, we hear what sounds like a political demonstration coming towards us. Lucas quickly brings the camera up and even more quickly puts it away again when it turns out to be several trucks full of military and police. Doh.

Stuff is expensive at the Lita. To replace the can of shaving cream he surrendered at Darwin airport will cost US$9. He opts for the elcheapo $1.99 can of foam instead.

It rains here about 3oclock every day and again later on until about 7. Walking back to the hotel along a deserted stretch of road dodging the showers, we spot several shiny 4x4s with lights flashing coming our way. Lucas jokes that it looks like a presidential motorcade. As it passes, the president of Timor Leste waves at us from the back seat of his Landcruiser. That’ll teach him to take the piss.

Wed 04/03
The bikes are here. Woohoo.

We check with Roberto at SDV this morning to find that the ship has docked at 2am, so he hopes we might be able to get them this afternoon. He says this with a grin and a little laugh however, which doesn’t fill us with much hope. So we book another night at the Venture and go for a walk down to the waterfront to see if the Arafura Endeavour is actually unloading.

After getting back to Roberto a bit later, paying some taxes and doing some paperwork, we walk back down to the waterfront and finally find customs at about 12.15. Unfortunately in Timor if you don’t get your stuff done by 12, you don’t get it started again until 2.

Sitting around in a peaceful spot in the shade by the waterfront killing time, several trucks full of police and military with stereos blaring come screaming towards us and pull up in a cloud of dust about 3 feet away. We all kind of just sit there looking at each other for a moment like stunned mullets and then laugh. They seem a bit sheepish, like a bunch of school boys who’ve been caught out. It turns out this is their local lunch spot, so we all sit around eating our lunch, joking and posing for photos.

According to customs in Darwin, Timor Leste doesn’t recognise carnets. However the customs officers seem quite happy to oblige and it simplifies the whole process. If you’re reading this Steve, just be prepared to explain to them exactly how to fill out and stamp the forms. They’re not written in Timorese.

We walk back to SDV (more paperwork) where Roberto calls the container yard to see whether it has been delivered. It has. We take a taxi to somewhere out in the Dili burbs and hunt around for the yard. Roberto has marked the location on our map, but the taxi driver can’t seem to deal with maps, so he drags his beat up Mitsubishi Lancer back and forth over roads you’d think twice about taking your shiny Pajero, until we find it.

The ‘yard’ turns out to be a muddy (goddammit) patch of ground surrounded on all sides by containers.

Another customs guy checks our papers (more form filling) and then the Perkins guys open the container. We’re a little worried to see whether the bikes have been knocked around in transit, but other than a few scrapes on the panniers they seem ok. Of course after we finally get them out onto the mud and are ready to go, Ann’s bike won’t start. Cranking it until it fires we head out through the mud, into the Dili traffic and back to the hotel. Job done. Relief. Pool. Aircon. Food. Sleep.

Thurs 5/03
Dili is one of the strangest places. Everyone greets us with amazement and jokes about us being the only tourists in Timor (we actually meet 4 others in 2 weeks). Everyone else we meet is connected with an NGO, the military, the UN, an oil company, or on leave from a government department. Most of these people seem pretty disconnected from the Timorese, so it‘s really refreshing to meet two ladies who’ve been coming here for several years on a voluntary basis. Sandy and Wendy are here to promote breast feeding among Timorese women, and each time they arrive with a bunch of baby dolls and fake breasts. Obviously from now on we refer to them as the boob ladies.

The countryside from Dili to Baucau is more beautiful than we expect. Stunning deserted beaches, green hills covered in marble and granite and a twisty 4x4-free road. Of course there are still buffalos, goats, chickens, dogs, children and diabolical potholes to negotiate so we take it easy, riding most of the way one-handed, waving to all the children who run out to see us ride past. Whenever we stop we’re surrounded by people who of course want to check out the bikes, but also seem stunned to see the two of us and just want to talk. We thought with the number of UN and NGO people here over the years, westerners wouldn’t be such a novelty. Maybe there’s been more 4x4 driving than actual human contact. Who knows.

We’d heard there were some bungalows by the beach in Baucau, so naturally rock up, book in at reception, order a G&T from the bar by the pool and let the cool water soak away the long day.

Ok, so we lie. There are very few road signs in Timor, the GPS only really shows the main one and the villages on the map are only accurate to within maybe a kilometre or so. The locals generally don’t speak English, and if you’re given directions they’re often completely wrong. Did we mention Baucau isn’t actually by the beach?

Luckily the bungalows are. But you’ll have to find them by driving around in circles a few times, swearing a lot, having fruitless conversations with the locals and then just going “Fuck it. It’s by the beach. Let’s just ride down this goat track towards the ocean until we find something.” Like we did.

By the way... there’s no pool, no G&T, no aircon, you’ll have to fight the dogs for your dinner, and the falling coconuts might kill you on the way back from the beach, but it still feels like your own little bit of paradise.

Fri 6/03
After talking with the owner this morning we decide to head up into the mountains near Quelicai. The rain turns us around in the afternoon and we’re completely lost for most of the day, but it’s still fun. However on the way back the main road is flooded at one of the river crossings by all the rain upstream. It doesn’t look too deep yet, but the current is very strong and muddy. As we’re sitting there checking it out and cursing the Indonesians for not building a bridge, there’s a huge crowd of locals cheering us on. This is pretty funny because even though the bikes are serious, we’re rubbish. The locals don’t know this though and after waiting for two guys to make the crossing on... a postie bike... we head across to screams of “Gun it!” and “Get the front wheel up!” or whatever young guys yell out in Timorese .

Back in Baucau, the power flickers on and off for the rest of the day.

They’re calling this the ‘Year of Infrastructure’ in Timor and we’ve been told the government is spending $40 million to fix the power network. Um... multiply that by 100 and you might get close. Most hotels and restaurants in Dili have generators because they lose power on a daily basis. Whether it’s power rationing or blackouts we’re not sure, but at least they have power... mostly. Places like Com, which is a little beach resort town, don’t have power at all.

Sat 7/03
On the road from Baucau to Com we pull over to talk to a Polish guy doing basically the same thing as us, but on a pushbike. Well maybe not exactly the same. He’s mostly camping, not sleeping in hotels, and his panniers are full of toilet paper, not clutch levers and chain lube. Good luck Tomasz ...

Com is another one of those Timorese places you find yourself in because someone says “Oh you’re going to ..., you should go to ... as well” Before independence it may have been a cool place to hang out, but now it’s just one long road of empty guesthouses and deserted craft stalls. It’s got a great beach, but apparently a crocodile had someone for lunch on it a couple of weeks ago. Wish someone had told us before we stripped off and dived in on one deserted stretch.

Note to viewers: unless you’re prepared to ride back into town in your wet togs, try to be a little bit choosy about where you get your gear off. The Timorese have a habit of turning up out of nowhere and will just stand there and gawp at you. This is a variation on the behaviour we observed in rural Japan and Lucas dubbed ‘Slack-jaw syndrome’.

Today is our first mandi experience. ... didn’t the Romans sort out all this stuff two thousand years ago? We challenge you to find a westerner who’s used one of these things and walked away completely unscathed. Rating: 1 or 2 out of 10.

Sun 8/03
The road from Com to Tutuala winds steadily upwards through small traditional villages, to the top of a plateau with beautiful views out over the ocean. Unfortunately, from our point of view, it gets steadily worse from then on until it disintegrates completely.

Note to viewers: when someone from this part of the world tells you the road is good, they’ve never used a motorway.

This is really the first time we’ve been terrified on the bikes. From this point, the road is nothing more than lumps of coral, rock and dirt winding its way down a steep hill. Possibly this is also the first time we realise that the ideal bike for Timor/Indonesia is a 250cc trail bike with maybe some soft luggage. Anything bigger is a massive headache, unless you’ve got big dirt skills and balls to match. That said, these BMWs are easily capable of this stuff and are probably, technically anyway, the perfect bike for a trip like this. That’s what we keep telling ourselves anyway.

We meet an Aussie policeman in Tutuala who, along with his Nepalese partner are out from Los Palos investigating a ‘situation’. He’s never been here before, so has his Nikon out and is taking shots of the view. It all seems pretty relaxed, and in reality everyone we talk to in Timor says the same thing: the biggest policing issue in Timor is domestic violence.

After deciding to head to Los Palos for the night we get stuck in the most monumental downpour we’ve ever seen. After riding through it for maybe half an hour, it becomes impossible to see anything and we take shelter with some locals under a lean-to by the side of the road. Teeth chattering from the cold, soaked to the skin, we watch the water steadily rise in the backyard of the house across the road until it peaks just below the front doorstep. Not worth mentioning maybe, but later, upon unpacking the bikes in Los Palos we discover one of the panniers has leaked. We've seen a fair amount of computer abuse over the years, but nothing like a brand new laptop sitting in two inches of water. Unbelievable.

After taking the laptop to pieces to dry out (unbelievably it doesn’t look wet inside), we wander down to the local school to watch a volleyball game organised by a lady from PLAN we’d met at the hotel. Along the way a local boy who wants to practise his English adopts us and keeps us company during the game. Conversations with Timorese and Indonesians eventually turn to religion (unfortunately for us) and our new friend finds it impossible to comprehend our lack of belief. This is the first and hopefully last time we’ll find ourselves in a theological debate with these people.

It’s been a long day, but we’ve been invited to a youth concert organised by PLAN, so as the sun goes down we take our seats in the front row next to Georgia. We shake hands with UN officials and local politicians and sit back to listen to music by local musicians and speeches by local officials. It’s all just a little bit surreal.

Los Palos only has power from 6pm to midnight every day, so naturally back at the hotel everyone is making the most of it. We haven’t slept much for the past few days and are desperately tired. God we’re tired...

Mon 9/03
Today is a bike free day and after walking for an hour or so we find ourselves in a little village outside Los Palos. We stop and talk to a young guy who invites us into his home for a coffee. Again, he wants to practise his English, which is really quite good. Like a lot of Timorese his plan is to use his Portuguese passport to gain entry into Europe, in his case London, get a job and send money home to support his family. That’s the plan. He seems like a smart guy with a great attitude who’s been through some pretty tough times.

Did we tell you that Timorese coffee is really good?

Back in Los Palos we meet 3 more tourists. 5 of the 6 tourists in Timor Leste then proceed to drink beer and talk touristy talk into the night.

Maybe it was the beer, but we finally get a good night’s sleep.

Tue 10/3

We were planning to make a detour to one of the lakes this morning, but after the road turns to lumpy coral early on decide to ride straight through to Dili instead. Back at the Venture they give us our old room back and we meet up with the boob ladies again.

It takes some courage to start up the laptop for the first time, but thankfully it starts fine and runs without a hitch. Made in Japan obviously still counts for something.

Wed 11/3
The plan today was to ride to Maubisse and spend a night or 2 up in the mountains. That was the plan. We actually do make it to Maubisse, but the road after Aileu is diabolical. Completely washed away in several sections, alternately muddy and rocky, we both struggle and nearly drop the bikes.

Accommodation in Maubisse turns out to be a problem, partly because of the bikes and partly because the other options have either closed or can’t give us a room rate. Crazy. We end up going back and forwards, becoming more and more frustrated, eventually having an argument on the side of the road, to the great amusement of all the gawpers we’ve attracted.

Incredibly, after reeling off a couple of photos, we decide to cut our losses and ride all the way back to Dili before it rains and makes the road back completely impossible.

Back at the Venture they give us our old room back and we meet up with the boob ladies again.

Thu 12/3
The squeaking (eek eek eek eek.....) on Lucas’s bike has been getting steadily worse since Baucau and is really starting to ruin his karma. The guy who owns the Venture tells us about an Aussie who runs A1 Auto just down the road.

He turns out to be a bike nut who’s been through all the troubles. Apparently, at one point after they’d been having running gun battles up and down outside his shop he said he was asked if he wanted to evacuate. He said “Hell no. I’m having too much fun!”

Lucas rides out of Dili squeak-free. Order is restored in the universe.

A lot of the coastline south to the border is pretty spectacular, but the road is spectacularly bad to match. At one point it’s just a sea of rocks clinging to the side of a hill. The guy operating the caterpillar kindly gives us the width of a metre of rocks to pass. Conveniently this is 2cm wider than the bikes. He sits in his airconditioned cab while Ann struggles with the rocks. She’s just on the point of going over when he redeems himself and jumps down and grabs her.

We’ve heard plenty of stories about the Indo officials asking for money so are a bit apprehensive at the border crossing. The Timor side is basically a lean-to on the side of a dirt road, followed by a couple of portacabins further down. No problems. In stark ‘In your face Timor’ contrast, the Indo side is several large grandiose looking buildings sitting on a freshly paved road and staffed by what seems like hundreds of officials and police. If there weren’t just 2 people crossing, you’d think you were crossing the US/Mexico border. As we ride up, what looks like a politician is standing in the middle of the road snapping photos of us. We humour him and wave at the camera, Lucas taking one of him with his arm round Ann next to the bike.

The whole border crossing thing is a bit tense but in the end an anticlimax. The customs guys understand the carnet and don’t need any help filling it out. The immigration guys joke around and nearly give us heart failure when one of them, with a straight face, explains Ann’s visa is 0 days not 60. The army rubber stamps the immigration papers. The police are last. A whole posse of them are sitting on their front porch with their Glocks. All they care about is how much the bikes cost. In fact that’s all pretty much anyone cares about. It’s starting to get pretty irritating.

“Oh why yes, I’m glad you asked. Just one of these bikes will cost every cent of your salary for the next 10 years. That’s before customs hits you with a massive tax bill. The reality is you’ll never be able to afford one in your lifetime. Satisfied now?”

We escape the border with our wallets intact and decide to head for Atambua. This is what the Lonely Planet says about Atambua: anonymous, scruffy looking town... there’s no reason to visit at all. If you do find yourself stuck here, be aware that though most locals are perfectly friendly you may encounter some anti-Western resentment; this is particularly true for Australians.


It’s late. It’s been a long day and we’re tired. The hotel we pick out of the Lonely Planet no longer exists. Every move we make is shadowed by 20 people. Two idiots on a moped try to con us into staying at the Atambua Hilton. We’re both busting to tell the lot of them to piss off and leave us alone but don’t, so naturally start an argument with each other by the side of the road instead. We’re not sure what all the gawpers make of this, but are past caring. Eventually we find a place with a shared mandi but space for the bikes around the back.

Note to viewers: in a budget hotel an ensuite mandi is usually bad. A shared mandi is always bad.

Fri 13/3
We awake early to the sounds of what Ann likes to call the ‘Mad Mullah’. It’s kind of a surprise to find ourselves in a Muslim country finally. Maybe we’ll learn to love earplugs.

West Timor was never big on our list, and there’s a Pelni leaving for Flores tomorrow, so we decide to ride all the way to Kupang today.

Riding in Indonesia is like playing Formula One Scooters on a Playstation. It’s frightening at first, but once you get into a rhythm is a bit of an adrenaline rush, especially on something with 5 times the horsepower of the average Indo scooter. No wait. Scratch all that. It’s actually just completely mental and you have to be hyper-aware all the time just to stay upright.

Lucas still hasn’t got into a rhythm with the photography and this is another one of those days when it’s all riding and nothing much else.

We find a place by the waterfront in Kupang and wander up to talk to Edwin at his little independent tourist information cafe. He tells us that the Pelni to Flores is no good for our bikes and we’ll have to use the ferry instead. We’ve been misled so many times by the DCs in Oz we’re a little sceptical, but he’s adamant. Luckily there’s one on Sunday.

This whole ferry thing has kind of thrown us. The Pelni website sucks, but at least they have one and it has a timetable. Unfortunately, the only way to get information on vehicle ferry timetables is to visit the port you want to leave from. You don’t know what they cost, how often they go or how long they take.

Later we find that it is possible to stick the bikes on a Pelni if you find the right person, but, depending on your haggling skills, potentially a lot more expensive.

Sat 14/3
Henry, the owner of the hotel, invites us back to his house to meet some of his English students. We say sure, but aren’t too keen on riding back to the hotel in the dark. No problem! says Henry.

All the family are there to see us and they’ve prepared an early meal just for our benefit. We feel a little silly about the riding at night thing, but it was something we’d both agreed on before leaving Oz. We had even tried it on a short ride back from a restaurant in Dili a few nights before and were nearly wiped out by an idiot in a UN 4x4.

The students are a bit shy, but we joke around a fair bit, possibly to the annoyance of Henry who seems to want to keep it all serious. Things drag on and Ann starts looking at her watch. Our plan of getting back before dark gradually goes out the window.

Note to viewers: riding in Kupang at night is like playing Formula One Scooters with 13yr olds with no fear, no headlights and no street lights.

Sun 15/3
Today is the ferry to Flores. Lucas hates boats. They make him feel sick. They make him feel like curling up into a ball and dying. Ann doesn’t share this problem. Bitch.

While having a last supper of bakso at the ferry terminal, we are befriended by a man who is taking his car over to Flores. He doesn’t speak English but understands a little. We understand less Bahasa. Perfect.

He shows us where to go to sort out the bikes, and after plenty of paperwork and “How much do they cost?” type chitchat with the ferry guys, we go and stock up on some nutritious Indo snacks for the 16hr trip. We’re overjoyed to find that the chocolate filled bread and pineapple biscuits at the little market by the terminal haven’t sold out yet.

On the ferry, finding points to tie the bikes down properly is pretty awkward. Seemingly no one ever bothers to tie anything down, so this turns into a real event for everyone on board. Two westerners who have never tied bikes down before, two big bee em wees, lots of farting around. It’s better than an episode of whatever it is they watch here.

The goat isn’t amused. The chicks in their cartons just tweet noisily.

Our new friend, Mr Lawrence, has parked right next to us and invites us to come over and share his car. He is incredibly kind to us during the trip, buying us coffee and getting us sleeping mats. It’s only weeks later when we catch our next ferry and have to pay for the same mats, when we fully realise the extent of his kindness.

Ironically those two foam mats on the oily smelly deck of a gently rocking ferry give us the best night’s sleep we’ve had in ages.

1 comment:

  1. Thursday 7th May 09 . Thanks Ann for your email. Have just read your incredible jurney so far.
    Looking forward to the next installment . Love N.