The 1am ferry arrival in Kupang, capital city of Indonesian West Timor was remarkable not only for the lateness of the hour but also in that it marked the end of our nautical ventures in Indonesia. We wobbled off the stern ramp bleary eyed into pitch darkness to find our bed for the night. It took a couple of days to organise mandatory Visa Authorisation Letters for Timor L’Este at the consulate in town but other than that Kupang and West Timor held little of interest. The north coast had some fine sandy beaches but those around the city were badly polluted with discarded plastics and we’d been warned that the same beaches are also stalking grounds for saltwater crocodiles so even a paddle was a risky proposition.
A day’s ride into the hinterland of this last part of Indonesia delivered us to the small town of Atambua and a one-night stop before the border crossing. The road was reasonable with some fine panoramic views along the way but we felt a growing sadness that we would soon lose the bikes for several weeks once they were cleaned, packed and sent to Australia. The realisation also dawned that once we crossed the border, we would enter Timor L’Este, a predominantly Christian nation and our travels through the magnificent lands of Mohammed would be at an end. The call to prayer has been a constant feature since we entered Turkey almost two years ago and I have to say that we have been heartily welcomed everywhere we have travelled in these Islamic nations. Whenever the subject was raised, we encountered nothing but abhorrence for the terrorist actions of extremist groups like ISIS. It seems their major success has been nothing more than to create a worldly mistrust against all of Islam, which is ultimately undeserved and tragic. Our travels testify for this; we have travelled these lands at all times feeling safe, welcome and always found help on hand when we needed it from some of the kindest people on the planet. It is the end of Islam in our travels for now but we leave with a treasury of beautiful memories of beautiful people, cultures and traditions. It is also the end of babble and exotic cuisine. No more foreign tongues for a while once we enter the land of Oz, no more wondering what that weird sounding dish is on the menu nor assault on the taste buds when it turns out (mostly!) to be yet another unknown delight. Yes, we will miss this hubble and bubble of travel as we exchange it for more familiar surroundings. But I am getting ahead of myself; first we had to negotiate our exit from Timor L’Este…
Timor L’Este, to be honest, rated low in our expectations when reviewing the list of countries to visit on this trip. It has a reputation for being vastly more expensive than Indonesia with less bang for your buck yielding mediocre accommodation at inflated prices (all paid for in US Dollars, the local currency) coupled with poor facilities and infrastructure, yet it is the jumping off point for shipping to Darwin, Australia. The border crossing was casual and easy with the right pieces of paper and the final morning ride to Dili, the capital, took us along a spectacular swathe of blue ocean road. First impressions were not great, especially when we checked into the dismal and dank Dili Homestay. At $40 a night, this was over twice what we’d been paying for vastly superior accommodation in Indonesia. Initially we had tried to book for two weeks to arrange our shipping but the owner, a scraggy Australian expat named Meg, failed to answer our booking enquiries so we cautiously booked for one night via Booking.com. We had to postpone our arrival by one day, due to a delay in getting the Visa Authorisation letter and emailed her to let her know. “OK” was the response. A couple of yappy dogs snapped at our heels when we arrived in the dusty courtyard and followed Meg into the dim recess of our ‘deluxe’ bedroom… a dark, mosquito infested pit. The remote bathroom was described as ‘rustic’, which we learned is a term applied round here for ‘filthy’. Meg complained that her kids no longer visited from Oz and that she was just recovering from a recent bout of Dengue fever. Timor L’Este is rated as a high-risk area for the disease and the property was festooned with anti-mosquito sprays, smoke-coils and electric bats. It all added up to a horrific dose of culture shock, spiced with a whiff of rip-off and the unhealthy prospect of a tropical disease thrown in. Luckily we had a Plan ‘B’ in the form of the Casa Do Sandalo, a small apartment in the grounds of the Mexican Consulate. We made a tentative two-week booking and rode out that afternoon to check it out. It was a little piece of heaven; a beautiful apartment complete with kitchen, bathroom and patio area for the same price. A no-brainer as to where we would be staying for the duration in Dili.
We honoured the Booking.com reservation and stayed the one night with Meg but in the morning she was clearly miffed that we were leaving. A breakfast of stale rolls and jam was flung on the table before us, as she made a desperate bid to undercut the Casa but we explained that she needed to do something about the mosquitos, the toilet and the general state of the place. We paid up for the night and as we were leaving she suddenly presented us with a second bill for delaying the original booking! It capped off a horrible experience in one of the worst accommodations of the entire trip and needless to say we declined the payment. Fortunately this nasty introduction to Dili was short lived as we met Ivan and Andre, our lovely hosts at the Casa. Those words ‘mi casa es su casa’ never rang truer and the welcome was completed with a complimentary bottle of fine Portuguese wine and a bowl of fruit.
And so on to the shipping… A lovely lady called Lenor at ANL advised that our container would be ready for packing in five days so we were immediately immersed in a hectic schedule to get everything cleaned and ready. Australia, being an island with unique endemic species, is very alert against incoming bio-security risks, having suffered massively at the influx of such foreigners as rabbit infestations and more recently cane toads, introduced to eat cane beetles. Unfortunately the wrong species of cane toad was introduced, one that couldn’t jump high enough to catch the cane beetles, yet possessed a toxic skin coating that poisoned anything that tried to eat it causing massive damage to indigenous predator populations. Consequently there are strict quarantine requirements on all goods coming into the country and vehicles in particular must be immaculately clean, with no mud nor dirt, grime nor grease permitted. This includes all areas; wheels, tyres, up under the mudguards, in and around the engine. The same requirement also applies to all personal effects; tools, riding gear and footwear, hiking and camping kit; it all had to be meticulously clean and we spent a couple of days at the Casa with everything emptied out and scrubbed.
Enter another overlanding hero; the charming and vivacious Antonio Fortuna. Antonio runs the Ford Entrepost dealership in Dili and happily permits overlanders the use of his workshop facility to clean their bikes for shipping. This includes the use of a power wash and a compressed air line for drying and blasting off the muck. We spent two and a half days with Antonio and his crew, who assisted us in cleaning the bikes. Wheels were removed and we disassembled the bodywork and headlight fairing to get at all the underlying dust. Mudguards were scrubbed and all baked-on oil and dirt gradually dissolved from the engines and wheels such that the bikes shone with a brilliant gleam. We were horrified to note that the ANL loading yard was a huge white dust bowl and could imagine our newly cleaned bikes getting into a right state as we rode across this to gain access to the container. “No problem!” said Antonio who quickly organised trucking the bikes to the container so they stayed clean. The only payment requested for this sterling help was a signed framed photograph of our bikes to add to his collection. What service and what a star!
At ANL we met Gail Baillargeon, a smiling big John Wayne of an American on a BMW 1200GS Adventure, who was four years into his round the world trip and would also ship his bike in the container with us. We spent the rest of our time in Dili exploring the city by day and enjoying the comforts of the Casa in the evening where we cooked up a few boozy dinners with Gail and Jason Kind, the English cyclist we mentioned in the last post. Wandering the streets of Dili, we learned a little of the history of Timor L’Este, one of the newest countries in the world. The country had been a far-flung colony since the 16th century when the Portuguese took possession, attracted by the trade in sandalwood, which grows there. By the mid-1970’s, Portugal suffered an internal collapse as the 40-year right-wing dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar ended by military coup. The new democratic regime struggled to sustain its colonies in places like Angola, Mozambique and Timor, which were all pressing for independence. On 28 November 1975, the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN) declared the territory’s independence and the Portuguese withdrew.
The problem was that FRETILIN, at that time, followed Marxist-Leninist leanings and the prospect of another communist enclave in SE Asia horrified the western world. The US at the time was at the end of the disastrous war in Vietnam so it was with some relief that the president of Indonesia offered to take care of the problem… Nine days later, Indonesian forces invaded and quickly occupied the country marking the start of a horrific guerilla war that would fester over the next twenty years. Once again on this trip we found ourselves walking the sorry scenes of a genocide that occurred in our own lifetime yet was scarcely reported on the news back home. An estimated quarter to one third of the entire population of East Timor perished in a series of battles, massacres, round-ups and starvations as Indonesia sought to tighten their grip on the country. By 1999 the United Nations intervened, resulting in a referendum, which conclusively showed that the people wanted independence. Indonesia relinquished control of the territory and in May 2002, Timor L’Este was officially recognised as the first new sovereign state of the 21st century.
We visited the resistance museum, which told the story of the long struggle for independence but, walking the streets, it is clear to see that something awful happened here just by looking at the people. Over 60% of the population is under 24-years of age, highlighting the fact that an entire generation has disappeared. There is a sorrow in the eyes of folk here and we sensed that there is a generation of youth deprived of the benefit of elders (casualties from the war) to guide them through growing up. We heard various tales of a gang culture and corruption is rife in all echelons of civil life. There is little industry, just farming and fishing and the presence of the UN, with the adoption of the US Dollar, seems to have inflated prices as previously noted so everything is expensive and the temptation to progress by criminal means is tempting. With the setting of the sun, the streets of Dili quickly emptied. Buses and taxis disappeared and for the first time on this journey we felt a little uneasy in the city and were glad of the security of the high walls surrounding our Casa.
Our three bikes were shuffled into place and securely strapped down and the container was delivered to Dili Port. From there they would travel to Singapore and on finally to Darwin, where we would collect them in just under three weeks time. We flew to Bali to sit out the rest of their transit in a beautiful little apartment in Sanur. It gave us time to rest and contemplate the next leg of this wonderful journey; the ride through Australia…
The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: End of Asia Part 2