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Where in the World

Timor-Leste: Language no barrier in diverse country

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Long ago, a small boy helped a dying crocodile return to the sea where it could thrive. In thanks, the crocodile took the boy on its back and together they explored the world. When the crocodile was old, he turned himself into a long, mountainous island. Thus Timor was created, and the boy’s descendants are the people of East Timor.

Subsistence farming and fishing villages dot the north coast.

Subsistence farming and fishing villages dot the north coast.

Crocodiles are still revered in this young country (now known as Timor-Leste) of 1.2 million people that occupies the eastern end of the large (half Indonesian) island of Timor. Ruled by the Portuguese until 1975, the country was then annexed by Indonesia and a long and bloody struggle for independence continued until 2002 when Timor-Leste became fully independent.

Today, the war and strife seem far behind, and the capital of Dili is a bustling Asian town with blaring car horns, motor scooters and “microlets” that can transport you for 25 U.S. cents to the fresh market, museums and a mall.

The Cristo Rei statue on the hilltop to the east of Dili Harbor.

The Cristo Rei statue on the hilltop to the east of Dili Harbor.

Our landfall in Timor-Leste, however, was less accommodating. About 100nm east of Dili, as we closed with the rugged mountainous coast, S/V Ocelot suddenly lost both the wind and her two engines.  

 

After Jon got one engine revived, we sought an anchorage for the night, and found a patch of sand offshore of a stand of coconut palms and thatch huts. At dusk, we were hailed from the beach and soon boarded by military men who had commandeered an outrigger to get to us. Jon asked them to remove their big military boots but the M16 weapons came up with them.

Apparently, we had anchored in a restricted military zone. The men were friendly but strict: we were not to move our boat until they got the OK from their superiors in Dili. That’s the first time in 20 years of cruising we’ve been under military detainment.

After two days  (with the help of US & NZ embassies), we were given permission to day-sail to Dili as a concession to our inability to make long distances against the current in the light winds. As a result we saw lots of Timor-Leste that few sailors see. The lush and craggy mountains dominated the skyline above the dry coastal hills. Small villages of thatch huts dotted the landscape. We found tenuous anchorages right up against the coast on small shelves of sand.

View of Dili Harbor from 1500 ft above town.

View of Dili Harbor from 1500 ft above town.

4WD fun on the rugged steep roads in Timor-Leste.

4WD fun on the rugged steep roads in Timor-Leste.

The sea is too deep to anchor until it’s almost too shallow to anchor. At river mouths we saw trickles of last year’s wet season meeting the sea, and there were often fishermen standing in the shallows casting nets or herding water buffalo.  

And offshore, twice, we saw the jagged spines and lumpy heads of large saltwater crocodiles patrolling the beach. Because the Timorese believe that crocodiles only attack bad people, very few attacks are reported. We chose not to swim in muddy water or near mangroves where these sacred reptiles are free to roam without fear of being hunted.

The natural harbor of the capital of Dili lies within the outstretched arms of a Christ statue, much like that in Rio. Two small reefs help break the swell that rolls in from the northeast. A shallow-water container port currently occupies the western end of the harbor, but is being relocated farther west, opening a large area in the future for yachts to anchor.

Except for the few racing yachts that arrive each July on the Darwin-to-Dili Rally, Timor-Leste is not yet well known in the sailing world. We did share the anchorage, however, with Obsession, a 35m sloop from Russia that was en route to Bali.

Ruins of a 1600’s Portuguese prison where inmates were left to drown at high tide.

Ruins of a 1600’s Portuguese prison where inmates were left to drown at high tide.

In addition to a few emergency-only anchorages along the coast east of Dili, which is steep and reef protected, there is an anchorage on Timor-Leste’s one large satellite island, Atauro, just north of Dili. We had hoped to check out the world-class diving and snorkeling but the strong winds from the east make it an untenable anchorage.

Beaches and reefs on the east side of Dili Harbor, under Cristo Rei.

Beaches and reefs on the east side of Dili Harbor, under Cristo Rei.

Eighty miles west of the international border lies “The Enclave”, an isolated piece of Timor-Leste surrounded by Indonesia, which is the site of the first Portuguese settlers back in the 1500s.  

To get relief from the sea level heat, we rented a four-wheel drive Land Cruiser for three days to explore several Dutch and Portuguese forts, soak in hot springs at 6,000-foot elevation, visit remote villages, and hike to the base of Motu Bandeira, a stunning 1,000-foot waterfall. It was challenging driving, where we often made no more than 15 mph on roads that are rife with potholes, landslides and deep ruts.

Inexpensive, crowded buses criss-cross the country, but these are not for the faint of heart or those in a hurry. Motorbikes can be rented for $20 a day but traveling to the “districts” (anywhere outside Dili) is not advisable due to the poor roads.

Young girls take a break from selling banana chips on the esplanade, Dili.

Young girls take a break from selling banana chips on the esplanade, Dili.

On the park benches along the Dili waterfront, young lovers whisper and snuggle while teenagers avail themselves of the free wi-fi, and young men hawk oranges and passion fruit that swing from well-balanced shoulder sticks. The Dili cathedral proclaims the country’s Catholic Portuguese heritage, but at 05:40 each morning, the one city mosque sends out its call to prayer.

We enjoyed six weeks in this strangely European/Asian country where a mixture of languages kept us alert: A greeting in Portuguese might be responded to in Indonesian, Tetum or English. Shops carry items from Asia, Indonesia and Australia. Dining out choices include local ”warungs” with Indonesian fare, Portuguese cafes on the waterfront, and a few surprises such as Thai and Turkish restaurants.

Ruins of a 1600’s Portuguese prison where inmates were left to drown at high tide.

Ruins of a 1600’s Portuguese prison where inmates were left to drown at high tide.

As there are no street signs, we needed to communicate often with the Timorese to figure out where we were. No matter what language we used, we are greeted with smiles and warmth.

Sue Hacking is a writer based on her 48-foot catamaran Ocelot. She has been sailing the world with her husband and children since December 2001. They have spent the past eight years cruising Indonesia and Southeast Asia. To read more about their travels, visit http://hackingfamily.com. Comments on this story are welcome at editorial@the-triton.com.

When to go: The rainy season lasts from November to April and may bring swells from the northwest. The dry season, May through October, means clearer water for diving, but the strong southeast trade winds result in a surprisingly rolly anchorage on many days, even on the northern coast.

Officialdom: Clearance into Timor-Leste is simple. A visit to the harbormaster inside the port is the first stop, where clearance from the last port must be relinquished. A visa on arrival costs US$30 for 30 days and is obtained at the immigration office in the port. Before departure, allow several hours for the port clearance papers to be processed, which include a new harbor fee based on your yacht’s LOA.

Provisions: Dili is home to hundreds of ex-pat NGO and embassy workers whose presence guarantees imported items in the four main supermarkets. Beer is less expensive than in Indonesia, and spirits and wine are readily available, though pricey.

The shipping company, Yisen (+670 7781 4710), can be found at the port. Ask Zhou Qilou, the general manager, for help with water and fuel. The Minister of Tourism is particularly interested in promoting yachting, and if plans go well, there may soon be a yacht pier and marina in Dili.

For boats heading into Indonesia from Timor-Leste, the Indonesian Embassy can process social/tourist visas within three working days. All yachts entering Indonesia must have a cruising permit (called a CAIT), which can take four weeks to process through Jakarta but can be transmitted by e-mail.

 

 

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