Monday morning 08:00 I was at the Indonesian Embassy, one hour before they opened, to try and apply for my Indonesian Visa. I thought one hour early would be enough to be at or near the front of the queue, but already there were 18 people lined up outside the locked gates. I was concerned it would turn into a ‘free for all’ bundle when the gates opened at 09:00, but was happily surprised when people queued (almost) fairly being kept in line by a security guard. By 10:30 my application was handed in and I was told to return Wednesday afternoon to collect my visa. Not bad for a mornings work! Fingers crossed for Wednesday…
This left me 2 days to explore the east of the island and I thought I’d try and make it over to Jaco Island, right off the eastern coast; anywhere between an 8 to 14 hour ride. One thing I have noticed over here is that estimates for time and distance vary greatly depending on who you ask. For example, a 50km journey that should take approx 1 hour (due to the bad & twisty roads) can range anywhere between 50 to 200km and take anything from 1 to 4 hours. I suppose when travelling by slow bus or truck it does seem a lot longer and takes forever.
I’d heard Jaco Island was the most beautiful place in East Timor (or Timor Leste, as they like to be known) with pristine beaches, crystal clear waters and great snorkelling. However, I’d also heard the road there was really bad, poorly sign posted (if any) and lacking in accommodation. Sounds like a challenge!
I set off as soon as I’d collected my luggage from Hotel Dili and 4 hours later I was having lunch half-way between Dili and Jaco in Baucau, East Timor’s second biggest city with only 16,000 inhabitants.
East Timor itself only has around 1 million people, which is not many for a country of its size (around ¾ the size of Wales). However, I’m sure it won’t take long for this to change as most of the people I saw were under 18. The children always seemed to be walking to or from school, and I began to wonder if they ever spent any time in school. Then I found out that there were so many children and not enough schools (90% of schools were destroyed by the Indonesian occupying force between 1975-1999) that 2 shifts are taught every day, effectively doubling the number of students schools can teach. Great idea, although I wouldn’t like to be one of their teachers.
The further east I rode the less traffic I saw, which suited me just fine; it was nice to escape from the relative chaos of Dili.
I’d received many warnings reference the terrible driving by the locals but so far I have found them to be very considerate. I think they are so used to driving alongside thousands of scooters that the vast majority drive slowly and carefully and always give way to them, unlike many drivers in the ‘western world’ I have driven through. In fact the worst drivers here by far are the western NGO drivers in their brand new Toyota Land Cruisers careering too fast around blind corners, overshooting their lane and almost running me off the road.
By the way, East Timorese (and Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand) also drive on the left, which I find much more sensible (being a Brit!). This is due to the colonial rule and influence of Portugal, Holland and the UK (Portugal and Holland used to also drive on the left). Did you know that countries that drive on the left have fewer accidents than those that drive on the right? Well, OK – only because they have fewer cars! (The world split is approx 60/40, in case you’re curious like I was).
With not much to write home about Baucau, I pressed on east and despite some rocky roads and going the wrong way a couple of times, I eventually found my way out of town and back onto the coast road heading towards Jaco.
Throughout my travels so far I have made extensive use of my Garmin ‘Zumo 550’ Sat Nav, and I would go so far as to say it’s one of the best things I’ve ever bought. However, I have come to rely on it so much that my back-up navigational aids are usually abysmally inadequate; such as I have discovered in East Timor. Unfortunately the Garmin ‘SE Asia’ maps which I bought and downloaded before I arrived do not cover Timor, Flores, Sumbawa or Lombok, and the lack of other decent road maps on the internet or on the island means I have been trying to ask for a lot of directions in my best Portuguese or Tetum (which is nonexistent).
Once outside Baucau the roads became hit and miss, but I liked them because hardly anyone else was using them. The road followed the coast east, twisting and turning up and down mountains, through paddy fields, sand flats and forest.
Two hours later it was starting to get late and I was seeing fewer and fewer signs of life. I started to relate to those early adventurers, not knowing what they’d find as they pressed on in search of whatever it was they were looking for. I imagined how early sailors felt as they sailed into unknown waters, thinking at any minute they would drop off the edge of the world. And here I was, riding into the unknown, but mainly due to my lack of planning rather than any unventured path; or was I about to fall off the edge of East Timor?
I was just thinking at least it was warm and at worst I could sleep on the beach, when out of the blue I came across a fantastic beach resort with rooms for $20 per night called Comm Beach Resort. I couldn’t help thinking it seemed a little out of place, in the middle of nowhere, but with a small sigh of relief I checked in quickly in case it was a mirage, or about to disappear into the mist with Brigadoon.
Comm Beach Resort is situated beautifully on the beach and built for around 70 guests, although I was the only guest there. It felt a little strange being in the middle of nowhere in a semi-modern resort with no-one else around.
I walked down the beach to explore the rest of Comm, which didn’t take long as there were only a handful of houses ending at a small Jetty where a couple of fishing boats were moored.
Back at the resort I sat at the beach bar and drank a beer as the sun went down, watching local fisherman cast their nets and pull in bucket loads of fish. They looked so good I decided to have one for dinner, and as it happens it was the best fish I’d ever had (seared swordfish).
I was so happy with this lucky find I decided to book in for 2 nights, which would allow me to leave all my luggage there safely and go looking for Jaco Island with an empty, lighter bike in case the road really was as bad as I’d heard. I’d been told the last 8km from Tutuala to Jaco was a steep decline in terrible condition and advised to leave my bike at the top and walk down. We’ll see…