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Overland and Underwater in East Timor

Written by Martin Pitwood. Uploaded 18 October 2006.

East Timor, Country 25, Diary entry 3rd-12th September 2006, Total distance in East Timor: 126km

Marker stone at the borderI'd been looking forward to East Timor for a while. Although only an independent state for a few years, it has a long and interesting history, which is being added to every day, due to the recent troubles between the president and ex-prime minister, police and army, east and west or whatever conflict is being waged at the moment. It's a very complicated situation and one I can't begin to explain here.

The scenery along the side of the road is looking AustralianThe drive from Kupang to the border was pretty, winding through hills that were starting to look more and more like the Australian outback with eucalyptus trees lining the roads and although the earth was not exactly red, it was starting to get a lot more orange at least.

Jesus looking towards the drying coffee beans, conveniently the same direction as MeccaMy last land border crossing of the expedition was smooth, although on the Indonesian side there seemed to be additional controls than the normal immigration and customs. On the East Timorese side the officials wanted to check the car more thoroughly than any crossing so far, checking the contents of nearly every box in the back and even the roof box. I didn't like to argue with these guys - given their recent history I expect they were seriously checking for guns etc. rather than just being officious and nosey like other border crossings.

Church in Dili, nice except...Once out of the control areas with another new stamp for the collection in the passport (and now only one blank page remaining) I started to drive along the coast road, which didn't exist on any map I had, towards Dili. The drive was beautiful, climbing up and down hugging the cliffs along the coast giving beautiful views. Added to the enjoyment was the sense of being alone for the first time in months - all through Indonesia there are people everywhere, or even if the people aren't actually visible in some places then the land is obviously used. In East Timor there was much more of a sense of remoteness which I liked very much.

...the refugee camp in the gardenIt didn't last long, for it only took me a couple of hours to arrive in Dili which isn't a big place but is quite densely populated, being the capital "city" and particularly at the moment because most of the open grassy areas are being used as refugee camps for people displaced from their villages in the countryside by the recent violence there.

All the plastic trim, seats and carpets come outI found the 231 Backpackers, run by an Aussie called Henry who has made a great little place with a friendly and comfortable bar area and an Indian restaurant renting the front garden and a big driveway which gave me enough space to spread my stuff all over the place... my first task being to arrange the cleaning and shipping of the car. Though it had been fine to ship the car just lashed to the deck when it travelled from Singapore to Indonesia, this wasn't going to be good enough for Australia. The Australian quarantine service is rigorous to say the least (paranoid even, one might say) and the car would have to be free of all mud and dirt as their particular concern is importation of seeds or plant matter of any plant species not native to Australia. A simple car wash is not enough; the carpets need to be removed and washed, and everything inside and underneath the car and in the engine bay needs to be sparkling.

The carpets are washedIt's dangerous to walk around the city at night, with the refugee kids coming out of their camps and having stone-throwing battles with the local kids, or the local kids attacking the camps. Though the Australian Federal Police are there in force, they lack the authority to intervene unless anyone is in mortal danger, all they can do is stand and watch, which is interpreted as them giving support for whoever's winning that particular fight and breeds resentment. The Portuguese National Guard have a slightly different approach - putting the boot in occasionally when they feel it's warranted - and this surprisingly earns them more respect than the Australians. Regardless, the violence continues and rumours abound that someone high up is bribing the kids to continue the violence, with some having been found with the latest mobile phones and cash in their pockets. Didn't I say it was complicated?

Nene gets into the engine bayThat said, tourists are certainly not a target and there is absolutely no problem walking around the city during the daytime. I walked down to the beach and found the port there, surprisingly right in the city centre and right next to the swankiest hotel and the government house. East Timor is the only other Catholic country in Southeast Asia apart from the Philippines so there were lots of churches around (with their gardens occupied by UNHCR refugee tents) and at the far end of the beach is even a massive statue of Jesus, arms spread to the sides ala Rio de Janeiro, though having been constructed during the Indonesian occupation they built it so that Jesus faces Mecca :)

Nene calmly smoking a cigarette while applying a fine mist of kerosene to the underside (!)I found the offices of SDV, the shipping agent responsible for Perkins Shipping in Dili, and made enquiries as to the procedure and costs for the shipping. It took a while to find the right guy but eventually I spoke to Joao who led me through the bewildering array of costs... ocean freight, BAF (can't remember what it stands for but basically a fuel surcharge), documentation fees, port fees, government taxes, delivery and collection of the container to wherever the car was being cleaned, lashing ropes for securing the vehicle inside the container, and I think that was all (customs clearance was zero because I have a carnet de passages). All of this added together was enough to get the car onto the ship and to Darwin harbour, but then there would be another set of port fees plus the cost of the quarantine inspection. Confused yet? I was. I walked out and found a $5 all-you-can-eat lunch buffet which included a superb lasagne to ease the headache.

Wheels off and cleaned underneathI got to work on emptying the car and cleaning everything as I went, at the same time pursuing many leads and making many telephone calls where each new person I called replied "no, I can't help you, but I can give you another name and number", I found two solutions. One was a company who are based at the docks and apparently have the contract for the Australian military when they send vehicles back from their tours of duty here, which gave me a quote but could only fit it in on a weekend as they didn't want to upset their main customer. This wasn't ideal as it would have meant hanging around whereas I just wanted the car sealed up in a box and sitting on the dock ready for the ship before I could relax and explore Dili. I ended up giving the job to a guy from the backpackers called Nene, who had done the job before on a couple of Land Rovers when he worked for a local mechanic, seemed to know what he was talking about, and could do the car sooner.

How's it ever going to fit back inside?!Emptying the car took three days because everything inside had a year's worth of dust, mud and grime accumulated on it. There were spaces on the roof in amongst the bits of equipment that were traps for fallen foliage so I removed everything from the roof leaving only the tent and big metal storage box and I know for a fact that some of the leaves and berries that came out were from one of our more wild campsites in Croatia. The chairs and table had to be unpacked and wiped clean of any dirt meaning an old toothbrush had to be put to use on cleaning the feet. The dome tent I'd been carrying and we'd used only once in Iran (what a waste of space and money that was - might try to sell it in Australia) had to be unpacked and have the poles and pegs cleaned of any mud and the fabric swept of any blades of grass. I discovered I had accumulated no less than six pairs of shoes, boots, sandals and flip-flops (just call me Imelda) and each had to have their soles cleaned. The walking boots were pretty filthy with Malaysian rainforest mud and won't ever be clean again so they were put aside to wear on the plane just to remove them from any association with the car. Basically, if the inspectors see everything is clean they should hopefully give the car a less thorough examination, but if they find any dirt anywhere then they'll want to examine it in a lot greater detail.

Proud of his work (he did a great job)With a mountain of gear piled up in one of the dorm rooms of the backpackers the car was looking higher than ever on its suspension and ready to be cleaned. A quick stop along the road for diesel to make sure the tanks were full before shipping, the prices in Australia being higher, and we went to the place Nene had organised for the cleaning, which had washing bays along one side and workshop space the other.

Along with two car wash employees to help, they started by stripping out the insides... seats off, door panels off, carpet up and removed, shampooed, scrubbed and jetwashed. One of the guys got started on cleaning the removed panels with a scrubbing brush while I removed the tent and metal box from the roof so the roof could be cleaned properly and I could do the underside of the tent - also filthy. The metal box is used for storing all the nasty stuff I don't want inside the car - oils and fluids, spare parts, all the recovery gear that gets muddy (though fortunately I hadn't ever needed to use that so far). A pot of grease had leaked all over the inside so a lot of things in there were coated and needed to be degreased. Once the car was stripped down it was moved across to the washing bay where Nene applied a good soaking of kerosene to the underside and engine bay - a good way to loosen all the stuck-on dirt but a little worrying to watch as he applied a fine spray with a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth! Finally the jetwash was rigged up with degreaser and blasted on the underside and finally it was starting to look like the car might soon be clean enough to enter Australia! The wheels were taken off and while one of the boys scrubbed the wheels and tyres Nene was blasting away at the brakes with the jetwash to remove all the brake dust, and finally the car was put back together.

Sealing the container, do not open until Darwin! Now, where's my hat?The container was delivered and finally we could conduct the important test... does the car fit inside with all the stuff on the roof? I put the metal box up there with a couple of bolts just to test and the answer was: screeeeeeeechhh - yes it fits but it scrapes! It looked like I'd just taken a layer of rust off the inside of the container rather than damaging the box itself, so we decided it'd be OK, I bolted everything else back on the roof that lives there, let the tyres down to quite soft at the back to lose us another inch of height and reversed the car into the container - still scraped but once inside it was fine, it's only the doorway that's the problem as the frame makes the height a little shorter. The guy from SDV nailed some blocks of wood either side of the wheels and lashed the car in place to stop any chance of it rolling around, and finally we shut the container doors and applied the customs seal so nobody would be opening it up again until Darwin. Job done. OK I'm off home then, where's my hat? Oops, must be inside!

The following day I had a well-deserved lie-in, followed by a snooze, a siesta, an afternoon nap and then an early night. Some of these might have run into each other, I'm not sure, but I did have time to walk along to the internet place to catch up on things there and arrange some diving for the following day.

Stunning views from the car on the way to the dive sitesWith the current situation in East Timor the tourism industry is suffering badly. The hotels are doing OK with their long-term guests from the various UN agencies and NGOs, which caused some ridiculously inflated rates for some time following independence but I'm pleased to report they have (mostly) returned to more sensible levels now. As far as the leisure industry is concerned there are very few people still trying, but one couple trying to make a difference is Wayne and Ann, who run FreeFlow Diving, and Ann is also heavily involved with promoting tourism in general in East Timor. I had read about diving in East Timor in an article in one of the Australian scuba magazines on board the Scuba Cat boat in Thailand and since then I'd been very keen to check it out for myself. Most of the dive sites are shore dives which is great for someone like me who doesn't really like boats unless absolutely necessary, and the best sites start 40-50km east of Dili along a stunning road skirting white sand beaches and climbing up and down the sides of the cliffs.

The dive site - an easy stagger from the beachMost of the other divers joining us were ex-pats from various different agencies working in Dili. I was diving with an American called Kate, and Wayne led us on the two dives. Unfortunately the visibility had been reduced by the recent strong wind so this modifies the style of diving. In clear water one looks into the distance to see what's around, but in murkier water one concentrates on the closer stuff. The coral is in pristine condition thanks to a combination of factors - few divers, no dynamite or cyanide fishing as has affected so many other parts of Indonesia, and a portion of luck too, for the storms that have bleached the coral in Lombok, for example, did not reach this far. We spent the dive admiring the corals and the small fish and right at the end of the dive Wayne pointed out what looked like a 10cm long piece of seaweed that had broken free of its moorings and was being swept back and forth in the surge, but on closer inspection it had eyes and nostrils! How cute! It was actually a robust ghost pipe fish, a pretty rare relative of the seahorse, and one of many examples of species that are much more common in East Timor than elsewhere in the region.

Ann knows how to make a serious buffetWe were served a superb buffet lunch prepared by Ann under the shade of a tree on the beach where we'd just come out of the water and afterwards we moved along the beach to the second dive site known as Rick's Rapture. With the whole village watching us we kitted up and entered the water, and again the coral was in superb condition and with many small reef fish hanging around near and inside the anemones. We didn't see any particularly big stuff which on surfacing led to rousing choruses of the international diving catchphrase "You should have been here last week!" - actually modified to "yesterday" when they had seen sharks, mantas and a huge turtle all on the one dive, at the same site at the same time of day. Oh well, it was a really nice dive anyway and an area well worth returning to one day.

Frisbee game amongst UN workers as the sun setsA Japanese girl called Sayo was finishing the final dives of her Rescue Diver course so we decided to stop for a beer and sunset on the way back to Dili at a beautiful west-facing white sand beach. There were loads of UN vehicles parked on the sides of the road as we approached and we found the beach to be crowded with agency workers enjoying their Sunday evening with a beer or two, an extensive game of Frisbee, or in the case of the Portuguese soldiers - just posing like statues in disturbingly tight swimming trunks, doing the occasional stretching exercises on the sand, or chin-ups under a little beach shack. The Portuguese soldiers impress the ladiesWe were wondering what they were expecting to happen and I was trying to persuade Sayo to go and ask for one of their phone numbers to see if they died of shock. She thought it'd be funnier if I went and asked, but I decided that neither of the two possible outcomes - either getting beaten up or actually getting someone's phone number - seemed that desirable to me so we left it at that. We hung around for the sunset and for a couple of beers afterwards before we drove back to Dili where I returned to the backpackers' compound, a quick curry and then bed, thoroughly exhausted after an excellent day. Many thanks to Wayne and Ann of FreeFlow Diving for looking after me for the day and I hope to be back soon!

My final day in East Timor was spent chasing the last bits of paperwork needed for the shipping, including a large number of small green bits of paperwork with presidents' faces on them being passed from my wallet to the agent SDV. I was assured that all was under control, the container had been moved to the dock and was waiting the ship that was due to arrive the following day. There was nothing more I could do but take the little AirNorth propeller plane to Darwin and endure the hardship of a swimming pool and a pint or two of draught Guinness while awaiting the ship's arrival there...

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