The drive from Dili southwards into the mountainous heart of East Timor is spectacular - and not the for the faint-hearted. Steep climbs and tight curves lead you through a lovely area of rain-forest (watch for staghorn ferns and pepper, clove and cinnamon plants) and a coffee plantation into rugged hills dotted with thatched huts. Wear something warm - the temperature drops noticeably with altitude.

The first village of any size is Aileu, which lies in a broad valley carpeted with rice paddies. The small huts among the paddies are shrines for harvest and rainmaking rituals. Youíll notice that the dwellings are round with conical roofs, which is the building style of the Mambai people - the group that occupies a wide swath of land between Dili and the southern coast. The hills behind Aileu played an important role during the Indonesian occupation as the secret headquarters and training grounds of the Resistance forces.

Maubisse lies in a broad, almost Alpine valley at the centre of which, on a large hump, sits the old Portuguese governorís residence now converted into a small inn with magnificent panoramic views (no telephones, you just have to take your chances and show up). Maubisse has one of the best markets in East Timor, where you can buy anything from a Timor pony to wild tobacco and woven tais. Or bet on a cock fight. If you still havenít had enough gorgeous mountain scenery, walk or drive along the rough road to Hato Builico, a pretty village set in a splendid valley. Smaller tracks take off in every direction, usually leading to a cluster of thatch huts where youíll be greeted with smiles and endless curiosity.

But the crowning highlight of the area is Mount Ramelau (2963m/9630 feet - aka Tatamailau), East Timorís highest peak and once the highest point in the Portuguese empire. It takes about 3 hours to get to the summit from Hato Builico and although itís a tough (non-technical) climb, the view from the top makes it all worthwhile - especially at sunrise, when you can watch the sun flood one valley after another. Youíll have company up there in the form of a snow white ten-foot high statue of the Virgin Mary, whose blessing or mute compassion has been sought by many a Timorese in times of trouble or fear.