SOUTH OF DILI
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
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.