Jun 21, 2024 Last Updated 1:20 AM, Jun 20, 2024

Hiking Timor's tops

Published: Sep 22, 2007

On East Timor's rugged mountains, hospitable farmers, hidden guerrillas and Indonesian soldiers live uneasily together.

Mike Davis

My two weeks in East Timor at the end of October 1998 followed a previous visit in 1996, when I had been writing a BA dissertation on clandestine resistance to the Indonesian occupation. The purpose of my return was primarily to have a holiday and to explore parts of Timor which were new to me, but also to indulge a strong sense of curiosity about how things might have changed in two years.

I was keen to visit the most mountainous parts of East Timor. After brief stays in Dili and Maubisse I travelled to Hato Builico, a village near the summit of Mount Ramelau. Located 40km due south of Dili, this is at nearly 3000m the highest peak in Timor. Hato Builico has no accommodation for tourists. I was told I should stay with the Indonesian soldiers stationed in the grounds of the old Portuguese rest house. Here I was greeted by a longhaired, tracksuited figure, clutching a bloodied meat cleaver in one hand and part of a dead animal in the other. He turned out to be one of fifteen or so soldiers posted in Hato Builico, all of them from South Sumatra.

The soldiers were surprisingly laid back. During three days in Hato Builico I only once saw any of them wearing full military uniform, and even then the two who did remained unarmed. On my arrival one soldier immediately insisted on acting as my guide. He took me around the village, and then to a hamlet across the valley, where an animist festival was taking place. I was amused by the rather paternalistic interest the twenty four-year-old squaddie from Palembang took in the festival. My impression was that he associated such (as I suspected he saw them) quaint rituals exclusively with East Timor, and he seemed slightly disconcerted when I told him that I had seen similar events in parts of Kalimantan and Nusa Tenggara.

I climbed Mount Ramelau on my first night in Hato Builico, hoping to watch the dawn breaking from the summit. As soon as the sun rose the cloud descended, but at seven o'clock it lifted very suddenly, offering spectacular views of rugged countryside stretching from coast to coast. Walking back down the mountain I fell into step with a man bearing a selection of plastic jerrycans. After initially trying to convince me that he had climbed the mountain to water potato plants, the man said that he had actually been carrying water to a group of Falintil (East Timorese resistance) guerrillas camped near the summit. He told me that the soldiers in Hato Builico were well aware that local people took water to Falintil, but did not harass them for fear of receiving an unwelcome visitation from the guerrillas.

After descending the mountain I made my way back to the animist festival. When accompanied by the soldier the previous day, they had treated me with considerable suspicion. The same people now behaved completely differently towards me. Behind closed doors their attitude to the Indonesian soldiers proved to be entirely one of contempt rather than of fear. They spoke with great enthusiasm of 'reformasi', of Xanana Gusmao, and of the student dialogue planned for Hato Builico the next week. One student present suggested that I return for the dialogue and then accompany him on a visit to the local Falintil unit. However, sensing that he had misplaced hopes of me publicising such a meeting after my departure from Timor, I declined the offer.

After returning to Dili I travelled east to Veni Lale and Baucau, and then on to Baguia. Mindful of the fact that this village had been effectively off limits to tourists when I came to East Timor in 1996, the warmth of the welcome I received struck me. Within a couple of hours of arriving I had been given lunch by one family and offered a place to stay by another. My hosts for the night turned out to be the family of an uncle of Falintil guerrilla commander Taur Matan Ruak. He was the 'raja' of several small villages near Baguia.

Despite their friendliness, people in Baguia seemed more diffident than those I met in Hato Builico, and there was the tangible sense of an ongoing conflict in the way they spoke about the Indonesian armed forces Abri, and about East Timorese working for 'Intel' (Indonesian military intelligence). One group of people I met wanted to take me to see Falintil. Although tempted, I felt uncomfortable about the possible ramifications of such a visit coming to light and decided not to go.

Matebian My main purpose for going to Baguia was to climb Mount Matebian, which I duly did, in the company of a cousin of the raja. Matebian, which means 'Mountain of the Dead', was the final piece of territory to fall to the Indonesians in the last days of 1978. It had provided sanctuary to many thousands of East Timorese during the final months of Abri's so-called 'Encirclement and Annihilation' campaign. It was eventually captured after weeks of aerial bombardment and massive civilian casualties.

The mountain's bulk had dominated the landscape for much of my three-hour journey from Baucau. Closer, it revealed itself as an awe-inspiring tangle of cliffs, crags, gullies and ridges. The impression of sheer wildness was compounded by the extraordinary rock formations covering Matebian's upper slopes. Thousands of huge stones resembling broken teeth cluster along the ridges leading up to the summit. In places they are set so close together as to be practically impenetrable.

Before making the climb we were told by people in Baguia that near the summit we might encounter either Falintil guerrillas or Timorese Intel agents, and I had been puzzled by the notion of these two groups being camped in such close proximity to one another. Upon seeing the terrain high up on the mountain, however, it became clear how easily potential aggressors might be evaded in such an environment, and how futile hunting for small groups of guerrillas over the endless folds of boulder-encrusted land would surely be. As it happened we saw not a soul.

Coming back down Matebian we lost our way and ended up in Quelicai district. Making for the nearest sign of human habitation we came upon a village of only about a dozen inhabited houses and five or six traditional adat houses on stilts. The adat houses were beautifully constructed, and in some cases decorated with pictures and small wooden figures. Most appeared relatively new. At least one commemorated those who died in the late 1970s. The people in the village, obviously very poor, were extraordinarily hospitable. On our arrival they insisted that we stay to have a meal. They invited us to stay overnight, but I was keen to get back to Baguia, which we finally reached the next morning after an overnight stop at another tiny village on the slopes of Matebian.

I spent my last few days in East Timor in Baucau, Lospalos and Tutuala, all places I visited in 1996. During my brief stay in Tutuala I walked to the easternmost point of Timor, a beach facing Jaco Island, and on my way met Bishop Belo returning after a stroll along the shore. According to people in Tutuala the bishop was convalescing after a recent bout of malaria.

I made a foolish attempt to swim to Jaco, but thankfully was given a lift from about half way across by a group of local fisherman. On the beach on the island they had assembled a huge stinking pile of pieces of dead cuscus, which they unsuccessfully pressed me to sample. Later, as we motored back across the channel we encountered a boat from the neighbouring Indonesian island of Alor, and a brisk trade was done in cigarettes and freshly caught squid. While the East Timorese fishermen expressed a hatred of Abri, they said that they saw these men from Alor as their friends.

Most people I met during my two-week stay were daring to hope that East Timor might finally be on the brink of peace. It was so refreshing to find people free to speak their minds without fear. Yet I could not help feeling that expectations were dangerously high, and the scope for disappointment very considerable. From my perspective as a visitor the atmosphere of mounting optimism had its advantages. The superficial calm allowed me to concentrate on enjoying the beauty of the countryside and the generosity of the East Timorese people. These are aspects of East Timor that one hopes will not be permanently obscured by its tragic conflict.

Mike Davis <mikedavis@bigpond.com.kh> lives and works in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

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