By Chris Steel
As I was about to depart Timor-Leste for too many months, John and I decided to spend my last weekend away on Atauro, the small island lying to the north of Dili. Why go to Bali or Darwin for your well-earned rest, when paradise is less than 40km away? Apart from being one of the most peaceful spots in Timor at present, it boasts excellent snorkelling and diving, sunny smiles and total relaxation, and (at the place we stayed) excellent nosh. Getting there and back can be arranged by negotiating with one of the local boats or there is the new Ro-Ro type ferry Nakromah, doing the twice weekly route on Wednesdays and Saturdays. This also has the bonus of arriving about 500m from Nema’s Lodge.
We only had one night so after some discussions with a Padre we learned that he was returning to Atauro the following day at 10am. These small boats do depend on weather conditions (but there again, so does the Nakroma ferry) but thankfully the weather was perfect. In fact we could have gone across on an inflatable mattress it was so calm, but didn’t fancy the long-toms piercing it!
As scheduled a little dug-out came shoreside from the “Ro Maun Alin” first ferrying all the stuff we were taking across to the island (more on that later). I thought we and the Padre were the only passengers but about a dozen others materialized from the shady banyan trees. Each chose a particular spot to perch – seats are at a premium and you definitely needed to keep well clear of the tiller.
Ro Maun Alin is a sizeable craft powered by a Yamaha 19hp inboard engine. So the rythmic ker-dunk, ker dunk was pretty slow. We soon realised that it would indeed take all of the estimated 3 hours. But hey, who cares, we were on holiday the sea and sky were vying with each other to be bluer and there was plenty to watch. Flying fish and dolphins abound. At other times of the year we would have been looking out for whales. However the best entertainment came from the passengers themselves. First a plastic bag of fresh sardines was brought out and two or three settled down to de-scale and de-gut them. That done, quick swill out of the pan with sea water, followed by what I thought was some sort or vinegar but was actually the local tua mutin, served up in 5 litre containers. One wizened old lady dived in and came up smiling with a mouth brimming with bones in all directions. Niceties meant that John and I were then offered followed by the other non-participant passengers. I was glad to see none of them wanted roll-mop Timorese style though I am sure they are delicious though somewhat prickly!
Apart from speed (lack of it) the downside of this boat was the cost. The advertised US$3 is for locals while we had official tickets printed showing $15. Hmmm, not wanting to be chucked overboard to the sharks we paid up. Or we might have been put on baling duty, I’ve noticed a much needed bit of kit on most of these craft.
[I might add just here that you can hire Island Lady from Island Charters or even tie in a diving trip and get dropped off by FreeFlow or Dive Timor. There are also other local boats regularly going over to sell rice or no doubt bring back stuff that has somehow found its way to Atauro from Indonesia. These methods are much quicker, more comfortable but the former will set you back many more greenbacks.]
Barry, who is an Aussie volunteer, has built Nema’s place at Beloi near the Ferry port. Unfortunately we landed the other end of the island at Vila so needed transport. We were carrying a load of vegetables and other important stuff like whisky and beer, knowing that these things are a bit in short supply on the island. Always best to ring first and ask if he needs anything ferrying out. As it was we should have brought a solenoid thingey (sorry not technical) to enable his lorry (one of only 7 vehicles on the island) to meet us. Never mind, the local “fixer” came along in Vehicle No 2 and soon took us the 5km or so.
Barry has the help of his Timorese extended family and they all come and greet you. The smiles and welcomes are genuine and not just because we have been there several times. We could see that Barry has built several new “chalets” as they are far too attractive to call huts. Ours was a two storey affair with fantastic views across the bay or to the hazy mountains behind. The accommodation is rustic but clean and comfortable. Outside eco-loo (with throne), naturally warm water in the bucket and chuck-it shower. Barry is making a larger house at one end suitable for small conferences or weekend group retreats.
The repeat snorkelling experience left us spell-bound. Spotless sandy beach, body warm waters. Such colour and diversity!. And even if you have never done it before, at low tide you can walk in about 10m, stick you face in the water and see the edge of the reef. We scooted over the top to the drop off the other side, when you get that magic feeling like you are flying out over the deep blue. This was all of 25m from the shore (at low tide) and less than 100m from where the boat “docks”.
The return by the new Nakroma ferry was a different type of adventure. Don’t bother mustering on the first blast of the siren, which is probably just to get you out of the water, as it only takes 10 minutes to wander down the beach from Nema’s Lodge and there are another couple of hoots before leaving anyway. We travelled back 1st class which is exactly the same as VIP but $3 cheaper at $7. You can do 2nd Class which is very comfortable but no air-con at $3 (I think).
At time of writing Barry charges $15 per person per day, dinner bed and breakfast. This is definitely excellent value, especially when compared with the other Eco-Lodge along the way which charges separately for accommodation and food, the latter being very poor fare when we were there on previous occasion.
If you are reading this, and have a few days in which to “escape”, do please consider going over to Atauro. Barry and his Timorese family will give you a welcome like no other. You can get all the details from FreeFlow or this web site. The only downside I can see is always needing more time to enjoy a decent dose of paradise.