Mt Ramelau is the highest point in Timor-Leste, at 2,986 metres. Standing on the summit at sunrise is one of the most popular treks in the country, so of course I had it on my to-do list. I hadn’t planned any high elevation hikes when I left home six weeks earlier, so I had almost no warm gear with me. This played on my mind continuously, as I tend to become cold very quickly. I knew I would regret it if I didn’t give it a go, so I hit the road and hoped I would survive the zero degree temperatures.
To reach my destination for tonight, Hato Builico, I read it was best to be on the bus in Dili before 8 am. Once I taken my first real shower in Timor-Leste (i.e. not using a bucket), I made the 25-minute walk through a run-down but busy market area of of the city. Here I found the world's most unhelpful bus station. There were no signs or buses, only a series of pickup trucks parked randomly around a parking lot. Each truck contained padded bench seats in the back that were partially covered overhead. Some had a destination printed on the front, some didn't. Trying to ask the locals for assistance was not productive. Often they pointed towards some far-off place, or they looked away and didn’t bother answering my queries. The only upside was that I ran into a Kiwi heading in the same direction, so we could struggle through this together.
Eventually, I found a young guy who said he was going to our first stop, Maubisse, for a price that wasn't extremely inflated for tourists. He loaded up heavy boxes and bags on the flimsy roof, picked up a couple of other locals then we were off. Awful music pumped out of the speakers, which was so loud that the bass line reverberated through our seats.
Half an hour in the bitumen started to disappear, leaving us with gravel roads containing potholes the size of swimming pools (some did contain water and could have almost functioned as swimming pools). The mountain scenery was spectacular as we ascended higher and higher, but I was too busy trying not to get thrown off my seat to enjoy it.
According to my map, we were driving along a minor road. When we finally joined up with the main road at the halfway mark, it was perfectly paved and we could quadruple our speed. I would love to know why we weren't on this road the entire time.
Not long after this my Kiwi friend realised that his wallet had fallen out of his back pocket at some stage between here and Dili. Without any money, he didn't have much of a choice but to jump out of the truck and start hiking back down the hill towards the capital. I was back to fending for myself.
Maubisse was a bustling mountain town. In the sun it was lovely and warm, but in the shade I was grabbing all my warm gear (which wasn’t much). I found a guesthouse that offered lunch, which thankfully included a bowl of hot soup. A plate of rice with salad and sauteed greens was also laid before me, and the total price came to US$1. It was the cheapest meal by far I’d had in Timor-Leste.
Walking back to the main street, it only took me a minute to find another bus/truck heading south, which dropped me at the turnoff to Hato Builico. From this point there was no public transport, so my options were to hike or hitch. My phone map told me it was 15 km. As there were no cars in sight, I set out and hoped someone would pass me along the way.
No one did. Three motorcycles drove by early on, then there was nothing until I was close to town. But I didn't mind, because the scenery was stunning. Around every corner the landscape opened up to reveal undulating green hills dotted with small wooden houses. Taller mountains loomed behind, and at one point I had a sneak peak of Mt Ramelau in a gap between the clouds. Every now and then fog rolled in, bringing with it a hint of rain, before moving on. Local kids ran up to say hello, and adults called out to me or waved from their houses or farms. The excited ‘Malae! Malae!’ (Foreigner! Foreigner!) call became so ubiquitous that I wondered how often tourists came through here. Time seemed to disappear, helping me to forget the lengthy distance.
Until the road ended. The whole time I had followed a main gravel road, not having to worry about getting lost. But at a junction my map told me to turn right onto a narrow street. A few hundred metres later, the path petered out into nothing. I then realised that the true route was along the main road, adding an extra 3 km to my total distance. Add in the 1 km I went off course, it was going to be a 19 km hike. Slightly frustrating. At least it wasn't an overly hilly or demanding trek. I had left most of my luggage in Dili, but my pack still weighed heavily on my shoulders.
In Hatu Builico I found the main (and only) pousada, or inn, and checked in to a cold, bare room. I presumed I was the only guest there, until half an hour later another Aussie walked in. He had driven a motorbike the whole way, avoiding the long hike but having to deal with 18 km of rough, rocky road (somehow he got the paved road all the way from Dili to Maubisse). It was a relief not to be completely alone.
In the afternoon I sat out on the pousada’s balcony, wrapped in a blanket and sipping a hot drink, watching clouds swirl around the hilltops. It was cold, but bearable. I was sure I wouldn’t be saying the same thing the following morning.
Dinner was provided by the pousada, which included the biggest plate of rice I have ever seen, steamed greens, plus a condiment of garlic, chilli and herbs. It wasn’t exciting, but I devoured every morsel. My Aussie companion and I swapped travel stories for the rest of the night, and I think we have both added further destinations to our bucket list.
4 a.m. alarm, out the door by 4.15 a.m. The general advice is to leave at 3-3.30 a.m., but the last thing I wanted to do was hang around the summit waiting for the sun to rise. I’d rather be a little late than too early. Thankfully, it wasn't as cold as I was expecting when I left my guesthouse, despite already being over 2000 m above sea level. I started off with four top layers, but within half an hour I was down to one.
My map said it was 6 km to the summit, with almost 1000 m of elevation gain. I missed a turn in the first kilometre, already adding an extra distance to my trip. After that I kept I close eye on the map. Several times it tried to send me on shortcuts that didn't seem to exist in my limited torch light, so I was forced to take the long way around on the main trail. It figured out pretty quickly that the journey was going to be quite a bit longer than 6 km.
The first 3 km was all along the main gravel road from town, gradually increasing in steepness, which caused me to slip backwards frequently. Then I hit the main gate, where the path turned into stairs. They were well-formed and provided a stable surface, making for an easy climb.
After roughly 700 stairs (I lost count after 600), I found myself on a narrow, gravel track, with sections so precipitous I was sure I would slide all the way back down again. Breathing became more difficult as the oxygen levels decreased in the air. I maintained a slow, steady pace, while continually wondering if I had left my departure time too late.
The trees started to clear about 1 km from the top, allowing me to see a red tinge appear on the horizon. I quickened my pace, desperate to reach the summit before I missed much more.
Two hours after starting out, I looked up to find a statue of the Virgin Mary staring down at me, indicating I had finally arrived. There were only a couple of people on the small viewing platform, including the other Australian, but I barely noticed them. In front of me a thin line of yellow-orange had replaced the red in the sky, and the light was beginning to reveal a thick layer of clouds below us to the east (the west was completely clear). I stood transfixed for the next hour and a half, watching the colours change and the light gradually expose the surrounding landscape. I didn't realise how small the island of Timor was until I noticed that I could see both the north and south coast from my vantage point. Atauro Island was barely visible in the background, as well as the peaks of other mountains in West Timor. It was mesmerising, and absolutely worth the effort to reach here.
Across the morning we were joined by roughly a dozen local Timorese, seemingly there to visit Mary rather than see the view. They brought various offerings and lit candles in a sheltered alcove underneath the sculpture. Someone blasted religious music from their phone, disturbing the peace for the rest of us.
The viewing platform was only five metres wide, but somehow it contained two completely different climates. On the west it was calm, not a bit of wind around and the temperature was almost tolerable. Four steps to the east, where I was taking most of my photos from, hurricane-force winds whipped through the air. My hands were most affected, due to holding up my phone to take photos. Most of the morning was spent making a quick dash to east side, taking maybe three photos, then bolting back to safety before my fingers froze. I was very relieved there was a calm side.
After 90 minutes the clouds started to envelop me, signalling me to start my descent. Now that it was light I could see the shortcuts my map tried to tell me about earlier, and I wasn't as worried about losing my way. Fog came in and out, preventing further views on my way down. Within an hour and a half I was back at the pousada and eager for breakfast.
I shouldn't have been so eager. Plain bread rolls and half-cooked, almost inedible, dry-as-toast cassava, with nothing to put on either. They were difficult to swallow, but I was so hungry I managed to force a few pieces down.