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.