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Mundo Perdido

Mundo Perdido, which translates to the ‘Lost World’, is another popular mountain to trek in Timor-Leste. Not because it’s particularly high (the summit sits at 1763 m), but because the scenery on the way up is supposedly spectacular. There was almost no official information available about the hike, but I put together enough details from the few personal blogs I could find online to give me the confidence to tackle the mountain.


The first step was to take the bus from Dili to Baucau, a town on the north coast. This time my transport actually resembled a bus, only slightly smaller than usual (there were just six rows of seats) and more brightly painted than even the microlets. Like the bus to Maubisse, music was blaring and it was perfectly acceptable to smoke on board. Leaning on other passengers was also absolutely fine. I was squished into the back row, and every few minutes a different passenger had to turn around to stare at the ‘malae’ on board. I had hoped to enjoy the scenery as we hugged the sea, but the window was covered with a picture of a woman wearing very little clothing, posing provocatively on a beach. I think I preferred the pick-up truck. At least the road was paved this time.


Two and a half hours later we arrived in Baucau, allowing me to escape the torture momentarily. The bus station we alighted at seemed to have no other buses, and I needed one heading south. I asked several vendors nearby but no one spoke English. A kind young shopkeeper tried to chat with me via Google Translate (she spoke Portuguese), but the most I could get out of her was that she couldn't believe my husband let me travel by myself. Eventually, through a game of charades, I worked out I needed to walk 10 minutes down the road to a small roadside stall and wait for a bus to pass. I found the stall easily enough, but I had no idea how long the next bus would be.


Four house was the answer. Four long, frustrating hours, where every kid that passed pointed out the malae to their friends, and every adult stopped to ask the stallholder what the malae was doing. A couple of locals tried to speak to me, and one guy even asked for my phone number so we could ‘catch up later’ (I declined). I wish I could have camouflaged myself against the background.

The second bus was similar to the first, with music blasting and people staring. My neighbour wasn't leaning on me or smoking, but she did spit into a plastic bag quite regularly. It was a slight step up from the first bus, where they were spitting on the floor. The roads were unpaved and in terrible condition, resulting in possibly the slowest bus journey I have ever experienced.


Almost three hours later (for the 48 km journey) I was dropped off in Loihuno, a collection of rickety buildings within a lush forest that could barely be called a town. I followed a sign to the one and only hotel in the area and silently prayed they were open. This was the big unknown in today's plan: would I find somewhere to sleep. The second, slightly less important unknown, was if I could hire a guide for tomorrow's trek. If I couldn’t locate one, this arduous journey would have been for nothing.


As I approached the hotel, I saw the gates shut and a large chain wrapped around it. My heart sank. I didn’t have a backup plan and I doubted there would be any more buses passing through town. Peering through the gates I saw several men working in the yard, so I called out to them. One approached me, opened the gate and welcomed me in. There were no other guests staying at the hotel tonight (the term ‘hotel’ being used very loosely here), they spoke minimal English and there was no internet so I couldn't use Google Translate. I managed to convey that I wanted a room for one night, I would like dinner with no meat or dairy, and I was keen to hike Mundo Perdido tomorrow morning. I didn't like my chances of achieving all three as it was already 5.30 p.m., but within minutes everything was organised. Five minutes earlier I had been in a state of near panic, but now everything was coming together. A huge sense of relief washed over me.


Once I had settled in, I wandered around the small property. There a swimming pool that hadn't been cleaned for some time, many chickens, a few dogs, one deer, plus a herd buffalo across the fence.  The most surprising part, though, was witnessing a superb sunset over the distant mountains. A tiny reservoir in the foreground provided a wonderful reflection, which resulted in me taking hundreds of photos over the next half hour.


Dinner was a gigantic carb feast. I was given enough rice to feed four people, a huge plate of home cooked fries, eggs (that I didn't touch), salad and six mini bananas. How much do they think I could eat? I hadn't eaten fries (one of my favourite foods) in any of my travels around Asia and I was far too excited to see them again. They were the first thing to be demolished. The salad went quickly too. I ate a good chunk of rice and one banana, then hoarded the rest of the bananas for the hike tomorrow. I realised it was the first piece of fruit I had eaten since landing in Timor-Leste a week ago (whenever I see fruit I’m expected to buy an entire melon or 20 bananas). As I had the common room to myself, I lazily lounged around on the couch for the rest of the night, reading a book and enjoying the silence (no screaming music, no ‘Malae! Malae!’).

It was agreed that I would be picked up at 7 a.m. in the morning to be taken to the start of the Mundo Perdido hike. I waited by the gate right on time, eager to get going. At 7.15 a.m. I was informed by the cook that breakfast was ready. I tried to explain to her that I was going hiking now, I would eat later. Once she worked out what I was saying, she ran to a hut across the road to wake up my driver, who then rushed towards the truck. By 7.30 a.m. we were on the road.


A poster at the hotel said it was a 20-minute drive to the starting point. It took 50. Along the way we picked up a random guy walking along the road, who agreed to be my guide. Neither the guide nor the driver spoke English. They tried hard to communicate with me but I had no idea what they were saying. All I could work out was my guide's name: Carlos. And all I knew about Carlos was that today he would be hiking in gumboots.


Just as I was about to tell Carlos that I am a fairly fast hiker, he shot off into the forest, leaving me scrambling to keep up. That was how it remained for the rest of the day. Several times he completely disappeared from view, gliding over terrain that I struggled to stay upright on (even as he continually answered phone calls and sent text messages). Maybe his gumboots were his secret weapon.


We began by walking directly up to the base of a huge limestone outcrop and skirted around its edge. At times, this involved scaling near vertical rock faces. The trail ascended almost immediately, and there were few chances to catch my breath. All around me were looming mountains; I had no idea which one was Mundo Perdido.


The landscape changed continuously. Across the morning I was walking on dirt, mud, straw, waist-high grass, boulders, smaller rocks and, once, through a river. My feet were quickly wet and were never given the chance to dry. One minute we were in a wild forest, the next in open grassland. Sometimes there were views out to faraway mountains, sometimes I couldn't see more than a few metres in front of me. Occasionally the path was obvious, occasionally there was no discernible path, as far as I could tell. I would like to say the scenery was beautiful, but I spent most of the time looking at my feet, making sure I didn't trip over as I chased after Carlos.

About an hour in we emerged into an open field, with cows, horses and buffalo grazing on the hills. As we passed the latter, I noticed Carlos discreetly bend down to pick up a rock. I wasn't worried before, but after I saw that, I stuck closely to his side.


It was in this field, while having a well-earned break, Carlos suggested we make our way down the mountain. We had only been going an hour and we were clearly nowhere near the top. Through sign language, I indicated I was keen to go to the summit. He called someone from the hotel who spoke a little English, who also told me it was time to return. I reiterated that I was here to go to the top.  We continued on.


From the field we entered the true ‘lost world’. Thick, dark jungle that genuinely looked like it hadn't been touched in centuries. Moss-covered surfaces, 10-metre tall vertical boulders that appeared out of nowhere, tree cover so dense that it blocked much of the sunlight. Fog rolled in periodically, adding to the mystique. To my eyes, there was virtually no path to follow. I wasn't even certain Carlos knew which way to go. I think he just had a general direction in mind and headed for it.


I don’t think I saw my feet for the next hour and a half. I could land on solid ground, mud, soft dirt that crumbled away from me, layers upon layers of branches, a log - it was a gamble every time I put my foot down. To say it was slow going was an understatement (for me - Carlos had no difficulties).


Twice during this section Carlos stopped and said we should turn around and go back down. Was the hike that difficult or did he just have other plans? I had spoken to two people in Timor-Leste who said they had completed the tour, so I was sure it was possible. After much discussion/gesture, my insistence to continue on ended up being greater than his desire to return.