Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Centrepiece Tatamailau

Text and photographs by Barry Greville-Eyres - development practitioner and naturalist living in Timor-Leste

Tatamailau - Grandfather of All - a wonderland of form, colour, texture, ambiance and soul

I shrugged off the damp-blanket like humidity and cast a backward glance at Dili partly obscured below by the smoke haze, gulped in a lungful of crisp, clean mountain air and felt like the wealthiest person on the planet.  Our destination was the central, spiny mountainous column of Timor-Leste and in particular Tatamailau (Grandfather, as opposed to Mother, of All mountains in the country). I accompanied a trio of Timorese friends and work colleagues and as Nuno negotiated the narrow, torturous passes with practiced and slick precision, Oscar and Manuel began to relate their respective stories, haltingly at first, prompted by my own limited understanding of the country’s recent history. Our journey was an undulating kaleidoscope of mountain scrub, coconut palm, rice paddies and  eucalyptus forest  clinging, tenuously, to abraded landforms – parched, breathless yet ever patient.  Villagers and their livestock encountered languidly acknowledged our passing but the ragtag children were far more generous and effusive with their malae (foreigner), one-dollar greetings.

Former Portuguese colonial outpost in the town of Maubisse now a gueshouse and restaurant
Besides being a major thoroughfare, Maubisse appears to be an important hub for trade (primarily agrarian in nature) and tourism (judging by the availability of guesthouses). It’s a picturesque hillside town dominated by two imposing Portuguese-era buildings that cast a ‘watchful eye’ over each other and their subjects - one church the other state.  The latter, an impressive colonial fort including a stately home for the then district administrator, associated infrastructure, dressed stone ramparts and presumably a small garrison are located strategically on an isolated promontory with 360° wraparound views of highland and plunging valleys. The historic location, clearly centuries old, currently serves as strangely surreal guest accommodation complete with a small restaurant.

A piece of Portugal re-created in rural Maubisse
 A majestic, multistorey Catholic church graces the adjacent hillside and appears to have weathered, divinely, the very best (and perhaps not so) that nature and mankind can throw at it. It appears to exude a smug satisfaction that it has withstood the test of time and still lords over all and sundry. The Seal of Catholicism on Timorese society is ever-present yet contrasts, interestingly, with parallel yet equally steadfast lulik  or ancestral animistic beliefs (branded with negative connotations – taboo, sacred and as ‘uncivilised’ by intolerant  and insensitive Portuguese and Indonesian colonial autocrats of yesteryear).  

Yet another legacy of Portuguese colonization this time clearly borne out on the physical landscape
Lulik refers, according to Jose Trindade a strident advocate,  to the spiritual cosmos that contains the divine creator, the spirits of the ancestors, and the spiritual root of life including sacred rules and regulations that dictates relationships between people and people and nature – essentially at the core of Timorese values. The two belief systems appear to co-exist but there is a very real sense that with rampant urbanization and Westernization that the traditional lulik system will fade into obscurity to the detriment of Timorese culture and society. Care should be taken to protect the uniqueness and truly Timorese identity as the threats from cultural compromise and dilution posed by foreign, external influences – IndoAustralian or UNionisation are very real. 

A traditional sacred house outside Hato Builico

Prior to our departure from Maubisse we were treated to some memorable street scenes, quintessential and incredibly special snapshots of rural, Timorese life.  Mountain ponies, stoic, stunted but sturdy as they go about their daily work conveying agricultural produce (coffee and vegetables) to and from the surrounding mountain villages. Sun-dried coffee beans blanketing open spaces between narrow streets.  The ubiquitous pool tables, enjoying pride of place in high streets, mobbed by young men exercising their very best cue shots but due to the impoverished nature of the community, will more than likely never be able to partake in their favourite tipple.  Instead they seek solace in inexpensive ‘grey cigarettes’ of dubious origins, home-brewed palm wine or chewable dried betel nut. The small fresh produce market is well worth a visit and if you procrastinate long enough you’ll undoubtedly stumble across varieties of freshly baked paun  (Portuguese or Indonesian-styled bread rolls) which are an absolute treat when opened and filled with finger-sized, organic bananas that taste like no other bananas in the world.

Maubisse street scene with cofee beans drying in the sun and local transportation en route with another delivery of coffee or vegetables

The quintessential billiard table with young men from Maubisse honing their cue skills - a bizarre yet favourite Timorese pastime

In no time we reached the mountainous village of Hato Builico, our final destination and staging point for the immensely popular pilgrimage to the summit of Mt Ramelau. The Blue Mountains East Timor Friendship Committee is an enduring partnership initiated by the Blue Mountains City Council (comprising community members, councillors and council staff) designed to develop grassroots tourism within the village itself and the broader district as well. Evidence of their excellent work was to be found in the village which now boasts two guest houses and a core group of local mountain guides that are prepared to accompany trekkers on a number of guided walks. Further information can be accessed via http://www.bmcc.nsw.gov.au/yourcouncil/easttimorfriendship/.

Hato Builico - the staging point for many interesting day and overnight walks in the Tatamailau area complete with guesthouse accommodation

Gearing up for the stroll to the summit of Mt. Ramelau at the recently completed trailhead close to Hato Builico

I was unprepared for the popularity of and development along the Mt. Ramelau route expecting a more rustic experience and a trek/summit of rather more epic proportions. Instead, we faced a short, sharp uphill push partly along contour paths, approximately 90 minutes in duration, arriving at the overnight shelter which is actually a sacred house and chapel located in a sheltered, bowl-shaped area below the summit. We arrived in time to witness a splendid sunset and then ‘bedded’ down (on very hard wooden floors) to spend a very, very long night. I spent most of the night fireside along with some of our guides and was transfixed, trance-like for hours by the memories, images, and stories locked in flickering shadows and burning embers.

Calling it a day - moonset in the west
A quick pre-dawn stroll of not much more than an hour along with countless, faceless others took us to the summit where we were greeted by a statue of the Virgin Mary in the fading darkness. On opposite horizons we were treated to a celestial arm-wrestle, a harmoniously counter-balanced contest as vanquished (setting full moon) gave way graciously to victor (the rising sun) in a dazzling display of heavenly hues.  

Mana Maria welcomes weary pilgrims and adventure-seekers to the Mt. Ramelau summit

Dawning day

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Unearthing Timor-Leste's Hidden Gems - Marobo's Natural Hot Springs

By Barry Greville-Eyres and Francisco Carlos de Araujo

En route to Bobonaro with high tropical montane forest shrouded in cloud - a rather distinctive feature

The ascent from the frontier town of Maliana (due to its close proximity to the Indonesian border) to the mountainous refuge of Bobonaro traverses a former liurais or kingdom that is breathtakingly beautiful and exceedingly interesting. Even at the height of the dry season, the rugged terrain is populated in profusion by flourishing woodlands of Casaurina (beefwood) and Erythrina (coral trees). With our ever-increasing climb on a narrow and worn road the temperature drops appreciably and many of the coral trees are ‘blushing’ with a false show of what will be a spectacular flowering display once the year-end rains arrive. Tropical montane cloud forests adorn the higher mountain peaks, creases and folds tumbling towards grassed slopes dotted by grazing cattle and browsing goat.

High noon on Bobonaro's high street - an almost idyllic life

Bobonaro - remnants of Portuguese colonial rule replaced with Timorese local government authorities

Wild, strangler fig trees wage relentless combat, bitter and knotted, with roadside rock edifices whereas cactus-like Euphorbia, in staunch ranks, herald our passing.  The hamlet of Bobonaro, once a significant Portuguese outpost in the area, boasts one high street on which many colonial-era buildings languish in various stages of dereliction. One is drawn to the local school by a strange, compelling energy – children bursting with promise, bright-eyed, lithe-limbed and busy in their enterprise of being children …… such a rarity in this fast paced and changing world. I marvel at their games – pure entertainment, ingenuity yet simplicity and I’m immediately filled with a sense of loss and regret ….. for the fading and very different childhood of my very own children.
I’m soon shaken out of my reverie by the arrival of equally bright-eyed and knowledge-thirsty suco or local authority administrators who have travelled long distances to attend the training program offered by Timor’s National Institute for Public Administration. The task of the trainers is made easier by a very captive audience – captured by their own unwavering interest and quest for discovery, self-improvement and general advancement.

Friends, colleagues and brothers in Timor-Leste's development 2nd Left-Right Maun Nuno, Flaviano and Aires taking a break during training in Bobonaro 

Prior to our return to Maliana there was the rare opportunity to stop and linger ….. specifically at the must see, must visit Marobo. As on so many previous occasions, I was content to be swept along by my friends and colleagues who too revelled in sharing something wholly Timorese, unique and exciting. On our short detour to Marobo we passed through neatly constructed and maintained homesteads, with their umalulik – sacred houses; dapur – kitchen/cooking areas and tanki – large clay, domed-shaped water storage tanks being some of the more distinctive features. Exuberant children and proud adults, people on and of this land, greeted us with generous smiles as we passed on our descent to the natural hot springs. 
Associated infrastructure in the form of an access road, retaining walls and accommodation units clearly the product of extensive Timorese toil and effort

Ruins of colonial-era 'resort' styled accommodation located on the upper slopes above Marobo's natural hot springs

On a short descent we encountered ruins and remnants of what was supposedly spa or resort styled accommodation, at a picture-perfect location, surrounded by a labyrinth of ridges and valleys. Despite conflicting reports on the origins of the development - some sources attribute it to Japanese occupation forces during WWII (1942-1945) others to the Portuguese colonial occupation-era pre-dating WWII - its highly likely that local Timorese villages were instrumental in the construction of the associated infrastructure.

Much toil and backbreaking effort must have gone into the construction of the access road; distinguishable accommodation units; hundreds of metres of retaining walls; hot water diversion, distribution and drainage systems; the main bathing pool (approximately 25mx15m); an ablution facility and individual external mineral or mud baths.  Although the facility is now clearly abandoned, it still remains an important part of Timor-Leste's natural heritage and a potential drawcard for both domestic and international tourists. There are few signs of significant degration of the resource and remaining  infrastructure and also little evidence that local villages are actually using the resource at all. Perhaps a factor of the relatively high ambient air temperature and that of water as well.  

Marobo's diverted natural hot springs leading towards a sizable bathing pool
Marobo's natural hot springs - once a resort and mountain retreat nestled between valley and mountain


Countless terraces and retaining walls divert the hot mineral water to individual baths and the large bathing pool

Lawless et al. 2005 in a study on the geothermal potential of East Timor described the primary hot springs at Marobo as 'M1 is a non-flowing pool with a temperature of 47 degrees C and strong gas ebullience whereas M2 discharges clear 46 degree C water with a flow of 10 kg/s and a ph 7.52.' Local villages consulted confirmed that the waterflow has remained constant throughout the decades despite prolonged periods of drought. Whereas geothermal activity or natural hot springs are not only limited to Marobo (Bobonaro District), the most appropriate use for the resource is for the more obvious tourism - health spa-oriented bathing. Despite the hot springs on Atauro Island (25 km north of Dili at various locations) seemingly having higher source temperatures (166-180 degrees C) than springs on the mainland, the temperatures are still relatively low for large-scale power generation.

Water from two different springs converge with bright green algae growing in the one

Nuno left and the author test out the 'invigorating' 40 something degree water  

Further natural hot springs can be found throughout the country at the following locations: Mare Naun Kura Springs (Aileu District), Wai Kana Springs (Ossu District), Wai Luli Manis and Laclota Springs (Viqueque District). 

Surrounding land-use practices of agriculture (small scale vegetable and livestock farming) appear to co-exist, harmoniously, with that of the hot springs. Local villages appear to be protecting the resource and brush and hand-packed stone walls separate adjoining agricultural land from the hot springs.

Adjoining agricultural land-use practices co-exist with that of hot springs introducing the unique prospect of sustainable agri-tourism

A parting shot of Marobo's natural hot springs - yet another of Timor-Leste's hidden gems

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Six of the Best by Barry Greville-Eyres

Out and about in Timor-Leste  Ermera and Manatutu Districts

Another day in paradise! 

Ermera's Portuguese-era Catholic Church - pre-1960's takes centrepiece in this hilltop hamlet

Beaming teenaged entrepreneurs proudly display their wares

En route to Ermera - thumbs up from the Tupperware Bandito!

Maun Nuno and Afonso enjoy classic roadside fare consisting of skewered grilled fish and steamed rice

Finis - pure gold!