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


  1. .... aahhhhh... did you say you were working :-)

  2. No one can do any thing to recover such a beaunty ? little monies will be need to bring things back.\Open the door to investors with strings attached and someone will do a useful favour to all

  3. A PRICELESS experience here with my father, uncle and big sister..... I HEART EAST TIMOR!!!!

    1. **Father and Uncle...proud native ETs :)

  4. Que maravilhosos banhos tomei aqui na piscina aquecida do Marobo entre MAIO de 1968 e FEVEREIRO1969, quando prestei serviço em Bobonaro no Comando de Sector Nº 1.

  5. Will visit this place this year!!!

  6. Will visit this place this year!!!

  7. Muitos banhos tomei eu em pequeno, na piscina do Marobo, com os meus pais, irma, tios, primos, ...

  8. Thanks for steering me toward this post, Barry. Great write-up and pics. Would love to get to Timor-Leste one day, and this helps keep the dream alive!