Balibo Tourist

Balibo 5 graffiti, Timor Leste 2013

Timor Leste, 2013 –

We have been told that the road to the west is terrible and that only a 4WD would make it. So we arrange through a tour company to hire a 4WD and a driver. It’s not our preferred method of travel – in a chauffeured, air conditioned car waving ‘like the Queen’ as we drive past the locals – but we have limited time due to work commitments and we know that access to accommodation is extremely limited and in any case we simply wouldn’t know where to find it. Our chauffeured option is probably the best in these circumstances.

Fifteen minutes early, a young Timorese man, Michael, rings to tell us he has arrived and is waiting for us.

We load up, hop in and head west out of Dili, past the airport, towards Tibar, which is one of the proposed sites for a new port. The road had deteriorated long before reaching Tibar. Michael is being careful to ease the 4WD over the bumps. In fact, painfully careful. He says it’s for our comfort (we think – his English is very limited). We think it’s to protect the vehicle.

Eventually we arrive at Liquiçá. It’s 27km from Dili but it took over an hour. I spot the sign to Cameo Beach, our first planned destination, but a little late. Now we discover how limited Michael’s English is as we try to explain where we want to go.

In the process, we stumble into the narrow cobbled streets of the old Portuguese part of town where there are some very impressive old buildings. The church in the centre of town was the site of a couple of massacres. One took place in the early 90’s and the other was carried out by the pro-Indonesian militia in 1999, leading up to the referendum. Today is the commemoration of the 1999 event. Older villagers line the road leading to the church waiting for a church representative to arrive to conduct a mass. They’re all dressed in various forms of national costume.

We make Michael ask permission before we drive past the church through the waiting people. They seem happy to let us through. It’s a narrow track and they are standing close to the car windows. Looking into their faces I see sadness, determination, lifetimes lost and remembrance all in equal measure. They are all so old, probably long before their time. Faces are hardened, wrinkled and sombre as befits the occasion.

This brief experience is as beautiful as it is sad. Their traditional clothing is a bright array of colours, even festive looking. It is their faces that tell the real story. This sight will, I’m sure, be seared into my mind forever.

I took no pictures of this experience. I felt it would be too disrespectful.

We eventually find Cameo Beach and the small resort located right on the sea shore. It’s a beautiful place to stop for a cool drink and a chance to use the clean facilities.

As we leave Liquiçá we realise it’s a village worth exploring further, but we have an objective which is still a long way off and we really need to be there before sunset.

The road deteriorates even more. Now we understand the need for a 4WD. At least we can see that a lot of road building is happening, but of course for now that makes the road even worse. At several points we have to wait while diggers excavate the cliff face and frontend loaders clear rocks from the road.

We reach the next town, Maubara. Its claim to fame is a nearly 500-year-old Dutch/Portuguese fort. Its walls are pretty much all that’s left, but they’re as good as the day they were put there. Oddly, to me at least, while it’s built right down near the shoreline, the defensive strong points (rifle ports etc.) are mostly at the back. I guess they knew the Timorese were not happy with their presence.

The grounds inside the fort have been developed as a park with lush palms creating shaded areas, outdoor furniture scattered around, and a restaurant and souvenir shop. We sit back and enjoy very good Timorese coffee.

On the road again.

We push on through endless road works. One compensation is the views of beautiful, long and expansive grey sand beaches.

With some communication struggle we find out a little background about Michael. He’s studying to become a teacher at the local college in Dili. He lost family to the Indonesians during their occupation of Timor Leste. In particular he blames them for his father’s death from wounds they inflicted on him during a period of incarceration and torture. Michael was a very young boy when he lost his father and he openly states his dislike of Indonesia.

We make another brief stop at a village of traditional grass huts next to what appears to be a tidal mudflat with the weirdest looking structures built across it. Michael says it’s salt production. The villagers place salt water in a large earthen hopper and let it drain slowly onto a sheet metal pan where the water evaporates in the heat of the day. They continue to recycle the water so the brine becomes more concentrated. Eventually they light a fire under the pan to evaporate the remaining water. The salt is then bagged and sold all around the country.

At last we reach the border town of Batugarde and the warung where we plan to have lunch.

Standing in a doorway and looking serious is a tall, well-built Timorese soldier with a very large rifle. He’s looking out across the road, watching a squad of border patrol police at a vehicle which, I presume, has just come across the border from Indonesian territory. Instantly I realize that these guys do apply tactical thinking to their work. While the inspection work goes on, there’s always somebody covering the backs of the inspecting soldiers.

“Bo Tarde,” I say hopefully, as I step from our vehicle. His gaze moves to me. Instantly his face breaks into the broadest, whitest-teeth smile you would ever want to see. He returns the greeting.

Michael chats to him and then tells us that there is a new warung down the road, closer to the border. Things are looking up. The warung industry has grown by 100% in Batugarde this year! A minute later we are sitting inside and placing an order. The new warung recommendation is good. The food is great. Three people contentedly fed plus two cans of fruit juice for only US$8.75.

Now off to Balibo.

The road is pretty much uphill all the way and every inch is in the process of being rebuilt.

Oops, stop, back up, let the oncoming truck through!

And then we are there. It’s a sleepy little village. The Australian Flag House, where the Balibo 5 stayed and were taken from to be murdered, is on the main corner of the road we came up on.

The so called Balibo 5 were Australian news reporters who based themselves in Balibo to report on the expected Indonesian invasion of Timor Leste in 1975. They were staying in this cottage, which became known as the flag house because one reporter, Greg Shackleton, painted an Australian flag and a map of Australia on the front wall. I guess they hoped it would identify them as neutral non-combatants. Sadly, the ploy didn’t work and once the Indonesian troops secured the village they were flushed out, taken to another building, and shot.

The Flag House is situated on an obtuse angled corner with a couple of roads running off it. Opposite, ironically, is a large Indonesian liberation monument. It, and the similar one in Dili, were nicknamed the “How’s zat!” monuments by the Interfet troops. It’s meant to represent a Timorese warrior breaking the chains of colonialism. Yeah right! Imagine the pose of Shane Warne appealing for a wicket and you will get the picture. The locals in Balibo obviously don’t respect the monument. It’s their local graffiti point.

In 2002, the Victorian Government, under Premier Steve Bracks, established the Balibo House Trust which is overseeing the restoration of the Flag House, now known as the Community Learning Centre. Renovation had recently been completed. It has a new metal roof with metal rafters and tiled floors throughout. The paint work is a pale green similar to its colour in 1975. Interpretive signs and pictures inside were removed for the renovation but will be returning when the project is finished.

On the porch in front of it was a large wooden crate which we later discovered contained a glass plaque made using 21st century wizardry. It’s an exact reproduction of the Shackleton map and flag created using some sort of sub surface imaging equipment to replicate the original drawing including the colour. Two days after our visit it was mounted and dedicated by now former Victorian Premier Steve Bracks and Timorese officials. Some family members of the Balibo five were also present.

We knew the murders didn’t happen in the flag house. I was later informed that they were carried out in what is known as the Chinese House, diagonally opposite. Apparently bullet holes are still evident in the walls inside. It hasn’t been lived in since 1975. The Chinese owners of the house now live in Melbourne and would happily sell it for a ridiculously high price. If you decide to buy it make sure you ask about getting land title in Timor Leste. The answer might dissuade you from parting with your hard-earned cash.

Looking around the village, the damage of 1975 is still everywhere.

Directly opposite the Flag House is the old Portuguese fort, built some hundreds of years ago. The fort has been, it seems, the base for many an occupier, including the Japanese during the second world war. The Australian Interfet force also used it for their headquarters when they were in the region. Several plaques commemorate the various units that served in the area.

Time is pressing on, so we head off to Maliana. We are well inland now and quite elevated.

We ask Michael, “Is the road better from here?”

Simple answer, “No. Worse!”

Michael is right. Still more roadworks.

Along the way we cross a number of very wide, empty river beds, all with the same style of metal framed bridges across them. The bridges were built by the Indonesians and, surprisingly, not destroyed by them before their departure. One of the rivers is particularly wide and its bridge would be, I guess, about 1.2 kilometres long. These rivers must move huge volumes of water in the wet season. Now, during the dry season, however, the river beds are dry and stones are being quarried.

At last the roadworks have stopped. Now it’s an OK sealed road taking us into Maliana.

Maliana is a reasonable sized town and again we see evidence of building destruction. But generally, if the houses we see are any guide, it seems like a reasonable living standard.

Michael gets lost. He telephones his colleague who is escorting another couple and asks for assistance. They’re staying at the same place as us so we follow them to our accommodation.

Our pousada (hotel) is, we understand, just about the only accommodation in the whole region. It’s definitely backpacker standard. A very old facility now, it was once quite a grand complex. Standing on the terrace rewards one with a fabulous view of the town, the valley below and the mountains all around. The views alone are worth the US$25 tariff.

SLAP! There are still mosquitoes.

We freshen up and Michael drives us back down the hill to our “restaurant” for dinner. It’s one of only two warungs that open after dark and we are assured that we are going to the best one. I would describe the food as Indonesian/Portuguese fusion. I have nasi goreng, with egg on top, and finish with flan (creme caramel). Both are very good. The only beer available is ABC black beer served at room temperature. I drink it and order a second. I guess it must have been an accident that I got such a warm beer first time. I watch it come from the drinks fridge. Ahh yes. It should be right this time. Of course not! The fridge was set to room temperature.

Back to the pousada and we are in bed by 9.00 pm.

In our travels through Timor we have noticed that almost every household has a rooster or two. In the hour before dawn we had 400 new rooster mates all announcing their presence. We are therefore well up when the 6.50 knock on the door comes to tell us breakfast is ready. Off to the “dining room” for a fried egg, a bread roll and hot black coffee. It’s pretty good. The coffee is the locally grown crop and they know how to serve it. Black and strong.

Back to the bathroom for a coldish shower. The hot water comes on as we are about to leave.

We enjoy a “how’s the serenity” moment on the terrace. Looking down from the terrace I quietly curse our rooster mates in the neighbouring yards, but because of them we are well packed and ready to move when Michael arrives – an hour early.

We spend some time looking around the town, starting with the market. It is much like others we have seen here. Individual traders bring their produce in and arrange it on tables in measured heaps ready for the customers. The heaps are either one dollar or two dollar piles.

After the market we see first hand some of the town’s water supply, a series of aqueducts built along the streets. The water originates from springs further up in the hills and the residents use the aqueducts for household washing and bathing. And I mean, in the aqueduct. The water then continues on its way down to the market gardens on the flats.

“Do the town people use this water for drinking?” I ask.

“Oh! No! No! No!” Michael explains. “They go to a bore in the town square for that. The UN drilled the bore.”

Of course! We see the kids walking with various plastic water vessels. It seems it’s the job of children within the family to get drinking water. Regardless of age, once you are walking you carry at least one bottle.  And if a child is lucky enough to have a bicycle, they’re a transport magnate.

Next we drive into the beautifully laid out and well tended market gardens. We see a small lean-to that’s clearly a field day consulting area. We learned, early in my visit to Timor Leste, that Ausaid are big on training and development work to improve farm productivity. It’s apparently working well.

Once our tour of Maliana is over, we retrace our track back to Balibo and on to Batugade. We drive around the corner to look at the East Timor/Indonesia border and back to our favourite frontier warung for an early lunch.

Returning along the same road it’s amazing how many new things you see when looking at the same places but from the other end. Of the various forts we pass, a number appear to have started out as Dutch and then become Portuguese after the settlement of some treaty or other. During the 19th century, once East Timor was a Portuguese colony, there is evidence of town planning and grand houses, but it would appear to be self-aggrandizement and bugger the locals.

We make another brief stop at Maubara, this time to look at the beach. It’s another jewel –  grey sand, long, wide and beautiful. This place will be a ‘tourist Mecca’ one day. All the ingredients are there.

The coffee at the fort is as good as the day before.

Getting closer to Dili, we stop to look at the ruins of Aipelo Prison. The Portuguese built it in the 1880’s mainly for the purpose of housing political prisoners from Portugal, Macau and anywhere else from where they felt the need to bring them. In the 20th century, the Salazar dictatorship used it to exile political and union activists. It operated up to 1974. The ruins are destined to become a museum, but for now, there’s an old guy who claims to be a community appointed curator of sorts. He doesn’t speak English so Michael interprets for me and does a pretty good job.

A short while later we are already back home in Dili. Michael doesn’t seem to understand that we still have to pay him for the trip. We force the money on him and part company with our intrepid guide.

Time for a beer. But first we need to get the power working again. It must have gone off some time after we left. Warm beer again? Not this time. In Dili you have shops with plentiful supplies of chilled beer.

All up our trip took only 32 hours. We were language challenged with Michael and his exuberant enthusiasm meant he seemed to be in our face all the time. It was, somehow, not fun. Mind you, much of what we went to see was not based around a fun time. It was, for me at least, trying to get some insight into what brought this country to where it is now.

In reality, the western region of Timor Leste warrants a one or two-week exploration to visit each of the towns to seek out and discover their individual historic and cultural gems. Our trip was beaut, and interesting, and only an appetizer for what’s really there to experience in this part of the world.

David Morgan

April 2021

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