Exploring East Timor

By Dave Harasti

The Indo Pacific region is famous for its tropical islands, clear blue water and rich coral reefs. When you think of diving in the tropics, locations such as Papua New Guinea , the Solomon Islands and the Philippines are generally the first places that spring to mind. Well there is now another diving destination that needs to be seriously considered: East Timor .

East Timor is one of the newest countries in the world after gaining independence in May 2002. It is also known as “Timor Leste” which is East Timor in Portuguese. The country has had a troublesome past with the most extensive violence occurring in 1999 when Militia and Indonesian soldiers were responsible for the killing of many civilians and the destruction of most infrastructures. To restore order, the United Nations sent in a peace keeping force (known as InterFET) and within weeks the unstable climate in East Timor was under control. The UN has worked hard over the past 6 years to restore infrastructure and assist with the rebuilding of the capital city, Dili, that had been extensively damaged during the carnage of 1999. Following some more recent trouble in May this year the UN, with the assistance of the Australian Government, is now busy again trying to help this new country ‘rebuild' itself.

The East Timorese are very proud of their independence and the country is still learning to live with its new identity. The Timorese people are incredibly friendly and very happy to assist tourists with their needs. The local language is Tetun however Portuguese, Indonesian and English are also spoken. It helps to learn a small amount of Tetun before arriving so that you can exchange pleasantries with the locals; it brings a smile to their face to see you trying to speak their language!

Dili is the city that you are based in and if it wasn't for the diving, it's not really a location that you would visit just for a holiday. Dili is slowly rebuilding itself and is the only ‘real' city in East Timor . There are many hotels to select from but the comfort and prices can vary considerably (from $10 to $100+ US). We spent a week staying at ‘Hotel Dili' and this hotel is highly recommended. It is located on Dili's beachfront and has an excellent restaurant and large beer garden which is perfect for unwinding in after a good day's diving. There are several types of rooms from the upmarket exclusive five star suites to the cheaper basic rooms. The deluxe room, priced at approximately $70 US, is excellent value for money as it is large, clean and comfortable. All rooms have broadband Internet access (at the cheap rate of $6 per day) and there are many Australian power points that can be used for charging camera and strobe batteries.

The other hotels to consider staying at are the Hotel Esplanada and Casa Minha (top range), Venture Hotel and Rocella Hotel (mid range) and the new Thai Pavilion Hotel that was still under development in April 2006 is shaping up to be a very nice place to stay. There are many places to eat in Dili and there are a large variety of restaurants to select from if one can tap into the local knowledge.

The Monkey Bar is great place to relax and chill and the restaurant offers excellent surf and turf meals. If you are lucky the local pig racing might be on; this is an experience to behold! You can place bets on your favourite porky and cheer the pigs around the track with all the other fun loving ex-pats! Other good places to eat in Dili include the Victoria Beach café for a meal of fresh Timor fish, the Dili Club for Pizza and Trivia night, Hotel Dili for western cuisine and the Caz Bar, located at Areia Branca, is a great place to kick back with a beer and enjoy the local prawns and a spectacular sunset.

East Timor offers everything that a scuba diver can possibly want to see. Muck diving, coral reefs, wrecks, big fish action and mind-blowing deep coral walls. The diving is conducted through FreeFlow Diving, which is owned and managed by British couple Wayne Lovell and Ann Turner, who have been living in East Timor for the past 5 years. The business opened in 2001 making it the longest established dive centre in East Timor . Wayne knows East Timor 's divesites better than anyone else; his explorations have led to the establishment of many of the sites. He's also an excellent critter finder as he has the knack of finding the rare and unusual.

All the diving is done out of Dili and a typical day's diving will usually commence with a leisurely drive through stunning coastal scenery to numerous different divesites where the car can park right at the ocean's edge. The longest drive to a divesite is just over an hour, however the amazing views make the time pass quickly. Entry and exit is very straight forward as the fringing coral reefs start at the shoreline. After the dive, the surface interval can be spent resting under the trees, enjoying lunch before hopping back in for a second dive at a new location. On the way back from the dive, a quick stop at the Mamar restaurant in Metinaro Village for a fantastic local meal is an excellent way to finish off a day's diving.

FreeFlow Diving provide complete hire gear for a reasonable price and an outstanding feature of service is that FreeFlow do not impose a maximum dive time; you can dive as long as your air and computer safely allows or until your camera battery runs out! The hiring of dive equipment should be given serious consideration as Air North is exceptionally strict with their 20kg total baggage allowance. The only carry-on they allow is a small briefcase size bag so if you're a photographer don't even bother trying to take your big bulky camera bags as carry-on – they simply don't fit in the tiny overhead compartments!

As well as the excellent shore divesites to the east and west of Dili there are some incredible boat dives. The boat diving is conducted through ‘Island Charters' on their purpose built 40 foot dive boat, the “Island Lady”. The Island Lady is owned by skipper Jim Cato who has over 20 years of sea experience. This boat can easily accommodate 10 divers, has a fresh shower, toilet, dry area, all safety equipment and is powered by 2x200hp turbo charged Volvo engines which allows a cruising speed of 25 knots. It also has an excellent dive deck that makes getting in and out of the water very easy. The Island Lady regularly runs dive trips with FreeFlow out of Dili across to Atauro Island.

Atauro Island is a one hour boat trip away and its underwater realm provides some of the best wall diving in the Indo-Pacific region. On the journey to the island you're almost guaranteed to see dolphins and it's not unusual to see other cetaceans such as pilot and fin whales. We did a single dive at Manta Ray Cove where we dropped down to 50 m on the vertical wall and slowly made our way back up through some of the most prolific coral growth you could possibly imagine. It is easily one of the best wall dives I have ever done - even better than some of the walls at Uepi in the Solomon Islands and the dropoffs in the Red Sea . Other divesites around Atauro Island include Big Fish, the S Bend, Bar Stool and Shark Point, however many more sites will be found as exploration continues!

It is also possible to spend a night on Atauro at eco-tourism guest lodges; this provides you with the opportunity to experience the local culture as well as offering the possibility of a night dive. The eco lodge is run by Barry Hinton and is named “Nema's@Atauro” in memory of his wife who sadly passed away recently. The resort is located within the village of Beloi and guests can stay for $25 per night, which includes a local dinner and breakfast. A perfect week's diving would be to spend 4 or 5 days shore diving and then a day diving at Atauro Island.

Some of the shore dive sites have interesting names such as Dirt Track, Lone Tree, Secret garden, Hammerhead Point, Kingfisher Cove and Dollar Beach . A few of the more memorable Dili dive sites we visited were:

Bob's Rock: So named because of a rock on the side of the road that has the word ‘Bob' written on it. This site is a macro photographer's haven and it is the spot to find rare and elusive species. There is a large gorgonian fan at 20 metres that is home to the pygmy seahorse ( Hippocampus bargibanti ) and swimming to the west you will encounter a large patch of garden eels. Other interesting critter finds at this site include the rare white mushroom coral pipefish, ornate and robust ghost pipefish, mantis shrimp, leaf scorpionfish and numerous species of nudibranchs and commensal shrimps. This is also the site where we found seven different species of anemonefish – that's pretty good for a single divesite!

K41: This site is uniquely named because it is exactly 41 kilometres east of Dili! As you enter the water a reef wall starts on your right hand side that you follow out until it starts to slope away into the depths. There is an excellent bommie at the end of the wall that is covered in crinoids and gorgonians with schools of sweetlips and fusiliers covering the reef top. Alternatively, a diver can swim to the left (west) of this site and it's an entirely different dive, as it's a much siltier habitat containing large sea whips and colourful coral bushes. This spot is an excellent location to find egg cowries on the gorgonians and large Nembrotha nudibranchs feeding on ascidians.

Wayne 's World: This site has exceptional coral cover with hard corals in abundance and lots of colourful soft corals and sponges. The reef slopes down to approximately 30 metres and down on the sand line is a good place to find resting white tip reef sharks as well as large schools of batfish and tropical snapper. There is also a nice reef swim-through at 20 metres and the shallows produce all sorts of unusual macro critters, including large numbers of anemonefish. Some visiting divers named this site after Wayne took them on an exploratory dive here.

Useful tips

Bookings: Our trip was organised with Allways Dive Expeditions based out of Melbourne . Contact Allways on 1800 338239 or allwaysdive@allwaystravelservice.com as they have some great package deals available.

Getting there: The East Timorese capital Dili is connected by air to Darwin , Australia . Air North operates daily from Darwin . It is also possible to fly to East Timor via Bali . An important consideration is the baggage allowance; Air North is very strict on a maximum allowance of 20kgs so pack your dive gear lightly or hire it over there.

When to Visit: The best time to visit for diving is in the dry season from May through to December as this is when visibility is meant to be outstanding; at least 30+ metres on almost every dive. From August to November there is a chance of encountering whale sharks, humpback whales, dugongs, manta rays and hammerhead sharks at the local divesites.

What to Bring: Sunscreen is essential as it gets pretty hot, particularly at the dive sites. Anti-Malaria tablets are definitely recommended; you should advise your doctor that you will be diving as some medications are not suitable. Insect repellent is important, too, especially during the wet season. Also, for the ladies one piece swimmers are preferable, as locals don't appreciate skimpy swimwear.

Language: Local language is Tetun. Portuguese, Indonesian and English are also spoken.

Currency: The currency is the US Dollar. It is recommended to bring small US notes as it can be difficult to get change at local markets. There are two ATM's, one at ANZ bank and the other at Leader Supermarket. Tipping is not common practice and it's at your discretion.

Visa Requirements: Entry Visa is $30 US which is paid on arrival and the airport departure tax is $10 US.

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