I spent a day in hot, hot Suai. Every passing truck dragged a cloud of dust from the powdery roadsides. I slept late on my bunkbed, sweating gently in front of the old fan.
Later, I walked through the town, from the bottom to the top, and found the main markets. In swirling darkness under an unbroken expanse of corrugated iron, my eyes adjusted slowly and I could make out piles of ground spices and dried herbs laid out on squares of cardboard. Salt, noodles, lentils, t-shirts.
Young men were smoking and lounging on scooters near the entrances and exits. My appearance caused a stir – me and my unaccompanied white skin – but one of them went that bit further and catcalled me properly, hooting and jeering, eliciting nervous giggles from his mates. I ignored them. Same shit, different day. But when I passed that way a second time, and he did it again – this time louder, putting on even more of a show for his mates – I’d had enough. It was too hot to take shit.
I turned around and faced him. ‘Yes?’ I said. ‘What do you want? What can I do for you?’ He giggled, surrounded by his mates. His mates were looking nervous now, exchanging glances. Looking from him to me, back to each other. Old mate was still lounging, still trying to look cool.
I took a step towards him, now two. I was bigger than he was. I was strong and properly nourished anf pissed off and in his face. There was a pause, a collective intake of breath.
He literally squealed. Then he backed away from me, shuffling awkwardly, and hot footed it around the corner.
His mates scattered.
The spectating women gaped.
Good. I went on with my shopping, unmolested.
* * *
The next day I was fresh, ready to take on the bad road North to Marobo. The dusty villages and baked dirt road didn’t stretch far out of Suai; soon I was in the mountains, with the welcome cool of the jungle closing over my head.
The shade was a relief because this road made me work hard. An old, narrow dirt track through the jungle, it was heavily eroded, leaving an obstacle course of loose exposed rocks and deep ruts. It would have been hell in the rain, but today it was dry as bone.
I stood up on the pegs and went into a state of calm focus; slow and steady, the main game was staying upright. I knew that if I went down once, the effort and stress of picking the bike up again with all my gear would set off a snowballing of physical and mental fatigue. So I picked my way up the mountain range, steadily and luckily; I passed a Landcruiser and a small truck going the opposite direction, providentially not meeting either of them on one of the many steep, rough hairpins.
I’d been told that the road to Jaco was the worst road I would find in Timor, but it wasn’t true; this one was harder, and longer, and more remote. Fortunately, those reassurances had lulled me into a false sense of security, and now I was committed. I was also enjoying myself.
About an hour into the piece, I had a moment of doubt. I’d been grinding up a steep slope for five minutes, fighting to maintain momentum, when I rounded a corner and saw an even steeper slope ahead of me: the road disappeared around a hairpin bend high above my head, coated in a layer of rocks and scree.
I knew that if I stopped or hesitated, I’d slide all the way back to the bottom of the mountain. I also knew that my only real hope was staying carefully, scrupulously, on the skinny clean line that snaked up the slope.
As I locked my ankles and throttled on, two people appeared around the corner. They were walking down the hill, down the narrow clean line, as any sensible person would: the rest of the road surface was so loose and steep you’d probably fall over if you tried to walk on it.
They saw me coming and stopped to watch the show; stopped, right in the middle of my line.
I swore inside my helmet. I didn’t know the appropriate words in Tetum for that moment, so I aimed for the inside of the corner – steeper, looser, and stupider than the outside line they were blocking – and went for gold.
It was messy, very messy. Beastie was chewing rocks and spitting them out with her back wheel, and I could hear them clattering down the slope. Again and again I felt the tyres let go and then grip again; rocks the size of mangoes jostled to knock my front wheel off course. No way did I have enough momentum for this— and then I was clear. I was past the spectating people, back on the clean outside line, scraping past the truck that my erstwhile human obstacles had parked at the top of the hill while they walked out the road.
Who would have thought.
Now I was up high, tracing the bony spine of a mountain range, heading vaguely West. Suddenly, soldiers: a small concrete building; a Timorese flag. The soldiers were armed. They looked at me in surprise as I rode past. I was equally surprised. What were they doing here on a goat track in the middle of nowhere? I decided not to stop.
A bit later, I pulled to the side of the track. Rest break: water, electrolytes, sugar. I looked at the offline maps on my phone and – oh shit – is that Indonesian border… Well that would explain the soldiers. I decided to keep my head down. There was only one road anyway, so I kept going.
About an hour later I dropped the bike for the first time that day. It was an area of loose rocks and bad washouts; my attempt to thread a path between the two could not, it turned out, be achieved at a speed sustainable with stock gearing on a 690 Enduro. I was getting a bit tired and my clutch control was a bit shit, so down I went.
It was a gentle dirt nap, and I apologised to Beastie before dragging her front wheel around and using the slope of the hill to help me lift. Up she went. By the time a Landcruiser appeared around the corner, she was back up on her sidestand, suspiciously parked in the middle of the track, pretending that nothing had ever happened.
Back on the horse.
Later, I made a strategic error in a gigantic mudpuddle.
Usually, there’s a scooter track around the edge. If you can successfully negotiate that narrow scrap of dry land, you’ll escape whatever deep muddy terrors lurk in the middle of the puddle, waiting to pull you down into a gluey embrace. But if you stuff up, you’ll slide laterally into the sloping edge of the puddle, off-balance and off-line, without enough momentum to keep the front straight. You’ll faceplant into the puddle, rear wheel on high ground and handlebars in the mud, wondering why the hell you didn’t just ride straight through the damn thing.
It was pretty funny. There was no-one there to laugh.
My front pannier pockets were full of mud now. I tried to lift the bike, but it was slippery and awkward and she kept sliding into deeper water. I was tired. I was also a little depressed: after the rather epic hills and washouts I’d negotiated so far, it seemed like a pretty pathetic place to stack.
I sat on a grassy bank and drank some water and looked at Beastie. From her mud puddle, she glared back at me reproachfully with mud spattered spotlights.
Impatient cow. ‘You’re just going to have to wait until I’ve got my strength back,’ I snapped.
Fifteen minutes passed, twenty minutes. I started to feel better. I heard laughter.
Tiny figures appeared in the distance. Kids – little kids – running down the road. I waved, and waited. Five little Timorese boys, in their school uniforms; skinny kids, about eight or nine, with bright smiles. My scuttled motorbike made their day. What a thing to find on the road on your way home from school!
In moments, two of them were helping me to hoist Beastie out of the puddle. They were the skinniest little kids, but I couldn’t believe how strong they were; the impossible became easy and Beastie was up, balanced against my hip, as the muddy water streamed off her side.
Rescued by eight year olds in Timor! I laughed and they did too, bright smiles and curious eyes. They were great kids.
We were still standing there laughing when two guys on a scooter came along. The kids told them about Beastie’s mudbath in animated detail. It was a good story already, and would undoubtedly get better with telling.
For the next twenty kilometres or so, I rode behind my new scooter friends, glad to have company and a pair of helping hands if I needed it. They stopped at a village even higher up in the mountains; the rider told me that this was his sister’s house. She had a baby on her hip and more small children around her feet, and she made us sweet dark Timorese coffee. My friend pointed to the mountainside opposite, and told me that was Indonesia.
Veins flooded with caffeine and sugar and kindness, I rode down the other side of the range where cold cloud hung over the higher peaks. The road reverted to ordinary awful instead of extraodinary awful, and I headed for Morobo.
I’d been told there were hot springs there; paradise awaits.