Timor is full of crocodiles. Hot weather, beautiful beaches and dramatic rivers with broad gravelly beds, all with bonus crocodiles.
I don’t like crocodiles. I’m not scared of things that can kill me per se - I mean, it’s going to hapen to all of us at some point – but I really don’t like wild animals with big gnashy teeth. Crocodiles, bears, lions, tigers – I feel like these things could potentially lead to a prolonged and unpleasant mode of death, and if there’s anything I’m afraid of it’s fear itself.
That can be quite dangerous. Remember when I was in northern Queensland last year, riding into the fading light of day but too scared to stop and camp on the floodplain for fear of crocodiles? I nearly hit a one-tonne Brahman steer that night, the dusky light hiding its dusky hide.
But I digress. Crocodiles. I don’t like them too much. So I set out to ride to Jaco Island, a tiny spec of paradise off the far eastern tip of Timor Leste, where I’d been told the crocodiles don’t lurk. Arguably, other things might lurk there: the island is sacred, possibly inhabited by spirits, and the locals won’t stay there overnight. By day, however, it’s the desert island without the shipwreck.
I left some of my gear at the guest house in Baucau, telling the family that I’d be back in a few days – maybe two or three, I wasn’t sure. They were happy to lock my things in my sea view room for a few dollars a day, the easiest money they ever made.
Soon I was riding through the crazy-hot sun of dry season Timor, stopping again and again to drink water: one, two, three litres, and an electrolyte tablet for good measure. The potholes were generous and Beastie ate up the scarred, rocky roads.
We were having a high old time when I suddenly thought she sounded a bit more rattly than usual. That’s a big call for a big bore single – even when running perfectly the LC4 kind of sounds like it might be about to blow up. Still, you don’t ignore these things. I pulled off the road and scouted the sound, hoping for nothing more innocuous than a pebble in the bashplate.
I followed the increasingly tinny note of the rattle to the back of the bike, where my stock exhaust was emanating heat like the fires of hell. There was the culprit: a small stainless weld on the far end of the exhaust bracket had snapped, and a thin finger of metal was now tapping gently on the metal to which it should have been attached.
I evaluated the situation carefully but the snapped weld seemed non-critical: it wasn’t supporting the weight of the exhaust. I decided to learn to love the new sound in Beastie’s orchestra.
Keep going. Unpainted Besser block houses lined the road, occasionally interspersed with traditional wooden houses: small thatched roofed-constructions, raised high on stilts, reached by a ladder. No food stalls, nothing to much to eat. A few curious kids.
Tuatola is the town on top of the hill, before you start descending down from Timor’s high spine to the white beaches below. I’d been told that there was at least one guest house, a restaurant and some aid workers in the town, but I couldn’t see anything promising from the main road, and my mind was focused on the challenge ahead. I’d been told that the road down to Jaco was the ‘worst road you’ll find in Timor’: rocky, rough, and very very steep. Given the state of most roads in Timor, I wasn’t sure what to imagine but it couldn’t be good. Best just to bite the bullet and head on down.
There were actually roadworks on the first couple of kilometres, with an excavator breaking rocks to correct the sweep of the road. The surface was still a minefield of loose, broken rocks but it looked like it might become a perfectly nice road in the future.
The last three or four kilometres got fairly steep, again with the loose rocks and patches of very fine, powdery dust. I put Beastie in first gear and we picked our way downhill, no worries.
Usually, it’s harder to go down steep sections than up them; but I could see that the road surface might make this an exception to the rule. There were a lot of loose rocks that would need to be dodged on the way up, and one steep hairpin that give me pause: it was steep enough that you’d have to been nailing it pretty good to get up the slope, but then suddenly the road pivoted a hard left. Changing direction by 90 degrees in the middle of smashing a steep loose slope was going to be fun.
I filed the corner away in my mind to worry about in a couple of days’ time. What has already gone down that hill must come up again – but maybe not until I’ve spend a couple of days on a tropical island.
* * *
At the bottom of the hill, there’s a beach. On the beach there are fishermen. Further up the beach, there is a campsite and guest house. No village; all the locals live at the top of the hill.
I picked a spot under a tree at the campsite. It was a few dollars a night to camp, twenty dollars a night for a rustic bamboo bungalow with a bed and a mosquito net. Tourism in Timor is a desultory business; I was the only guest at the campground until the following day, when a couple of Chinese doctors from the town of Los Palos appeared in a four wheel drive. They were kind and a bit shy, and shared their firewood with me. Later, I would try to look them up in Los Palos, but I never found them again.
The camp ground sold drinking water, instant noodles, and cans of warm beer. The beer called to me – it had been a good and taxing day’s riding, and it was definitely beer o’clock, so I went ahead and treated myself.
Always in Timor, I see the same expressions play out across the faces of shopkeepers when I ask for beer: first, surprise that I’m speaking Tetum, then mild shock that a woman is asking for beer, and then a sort of accepting shrug, as if to say, ‘well, she’s malae, who knows what foreigners do’.
So I bought my beer and tried to communicate a little with the old man; seeing as buying beer had pretty much exhausted my store of Tetum, I tried out my makeshift Indonesian. I had to ask him something important: ‘ada buaya di sini, Pak?’ Are there crocodiles here?
He nodded emphatically. ‘Ya, ada buaya di sini.’ He said that it wasn’t safe to swim on the beach here, but that it was okay out on the island. If I wanted to swim, I would be safe on the island.
This was what I’d been led to believe. We chatted a little bit more – he tried to upsell me some food for that evening, but I said that I’d cook. I had some vegetables that I’d bought on the roadside earlier in the day, and they weren’t going to last long in the heat. Maybe tomorrow, when I was out of fresh food.
The heat had left the day by now as the shadow from the mountains cooled this eastern-most tip of Timor. I walked up the beach past the guest house, where I saw the only other paying guests in the area – an Australian couple, with two small children playing in the water. I said hello, but they weren’t particularly friendly. I asked them if they weren’t worried about their small children playing in the water with the crocodiles. ‘Oh there are no crocodiles here,’ they said. ‘The kids have been swimming there for days, we haven’t seen any.’
Oh, righto. Well, I guess the locals must be mistaken.
I found myself a deserted patch of beach to drink my warm beer and watch the colours change over the sea. Sometimes, in life, that’s all you need.
* * *
The next morning I paid a fisherman $10 to drop me off on the island.
I walked around its edges, dizzied by the turquoise perfection of the waters that rings its white beaches. This was the tropical island holiday that only people on television ever got to take.
I was the only person the island. I swam, and lay in the shade, and swam again.