I squeezed the little Suzuki 4x4 up against the cliff edge as the Portuguese army vehicle hurtled past in the opposite direction, occupying most of the road and travelling far too fast. A couple of years ago, if you were going to be killed on the roads of East Timor it was likely to be by a United Nations vehicle. The chances were that you would survive an encounter with the Nepalese, Korean, Japanese, Australian or New Zealand contingent of the peacekeeping force. But "peacekeeper" seemed particularly inappropriate shorthand for the Portuguese soldiers who had brought their reputation as, statistically, the most dangerous drivers in Western Europe with them - although those Thai Hummers did use up an awful lot of often very narrow roads.
These wayward warriors had travelled to East Timor to try to help the territory following its tragic recent problems. Timor is at the opposite end of the Indonesian archipelago from last weekend's devastating earthquake - the easternmost and final island in a string that leads from Bali towards northern Australia. Dominican friars established the first Portuguese settlement at Lifau, in the present-day Oecussi exclave - politically still part of East Timor but surrounded on three sides by Indonesian territory and on the fourth by the sea. Dutch-Portuguese rivalry in the region led to continued skirmishes, resulting in the 1859 Treaty of Lisbon that divided Timor and gave Portugal the eastern half of the island, together with that north-coast pocket of Oecussi in the west.
East Timor became part of the South-east Asian frontline during the Second World War, and up to 60,000 East Timorese died in the struggle to stop the Japanese launching an attack on Australia from the country. After the "Carnation Revolution" that swept through Portugal in 1974, it was unceremoniously dumped by the mother country - along with its other colonies - and was quickly swallowed up by Indonesia. The United Nations did not - and has never - recognised Indonesia's sovereignty over East Timor; to its discredit, Australia became the only country to do so. The regime in Jakarta ruled the half-island region with appalling brutality while a simmering independence struggle ground on year after year. Then in 1999 the Indonesians quite unexpectedly offered the East Timorese a referendum. The result was an overwhelming "goodbye Indonesia", the aftermath three weeks of devastation wrought by Indonesian troops and militias until the UN, led by thousands of Australian troops, came to the rescue.
Now the number of UN troops has been scaled down and the island's road-safety issues are no different from any other developing nation. The tiny country of East Timor(800,000 people in an area a bit smaller than Wales) is the first new nation this millennium and the newest member of the UN - with the official name of the Democratic Republic of Timor Leste. The name you'll see most often in the country, besides this, is Timor Lorosae (in the local dialect Tetum), which could be translated as "Timor where the sun rises".
Today a great deal of the damage has been repaired and East Timor feels quite safe. There are still plenty of aid workers but the moneymakers' numbers have tumbled: for at least three years after the Indonesian departure it was hard to get a roof repaired, a wall built or a toilet unblocked in Darwin, the nearest Australian city, as half the handymen from Australia's Northern Territory had decamped to East Timor.
On one of my recent visits I set off to explore Timor Lorosae, driving east past the crumbling Portuguese fort at Maubara (its cannons still pointing out to sea) all the way to Batugede on the Indonesian border, then south through Balibo and Maliana to Suai on the south coast. As I cruised through Zumulai a sign pointed out that I was 5,940km (3,564 miles) from Kathmandu - Zumalia's UN contingent at the time were from Nepal.
From the south coast I drove back over the mountains, spending the night in a recently reopened Portuguese pousada in the cool hilltop town of Maubisse and diverting to the village of Hatu Builico to climb Mount Ramalu. The 11-mile track from the main road to the village was a good test of my little 4x4's ground clearance, and from the village it took a couple of hours to climb to the highest point in the country. From 9,700ft I could see all the way to the north and south coasts.
Then it was off to the eastern end of the island, the road alternating between straight stretches along the coast and clifftop tracks that clung precariously to the mountains, the sea shimmering far below and not a guard-rail between my Suzuki and a long drop. Like the Romans in Monty Python's Life of Brian, the Indonesians - in between making themselves very unpopular - did a lot for the country. The penniless Portuguese hardly left a mile of sealed road in the whole place and didn't manage to bridge any of the major rivers. Today, bridges still wash away in the wet season, but the roads are surprisingly good for a remote developing country. The education system was also dramatically expanded under Indonesian rule.
Towards the eastern end of the island I stopped at Baucau, the second-biggest town in the country and home to the flamboyant pink Pousada de Baucau. In the Portuguese era it was known as the Hotel Flamboyant, and it has recently been completely restored - a clear sign that some people are expecting a tourist future.
Finally I bounced my way right down to the eastern tip (the last few rocky miles were a real 4x4 test) to an idyllic beach below Tutuala. Just a few hundred yards offshore was beautiful little Jaco Island; in between was crystal-clear water and a Technicolor coral reef, dense with cheeky little clown fish and the odd (harmless) white tip reef shark. I wasn't the first arrival: a couple of young Australians were camping there, having hired a motorised outrigger canoe with a crew for £45 to beach-hop their way along the coast for three days.
Back in Dili the food was as international as the UN visitors: Japanese at Gion and Shima, Portuguese at the Central Garden Restaurant, Italian at the City Café, Filipino at Pinoy. The beer was mainly Australian, the wine just as often came from Portugal. As the UN numbers dwindle, hotel prices in Dili are tumbling and finding a room is easy. So, too, is getting around: the Backpackers Hostel in Dili rents out ex-Australian Post Office motorcycles for £7 a day, and intrepid travellers have been busy proving there is virtually nowhere these hardy little Hondas cannot reach.
At the weekend I headed offshore. Already there are dive operators exploring East Timor's pristine reefs and prolific marine life. At Bob's Rock, 25 miles east of Dili, I only had to swim 50 feet out from the shore to tip over the edge of the reef. It was equally stunning at Atauro Island, 20 miles offshore, but this time it was the ride back that provided the surprise. Just off the island's southern tip we came upon pods of dolphins and pilot whales, not just dozens but hundreds of them. At one point our boat was surrounded by gently harrumphing whales. "This time of year we meet them every day at this time," our divemaster said nonchalantly.
Tony Wheeler is co-founder of Lonely Planet and author of 'East Timor' (£15.99)
Air North (00 61 889 20 4000; www.airnorth.com.au) flies twice daily from Darwin to Dili. The 90-minute flight costs £190 return if you book in advance. Or you can fly with Merpati (00 62 21 654 8888) from Bali; the daily flight costs £135 return. The intrepid can come overland from Kupang at the other (Indonesian) end of the island. After leaving the last Indonesian bus you walk across the border and pick up an East Timorese one to Dili.
Buses run anywhere there's a road. The 75-mile trip from Dili to Baucua takes about three hours and costs less than £1.50. Renting a car from Thrifty costs £20 a day but if you plan to get off the beaten track (which is easy to do) you'll need a 4x4: they cost from £35-£50 a day, with a charge of about 20p per mile for anything over 60 miles per day.
WHERE TO STAY
The waterfront Hotel Turismo (00 670 72 34 704) was there in the Portuguese era, the Indonesian interlude and now it's part of independent East Timor. A little maintenance wouldn't hurt but the garden bar is one of Dili's prime meeting places and rooms run from £10 (a fan-cooled single) up to £30 (the better air-conditioned doubles). If you want something better, the stylish Esplanada (00 670 33 13 088; www.hotelesplanada.com) is a little further from the centre and has comfortable rooms around the swimming pool for £50. At the other end of the scale Backpackers (00 670 723 8121), Dili's first establishment intended for footloose budget travellers, will bed you down for £5.
Around the country the accommodation scene is, well, variable. In some places you'll find cheap and often rather primitive locally run establishments, in others there'll be something more salubrious and more expensive. In other places you'll find nothing at all although asking around will always turn up a bed. Atauro Island, offshore from Dili, has a pioneering Eco Lodge costing £15 a night.
The violence that ushered independent East Timor into existence is a thing of the past (although the investigations are continuing) and the country feels remarkably relaxed and safe today. Nevertheless poverty, unemployment and dark streets (the electricity supply is decidedly erratic) are not a good combination and visitors, particularly women, should exercise caution.Reuse content