You’d be forgiven for not knowing much about our nearest neighbour, Timor-Leste (or East Timor). Since the 70s, news from the island nation that has reached the outside world has been plagued by conflict, genocide, fights for independence and blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers. But knowing little about our destination was refreshing – no tourist attractions we must see, no food we must eat, no expectations, no preconceptions – we flew into Dili completely open to the unknown.
Stepping off the plane in Dili, the hot tropical air enveloped us immediately – stifling and relaxing at the same time. With Portuguese reggae blaring from the taxi’s speakers, we drove from the airport through a city still finding its feet after only 15 years of independence. Portuguese architecture blurred with Indonesian, starkly modern buildings neighboured ones old and battered.
Eager to cool down, we quickly left our bags at the hotel and headed to Cristo Rei, a dominating statue of Jesus perched on a headland above a crystal blue moon-shaped bay. Apparently on occasion there’s a small wave that peels around the point beneath the statue, unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately as we didn’t have boards) there wasn’t a ripple in sight.
We swam in the warm blue water, looking across the channel to Atauro Island where we would venture the next day.
Atauro Island lies off the coast of Dili, separated from the main island by a 3,000 metre deep channel. These deep blue waters are thriving with ocean life – spinner dolphins, whale sharks, hammerhead sharks and even the odd blue whale!
As the boat pulled closer to shore, we almost dived off the side fully clothed at the sight of the brightest rainbow coral gardens visible through the shallow clear water. Atauro’s coral reefs are the most diverse in the world, home to hundreds of species of corals and fish.
Our four days on Atauro were split between early mornings to catch the sunrise over the ocean and listen to the local fishermen sing as they set out for the day, feasting on local delicacies at our island luxe accommodation, snorkelling the most incredible coral reef systems we’d ever laid eyes on, and helping clean the local beaches of plastics that wash up from the main island and further abroad.
We slipped into island time, idling away the hours in our hammocks when it was too hot to do much else. The locals of Atauro live a life of simplicity and we dreamt of giving up our lives at home to take up island life permanently.
When it was time to go, it was hard to pull ourselves away from the island. The people, the island landscapes and rich marine life had left an indelible mark on our hearts. We wondered about the future of this beautiful place – would tourism continue in an ecologically-minded manner, or would the dirt roads be paved for mega resorts? We worried how an island with no waste disposal facilities would cope with an endless tide of plastics washing ashore. But we knew the locals would fight to preserve their land and ocean, it was their source of income, their lifeblood, their natural treasure.
Already plans are being hatched for our return…see you again soon Timor-Leste.
Words // Natalie Woods @nat.woods_ for Clean Coast Collective @cleancoastcollective
Film and Photography // Sophie Matterson @_sofiaseye_
Photography // Jess Abraham @jessicabraham