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.

Dili is a city of vibrant colours with reggae music blaring from every passing car // Photo by Sophie Matterson @_sofiaseye_

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.

Cristo Rei – Dili’s giant statue of Jesus will often look down on to a perfect point break, but not the day we were there // Photo by Jess Abraham @jessicabraham

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.

Eyes peeled for any sign of a giant Blue Whale… alas no such luck // Photo by Jess Abraham @jessicabraham

The coral reefs of Atauro Island are the most diverse in the world, with hundreds of different species of corals // Photo by Sophie Matterson @_sofiaseye_

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.

Hovering over the inky depths where the reef drops off into the deep ocean abyss // Photo by Sophie Matterson @_sofiaseye_

Island time took over and we considered whether we could just stay on permanently // Photo by Sophie Matterson @_sofiaseye_

Afternoon strolls around the island village with coconut in hand // Photo by Sophie Matterson @_sofiaseye_

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.

The constant laughing and screaming of kids playing on the fishing boats could be heard from our island hut // Photo by Sophie Matterson @_sofiaseye_

Plastics wash ashore every day on the island, but with no public waste infrastructure all that can be done is to burn it // Photo by Sophie Matterson @_sofiaseye_

We considered asking this guy for a job so we didn’t have to leave… I don’t think our net repair skills would’ve been up to scratch // Photo by Sophie Matterson @_sofiaseye_

Already plans are being hatched for our return…see you again soon Timor-Leste.

Sea leg selfies looking back to the shoreline of Atauro Island // Photo by Jess Abraham @jessicabraham

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Words // Natalie Woods @nat.woods_ for Clean Coast Collective @cleancoastcollective

Film and Photography // Sophie Matterson @_sofiaseye_

Photography // Jess Abraham @jessicabraham