Hitch hiking up mountains: Climbing East Timor’s highest peak

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    The truck rumbled to a halt again.

    The road we had been careening down was more rubble than tarmac.

    Swarming with heavy plant vehicles, the workers were like ants trying to get their work done amid impatient traffic.

    Timor-Leste is a country under construction, the infrastructure a work-in-progress.

    Nowhere is this more evident than the road up to Hatobuilico, the remote village from which the trek up Mount Ramelau – the highest peak in East Timor – begins.

    I adjusted my position for the 14th time that hour, trying to find a better place for my feet amidst the burlap sacks of rice, dripping nets of lettuce, and jumbled bodies all crammed into an open-air public truck barely six feet across.

    I glanced over at my friend Sina, who was looking pained as she perched between seats, thigh-to-thigh with her neighbours, just as I was.

    It had been four hours since we set off from our hostel in Dili, the capital.

    Our first stop had been Maubisse, a mid-sized town up in the hills.

    The road on that route had been quite reasonable: whole stretches of it were entirely covered by the most glorious invention of the modern day (tarmac), and all that we had to worry about was un-sticking ourselves from the leatherette seats, keeping the dust out of our eyes and not getting too up-close-and-personal with our truck-mates.

    From Maubisse it is quite possible to get a lift all the way up to Hatobuilico.

    On market days, several trucks a day make the journey.

    Hitch hiking up mountains: Climbing East Timor’s highest peak
    Dili from above (Picture: Ellie Hattersley/Grad Gone Global)

    It wasn’t a market day… We set off walking.

    We trudged down the road towards Hatobuilico, kicking up small puffs of dust with every step.

    The sun was high in the sky: the sweat came quickly.

    We asked directions frequently, never entirely sure whether people could understand our terrible Portuguese pronunciation, and very soon we tired of walking.

    We flagged down a passing pick-up truck, and its occupants were happy enough (thrilled, in fact) to give us a lift.

    We clambered into the trailer and settled ourselves among the family’s groceries: houseplants, a huge sack of flour, a carton of beers.

    Not quite believing our luck, we sat back for the ride – and were immediately jolted back upright again by a pothole the size of a small village.

    It was not a comfortable ride.

    But at least we provided plenty of amusement for everyone we passed along the way.

    Morning light from East Timor's highest peak
    Morning light from East Timor’s highest peak (Picture: Ellie Hattersley/Grad Gone Global)

    Timor-Leste is one of the youngest countries in the world and it only receives 60,000 tourists every year.

    During our time there, we were a source of entertainment, confusion and sometimes all-out excitement.

    Two sweat-drenched, dust-covered tourists, squashed uncomfortably into the back of a truck?

    Hilarious, obviously.

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    Eventually we made it to the turn-off for the village and hopped out the car, thanking the driver profusely.

    We wandered over to the track and started walking, politely declining a lift on the back of a motorbike, offered by several laughing local boys.

    We were reasonably fit and very determined, and surely it couldn’t be too much further..

    It turns out that ‘not that much further’ was actually just over four hours hiking.

    And I don’t mind a four-hour hike, but I prefer to know in advance that I am doing one.

    This was four hours of rounding every corner expecting our destination to be in sight.

    Of seeing every group of houses and asking hopefully whether we had arrived.

    Of growing worried that we weren’t going to make it to the stupid village, or that Lonely Planet had been mistaken and it didn’t exist at all.

    When we eventually did arrive, it was in the dark and almost 12 hours after we had set off.

    We collapsed into the first guesthouse we could find, grateful more than anything for the fact that we had arrived in one piece.

    The sad part was that we had to get up at 3am so couldn’t take full advantage of the very comfortable beds.

    Sunrise at Mount Ramelau, East Timor
    A welcome sight after a twelve hour journey (Picture: Ellie Hattersley/Grad Gone Global)

    Our alarms squawked what felt like moments after we drifted off.

    Reluctantly we crawled out of bed, donned our headlights and hiking gear, and made our way to the gate.

    We had a mountain to climb.

    The air was fresh, the darkness complete.

    My torch had died on the hike up to the village so we shared a single, small circle of light for the duration of the climb.

    It was not a particularly challenging trek, but any three-hour walk at 3am is afforded a difficulty disproportionate to reality.

    We forced our aching muscles up steps and slope, slipping and tripping in the dim torch light, wondering all the while whether it would be worth it: would we be able to see from the top, or would the clouds that had threatened throughout the previous day have stolen the view?

    The first fingers of light stole their way across the sky as we rounded the last corners of the track up to the peak.

    Clouds edged with the redness of dawn scudded across the sky, but yes, there it was: miles of hills and trees and open ocean, stretching off into the horizon.

    The view that we had come all this way for, on public bus and open truck and dusty streets and bumpy seats.

    The sun began to rise and we could see all the way to where we had started our journey: from 2693m you can see both of Timor’s coasts, on a good day.

    And it was a good day.

    It was a very good day indeed.

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