It feels like I have spent in the last two days in cloud. After sleeping in and lazing around Saturday, waiting for Queen (to get her hair styled by a gay Scotsman with three pet chickens and a pet goat named Mrs. Nelly), we set off up the mountain behind Dili for the mountainous interior.
I had long felt a sense of inferiority in relation to my sorry attempts to climb the two most important and challenging mountains in Timor, Ramelau (9777 ft) and Matebian (7590 ft). Most of my friends have climbed at least one. The latter I made it halfway up with a good friend shortly after I arrived in 2001. But we started too late (8 am) and by the time we got halfway up it became clear that one result of the mass defoliation by the Indonesians on the mountain would be scorching sun-burns. So we decided to desist, to the amusement of our guides, who had not even broken a sweat.
Ramelau I had not even attempted, although numerous friends cavalierly described it as “easy.” Well, easy compared to Matebian, which is treeless, rocky and very steep. Ramelau is situated more or less in the middle of East Timor. It is about 4 hours from Dili, past a town called Maubisse which has a distinctly Andean feel – people wearing blankets like ponchos, small heaps of dirty potatoes for sale, a wide main street and the smell of earth and chickens.
After a long, winding approach to Hato Builico, the village at the foot of Ramelau, we decided to sleep in the car, as we had trouble revving it past 2000 rpms up the steep muddy approach to the campground halfway up the mountain (!).
Being cold in Timor is a strange sensation for Dili-dwellers. We had all brought the only warm clothing we owned. Queen was ahead of the game, as her employer paid for her to ship a container full of useless stuff from Canberra, including ski clothes and sleeping bags. UN Spy and I were with long-sleeved shirts, bed sheets and pillows. But we managed to stay warm all night, waking up to rain on the roof of the car.
Uggg. My last camping experience in Timor involved rain. And whisky. Moreover it was on a warm beach with good swimming. But here we were in the coldest place in Timor, dressed in our Matahari (Indonesian Kmart) specials — not exactly your REI catalogue models. But, Queen, UN Spy and I are not people to drive four hours, and sleep crammed in a car, to turn back with nothing accomplished.
So we slammed some Nescafe, ate apples and some soggy Oreos and started up the mountain.
After an agonizing 20 minutes we reached the “real” starting point, a flat area with evidence of numbers of campfires. This is where people with good cars and the brains to bring water-proof tents and dry firewood spend the night.
The hike was intermittently steep, but there were plenty of cut-backs. Evidence to me that the Portuguese had supervised the paving of the trail (which was quite wide)! Supervised, read: built with forced labor. Timorese would have cut the trail much thinner with sheer foot traffic and they would have gone straight up, like the most used trails on Matebian.
The Portuguese obsession with Ramelau, which in many respects is not nearly as dramatic as Matebian, stems from the fact that during most of the twentieth century, it was taught to be the highest mountain ‘in Portugal.’ This is not to say that Ramelau was not extremely important to Timorese, even before their ‘discovery’ by Europeans. Ramelau is a spiritual center, with its peak known as Tata-Mailau, meaning Grandfather or ancestor.
The vegetation along the path was fascinating, with tons of little mosses, ferns, flowers and shrubs I had never seen in Timor before. I could not help but thinking of my Mum’s colleagues at Mobot, guys in Birkenstocks with moss obsessions. There were patches of forest, but towards the top the trees looked weather beaten and rather pathetic. It was clear that climbers had deforested the mountain over the years to keep warm, as the pattern of standing trees and tree trunks seemed very irregular.
All the way up the mountain I could hear the neighing of horses. I could not see horses, nor could I see much of anything into the distance, just tree silhouettes up to about 20 meters away. I was walking in a cloud.
We lost UN Spy at the campsite area, and Queen was already at least 5 minutes ahead of me on the trail. So it was an amazing feeling of climbing alone. As I’ve said in other entries here the sensation of feeling alone in Timor is extremely rare. That in combination with being cold, it was a feeling of suddenly being transplanted to another place.
Queen waited for me at this clearing over an hour up. I was just getting my second wind, wiping the rain off of my glasses. We were in a large green clearing, and suddenly two large (for Timorese!) horses ran by. On our right was a large covered podium with a cross over. Many important masses are celebrated there.
We continued up, and the mist was turning to rain. The wind got stronger towards the top, and all hope of any clearing or glimpse of sunlight or the surrounding landscape faded. But it was a surreal feeling, winding my way up the last stretches of the path, through low scrub-brush. As I approached the summit I saw two silhouettes in the mist. I thought it was Queen and UN Spy, but it was Queen and this ghostly, beautiful white Nossa Senhora statue. The wind was howling. There was no place to sit for shelter. UN Spy made his way up only minutes after us (he had waited down at the campsite for us, but we must have passed too quickly).
There was a telepathic consensus that it would be useless to wait for a break in the clouds, because there were not discernable ‘clouds’ so much as one big cloud enveloping us and probably most of central Timor. On the way up I was quite warm even though I was wet due to the constant strain of climbing. But it was cold up there. We took photos with Nossa Senhora and scrambled back down.
The total ascent, I’m estimating at about 3000 ft, took us about 1 hr 40 minutes. The way down it probably took just over 30 minutes.
The strangest thing was that we all arrived in Dili feeling sunburned. After having walked in a cloud for over two hours!