The geckos screeched in the stagnant night air, their call echoing their own name. Our fan blew the mosquito nets lazily, doing little to disrupt the heat. We’d arrived on the Atauro island by boat that morning, choosing the faster Dragon Star boat over the large, slow ferry. This small, mountainous island lies to the north of Timor-Leste’s capital Dili, and is home to around nine thousand people.
Our first night was to be spent at Manukoko Rek, a simple guest house and one of the island's cheaper options. Water was in short supply, as it frequently is on Atauro. Depleted by the dry heat, we passed our time playing with a puppy that lived there and a gang of kittens that appeared whenever meals did. The food in particular proved a surprise; the guest house boasts a wood fired pizza oven, itself as hand hewn as the pizzas that comes from within it. We were told it was the legacy of an Italian priest years ago, who'd helped build the oven and passed on the recipe for pizza dough to the local women who now run the kitchen.
Bellies full and as rested as we could have been in the heat, on our second day we headed by tuk-tuk down the coast to Barry’s Place in Beloi. Its namesake, an Australian who has been here since 1999, is one of the founders of environmental sustainable and ethical tourism on Atauro island. His villas, like most here, are made with natural materials and feature traditional thatched rooves. His establishment also features solar power, composting toilets, and he’s utilized permaculture principles to make greenery and flowers thrive on what was once arid, empty land. His boats can take you to the nearby reef to dive and snorkel, an area relatively untouched and famed for its beauty and abundant marine life.
Our next destination was the small village of Adara on the opposite side of Atauro. The following morning, we took a truck (arranged through Barry) up the shattered road to the drop off point. Pot holes had long ago engulfed the road itself. From there we were to go by foot; most of the island’s tracks are suitable for walking only. As we drove out of Beloi, the truck heaving and rolling over uneven ground, the palm trees and low scrub that cluster on the sliver of flat ground by coast gave way to hillsides full of eucalyptus, trunks white as bone. Scattered throughout the dry grass are black volcanic rocks, spat out by the earth long ago.
Once over the final ridge, the rich heart of the island opens up. Monolithic rocks and lush forest, everything damp, lush and crawling with life: red ants, hermit crabs, butterflies and lizards. We followed the trail through the valley, flanked by cliffs and trees with giant trunks, their root systems curling around the rocks to the ground below.
Old rock walls remain across much of the island we explored, seemingly prehistory although undoubtedly much younger. Atauro’s inhabitants had once lived in the interior due to its fertile soil, but under the Indonesian occupation of Timor they were forced down to the coast where the land is dry and water scarce.
We heard the hamlet before we saw it, the sound of Christmas carols drifting through the valley. They played over a loudspeaker, permeating every corner of the village and beyond. Everyone we passed stopped to greet us, and one young man spoke English well. He told us they play music every day, and as it was nearly Christmas, such songs were on high rotation.
Their neat crops were encircled by rock walls, some supported by sticks. The houses, like most in economically deprived Timor, are simple and made from woven bamboo or corrugated iron. There was also a distinct lack of rubbish compared to many other towns on the mainland, a combination of environmental understanding and lack of access to imports. Chickens roamed free, although the pigs had their own enclosure - a landmark of sorts noted on our simple map; no dragons, but more a “here be pigs”. This signaled the next turn of our route, as we headed towards the coastal settlement of Adara on the other side of the island.
Goats perched on the top of the rocks as we began our descent to the flat land of the coast. It’s these animals that give the island its name, and they roam free if not wild here, unimpeded by the landscape. From the bottom of the cliff we crossed a stretch of grassland, full of trees, flowers and butterflies. And goats, of course. More rock walls, some circular, sat forgotten. The track follows old water pipes, first introduced by the Indonesians when they moved the villages away from their traditional water sources inland.
The village of Adara appeared suddenly, with neatly planted rows of corn and brightly colored flags at every allotment. Set back from the beach, the main path was flanked by crops rather than houses. We nearly missed Mario’s Place, another environmentally friendly guest house, and entered through what I assumed was the back gate - although I never found another entrance. Like Barry’s, they have a composting toilet and villas made from sustainable materials with solar power. Meals are taken in an open-sided hut next to the sand; cooked by a couple of the local women who help Mario run his establishment, they incorporate freshly caught fish, local vegetables, rice and wok eggs (the latter a revelation for me upon visiting Timor-Leste).
Through a mix of their Tetun and our English, we explained our desire to travel around the coast to the small village of Atekru; we wanted to visit a permaculture initiative we’d heard about from the Portuguese in Dili. Their amusement at our plan became clear when we realized what we thought was a simple forty-five minute walk around the beach proved very different at high tide.
It took us three hours to reach Atekru, climbing over the large sharp rocks that relentlessly line the coastline. Waves crashed to our right, and on our left were high limestone cliffs and impenetrable trees. The sun, at its highest point of course, sapped our energy. We finally made it around the coast, grazed and dehydrated, trying to explain our folly to the bemused locals. Desperate to get our core temperatures down to something that was bearable, we guzzled fresh water and submerged our overheated bodies in the ocean.
Once our senses returned, we took to exploring what we had come to see: the permaculture initiative NaTerra, meeting the local Timorese working on the project and talking to one of its Portuguese founders, Fernando. Only nine months in (although securing funding and approval had taken years beforehand), large expanses of neatly planted fields were home to sister-crops like corn, beans and pumpkin. A traditional thatched roof was going up on a building, and the foundations for another - a schoolroom - were being laid out.
Not able to face the return walk to Adara with the tide still high, we arranged for a small local fishing boat to take us around the coast, sharing the vessel with the village paster - a quiet, humble man who also worked the farm at NaTerra. Unlike the rest of Timor-Leste, 65% of people on Atauro (particularly its northern side) are Protestant - a religion introduced by a Dutch Calvinist missionary in the early twentieth century.
We finally disembarked back in Adara and returned to Mario’s, sharing our ill-planned although eventually successful journey with the woman who ran the place. Her sons scaled the nearest palm tree, collecting everyone fresh coconuts. From there, we watched the sun descended as three young boys marched in single file along the sand singing the chorus of “Glory, Hallelujah”.
The next day we spent sleeping and swimming, wiped out from the day before. A storm rolled in that evening, with torrential rain and thunder that battered the beach for twelve hours. It ceased by daybreak the following morning, and at first light we set off to cross the island back to Beloi - a walk that would take us three hours. Once back among the eucalyptus and rock strewn savannah of the southern side, the sun unleashed its brutality even though it was only eight in the morning. Determined to get back to the mainland and the capital, we found a boat and departed; the cliffs of the island looming high as if reluctant to be forgotten, before it finally retreated into the ocean haze.