©Copyright Kelley Mether, 2016
Main photo by: Natália Carrascalão Antunes – http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000251716488&sk=photos, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18504930
Visitors to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef are on the decline, in part a result of the recent revelations of mass coral bleaching caused by global warming. But close by is another, miniature reef – at Jaco Island, off the northernmost tip of Timor Leste (East Timor). Jaco’s reef could be the answer to the ethical traveller’s dilemma; it is extremely difficult (and expensive) to get to, the island is uninhabited and almost completely undeveloped, and Timor Leste itself has little industry yet to speak of, meaning it contributes almost nothing to global warming.
Of course, we have all seen what becomes of those remote, beautiful locations once the guide books get hold of them – roads and airports soon follow, hotels, and – god forbid! – coral blasting to make way for the pylons holding up the luxury holiday villas directly over the reef so rich people can feed the pretty little Nemos and Dorys without getting wet. Jaco’s remote, difficult location will stop this from happening for some time, and the sheer expense of travelling in Timor Leste will help too. But it will happen, unless eco-tourism becomes the mind-set of the travelling masses.
Unfortunately, after years of first Portuguese colonialism, then Japanese Occupation during WW2, followed by the Indonesian invasion of 1975, Timor Leste is not in the best position to be picky about its tourist dollars. Finally winning freedom in 2002, TL is a country still devastated by past wars. The capital, Dili, is working fast to improve roads and infrastructure, but outside Dili, there’s little evidence of improvement since independence.
If you’re an intrepid traveler, this is probably a good thing. Travelling in TL is not for the faint hearted – there’s no sense of personal danger; as a woman I did not hesitate to walk around Dili alone. It’s simply that this is not a developed country – it is hot, humid, there are no convenience stores once you leave the capital, water is scarce, accommodation scarce, and incredibly for Asia, even food stalls are scarce.
So why would you go there? If you are like me, a lot of the attraction of travel lies in getting to the destination, and the harder it is, the better. Maybe I’m just a masochist, but bumping over pot-holes, narrow misses on perilous mountain roads and dodging water buffaloes are really fun things to do. And there could not be a more interesting way to spend 45 minutes of your life than winding down that incredibly rough last 8 kilometres between the village of Tutuala at the top of the headland and Tutuala Beach at the bottom, feeling as if your 4WD was going to tip at any second. No wonder you have to pay so much for food and drink once you get there!
Jaco Island is considered sacred by the Timorese, as are crocodiles, so keep an eye out. No one is allowed to live or camp on the island, but day trips are allowed. The two days I visited I was one of very few foreigners; the majority of snorkelers were locals who had brought coolers and picnic rugs for the day. I like to think that the island being sacred and the fact that crocodiles are never killed might be two more factors that keep Jaco safe for a while longer, but Bali was considered sacred too – no more need be said.
Getting there: Cheapest flights into Dili are via Darwin, in the Northern Territory of Australia, and Singapore.
Visa: on arrival for most countries, but you should always check first.
Getting from Dili to Jaco Island: hire a good 4WD in Dili, and make sure you bargain on the price. It’s also possible to hire a guide/driver, but unless you are really pushed for time, you should be able to find your own way. Allow at least three nights for the trip. It is possible to do it in one, but it’s always good to stop and see the country en route.
Overnight Stops: I suggest stopping the first and last nights at Baucau, a town quite close to the sea, and stay at either the Pousada de Bacau, if your budget allows (at least US$100 per night), or drive down toward the beachside village of Osalata, where you will find a great little un-signposted backpacker place run by a local family. The Lonely Planet Guide mentions another one called Bacau Beachhouse and Bungalow, which I didn’t get to see. Pantai Osalata (Osalata Beach) is well worth a visit and a swim, but again, crocs have been sighted so keep a look out. If you stay in the town of Bacau, make sure you go for a swim in the spring-fed pool, which was built when TL was still a Portuguese colony.
Once you get to Pantai Tutuala, you have only two options: the Lakumorre Guesthouse, or the Valu Sere. To get to both of them, turn left as soon as you come down the last 8kms of road. The Lakumorre Traditional Guest House was full, but we really loved our stay at the basic, but very friendly Valu Sere, which is owned by a cooperative of 20 local families. The food was simple but delicious and plentiful. For both the Lakumorre and Valu Sere guest houses, however, I would advise bringing your own mosquito net. The mozzie “tents” they use are flimsy and prone to zip breakages.
Tutuala Beach to Jaco Island: the island is temptingly just across a narrow channel, but with currants too swift to swim. If you are just snorkelling for the day then heading back, turn right when you finish coming down the last 8kms to find the fishermen who will take you across: about 4 minutess one way, US$10 per adult, $5 per child.
It’s all about the snorkelling: Remember to bring your own snorkel and mask. Otherwise you’ll end up doing what the local kids were doing: using empty soft drink bottles pressed against their faces to try to magnify the wonders of the sea floor below. And please be careful where you put your feet – coral is fragile!