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The Saga of Getting to East Timor

When a great plan, ends up getting complicated!

Timor Leste (East Timor), is a real frontier country, full of fascination and adventure. The country as a nation state was formed only in recent years, as it was once a Portuguese colony, before becoming an Indonesian territory. However, due to its distinctly different culture and heritage, it sought independence from Indonesia and finally gained it in 1999 after several years of bloody conflict.

Getting there was an interesting experience in itself. I'd been living in a town called Orange in regional NSW and I was flying from there to Dili. We'd finished work the day before and one of my co-workers said he'd drive me to the airport. Unfortunately, he had been enjoying the end of year party too much the previous night and when it was time to go, he was nowhere to be seen! I managed to get a taxi instead out to the little regional airport, arriving on time, but the flight was delayed! I always get super nervous when this happens as each of my connections (3 flights in total) had to happen pretty much on time for everything to work. Thankfully, it wasn't long before we had wheels up and off to Sydney.

The transfer was quite smooth and I was on the next plane to Darwin roughly a 4.5 hour flight. The flight was on time, but this changeover was tight! Any variation and I would miss the one to Dili. As we approached the tropical city of Darwin, it was raining, not just a light shower, but a raging monsoonal storm. Being a small terminal, all the bays for the planes were taken up and so we had to sit on the tarmac waiting to alight. Every minute that ticked by, I filled with increasing anxiety that I'd miss my flight. We sat there for over twenty painful minutes until another flight was cleared for takeoff. Being down the back of the plane, this meant even more of a delay getting out and to the luggage carousel. Thankfully my bags where there. I swiftly grabbed them and ran downstairs to the international check-in. It was five minutes after closing, but thankfully the guy behind the desk didn't appear concerned at all and did something to override the system and checked me in.

With my heart pounding, I breathed a sigh of relief thinking that this was the last hassle for the day! East Timor runs on US dollars and due to a very busy end to the year, I hadn't had time to exchange any currency. All the same, I'd planned to do it at the airport, so I wasn't worried. I walked past a currency exchange booth in the lobby of the airport. However, having just had the traumatic experience of almost not making my flight, I wanted to get through customs to make sure there were no more extensive delays. Once I cleared customs, I planned to exchange some cash and I'd be ready to go! Good plan, bad idea. Inside the international area, there was no currency exchange!

I couldn't believe it! Out of everything you would think you'd find in the airport, there wasn't anything inside the secure area! I couldn't go back out because I'd already cleared immigration. I sat and waited for the flight, which turned out to be a tiny 15 seater plane, the smallest one I'd been in other than when I had been learning to fly. Everyone was on board and ready to go, then the engines wouldn’t start! “Well, better not starting on the ground than stopping in the air,” I thought! Still it was unsettling. Everyone was taken off the plane and we had to wait in the gangway for about an hour until they had the plane fixed and ready to go. So back on the plane! Thankfully, this time the engines fired and we were off.

The flight from Darwin to Dili was interesting. Flying over the country, it has a spectacular coastline that's sparsely populated. In fact, almost the entire population lives in the city of Dili, but there remain some outlying villages and townships. The island is rugged too, with some beautiful mountain ranges, which makes travelling overland quite challenging. As we landed, the airport had a funky mix of tiny commercial planes, mixed with soviet era military helicopters, which is the government’s notional airforce.

I was the first off the plane and into the passport control. The man behind the counter looked at my passport and was about to stamp it when he asked for the $30 US entry tax… Oh crap! I thought, knowing I had no American money at all. I asked him if he would take Australian dollars, even offered him $50, which was worth a lot more than the USD at the time. No, had to the USD! Luckily my friends, one of whom was the president’s nephew were meeting me at the airport. I asked the customs guard if I could go out and get some money from my friends. To my surprise he said yes. So without clearing customs, I walked out of the airport, said hi to my friend who were waiting outside, borrowed some cash and then walked back inside the airport and paid the arrival tax. With my passport now stamped, I was free to walk out of the airport… again!

With a huge day of travel behind me, we went to the hotel, where I met some friends of my friends and had an excellent dinner that was an interesting mix of Portuguese and Timorese foods. A great end to a somewhat stressful day!

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

David Gregory

With 16 years as an outdoor education teacher, I love travelling and I spend my free time between kayaking, hiking and snow skiing! Mainly snow skiing! I keep buying skis, I have a problem... but I know when to stop.....