When my friends and I decided to spend a weekend out of Dili to climb Mount Ramelau, I got very excited about the weekend-trip-with-friends and accidentally forgot about the climbing-a-mountain part of the deal. Thus, I present what I’ve recently learned about what not to do if you’re planning on scaling Timor’s tallest peak.
1. Don’t ignore the weather
Friends who had climbed Ramelau before warned us how cold it would be: “Like, cold cold, not just Timor cold.” I listened, but relied more on my thin-knit jumper and wild sense of optimism than I did their advice, and found myself rolling up the car window against the chill as we rounded the first bend through Ainaro district’s valleys and their sharp cool air. At our accommodation – the Poudasa Alecrim, which I later learnt means “Rosemary Guesthouse” in Portuguese – I spent most of Sunday afternoon wrapped pathetically in a scratchy woollen blanket, hands cupped around a bottomless mug of hot local coffee, supplied to us post-hike by the gentle mana Adelaide.
On the way to the top of Ramelau – later, we’d poke through those clouds, which sort-of explains the cold
2. Don’t do the drive without stopping
As the crow flies, Mount Ramelau is less than 100 kilometres from Dili, and the drive takes at least three hours with the variable road conditions (our car let out a spontaneous collective whoop when we hit asphalt just past Dare and driver Celeste introduced us to fourth gear).
Our two-car convoy left my friends’ place at 9:30am, then left the petrol station just after ten, then hit Dare – a town with a lookout and World War II memorial, about 45 minutes out of Dili – just before 11am. We were hungry by Dare, but decided to drive further before we stopped – crossing the border into Aileu district at noon and stopping roadside for a picnic lunch soon after. Another two hours’ drive later was the town of Maubisse, where we stopped to buy vegetables for dinner, have coffee, seek assurance that the road to Hautobulico was drive-able, accidentally participate in a cultural ceremony, and run into some friends from Dili who checked the time and told us to hustle to make it to the mountain by dark. We lost one car about half an hour out of Maubisse and waited roadside, shelling pistachios, for 20 minutes before they caught up – then, we turned right at the Mary mural, as instructed, and crunched into the town of Hautobulico, closest to Ramelau’s base, minutes before 6pm.
Celeste, taking selfies with villagers halfway through the ceremony we inadvertently interrupted
It was a long, inefficient drive, but the sweeping mountain scenery, the people we met on the way, the opportunity to buy and taste fresh local produce, and that moment sitting squeezed around the tiny table in the coffee shop, china cups of Aileu coffee before us, spying through the window on Fran trying to chew betel nut, made it all totally worthwhile.
3. Don’t run up a mountain
So excited I was early on Sunday morning to start the climb we’d come to Hautobulico for, I spent the first hour of the hike alternating yapping away to our guide, jogging to follow his quickfire pace, and standing impatiently as my flu-stricken friend took much-needed rests on the steep climb. My occasional yoga classes – shockingly – didn’t quite prepare me for the physical intensity of a one-kilometre ascent (my friend with a Fitbit told us we took 25,000 steps on the climb!), and as we hit the end of the first hour I wilted.
So, imagine my dismay when, 30 minutes after I first started fading, we reached these gates: the start of the hike.
(There’s a car park at the base of the mountain, and I think clued-in climbers drive from the town to the gate. Our car likely wouldn’t have made the rocky road, but it was especially cruel to reach the beginning of our ascent just when we were thinking we were maybe halfway through).
THIS was closer to halfway through
4. Don’t confuse attire with ability
Clad in my yoga tights and blister-preventing double socks, I eyed our guide’s slight build and jeans-and-thongs combo confidently. If he could make the climb like that, I reasoned, I’d have no problem. Surely.
Smash cut to me bent double, huffing ragged breaths under a rising mid-morning sun, rasping “Hein, licensa – excuse me – maun – huugff – can we – huuhhgf – wait a little?” to the disappearing back of our nonchalant guide, for perhaps the tenth time in the preceding half-hour. He’d nod yes, light a cigarette, and wait quietly while we alternatively sat, stood, groaned, or rooted on our backpacks for honey almonds and banana chips to boost our burning hamstrings, before picking up the trail for another ten steps before I inevitable rasped our hein request again.
A backpack full of snacks – all entirely necessary
Back in Dili, I’d run into a friend from boot camp who commiserated over how long the climb was. “It took us over two hours!” she exclaimed. I didn’t have the heart to share we weren’t even halfway up by the time they’d reached the bottom again.
5. Don’t check your emails at the top of a mountain
Hautobulico has no phone reception, but the top of the mountain is high enough to get signal – and instead of Skyping my parents, or turning my Facebook to livestream, or uploading one of the 400 photos of the view I took on our snail’s-pace ascent, I instinctively opened my Gmail app as I sat, exhausted and happy, in the shade of a tree at the top of Timor-Leste.
6. Don’t climb a mountain wearing sneakers
For the first half of the climb, I was looking forward to the descent – going down this is going to make it all worth it, I thought, as the red-dirt path stretched endlessly above me. Ah, not quite. Well-packed and rocky, the path is reasonable, but not ideal if you’re wearing slippery-soled sneakers. My first almighty stack happened maybe 20 minutes into the descent; my second, another hour in; and I avoided the inevitable third by jogging about a hundred metres down the track (wishing the whole way I’d worn a proper sports bra).
In step for the hike-jog back down
7. Don’t make plans the afternoon after you descend a mountain
We re-entered the Pousada Alecrim to the sleepy cheering of our friends, who has risen at 3am to catch the sunrise from the top, and had returned to the guesthouse earlier than us 7am departees (me and my other AVID friends are required by our program not to travel in the dark, so we left the sunrise to our non-AVID friends and got a full six hours of stunning, uninterrupted mountain views. They did say it was easier to force themselves to climb without seeing the road ahead – which is maybe a metaphor for life in general? – but their photos from the top are something else).
The first photo I took on our hike – sunrise from the bottom of the mountain
We’d originally planned on spending the night in Maubisse – there’s a waterfall to see and an old Portuguese house to explore and more coffee to drink – but after inhaling the bread rolls and fried eggs and coffee mana prepared for us (then ordering seconds of everything, and a third pot of coffee), then each of us showering and napping, we felt far too tired to do anything more strenuous than navigate a confusing conversation about where we could buy beer and then cracking our sunset tinnies open on the balcony. A very successful day.
We made nearly the same number of stops on the way home as we did on the way there, and did end up seeing the Portuguese place in Maubisse
8. Don’t run out of money in the gift shop
Adhering to the risk assessment I’d submitted to AVI as part of their approval for my trip, I proudly took only as much money as I knew I’d spend, in case I was pickpocketed in Haubtobulico. Leaving Maubisse on the way back to Dili with enough coins in my pocket for one more coffee and not much else, I was pleased with my system – until we got the call about cookies and handicrafts at the Projeto Mohanto site in Alieu, and I suddenly wanted to spend my life’s savings on woven goods.
9. Don’t forget to enjoy it
The hard climbing, the missing money, the slippery shoes, the eight-hour drive, the post-breakfast food coma – taken one way, this trips sounds terrible. Which, of course, it wasn’t. For every hamstring-straining step there was a new degree of exquisite view to enjoy. For each tumble on the descent there was a good friend waiting to share a laugh. For every shiver in the mountain cool there was a warm blanket, a cup of coffee and conversation good enough to warm me from the inside out.
Mates on a mountain – we met the other group as they were descending from the sunrise
Climbing Mount Ramelau was one of the hardest physical things I’ve ever done and one of the most fun trips I’ve ever been on. If I go again, I’d prepare better in a lot of ways – but I can’t think of a single way we’d need to improve at the weekend-trip-with-friends part of it.