A moment, in the last few minutes of our weekend trip to Balibo.
Laura and I are in her car on Comoro Road in Dili. I’ve just jumped back in after awkwardly kiss-kissing her colleague goodbye in the baking footpath sun and am fending off rapid-fire Tetun requests from a sweating streetside man I can’t understand. She’s stalled the car twice in a row attempting to predict the stopping pattern of the wayward microlet ahead. The car’s air conditioning stopped working back in Liquica and we both stink.
“We’ve really got this, don’t we,” I say.
We both break into laughter, sitting unmoving on the side of a four-lane highway, sweat trickling down our backs.
The trip to Balibo was the fifth this particular group of friends has taken together, and we’d like to think we’ve got our routine down pat now. There’s always an idea in the group chat, an enthusiastic second supporter, then a dinner or drink to nut out details, use of Facebook Messenger’s “make a plan” function, an AVI travel form copied and pasted and emailed and approved, Celeste’s RAV4 loaded with a gallon of water and an esky crammed with cheese, a last-minute stop at Tiger Fuel for wine and petrol and car snacks and to pick up everyone who lives in Farol, Fran’s speaker turned on and her choice of reggae tolerated for a polite 30 minutes, then hours of driving and bumping stopping and pee breaks and stopping and waiting and driving and coffee and dust and driving and Josh Pyke on the speaker and more driving and more bumping and more dust and more reggae and shelling pistachios and asking a streetside maun if we’re going in the right direction and eventually after much more driving and bumping and dust and snacks and chatter we’re crunching into the pousada carpark and requesting cuppos for our first bottle of red wine and a holiday commencement toast as we watch the sun disappear.
And our trip to Balibo was an easy one, too — no mountains to climb and just a straight shot down the coast.
View from the Balibo Fort Hotel at sunset; beautiful Balibo bougainvillea
When we went to Liquica together a couple of months ago, we decided it’d be great to return another weekend and drive the extra two hours west to the town of Balibo, where five Australian journalists were tragically murdered in 1975 as Indonesian forces approached Timor-Leste in the early months of their invasion. The town sits slightly inland of an intersection barely five minutes from the border, and while it’s an intense drive from Dili, in the top-centre of Timor, the drive to Balibo is very manageable from Black Rock Restaurant, where we camped that weekend in August.
So, this weekend, we tacked the two plans together.
We left Dili at 5:30pm on Friday, drove west, and were opening wine as the sun set over the ocean mere minutes after 6:30pm. I had a sunset swim, beachside fish for dinner, and a beautiful, relaxing night’s sleep against the crashing waves.
Relaxing at Liquica’s Black Rock Restaurant
(A moment to reflect on the irony of requiring a beachside holiday to de-stress from our beachside lives, and a moment to reflect on how not-at-all-difficult our lives in Dili are in the grand scheme of things).
After a lazy Saturday brunch by the beach, we packed up as planned and headed 30 more minutes west to a town called Maubara, where women sell intricately plaited handicrafts by the side of the road. Cars loaded with baskets and placemats and bodies adorned with new tais jewellery, we continued west, hugging the coast until we hit the intersection before the border, and turned left to climb.
The road to Balibo isn’t great, and we crunched our way up for over an hour before popping out at the bottom of the gentle hill that leads to the Balibo Fort. Wikipedia told us it’s a 400-year-old Portuguese relic used during a number of Indonesian conflicts (and also as the site of a 1999 Kylie Minogue acoustic concert, for the INTERFET troops then populating Timor), but it’s since been flipped as a swanky, white-linen hotel with plushy courtyard recliners and a fire flickering in the evenings.
Like I said, the Balibo trip was an easy one.
The Balibo Fort Hotel
We settled in, unpacked books and red wine and cheese and sunglasses and proceeded to co-opt the courtyard for the next six hours as we watched the sun set over Indonesia and relaxed into our chairs. After another excellent night’s sleep, we prepared for the more important part of our trip: a visit to the Balibo 5 Museum, a museum dedicated to the memory of the Australian journalists, and a walk to other significant sites in the town.
This was all beautifully laid out on an attractive blue-green graphic map which for a second fooled me into thinking we were on a lazy tourist trail. But of course, the Australia connection to Balibo is much deeper and more knotted than an English-language tourist map or a $50,000 restoration grant from the Victorian state government – before we visited the museum, we walked up to a site memorialising the five Timorese martyrs who were murdered in 1999.
The Balibo 5 Museum, which was opened in 2003 with support from the Victorian state government and partners
Five Timorese, five Australians at this site, but hundreds of thousands more all over the country during that conflict and since. I reflected in the museum; a calm, quiet house containing photos, information boards, photocopied news clippings and simple furniture. Countless people sacrificed everything so us who came after could have better lives. And what am I doing with that? Am I, are we, living lives that make that sacrifice worthy? What more can I do to honour the dead and uphold their sacrifice in life?
The ink-smudged 1975 headlines from Australian newspapers read, “The Price of News,” reporting the tragic deaths of the journalists, who sprayed the word AUSTRALIA and a hand-drawn flag on the outside of the house they were eventually murdered in, mistakenly believing the approaching Indonesians would let them be knowing they were foreign civilians. They died opening Australians up to the truth of the world. Thousands of Timorese – none of whom have museums and tourist maps and merchandise and gala fundraising concerts on the anniversaries of their deaths, but who were no less committed to the country’s freedom – faced and beat an attempted genocide, with some paying the most tragic price, and many more continuing to fight for decades after the gunshots stopped.
How can I honour them?
How can I live my life as an Australian in Timor-Leste in a way that respects and preserves the memory of all who died and the freedoms they died for?
Cheese and red wine by the fire at the Portuguese-posh Balibo Fort Hotel later that evening probably wasn’t exactly what the guerrillas had in mind for the country’s future – but it’s good to feel uncomfortable and self-aware in moments like that, and I’m sure they would have wanted more freedom, more choice and more comfort for the people who came to Balibo after them.
Reading, brunching, drinking wine by a fire and taking selfies in the hotel courtyard
We slept well and ate good, cheap, local food at the small cafeteria next to the museum for lunch the next day, before descending down that rocky road.
A beautiful trip, as always — we’ve got this sorted now, yeah?
Those final few minutes in Laura’s hot car by the side of Comoro Road was the ego-check our hotel experience didn’t quite provide, and as uncomfortable as it was for that brief hot second, it was perfect. For however linked our countries’ histories are, Australians will always be just visitors to Timor-Leste, and any experience that reminds us of that is important and valid.
I left Balibo feeling reflective, disrupted and humbled, and grateful for another beautiful weekend trip with friends who want to see more and learn more about this country we’re lucky to live in.
From the top of the hill, looking down the hotel’s driveway back to the town of Balibo. Bye for now, beautiful Balibo.