A couple of weeks ago I took a special road trip to Baucau district with my friends Laura, Celeste and Simon. We took two nights and three days out of Dili and visited both Baucau town and a tiny village in Baucau district called Venilale, which sits close to a beautiful, naturally-formed limestone bridge and natural freshwater swimming hole.
The trip was special for a few reasons.
Laura, Celeste and I overlooking Timor-Leste’s north coast
For one, it was threatened with cancellation for the week preceding our departure as more and more friends withdrew from our planning group-chat, but still valiantly happened. For another, I was at the time of our departure deep in the middle of my month-long battle with giardia and, without being too graphic, was unsure if I’d survive four hours in the car without a heavy dose of GastroStop. And, of course, for the fact that Baucau district is lush, bio-diverse and beautiful, and Venilale’s ponte natureze is a a stunning and utterly #wanderlust-inducing place to visit.
But these reasons alone didn’t make the trip special for me. What I remember now, sitting under a bare lightbulb in my Dili office, swatting ineffectually at a mosquito and counting the minutes until lunchtime, is the fact that this was my second trip to Venilale, and what it meant to return to the town, a shade over twelve months on.
I’ve written before about the first trip I took to Timor-Leste in October last year, before I moved here: two weeks spent with my old job at Oaktree, conducting an evaluation of an Oaktree-funded education project in Dili and producing communications materials to use in the 2017 Live Below the Line fundraising campaign.
At the end of the trip, we took a short holiday to relax and explore — and, on the recommendation of a friend based in Dili, who I later learned was also an AVID volunteer, headed to Baucau district to find this famed natural bridge.
Then, I described the district:
The view was incredible – one minute it was dense, clustered trees, bright banana palms and old khaki coconut trees growing from their own dry blonde dead boughs, and then we’d round a corner and the broad craggy mountains would reveal themselves, stretching further than we could see, slicing the sky and cupping the bike in their curves. Then, another corner; a downhill, and we’d be ripping through pale brown puddles, tumbles of sharp pink bougainvillea fringing the path, palms stretching endlessly into the sky.
I wrote about our trip on Oaktree’s blog here. In short, we were ludicrously lucky to have the trip we did: we were so poorly prepared and so clueless we shouldn’t have been able to even make it to the town, let alone successfully descend the hour to the bridge and swim in the pearly grey-blue water.
From the top of the hill, looking down on the forest
To get the the water, you must catch a public bus first from Dili to Baucau, and then from Baucau to Viqueque district, but get off just an hour into the journey to land at Venilale town centre.
From Venilale, you motorbike another hour down twisting, rocky roads, past the rice terraces and by farmers’ fields, and stop at the end of the road to seek permission to enter the sacred land from the xefe de aldeia, who then guides you on foot the hour down to the bridge. Some perilous climbing and a slippery descent through a trickling waterfall lands you at the point where you jump into the cool, fresh water – and the same route, reversed, has you back up the top eating instant mi goreng at the xefe’s house before alighting a 25c microlet back to Baucau as the sun sets, because contrary to your misguided assumptions Venilale is not a tourist hub and the guest houses, restaurants and tour guides we expected on our first visit late last year of course did not materialise.
Our restaurant one night – hosted at the home of Jonathan from the permaculture farm
In that post, I wrote:
If Baucau seemed a small city, Venilale was a garden shed – we stumbled off the bus onto a single bare street, with one seemingly abandoned building barely visible on the hill. We chose a direction at random and walked – coming eventually to the brightly coloured school the town’s website had promised (at least we knew we were in the right place), and then as we were overtaken on the bend by a yellow dump truck carrying what we later found out to be a wedding party, we stopped a passer-by and asked for directions to this natural bridge we’d heard so much about.
We were passed onto someone who spoke good English, who quickly informed us that no, there was no accommodation at the bridge; no, there was no accommodation in Venilale; and no, we couldn’t rent motorbikes anywhere, but that we could borrow his friend’s and he could take us to the bridge on the back of his; and his friend wouldn’t mind storing our bags for a few hours at his place. Be back by five, alright?
We didn’t deserve any of that – our overly optimistic and ultimately misguided research should have been punished, not rewarded with a motorbike – but the cards fell, and minutes later I was whooping on the back of the guy’s scooter, feet held high to avoid puddles, bumping down a treacherous stony road through the mountains.
This time last year, my friends and I spoke not a word of Tetun, had no idea about travelling in the districts, and relied entirely on the kindness of an English-speaking stranger who loaned us scrappy foreigners a motorbike, translation help, and a lift to the bridge.
Beautiful Baucau forest
This time round, we were more savvy — and so was the xefe.
It now costs $25 to enter the land, you sign a guest book in a purpose-built hut just a 25-minute-long walk away from the bridge, and you take a guide from Venilale town, who also costs $25 and who speaks good English.
But that didn’t change at all the beauty of the trip.
I had a wonderful time with my friends in Baucau and Venilale. We stayed a night in Baucau old town, eating chocolate mousse at the grand old Portuguese pousada, visiting a lush tropical permaculture farm and then dining at the hilltop house of the permaculture farm manager, Jonathan, swimming in the sun in the public piscina, shopping for secondhand denim, drinking red wine in our orange-and-green hotel rooms, and then made our day trip to Venilale.
Our colourful hotel and some permaculture and pool pictures
As we bumped back up the rocky road in Celeste’s ever-forgiving RAV4, I burst back into phone reception to a piece of good news: the short film we’d made while we were over here last October had just been nominated for an international ethical-development communications award, called the Golden Radiator.
Suddenly, I felt very emotional and charged.
I had been so nervous about that film; about that trip. It was my first-ever attempt at producing a film and I’d spent months agonising over the concept, the storyboard, the trip logistics, the filmmakers, the big budget decisions that mattered hugely to our shoestring not-for-profit, and I’d been on edge the entire fortnight of filming, anxious to rise to the challenge and to produce something good.
The permaculture farm’s resident pig, three giggling girls in the water
The sheer relief I felt at avoiding catastrophe was what spurred me to apply for my AVID: “Oh, Timor-Leste was nowhere near as bad as I thought it’d be!” I remember thinking. “That place is alright, hey.”
And now, to be ten months into living here, returning to the same tiny village we celebrated in at the very end of filming, with concrete proof we’d done an ok job on the trip and with the certainty and colour and daze of the rushing past of my last twelve months.
So much was so laughably similar. Three white women and one man on a trip to Venilale. Eating at the same restaurant and staying at the same hotel. This time, more language, more experience, less whimsy, less wondering. But no less special.
Simon preparing dinner
As I left Venilale in 2016 I thought the phrase I’ve repeated often on this blog: wow, I’m so lucky to have had the opportunity to go to this place. I wonder if I’ll ever get to do it again.
A year later, returning home to Dili. New friends and different experiences. I live here now. I am so very lucky.