Atambua

My whole body is drenched in sweat as I reach the western hillside of Teluk Gurita on the coast of Timor Island. Fortunately, the hills are well shaded with trees, so I take shelter after the challenging climb. In front of me, the narrow bay with its green water looks seductively tranquil.

This gets me thinking about the fascinating myths that I heard about this stretch of coastline from Ma Ona, a food seller I met in the town square of nearby Atambua; stories that have lured me out in the heat of the day determined to see Teluk Gurita for myself.

During the heyday of the sandalwood trade, many European and Chinese ships travelled back and forth to Timor at Asia’s furthest southern reach. A Spanish ship tried to enter through this bay, but a local story tells of how a giant octopus wrapped itself around the ship and sunk it along with its crew. Since then, this bay has been named Teluk Gurita (Octopus Bay), or Kuit Namon in the local language.

Teluk Gurita is located at the far end of the northern coast road in Belu Regency. Before reaching it, I travel along a mountain road that stretches from the centre of Atambua town, and stop by a legendary natural lake, Kolam Susuk. There is a myth relating to the lake, concerning a local ruler called King Lifao and seven angels. According to legend, the king’s angels stopped by the lake for a rest and, to prevent them falling asleep, he sent a mosquito. Kolam Susuk gained popularity in the 1970s when the famous Indonesian band Koes Plus stopped by during a music tour to West Timor, their visit inspiring their eponymous song ‘Kolam Susu’.

The hilly topography is a characteristic feature of most of the Atambua area. In the morning, everything is shades of blue, but as the sun moves higher in the sky, the air stings with heat until the sunset finishes the day with a smouldering red sky. With an area of almost 1,300km2 and a population of less than 300,000, this region offers the kind of peaceful atmosphere that many travellers relish.

There has been a great deal of infrastructural investment over the past few years in the border areas of Indonesia, including Atambua. The development and revitalisation of public facilities such as main roads, airports, harbours and markets is helping the area to grow. “This makes us enthusiastic to do many things to introduce Atambua to more visitors,” says Yohanes Andes, the head of the local tourism department.

The Motaain Border Post has been renovated, while cultural performances and commercial events are held regularly. Pasir Putih beach, Sukaer Laran beach and Berduli beach, which immediately flank this post, have been improved in order to attract visitors.

Also well worth the trip is the picturesque Mount Lakaan, situated just over an hours’ drive from Atambua. It is a peaceful journey alongside chalk hills that hide rivers and waterfalls, including the lovely Mauhalek Waterfall, which flows down the layered cliffs all year round.

I continue my exploration until I reach a quiet valley at the foot of Mt Lakaan, called Fulan Fehan. The view is spectacular and quite surreal. The green savannah spreads into the distance, shrouded in mist and studded with cacti. A herd of horses roam freely, grazing contentedly in the tranquil wilderness.

Once a year (usually in the dry season), the valley celebrates the Fulan Fehan Festival, with thousands of women descending from the hills performing the Likurai dance while beating tihars (small drums). The dance once served to welcome heroes back from battle, but now aims to preserve the legacy of traditional dance, and is performed to welcome VIPs and guests during ceremonial services as well as at cultural festivals.

On a hill densely covered in trees, there is an ancient fortress called Benteng Makes, also known as Benteng Tujuh Lapis or Seven Layer Fort, built from coral rocks arranged in a circle. I go through the main door,and afterwards one door after another, until I reach the central point, which is filled with the tombs of the king, commander and empress of the Dirun Kingdom, which ruled Timor in the 15th century.

The fort is very cold inside, and it is almost always covered in thick fog; the trees and rocks are quilted with moss. Every time I breathe in, I sense the sharp purity of the mountain air. At an altitude of over 1,000m, this is the most unique ancient fort I have visited in the Nusa Tenggara region.

There is also spectacular mountain scenery to the south, namely at Mt Mandeu in Raimanuk, a five-hour drive from Atambua. The panorama here is enchanting, the forest at the foot of the mountain still thick. Local people believe that Mt Mandeu holds evidence of the history of early Timorese humans. I see ancestral sites of the Mandeu people, in the form of the ruins of settlements built on rocks.

One hill at the edge of the Raimanuk Road, Kakeu Mantenu, has an amazing view. It has become a popular place for young people to gather as sunset approaches. I was told that the ancestors of the Raimanuk people created wood carvings that are extraordinarily beautiful, used to decorate walls and interiors. The motifs are generally humans, animals and plants, with a totemic meaning linking back to particular places, areas and to each other.

Another day, after hearing that I am interested in visiting traditional villages, Yohanes Andes advises me to go to Lamaknen District. From Atambua, I travel through valley after valley for about two hours before arriving at Nualain

Traditional Village, Lamaknen, which is said to be at the heart of the Bunak ethnic group, the only people of Timor whose speech system is not part of the Austronesian language family but is instead from the Trans-New Guinea language group. Some roads are well paved and some are still gravel. Local travel guides are needed to reach this place as it is quite isolated and not heavily populated.

Inhabited by 32 tribes with 14 traditional houses, Nualain is the largest traditional village on Timor Island. Surrounded by thick pur trees (a type of banyan) and three altars made from ancient rocks arranged for rituals, the construction of houses here is aligned with nature and is a good reference for anyone interested in ethnic architecture.

When I arrive, the people have just finished a hunting ritual. “In one year we conduct three important ceremonies. Usually these rituals take place between April and November,” explains Antonius Mau, a traditional elder of Nualain. Although I am a bit disappointed that the ritual has finished, I admire the layout of the neighbourhood. “It’s okay, we will let you know when the ritual will be held next year,” Antonius says.

Spending the last day of my trip in Atambua town, I enjoy jagung bose, a rich, porridge like corn, red-bean and coconut-milk dish, cooked in the traditional way by Ma Ona. Every dusk, accompanied by the chimes of the Santa Maria Immaculata Cathedral bell, Ma Ona and the other grilled-corn sellers spread out their wares in the town square. “So, do you like Atambua?” asks Ma Ona. “Yes. I think I’ll be back,” I reply. “There is still a lot I haven’t seen.”

I want to talk further about my experiences, but Ma Ona is busy with customers, including many who also seem to be out-oftowners. I feel that Atambua is no longer a quiet town in the corner of the country  travellers are beginning to appreciate the beauty on its doorstep.