That’s what my uncle, who has spent two decades in Kupang, told me. I remembered his words once again as I lay upon a large rock on the western slopes of Mt Fatuleu.  By dusk, my journey between the rocks to climb the mountain had brought me to  a wide, beautiful panorama with views through the hills to the bay in the distance.

Timor Island, where Kupang is located,  is indeed made of coral, and the series of mountains scattered to the easternmost point of this southeast Indonesian island is  a formation of metamorphic rocks. Almost all the names of the mountains in Timor begin with the word Fatu, meaning ‘rock’. Near Mt Fatuleu there is Mt Fatuanin, and in the past both of these were believed  to be mystical, but they have now become favourite spots for weekend visitors.  To reach the foot of these two mountains,  I drove around 50km from Kupang city centre, on a road that is easy to traverse.

Afterwards the same road took me towards other areas in the middle of the island,  the home of the Dawan ethnic group  in the highlands. I intended to visit  a traditional Boti neighbourhood,  one of the Dawan sub-groups that is said  to have retained many of its traditional customs. Unfortunately, when I arrived,  the neighbourhood was in mourning,  so visits by outsiders were forbidden.

As an alternative, Dicky Senda, a young writer from Mollo, took me to Fatumnasi,  a village at the gates of Mt Mutis Nature Reserve. The journey to this place at a height of 1,000m above sea level brought us to another world of Timor. We crossed a pine forest and came upon many horses grazing and running free. I kept stopping to enjoy  the view, and we reached Tunua Hill  as twilight approached.

We stayed at Fatumnasi and I felt the warmth of the ume kbubu, a traditional round house with a low door that is well designed to drive away the cold temperatures up in the mountains. Mateos Anin, the traditional chief of the village, played a flute that called together various pets in front of us. It felt magical. “Our clan is friends with all animals,” he said. “This is what we inherited to protect the balance between nature and living creatures.”

The next day we visited the naturally formed Mutis Bonsai Forest, and Fatukoto Lake,  which is encircled by pine forests on the rocky hills, before returning to Kupang city centre.  My thoughts shifted from the mountains  to the coastal areas.

With a population of around 400,000, Kupang has been a centre for the sandalwood timber trade since the Portuguese and Dutch eras of the 16th century. In the Old City, you can still see remnants of the trade from that era. There are old Chinese merchant shops; the GMIT Church, which, built by the Dutch, is the oldest in Kupang; Siang Lay Temple (1865) at the mouth of the river; the Portuguese-built Fort Concordia (1653), which is now used as an army base; and the Nunhila Dutch Cemetery.

Despite the fast pace of development, Kupang continues to impart a modest charm, especially with its beaches. Some of the best beaches include Manikin, Lasiana, Batu Nona and Nunsui along the east of the city, while in the west past Tenau Harbour are Lalendo and Baliana, up to Tablolong, which is perfect  for watching the sunset.

If you are looking for an unusual bathing spot, you can go to Crystal Cave, which isn’t far from Lalendo Beach. Following local advice, I visited in the middle of the day, so that the interior of the cave wasn’t too dark and the water sparkled like aquamarine. Around 30 minutes from there, Oenesu Waterfall is also worth a visit.

On another day I visited Semau Island on the left bank of the city. Riding a wooden motor boat, the flat island with an area of 143km2 can be reached in minutes. Most of the roads on Semau are still rough and unpaved, which only added to the feeling of adventure.

After passing through neighbourhoods with few dwellers, my eyes became hypnotised by one quiet sandy beach after another. My favourite was Liman, with its curve of creamy white sand and a hill that offers a great viewpoint.

Fifteen years ago, the Kupang area covered several islands. Apart from Semau, it included Rote, Ndao, Sabu and Raijua. Regional autonomy driven by the central government led to the separation of these islands into their own individual districts. I decided to go to Rote, crossing the sea once more, this time not by wooden boat but by fast ferry.

Rote, which has an area ten times larger than Semau, is also mainly covered in flat coral, with only a few low hills. Not far from Ba’a city I came upon Batu Termanu, two rocky hills that have an interesting legend. One of the hills, called Suelay, represents men, while the other – actually a rocky island – is called Hun,  and is associated with women.

The best part of the island, which is known  for the sasando musical instrument and the ti’i wide-brimmed hat, is its coast on the western side, which is popular with surfers. Surfing is one  of the main reasons tourists come to Rote,  and fishing villages like Nemberala have  been transformed into a paradise for  lovers of rolling waves.

Nemberala offers varying waves, and the surfers choose where to go based on their preference, rather than gathering in a single area. Besialu (T-Land) is the location of a legendary wave, and is referred to as the pioneer of surfing activities in Nemberala. This is followed by Sakunamon, which must be visited by sampan boat because the waves are quite far from the shore. Then there is The Bombie with its fast-flowing sea. Beginner surfers can be seen playing in the waves at Squealers, which is safer and more  fun. As I am no surfer, I was content to watch from the beach, including at Bo’a where  the beach vista is fantastic.

After seeing and experiencing so much,  I became aware that the ‘Coral City’ has promising prospects in tourism. People can  visit the highlands to feel the nature of Timor first, before returning to the lower-altitude urban areas to relax and explore the small,  exotic islands that are nearby. Kupang is  an ideal host with multiple destinations.


On the journey to Fatumnasi or Mt Mutis, you can stop off at this waterfall. With seven levels, it is shaded by lush green forest, and the water is crystal clear. The best time to visit is between March and May, when the rains have stopped, the water is abundant and it isn’t too slippery to access.