Three years ago, Getaway was the first travel show to visit East Timor, known locally as Timor Leste, after it gained independence. Emotions were running high and infrastructure was virtually non-existent in the world's newest nation. While there has been much focus on the country's turmoil, Indonesian occupation and withdrawal, the people have spirit and resilience and these are very evident to visitors.
We were recently invited to pay a return visit. The Getaway team joined an Orion Expeditions Cruise as part of a 10-day journey from Darwin. This was the first cruise ship to go to East Timor and was a welcome visitor.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to settle in East Timor in the 16th century. Colonialism lasted for more than 400 years. They exported sandalwood and introduced coffee and sugarcane when sandalwood reserves were depleted.
In 1941 the Japanese drove Australian and Dutch troops out of Dili and Timor's mountainous interior became the scene of the Battle of Timor, waged by allied forces and Timorese volunteers.
After WWII, Portugal attempted to rebuild East Timor. It was cited by the United Nations as "a non-self governing territory under Portuguese administration", using the traditional hierarchical structures of Timorese society.
While this allowed local culture to survive, riots continued and attacks on Portuguese posts indicated the anti-colonial feelings of the Timorese. In 1974 a change of government in Portugal saw the beginning of the process of decolonisation. Portugal had pressing issues closer to home the decolonisation in Angola and Mozambique and they abandoned East Timor, which was declared independent on November 28, 1975.
Nine days later things went horribly wrong. Before its independence could be internationally recognised, East Timor was invaded and occupied by Indonesian forces. Indonesia alleged the Fretilin Party, which was resisting Indonesian force and fighting for independence, was communist. Still smarting from the lost war in Vietnam, the US and Australia took no action.
In July 1976 the territory was declared the twenty-seventh province of Indonesia and named Timor Timur. Indonesian rule was marked by extreme brutality and during the 27-year occupation an estimated 100,000 to 250,000 people were killed, out of a population of 600,000.
In 1999, under pressure from the international community, Indonesia agreed to a referendum. Seventy eight percent of Indonesians voted for independence. There were violent clashes, instigated by anti-independence militias, aided by elements of the Indonesian military. Peacekeepers, led by Australia, went in to restore order and were later replaced by UN forces.
On May 20, 2002, East Timor's independence was recognised by Portugal with a visit by Xanana Gusmão to Lisbon. East Timor joined the United Nations on September 27, 2002.
Xanana Gusmão is now East Timor's first president. His five-year role is largely symbolic, though he is able to veto some legislation.
Gusmão was born in a village between Dili and Bacau and trained as a Jesuit priest before joining the Portuguese army. When it was evident they were to be abandoned by Portugal, he joined Fretilin and became its head and commander-in-chief. In 1992 he was captured by the Indonesian army and sentenced to 20 years gaol in Jakarta. He turned his period of incarceration into a useful time by smuggling out messages and letters to Indonesians sympathetic to the cause.
In 1997 he was visited by Nelson Mandela, who helped educate the international community about the struggle of the East Timorese. In 1999 Indonesian President Habibie announced a referendum and that year, Gusmão was returned to his damaged country.
Australian Kirsty Sword first travelled to East Timor in 1984 as an aid worker, fell in love with the country and returned to become an undercover worker and spy for the resistance movement under the code name Ruby Blade. One of her tasks was to get information to and from prisoners being held in Indonesia, including the gaoled Xanana Gusmão. They fell in love, married, have three sons and Kirsty is now the first lady of East Timor.
Much of Kirsty Sword Gusmão's time is taken up as chair of the Alola Foundation, established in 2001 to raise awareness of and campaign against the sexual and gender-based violence inflicted on women in East Timor, as well as teaching them everything from economic independence to health care. The country has one of the world's highest infant and maternal mortality rates and changing that has been a high priority.
Handicraft projects are encouraging women to be economically independent. Their weaving is intricate and each district has different designs that tell a story. Cloths are really inexpensive and it is not a good idea to bargain for lower prices.
Our crew boarded the Orion in Darwin and sailed to Dili, where there is still evidence of damage to the Portuguese-influenced architecture. But once outside the capital, the country has breathtaking beauty palm fringed beaches, rugged mountains and villages set amongst bright green rice paddies, full of friendly people.
Santa Cruz Cemetery was the site of a turning point in the country's history in 1991. Mourners were attending the funeral of Seb Gomez, who'd been killed by Indonesian military, and the service turned into a political rally. The military lay in wait for the procession and opened fire, killing 250 people. American and English journalists were beaten and reported the incident to the world.
Dollar Beach is a popular site for novice divers, a mating ground for dugongs, sea-turtles and reef sharks. It has hard and soft corals, clear water and everyone is hopeful that ecotourism guidelines being put in place will ensure development is low-key, low-rise and low-impact.
The ship sails along the east coast to Baucau, the second largest city. In the 1970s this was a popular destination for Australian honeymooners, mooted to become bigger than Bali. The Indonesian conflict put a stop to all that, but it is open for business again and visitors are welcomed with open arms.
Baucau's 330-metre altitude enjoys sea breezes, making it cooler than the coast. The charming town has many Portuguese buildings. Along the road between the beach and the town you will see rice paddies, coconut plantations, Timor ponies, pigs, Banteng cattle and chickens. Village houses have pretty thatched roofs. A fork in the main road marked by a statue has the colonial-era Old Town (Kota Lama) to one side and the New Town to the other.
Pousada Baucau, once the infamous Hotel Flamboyan, is a grand place to enjoy spicy Portuguese-Timorese fusion food and fine Portuguese wine. It became somewhat rundown during the Portuguese era but has had a recent major renovation and is a charming place to stay. The 10 rooms have balconies and bathroom and breakfast is included in the rate.
Orion offers just 50 couples an intimate travel experience a combination of five-star luxury and exploration. The ship is small enough to reach destinations most other cruises cannot, but large enough to provide every comfort and amenity. Orion has a stern marina platform from which guests can board one of the 10 inflatable Zodiacs or sea kayaks.
Gourmet menus have been created by Sydney chef Serge Dansereau, whose creations can be enjoyed in the dining room or al fresco under the stars.
Orion Expedition Cruises hope that going into East Timor will help the country get back on its feet. Sarina Bratton, managing director of the line, believes the people can feel the beginning of a new era, including tourism and export.
Margaret Twomey, Australia's ambassador to East Timor, is passionate about the country and confident in the direction it is taking. She saw the irony in welcoming Orion and its passengers the week the last of the peacekeepers were farewelled. It's looking rosy for East Timor.