Having had a rough night thanks to blaring music until 6:30am, we got up and had our breakfast in the convent library. The usual fayre of bread, jam and eggs and very weak tea was served. The walls were lined with English language books and a table facing a flat screen TV, DVD player and stereo. They are certainly well equipped with technology.
We packed up our bags and headed out to the road to catch a bus. Sure enough it wasn’t long before one came along. We again got the back seat so windows we could see out of and a reasonable amount of ventilation. With a few puking locals and a rooster we made it back to Dili in 2 ½ hours dropping various bits of firewood and rice on the outskirts of town. We managed to get within a block of our previous accommodation so decided to dump Marie there with the bags and Emma went to the supermarket to pick up supplies.
Since we have now experienced local buses and can’t stop when we see cool stuff Victor wanted to hire a 4WD for a few days to head to Balibo. A three day hire would give us plenty of time for a slow drive out there and back stopping for photos, cold drinks and sea breezes. We got a cab to take us to the car rental place with all our gear after the friendly hotel receptionist had helped us make some calls to find out the cost. It was a bit expensive for us but we figured that having the ability to stop off when and where we wanted and some temperature control would be worth it. (Victor hired a 4WD Prado and took on the $250 excess risk).
We headed our way out west soaking in the coastal scenery with lots of leg room. The road is pretty straight for a good stretch out of Dili punctuated by potholes and rough patches – doable in a car but at a much slower pace. There are some significant slips so you can see that in wet season it would be a very long if not unpassable road. We average a speed of about 30km. The road hugs the coast then weaves inland upwards into the hills then drops down again to the coast before heading inland close to the Indonesian border up to the north south inland road. Balibo is down this road but our destination was Maliana as that is where the nearest accommodation is.
Victor has 21 years in the Australian Army and is an experienced 4 wheel driver, owning a Prado that he takes bush bashing, so we figured he would be a safer driver than most of the locals. Unfortunately what you can’t control are the other drivers and we were driving slowly downhill on the winding road to Batugade (the northern border town to Indonesia) when a local came upwards round the blind bend on our side of the road. There was space to our left, which was a good run off of gravel/dirt before the bank on the uphill side. That’s when we discovered that the ABS brakes on our rental didn’t work like they should, and as we pulled left onto the gravel we slid in slow motion into a ‘ditch’ a kind of dip at the side of the road. We were stuck at an angle with 2 wheels still on the road and the other 2 in the ditch. Victor swore a bit and we all clambered out.
The insurance excesses on rental vehicles here can be high, probably because of the state of the roads, but luckily Victor had paid to reduce it down to US$250, so we have named the incident Victor’s $250 parking fine.
It needed to be brought out sideways. If it was a car between us and the people in the other car, who stopped, we could have pushed it back onto the road, but a Prado weighs about 2 tons so pushing it out sideways was not an option.
We were the major spectacle on that strip of road for the rest of the afternoon. Everyone that went by stopped to ask what happened and ask if everyone was ok. Most stopped and got out for a good look at our vehicle’s tricky situation. As luck would have it we’d only been there 2 minutes when a policeman on a scooter happened to come by. He stopped, talked to Victor and the other driver, took some photos on his phone, made some phone calls, then headed off back down the hill to radio for someone to come and pull us out.
There was mention of calling the UN out to deal with it, presumably because we’re foreigners, so we got quite excited. We found a shady spot to sit and wait. More locals stopped and some even took photos! We analysed what had happened and surveyed the road leading up to it. There weren’t even any skid marks from the brakes we were going so slowly. We had easily been there for ¾ of an hour when a truck full of border police turned up. They passed, found somewhere to turn and came back, probably really just to have a nosey. There was much discussion and taking of photographs. Many of them spoke good English, which was useful.
Victor sprang into making the most of the opportunity and got them motivated to help by showing them his Australian Army ID. The Australian military are well regarded here, after all the the work they have done in the country, and from passive observers the border police were suddenly inclined to help get us out. Victor let them feel like they were handling it, but was quietly making suggestions to the guy that spoke the best English. They decided that more men were needed so started making every man that went by stop. Typically the road then went quiet for a brief while.
Out of nowhere traffic started to come by, then a guy on a scooter turned up with a rope, then finally a truck went by so the police made him stop. The rope was too small to go round the vehicle, but the truck had it’s load tied on with strapping. That was soon taken off and the guys had now cleared the bush around it so someone was soon down behind it putting the strapping around. To try and minimise the damage to the vehicle Victor emptied his rucksack to place between the strap and the vehicle. With the strap round they got all the men lined up and pulled it to test if it would break. It didn’t and the rope was attached to the strap so it could reach the truck. Suddenly around the corner came a “transito police” vehicle with its lights and sirens blaring. We felt special. Recovery action stopped while Victor and the border police spoke to the new police (who turned out to be traffic police). The new police assessed the situation, took more photos and then in the slight chaos gave his approval to the recovery plan.
The truck was ordered to back up into position and the rope attached. The instruction was given for the truck to move slowly forward. We all watched intently as the rope stretched before partially snapping. The light was starting to go and the increasing urgency to get the vehicle out heightened everyone’s disappointment. A big chain was dragged out of the traffic police vehicle, the rope got cut off and the chain attached in its place, however it was clear from the first attempt that it was going to be a struggle for the truck to drag it out. By a stroke of luck another truck came by. The border police quickly ordered it to stop and help.
Mild chaos ensued as something (a rope we think, but we have no idea where it came from) was found and the new truck moved into position and hooked up. Some order for the trucks to move forward was given and a huge cheer went up as the vehicle finally returned to the road, minus one headlight and sporting a slightly broken back bumper and a dented runner board and roof from where it had been pulled out. Show over everyone set about returning to their vehicles, ropes and straps were removed and re-attached to their loads.
We thanked everyone and set off again in the dark. The nearest accommodation was miles away so we were eager to get going, the roads here are not fit for travelling in the dark. We let the traffic police head off first so that we could quietly do a check of the brakes. After a while driving we figured we must be in the border town of Batugade. We parked by the police barracks to ask the guards where the junction of our inland road was and our traffic police friends caught up with us and stopped (we’d overtaken them when they dropped someone home) ‘we’re going to Maliana’ they said, ‘follow us’. We were happy to have someone to follow, the road was rather rough in places and following the polices lights meant we could go faster as we didn’t have to guess the direction of the road as much.
Finally we arrived, the police took us to a guesthouse but it was already full of UN staff, though one of them offered Emma a bed with him. They took us to another guesthouse, finally we’d arrived in one piece and had somewhere to sleep. We thanked our new police friends immensely.
- Roads and driving in East Timor leave much to be desired
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