There's a mountain in Timor-Leste called Tatamailau or Mount Ramelau. It's the highest mountain in Timor at just shy of 10,000 ft. and the site of an annual pilgrimage celebrating the Virgin Mary. Hiking Ramelau is one of the first things I found as something to do in Timor in my research prior to flying out (it was also one of the only things). I had read several accounts of people making the harrowing mountain drive and hiking at 3am to summit just before sunrise. I immediately knew it was something I wanted to do.
Ramelau sits about 100km south of Dili. On Saturday, January 11, I went to a local car rental shop and rented a Toyota Prado (some variant of a Land Cruiser) because it was the only automatic 4WD they had (I can't drive stick, deduct man points). I needed a 4WD because that 100km drive was the most treacherous drive I've ever experienced. The road inland starts off fairly well maintained. Driving up the first mountains out of Dili it's mostly paved, but increasingly serpentine as it switchbacks up the slopes.
The first town after Dili is called Aileu (my project actually has an office here). It's about an hour in and past Aileu is where the road starts to get really rough. After Aileu there are frequent and massive gaps in the pavement and giant puddles from the nightly rains. A couple hours after Aileu is Maubisse and past this town it's basically just dirt, mud, and rocks. All of this is not easy driving, but I never felt particularly in danger. The final hour of the drive to the town at the base of Ramelau, Hato Builico, is where it was particularly terrifying. It was the same dirt, mud, and rocks, but now frequently above sheer drops and roads just barely wide enough for the Prado. It was on this road that I gained a newfound respect for 4WD cars.
On the bright side, the drive was beautiful. The interior of Timor is wild and exotic. Lush mountains and towering canopies for miles. And with every meter I ascended, the humidity and temperature fell. Around one bend along a slope I came to an impossibly green clearing as a small herd of horses grazed below. I got out of the Prado and sat on the slope for a moment to try and preserve how pristine that scene was. The mountain air was hushed save for the soft idling of the engine behind me. The horses seemed barely to move. I'm not sure how long I sat there.
Save for the few towns, there was hardly anyone else along the road. I did stop in Maubisse to walk around the town on what looked like a market day. I wandered the gravelly alleys while old shop women eyed me quizzically, children followed behind me, and an older man beckoned me over to take his picture.
In Hato Builico, a tiny village with a school and a few scattered houses, there is a guest house that I'd read about that travelers often overnight in. It's run by someone I knew only as Alex. When I arrived at about 5:30 in the evening, I was greeted by a younger man that I gathered was Alex's son. His English was poor and I never got his name, but we made our arrangement. I was shown to my room and told that dinner would be served at 7 and we would begin our hike at 3am. The guesthouse was quite large with what seemed like 15 or so dorms with several beds each. I was the only one there. Just down the road you can see Ramelau towering above the town.
I wandered a bit until I saw a group of kids playing on the soccer pitch below the guest house. I found my way down the hill and walked along the edge of the field with a mind to join them. When they noticed me as I drew closer, they all began running toward me yelling, "Malai, malai!", which basically just means "white person." They all wanted to pose for pictures. One kid kept pretending to shoot me with his toy Uzi. They all took turns kicking a dusty old volley ball to me and laughing hysterically when I missed the mark kicking it back. They were nice kids and it was oddly heartwarming.
As the light faded, I headed back to Alex's for dinner, which consisted of rice, potatoes, and fried bananas. At 8 when it was already pitch black, I just went to bed as there was nothing else to do. And I marveled at it being cool enough to need a blanket.
At 3, I woke up and met Alex's son, who was to be my guide up the mountain. The start of the trail is little ways up the road from the guesthouse, so we got into the Prado and it failed to start. My heart sunk, but I tried it a few more times and it did eventually roar to life as I gassed it desperately. The drive from Maubisse to Hato Builico was treacherous, but the drive in the dark to the Ramelau trailhead was the most afraid for my life I've ever been. Driving up rocky slopes that veered sharply not knowing if I was just about to gun it off of the side of a mountain was disconcerting, to say the least. We eventually got to a point where the road was so deteriorated, we decided to leave the car and walk the rest of the way.
The actual hike up Ramelau in the dark was very unremarkable. Mostly because I couldn't see anything. After about two-three hours (I couldn't say for sure), we arrived at the summit. Greeted by the statue of the Virgin Mary and rapidly deteriorating visibility, I hurried to unpack my camera and capture what little of the sunrise I could see before the clouds obscured everything. After that short glimpse of the sunrise, there was nothing but a gray haze. I lingered for a while and let the sharp, cold air blow through me as drops of condensation formed in my eyelashes and on my sleeves. I waited to see if the cloud might pass, but it didn't.
When we had descended enough to get below the clouds at the peak, visibility opened back up to reveal a view that was pretty spectacular. I was able to see all the way to the southern coast of the island. The way down was breathtaking. Daylight revealing the undulating mountains and valleys dotted by distant farms and villages.
When we got back to the guesthouse, I thanked my guide and gave him the $40 for my stay and his services and got back in the Prado. As I made by way back along the road, it occurred to me how amazing it felt when I reached portions of road that were consistently paved. I take a lot of things for granted.