2011 May 14th to 28th – Bali (Tulamben) & Timor Leste (Dili & Atauro)
I had wanted to return to Timor Leste for a long time. Took part in a marine expedition to Timor Leste in 2004, then, I was a newbie diver and had to take the AOW to be better prepared for the expedition. Better prepared I was not but my genial buddy – a dive instructor & team-mates made sure that I didn’t drown when we did the coral transect, fish count or the benthic survey (all usually at less than 15m deep) & the 10 good days or so we spent at Atauro Island – off Dili (capital of Timor Leste) was etched in my mind. It was not just the good diving, it was the pristine beauty of Atauro & the warmth of Timorese that I fondly remember.
Come 2011, I am 200+ dives more experienced and a lot older… haha… However, I was still not better prepared! As in, I didn’t spend much time planning for the trip, as we were busy with a shark conservation awareness event until end of April. At least, I knew that flying Merpati Airline from Bali would be cheaper than flying directly from Singapore. So, we planned to dive in Tulamben for a few days before flying to Dili and my “newbie” diver brother & “to-be certified” sister-in-law joined for the Tulamben leg. We booked discounted flight to Bali on KLM @S$253 and embarked on our dive trip on Saturday, 14th May. We were very pleased with the in-flight food & the personal entertainment system provided and of course the generous leg-room of a full service European airline was also much appreciated.
Tony Medcraft – owner of Tulamben Wreck Divers once again gave us (even my bro) a free upgrade to the Penthouse – lovely view of the coast in the front & view of the majestic Mt Agung from the back. Remember, this was T & I’s 3rd visit to TWD – this unexpected gesture really ensured that us felt like coming home!
The next day, dive guide Nyoman met us at breakfast and asked where we wish to dive at & at what time? That was why we loved diving at Tulamben, we always got to choose our preferred dive site & when we wanted to dive it. Of course, for our 1st dive we had to greet the famous Liberty Wreck. Nyoman knew that we were “experienced” divers & proposed that we plunge to the depths to find the pygmy seahorses. At more than 30m, we saw the 1st pair of pygmy seahorses on this trip. I think pink is the true colour of these tiny lilac pygmy seahorses & their gorgonian seafan home. In the 52mins dive, we also saw 2 white leaf scorpionfish, nudibranch, flatworm & a huge school of big-eye jacks. I enjoyed swimming with the huge school of jacks, found it a very calming & therapeutic experience. After lunch, our 2nd dive was at Coral Garden, it was another good 54mins dive that yielded a poor moray eel with a huge gash on its head, plus its entourage of cleaner shrimps and a few huge groupers were hanging around – hoping to make a quick meal from the wounded moray eel? A blue ribbon eel & a black one, crinoid shrimp & orangutan crab. The 3rd dive of the day was our 1st night dive at Tulamben! The bumphead parrotfish were resting at the bow of the Liberty wreck & they were pretty annoyed at our torches. We saw 2 mantis shrimps – Golden & Red, several hydroid decorator crabs, cleaner shrimps, a beautiful ghost pipefish & a large Spanish dancer.
On the second day, we had an early morning dive. By 7am, we were already in water heading to the Liberty Wreck. Spent a lot of the time in the 1 plus hr dive with the school of jacks again & this time there was a giant trevally trying to blend in with its “lesser” cousins. We also saw orangutan crab, garden eels, nudibranch & bumphead parrotfish. 2nd dive at Coral Garden yielded an unexpected visitor – a black tip reef shark! Contrary to “popular” belief (aka lies), sharks are not ferocious! This 1+m shark scooted off into the bad viz when it was 50m from us. Ketut showed us a crutch of anemone eggs on a pebble. I spotted an octopus. We had another night dive at the Liberty Wreck, that yielded soft coral crabs, crinoid shrimp, zebra crab & ghost pipefish.
For the third day, we (all 4 of us) booked a 2 dives day trip to Amed with Ketut of Marta Dive. Ketut had been with a dive shop at Amed for many years before striking out on his own. The drive to Amed was very scenic & Amed seemed to be a serene place too. We stopped at a village pavilion, suited up & waited for the 2 small local fishing boats to take us diving along the beautiful coast. The dive site was abt 15mins away. In the strong current, Ketut showed us to a huge patch of garden eels at 20m and a pygmy seahorse, and then we saw a school of trevallies. We also saw an octopus, blue spotted stingray. During the 2nd dive at Pyramid there was an installation of several artificial reef structures made in the shape of what else but the Pyramid, adorned by colourful soft corals & served as hiding place for snappers. A small hawksbill turtle tolerated our presence for awhile, it was wonderful to finally meet a turtle in Bali, hope that it will be safe, grow old & reproduce. Glad to see that my newly OW certified sister-in-law managing these 2 dives well. We dived at the Liberty Wreck again upon our return to Tulamben, saw the pair of pygmy seahorses again, said good-bye to the big-eye trevallies & met a friendly good-size napoleon wrasse! I think the Tulamben area is still a safe haven to these valuable fish – trevallies, bumphead parrotfish, sweetlips, groupers & napoleon wrasse! Hopefully more sharks will return…
Tony gave us another upgrade for our last night to the new villa rooms at the new wing about 5mins drive away. The guys had to give us a drive to the main stretch for dinner. My bro went for a night trek to Mt Agung, he reported that it was quite a hard hike to the peak of the highest mountain on Bali. When he got back, we grabbed a quick lunch and started the long drive to Ubud when they spent a couple of nights at & we spent 2 nights at the small, intimate Golden Elephant Hotel at Ulu Watu, all the villas have their own pools.
After 2 restful nights, we boarded the morning Merpati flight to Dili – the capital of Timor Leste on 20th May. A Balinese ex-colleague helped to book the Merpati tickets (@ less than USD 450 for 2 pax) through a travel agent.
Timor Leste – 20th to 28th May
We paid for our visas upon arrival & passed the customs office quick enough but the enthusiastic officers checked our luggage quite thoroughly… Kathy was the new trainee DM from Dive Timor Lorosae who picked us up.
Dili was much busier than I remembered it to be, the houses looked more tidy though. Even the building that Castaway Bar of Dive Timor had become more solid, we had most of our meals there (not cheap but the portions were Australian). We didn’t do much the rest of the day, just read whatever there was & dipped in the very nice (but deep, also used for dive training) pool & walked along the water front & discovered that the Chinese & Japanese Embassies had huge compounds. The next day, we got to dive at Atauro! There was supposed to be snorkellers on board but due to the strong winds & big surfs, DT advised them to cancel, so there was just another 2 leisure divers & us with DM Will & Greg the captain. It was a rough crossing & T got pretty sick.
We dived at the west side of Atauro, it was inhabited, probably due to further distant from Dili. The 5 of us were the first people to dive at Will Wall, it was named after Will, who had completed his DM training & leaving service. There was strong surface current, so we dropped down quickly. The underwater conditions were great – good visibility of 30m & not much current. The reef was pristine, large sea fans, lots of red tooth trigger fish & anthias in the shallow, not unlike the pristine reefs of Gorontalo. We saw a nice size painted spiny lobster hiding in a crevice at around 20m, hope this painted spiny lobster will be able to avoid all of its many predators & hungry, greedy humans & live a long life (>30years). 2nd dive was at another section of Will Wall. A curious & big dog-tooth tuna came by to check us out, I spotted many juvenile Giant Clams at the shallow. As we were leaving Atauro, there was a large pod of pilot whale, 1 of them surfaced very near our boat & made me jump! That evening Dili celebrated the Timor Leste 9th Independence Day.
The next day, we took the transport from Compass Travel back to Atauro & we spent 2 peaceful nights at the Kuo-in Eco Lodge, which was run by the local NGO Roman Luan. There was no flush toilets at Kuo-in, our “contributions” were made into compost & the bath water was recycled by the reed beds & used to water the plants. Such a lovely place! There was no traffic on Atauro, to get around the locals either depend on their small fishing boats or “motorbike-lorries”. Beach front accommodation plus 3 local meals cost less than $30 per person per day. We went “trekking” up the village hill, practicing my forgotten “bon giorno” & “bon tarde” with the locals on the way. The reward of the steep climb over rocky, unpaved road, “littered” with goat dung was the gorgeous view of Atauro & the reef. Also visited the dormitory where the expedition team stayed at, the dormitory had been converted to a “hospedaria” sewing workshop run by the UN & opposite it was a local handicraft place where the deaf/ mute could learn a skill. We spent time interacting with the kids during the evenings & even “organised” a beach clean-up, the kids were happy to labour for some sweets & chocolates. There were a lot of plastic cups & other plastic debris along the shore – affluence is a double-edge sword… With great reluctance, we left Kuo-in to get to Barry’s Place to be picked up by the Compass Travel’s speed boat. We met a pod of common dolphins in the channel between Atauro & Dili, it was such a joy! In the evening, we went to Christo Rei where there was a huge statue of Jesus Christ (a gift from the central government during the Suharto era) and enjoyed a spectacular red sunset.
25th May was my last dive day in Timor because I caught flu after. Marianne led us to dive at Tasi Talu where we missed a dugong; we could hear it but didn’t see it… It was a good dive – a beautiful white thorny seahorse, a flabellina nudibranch, a sap sucking sea slug and a cuttlefish. After a nice lunch prepared by DT, we went to another shore dive site at Dili Rock East, the wind & surf had picked up considerably & there was quite a strong current. It didn’t stop us from having a good dive – we saw a crocodilefish, a school of juvenile catfish, 2 banded pipefishes, ribbon eel, nudibranch, marble shrimp & a 1st for us – a pair of coral mushroom pipefish!
T dived at the Christo Rei & Sandy Bottom with Greg the next day; they saw a school of bumphead parrotfish at Christo Rei! & at Sandy Bottom, a flying gurnard, an Emperor Shrimp, a whip coral goby & lobsters. The following day, I tagged along to snorkel at Behau Village & Secret Garden, about 50km from Dili, Will is the DM for the day, it was also his last dive day at Dili.
On the last morning, we went to the Dili museum to find that it was closed on Saturday. Anthonio drove us to the airport for our flight to Bali where we lazed at the airport lounge for a few hours, enjoyed a beautiful sunset & then came home around midnight.
Today, 4months on, as I am preparing for next 2 dive trips, I am still missing the serenity & simplicity of Atauro.
Cost of diving at Timor: 2 tanks dive at Atauro – US$160 each (inclusive sandwich lunch + water + soft drinks). 2 tanks local shore dives (w/in Dili) – US$90. 2 tanks local shore dives (outside Dili – inclusive of local lunch + water + soft drinks) – US$110. Note that usually, we were the only people diving (another 2 guys for Atauro trip, another 1 guy for outside Dili “safari”), when I was ill, T was the only paying customer…
Cost of meals – typically US$7 upwards for “main dish”, good size portion. The food at the Night Market was cheaper (e.g – US$2 for 1 fish, $0.50 for a chicken wing etc), catering to the locals the market has no electricity, water etc 😉 …
Other suggestions: get more small change like 1 & 5 usd… Oh, Bahasa works for the older cab drivers & bargain w them for short distant travels… Get the dive shop or hotel staff to help with telling & bargaining with the cab driver on other places like Christo Rei…