A dawn climb to the summit of Mount Ramelau, Timor-Leste.
From the turn-off 30 minutes after Maubisse, a sign points to Ramelau. This road is 18 kilometres and takes over an hour and guaranteed to be a bumpy, yet incredibly scenic drive to the small town of Hato Builico, situated at the base of Mount Ramelau.
It’s June and the roads are mostly dry making them more easily navigable, yet still a slow and steady challenge and there’s a few tight squeezes as we meet yellow trucks carrying people and cargo coming in the opposite direction.
Just before arriving at Hato Builico, we stop to admire the view of Mount Ramelau and gaze up at the mountain, all 2,986 metres of it. Bright and early tomorrow morning, all going well, we will be at the summit looking down.
We arrive in Hato Builico, check into the Ovalido Guesthouse and shortly after I setoff to explore by foot, checking out a hardware shop, a small shop selling drinks, biscuits and cans of tuna, and the abandoned posada.
A thick, cold fog whirls in quickly a providing an eerie look to the quiet town and hiding any potential views, and some of the old buildings nearby. I chat with a group of Timorese teens also exploring and planning to climb the mountain tomorrow. They ask if I can take a few photographs of them using my camera to which I oblige and snap away.
Returning to the guesthouse, there are plenty of high fives to be had from young children playing at the roadside excitedly shouting ‘malae’ (foreigner) as I pass them and practising their English. I pass a monkey sitting on a garden fence on a leash, a group of people singing and people carrying supplies to a destination unknown to me.
At 3:00AM the next day, with music still blaring from a nearby building I step ouside wearing the most clothes I’ve worn during my time in Timor-Leste – a merino t-shirt, a fleece, a newly acquired windbreaker coat from Maubisse 2nd hand clothes market and a beanie – to meet at the 4WD’s for a 20-minute, extremely slow and bumpy ride to the meadow at the base of Mount Ramelau. Occasionally the 4WD grinds to a halt and another path on the road is taken, hoping it’ll be a little less bad.
We arrive to 100’s of tents and a barrage of scooters only visible under the 4WD’s headlights and the odd fire. We make our way through the tents to the ticket stall using our headlights to lead us and avoid stumbling into groups of huddled people, presumably having climbed or about to climb. We sign in putting our names and city into a book and purchase our tickets for $1 USD per person.
Following our pre-arranged local guides, who we paid $20 USD each for their services of guiding us to the top safely in the dark, we set-off. Our group quickly splits into two, as half take off into the darkness with one of our guides, and the other tackle the mountain at a more leisurely pace with our two other guides.
We have a big group, so opted for 3 local guides, however most visitors will opt for one or none, but it’s good to use their services. We follow our headlights up 30-minutes of steps before moving onto a well-trodden track for the remainder of the dark, cold climb to the summit.
We pass a lot of people, a lot of people pass us, there are so many people heading to the summit this morning. I guess at least 300 people must be on the track today. I’m unsure if it’s a special occasion or whether it’s always this popular.
We get a message from the fast group as they reach the telecommunications tower, 5 minutes from the summit, at around the 2 hour mark, and the other group reach it after 3 hours. There is hot black coffee in plastic water bottles for sale at the tower, but we resist the temptation and continue onwards to see the sunrise from the summit.
We are treated to a sea of clouds stretching as far as the eye can see with black silhouetted mountains peaking through them with the sky quickly changing between shades of pinks, oranges and reds. There’s a bitterly cold wind whirling up from below, battering us as we fumble to put fleeces, beanies and gloves back on with numb fingers.
At the summit the crowds quickly grow around Nain Feto Remelau (Our Lady of Ramelau) as people pray, admire the view, take photographs and huddle close to share body heat. The Timor-Leste flags are out in full force flapping frantically in the wind, as people pose with them for photographs against the sprawling backdrop of Timor-Leste.
We stay at the summit for 1 hour, numb but eagerly watching as light is shed across Timor-Leste’s rugged landscape, revealing a rolling scape of mountains and winding rivers.
We spot Atauro Island off in the distance, as well as the colourful dots of the tents far below at the base of Mount Ramelau.
Our descent in the daylight is like walking a completely different route as views unknown to us on the way up are revealed. There are other high peaks surrounding us, craggy cliffs, as well as track short-cuts, often steeper and more difficult than the standard route.
There are many more greetings of ‘good morning’ and ‘bondia’ now that it’s light and you can see people’s faces, and there are even more people with Timor-Leste flags making their way up mountain in the daylight and much warmer conditions. We gradually remove our layers as we decrease in altitude and as the sun quickly warms us.
It takes us approximately 1 hr 30 minutes to return to the sights and sounds at the meadow at a leisurely pace, stopping often for photographs of the mountainous landscape on our way down.
Passing under the arch which reads ‘Santuariu Inan Santa Ramelau’ (Sanctuary of the Holly Mother Ramelau), our group re-convenes and takes a moment to quietly celebrate our achievements with a few group shots before taking the 4WD’s back to our guesthouse for a quick breakfast of fried eggs, bread and black coffee before winding our way back to Dili.
Tips for climbing Mount Ramelau, Timor-Leste.
- Use the services of a local guide, costing $20 – $25 USD. It’s good for the local community and a good safety net while hiking in the dark.
- Get any additional warm clothes you might want – long pants, coats, hats etc – at the Maubisse 2nd hand clothes market. They’ll cost you anywhere from $1.50 to $2.50 per item.
- Buy any fruit, vegetables and snacks you need for the climb in Aileu, Maubisse or elsewhere, as supplies are limited in Hato Builico. There is a small store for biscuits, drinks and cans of tuna.
- There are snacks and coffee available at the meadow at the base of Mount Ramelau if you need to top-up or warm up.
- Before walking up Mount Ramelau remember to buy your $1 ticket and sign-in at the meadow.
- Bring all your rubbish back off the mountain with you and dispose of it properly.
- If you’re planning a dawn summit, pace yourself to arrive just before sunrise. There’s no need to rush to the summit and wait in the bitterly cold wind.
Are you planning to walk up Mount Ramelau? Let me know! Enjoy.
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Hi, I’m Adam Constanza, freelance travel content creator living, working and supporting tourism in Timor Leste, South East Asia.
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