Article | Atauro Island – Small Island, Big Heart in Timor Leste. I had only been in Timor-Leste about 2 weeks, yet I had heard numerous tales about the small island with a big heart, which is visible from the Capital of Dili, Atauro Island. It promised so much… and I was keen to escape the city and experience the island and change of pace for myself.
With an extended public holiday on the horizon – there’s quite a few here in Timor Leste – and a break from my Tetun language lessons, my partner, friends and I booked a ticket on the dragon boat – an unmistakable long, low slung yellow and red boat – and our accommodation at Barry’s Place.
The following day we presented our ID and collected the tickets from the office opposite the dock, next to the Gloria Jeans, Burger King and Rolls n Bowls complex. If you’ve visited Dili recently, you’ll know the one. It cost $18 USD for a one-way ticket and would depart at 08:00 am tomorrow.
At 06:45 am the following morning we wandered from our house and it’s only a matter of minutes until a Dili yellow taxi beeps his horn numerous times. He pulls up alongside us and yells ‘taxi?’. Leaning through the passenger window we take a minute to negotiate the fee and come to an agreement of a malae or foreigners fare of $3 USD. It started at $5 USD, everyone’s happy.
We throw snorkels, flippers and baggage into the back seat and hop in. The taxi creeps slowly towards our destination of the dock while making all kinds of noises a healthy car shouldn’t.
Trying to peer out, I cannot see anything but a dark sticker which is plastered across the front window with only a sliver of visibility, just enough for the driver to see out.
The dash is covered by a FC Barcelona banner, fluffy toys and a row of about 10 small round mirrors, as so many taxis in Dili appear to be. The driver beeps his horn often to let motorcycles, cars and dogs know our whereabouts. It’s only a short trip and 5 minutes later we’re at the dock.
We’ve got an hour before departure as we hand over the agreed $3 USD to the taxi driver and drop our luggage onto the pavement. There’s nothing to do but await further instructions, but the buzz of excitement is undeniable. It’s the first time any of us have visited Atauro Island, having all recently arrived from New Zealand to commence various volunteering assignments in Timor Leste.
Over the next 30 minutes or so, at least half a dozen other passengers arrive and like us, linger around the dock entrance and wait. Passing taxis beep to get our attention and pull up to ask if we want a ride, the colourful microlets start to cruise by looking for passengers with their music and bass booming, and people sell mobile pulsa cards, cigarettes and passion-fruit to those passing by.
A guy wearing a high-vis jacket – the global sign of someone official – appears from within the dock and approaches the main gate at which we’re waiting. Everyone is drawn towards him and starts handing over their tickets, as he rips the stub off and waves them through.
Once inside, there’s no sign of the red and yellow dragon boat. I can only see stacks of shipping containers, a few disheveled looking buildings with one or two people sitting outside and an oversized forklift truck moving the shipping containers from one place to another. Maybe I should be wearing high visibility too…
We follow the other passengers assuming they must know where they are going and it turns out they do. Just a short way through the dock, around a corner, we spot a large ferry, which looks, well, lets say well used…
We amble up the open tail gate, walk across a slippery metal deck – I say slippery because I did a very impressive power slide on it… I’m pretty sure nobody saw – and head towards a group of people standing at a narrow metal bridge.
Again, they are wearing high visibility jackets and point us over the bridge. Climbing up a number of steps and onto the foot bridge, the yellow and red dragon boat can be seen below us, moored alongside the ferry, dwarfed by its much bigger neighbour. We cross down onto the roof of the dragon boat, alongside the narrow upper deck and duck into a small side entrance.
A short flight of steps takes us to the passenger seating area – a dozen or so rows of high-backed seats in the blue class at the front and another dozen in yellow class at the rear – and we find our seats in blue class. The malae all sit in blue and the Timorese in yellow…
Looking forward there’s nothing but a closed door to the drivers cabin and back the closed off engine room. However, we do have a view from the side windows and I can see the statue of Cristo Rei off in the distance. I wait patiently for our trip to the island to continue as other passengers trickle in.
After a dozen or so people are aboard the dragon boat, a mix of malae and Timorese, yet still far from full, the engine fires to life with a loud roar. It’s loud, very loud. The boat moves slowly from its neighbouring ferry, turns 180 degrees and with the engine noise increasing yet again, we quickly accelerate and are propelled towards Atauro Island.
I watch Cristo Rei quickly disappearing through the now sprayed covered window and can see nothing but open water. Despite being a calm day, the waves increase in choppiness and more water is sprayed and splashed onto the side windows and the boat rocks gently side to side. I quickly drift off into a slumber – I’ve never been much of a sea person – zzzzzzzzzzzz…
After a 45-minute power nap, my partner tugs at my arm and wakes me as Atauro Island comes into sight. To my surprise, it looks extremely different to what I expected up close, with sheer rocky cliff faces disappearing into the low hanging clouds. It looks rugged and rocky. The dragon boat closely hugs the coastline of the island as we slow in speed and the waves ease once again. I feel the excitement increase as we get closer and closer to our destination of Beloi.
The engine reduces in noise, I must say, a welcoming relief and the landscape changes once again from cliffs to beaches, as we cruise towards the long, golden beach of Beloi. It’s lined with various thatched roof structures and colourful wooden boats leaning on their side in the sand at low tide.
We drift slowly into the shallow water, coming to a stop about 30 metres from the beach. A small boat pulls up alongside us and the dozen or so passengers including myself pour into it, clutching our belongings.
With everyone aboard, a guy starts to pull us towards shore with a rope. I remove my shoes and socks in preparation to jump into the ankle deep water and wade the last few metres to shore. We’ve arrived!
We look left and right down the beach and seeing no obvious signs of our accommodation, we sheepishly ask directions to our accommodation – Barry’s Place – from a girl walking on the beach.
It feels very odd to arrive on an island like this and ask directions, wrong somehow, but we do it anyway and she points us up the beach. We excitedly head off, skipping over ropes which are anchoring the boats and passing the thatched roof buildings where, we are told, the regular market is held.
We walk no further than 3 minutes and arrive at Barry’s Place to be greeted by Barry himself. He shows us to our very own thatched roof cabin, the honeymoon suite no less, which like most of the cabins here overlook the ocean and are surrounded by bush.
FYI. It’s not our honeymoon but I’m very happy with the honeymoon suite nevertheless.
I think to myself ‘maybe this is my Pokpok Island?’ Pokpok was an island I would visit regularly while living in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea throughout the past few years.
I have very fond memories of snorkeling, fishing and just generally hanging out and having good times with friends. Want to know more? Check out this video: 12 Must Sees, Bougainville – Papua New Guinea
Dropping off our luggage, we stroll back to the main thatched building that is the dining room where breakfast, lunch and dinner will be served and sit back with a delicious Timorese black coffee.
As an extra bonus, I catch up on the English premiership football scores at the same time, yes, there’s a signal on Atauro Island too, a pleasant surprise. I look at the time, 09:30 am, and I think to myself, 3 hours till lunch… just enough time to wander down the beach, explore and take some photographs.
The next 3 days pretty much follow the same pattern… we have breakfast, we chat with people, we decide how much or how little we would like to do for the day – exploring, snorkeling, fishing, reading, eating, drinking coffee, chatting – and repeat. It’s a low key kind of place which you can’t help but go slow.
We explore by tuk-tuk for which we pay $2 USD per person, we explore in an open-back truck, after a generous offer from someone volunteering on the island, and we explore by foot.
We seek out natural hot springs, browse local co-operatives including Boneca de Atauro and Empreza Diak, wander around some of the small nearby villages, we swim, we snorkel, we read, we chat, we eat 3 meals a day and we drink many more coffees.
It’s quite the blissful existence for a few days and a world apart from the contrasting Capital of Dili, just a short hop away.
After 3 days and our departure date from Atauro Island looming, the pre booked Compass Charter boat arrives for our trip back to Dili. It’s $45 USD per person one-way. However, our trip to Atauro Island wasn’t finished quite yet and there’s time for a grand finale…
A large pod of dolphins approaches the boat on our way back, at least a dozen visible at times, who play in the wake of our boat for 30 minutes or more.
It was magical and I could have stayed out there and watched them for hours. Lying on our fronts at the bow, we say goodbye to Atauro Island (for now), with Dili approaching in the near distance and dolphins playing just feet from us, surely there’s no better way to end our first visit to Atauro Island?
Would you like to see more? A video of our first trip to Atauro Island in Timor Leste here can be watched right here: Atauro Island, Timor Leste
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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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