Posted by: rlearmonth | October 31, 2008

Climbing Ramelau

At 3,000 meters, Mount Ramelau is the highest peak on Timor island. At the end of September, I was among a group of six friends making the climb to the top. Ramelau is about in the middle of East Timor, probably in the neighborhood of 70 kilometers “as the crow flies” from Dili, the capital. By winding, bumpy road, it takes all day to cover the distance. We decided to make a long weekend of it.

We left Dili around noon on Friday, arriving at a small village called Hatu Buluico by dark. Hatu Buluico lies at the base of the mountain, a pretty little village with only one place to stay, a small, rambling hostel haphazardly built on a hillside above a scenic valley of small farms and vegetable gardens. The hostel is only open when guests arrive, and we had made arrangements to stay there with the owner before we left Dili. We were served basic fare for dinner, and split up into various small rooms, each furnished with a couple of small single beds – a blanket but no sheets. None of us slept much.

At three-thirty in the morning, we got up and loaded the two vehicles for a short drive to a meadow at the trail head. The “road” to the meadow was a considerable challenge – we got out of the vehicles  and walked around a washed-out section, leaving our two volunteer drivers to negotiate the spot without passengers. Our goal was to be on the summit by sunrise. Fortuitously, we had hired two guides we met in Hatu Buluico – without them we would have had a very tough time keeping the trail in the darkness. Even with the guides, I occasionally went off the trail and had to retrace my steps. After about an hour climbing, the crescent moon rose in the eastern sky, a bright orange sliver – the end of Ramadan. The stars were so numerous and bright that individual constellations were hard to pick out from among the millions of other stars and planets.

Near the top, we hiked through an area of small scrubby trees scattered around, and tough coarse grass on the ground. The temperature had been dropping as we climbed, although I didn’t notice while we were actually climbing because of the exercise. But in the shadows, the coarse grass was covered by frost, an improbable sight in the tropics. I had to touch the frost to be convinced.

We got to the top at 6:30, just as the sun was rising over the mountains to the east. The views on all sides were breathtaking. Except for some haziness on the coasts, we would have been able to see the ocean on both the north and south coasts. There was a breeze, which cut straight through the light fleece I had brought. It had been hard to convince myself that I would need even that when I packed my backpack for the trip. 

We stayed on the top for about an hour, until we were all thoroughly frozen, before starting the climb down to the vehicles. It took only two hours to return to the warmth of the meadow. By mid-morning, we were on our way to Maubisse, a town in the center of the country, where we had made arrangements to stay in the Pousada, a slightly seedy but grand old mansion that had been the home of the Portuguese governor of the district. It is situated on a hill overlooking the village, and it’s not hard to imagine the Portuguese governors strolling around the perimeter of the gardens, surveying their domain below. The Pousada only has running water in the evening, when the power comes on. So after showers and a couple of bottles of decent wine we had brought along, we had a very nice family-style dinner in the dining room. Afterwards, we lounged around on the grounds looking at the stars. My friend Kim had the foresight to bring his laptop, and we accessed Stellarium, the software showing the night sky, to identify the visible stars and planets. We spent Saturday resting, meandering around Maubisse and nursing blisters and sore muscles, and drove back to Dili Sunday morning. It was a memorable trip.

As I write this, it is the beginning of the rainy season, and Ramelau will not be disturbed by humans for the next several months.

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