The photo above is just one of the hundreds of dolphins we passed on the way to Atauro from Dili.
The island of Atauro is less than a day's sail north of Dili and a complete contrast. Look past the poverty and the basic facilities and you see happy people. Dirt poor, used to tourists visiting the local resort and not very communicative, the locals generally ignored us unless we persevered. Once engaged though, they were happy to chat, but we were frustrated by our lack of language.
Along the foreshore is a row of thatched huts — just a roof with no walls — and tables everywhere. It looks like a huge outdoor restaurant or picnic area, but there are no other facilities at all; no BBQs, bars, kitchens or anything. Lesley was fascinated with the simplicity of the tables: just four legs, some just sticks, some posts; and a top sitting on the legs and not attached in any way, but remarkably sturdy despite their minimalist construction.
Further along the beach is a resort enclosed by sturdy concrete walls with seriously dangerous quantities of broken glass on top. Even a sparrow would think twice before landing there. It bristled with hostility but we discovered later that we would have been welcome to drop by.
A couple of broad dusty streets parallel the shoreline and define the village of Beloi. A property boom has somehow encouraged everyone to replace their huts and lean-to's with cement block cottages. The boom started two years ago and because everyone helps everyone else on their housing project, every house is at the same construction phase — walls up, roof on, no windows — almost lockup stage, but there are no doors and probably never will be, so it will never actually be locked.
We wandered the streets for a while, found the local market stalls with a good range of basic foods and products, the craft shop with it's weavings, carvings and attractive unglazed clay pottery, and finally stumbled across Lina. Now Lina immediately stood out from all the locals we'd met so far because he spoke good confident English, while we were trying to get by on our five words of Tetun (Lei: no, Si: yes, Obligado: thanks, Eida: one, Rua: two) there are only so many conversations you can have with those five words and we were hanging out for a decent conversation with a local.
Lina owns a restaurant: basically a thatched hut with three walls. We enquired about some food and he looked concerned: 'Come back in five hours and I will have a feast' he said. 'Or maybe half an hour?' he added after we looked crestfallen.
'An omelette and some vegetables?' I suggested.
'With eggplant and rice!' he added.
With that he disappeared behind the restaurant and we made ourselves comfortable, nevertheless wondering whether we'd ever see him again. A rooster wandered past, a small dog walked quietly into the restaurant, stared me in the eye and put her paws on my knee, and the shadows lengthened. True to his word Lina was back in half an hour with a simple but tasty meal for us. Just as we were finishing another customer arrived and we introduced ourselves. Steven is Dutch and a serious traveller living on a seriously constrained budget. He asked Lino about the menu and like us was told 'Come back in five hours and I will have a feast. Or maybe half an hour?'
'Chicken in half an hour' said Steven, who obviously knew the patter.
We made our way back to Anjea with a rapidly cooling glow in the sky above the mountains and the last evening light retreating from the bay.
Next day we tried to raise the anchor but it was stuck fast. We tried diving to see what the problem was but neither of us could get down deep enough to see. We were anchored on a slope with the anchor at 25m and the boat hanging back over 40m. That's a deep anchorage for us. We do not normally anchor in water so deep but being unfamiliar with the anchorage, that was the best we could find at the time.
After trying for an hour or so we decided to ask Lina if he knew of any scuba operators. If we could hire some dive gear we'd be able to get down there to see what was happening. Lina directed me to Martin at the Atauro Dive Resort.
Next morning the rows of huts on the foreshore were full of people, fruit, fish and everything else — it was a market! I picked up Martin and Lucas from the resort and they untangled our chain from a coral head and waited in the water while we slowly retrieved the anchor.
The coral at Atauro is probably the healthiest I have ever seen. It is spectacular in its color, variety and vibrance. There are plenty of fish but mostly small ones. Martin confirmed that the big fish stay deep. The drop off the edge of the reef goes down a long, long way — 1000m not far from the edge of the reef.
We were very tempted to stay and dive with Atauro Dive Resort but I still was unable to equalize properly after a recent cold and we were reluctant to delay our trip, so we reluctantly departed as soon as we had the anchor up. If you are looking for some great diving you would be hard-pressed to find a better operator.