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Amazon of the Seas beckons travellers

The small beach facing the deep blue Banda Sea in Baucau in North East Timor Leste is arguably one of the most unspoilt beaches in Asia.

Its vernacular name ‘Imia-Mata Bundura’ means ‘powdery white sand beach,’ delivers what it promises, with. Crystal clear waters, thriving coral beds kissing the shoreline, awe-inspiring views and star-saturated night skies.

For intrepid travellers on the lookout for a path less trodden, Timor Leste may be the next big fix. As the country returns to peace after decades of violence and destruction and builds its economy, the Government is hoping its unspoilt beaches like Imia-Mata Bundura, natural beauty, abundant marine life and great diving and hiking spots would boost tourism.

Coral Triangle

Located between Indonesia and Australia, Timor Leste is part of the Coral Triangle (including tropical marine waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and Solomon Islands) that contains hundreds of species of reef building corals.

The sheer diversity of marine life in the region has earned it the nickname, ‘Amazon of the Seas.’ For this reason, Atauro and Jaco Islands are fast becoming popular with divers looking for exotic locales.

“Just recently, we had three adult blue whales coming through the lagoon. Nowhere else in the world you can see them this close to the shore,” Kevin Austin, Chief Executive of Sustainable Marine Industry Development Facility said.

His organisation runs Baucau Beaches, a tourism project, to help the impoverished local community with high unemployment.

“Most of the time, we spot green turtles, sharks, reef sharks, and occasionally manta rays,” he told me and other visiting media persons.

The War years

That aside, the World War II era Japanese bomb shelters in Venilale, Lekirika Mana stalactites/stalagmites cave system high in the Eastern tropical forests and remnants of the centuries of Portuguese colonial rule add just a dash of history to what, for us, was quite an adventurous voyage into the unspoilt unknowns.

We were told that Lekirika Mana cave was used as a shelter by rebel forces hiding from the Indonesian military during the latter’s brutal occupation of Timor Leste soon after the Portuguese left in 1975.

The occupation continued until the country’s self-determination in 1999, followed by UN administration until December 2012.

In Dili, the State Capital, the Jesus Statue (Cristorae), located atop Cape Fatucama on the Eastern tip, Cathedral of Immaculate Conception and the Presidential Palace are popular with domestic and international visitors.

Protected area

About eight kms West of Dili lies the Tasitolu Wetlands, a protected area comprising three salt lakes, an esplanade, and a beach.

The area was designated Tasitolu Peace Park in 2002 due of its cultural and historical significance. Tasitolu is notorious as the site where Indonesian soldiers allegedly killed and dumped many young rebels during the country’s bloody independence struggle.

Nearby is Pope John Paul II monument that commemorates the pontiff’s visit to the country in 1989, during the Indonesian occupation. The catholic country of 1.2 million proud, friendly people comprises the eastern half of the island of Timor the nearby islands of Atauro and Jaco, and Oecusse, an exclave on the North-Western side of the island within Indonesian West Timor. The two halves were occupied by the Dutch and the Portuguese respectively, the Dutch half now with Indonesia.

Painful path

Timor Leste has embarked on a slow and painful path to progress, thanks to money from its oil and natural gas bounty. But it is proving to be a long and arduous journey.

In its efforts to attract tourists, Timor Leste will not emulate Bali with its night clubs, neon signs and unchecked urban sprawl. Instead, the focus will be on sustainable eco-tourism with particular regard for the fragile environment, the country’s tourism minister said. One can only hope so.

Rajesh Kumar is a travelling journalist. He was in Timor Leste recently. A journalist by qualification and profession, Rajesh has been writing for Indian Newslink since the past eight years. He currently lives in Singapore.

Photos courtesy: Wong Pei Ting

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