Just to get to a place for holiday that not everyone else is going to or has been to, we decided to go to Timor Leste for 10 days over the Chinese New Year break for some diving and looking around for humanitarian volunteer opportunities. The aid work was definitely available everywhere but the diving was also much better than I should have expected.
First finances, because Dili is not a cheap place to visit. Direct flights for two on AustAsia were US$1,714. It is possible to go cheaper via Bali or possibly Jakarta but speed was important to us. If not, we would have taken a budget airline to Bali, domestic flight to Kupang and a 10 hour bus ride to Dili and saved something like 60%.
We stayed at Dive Timor Lorosae because we were diving with them. For the convenience and facilities, it was well worth the minor increase in cost over the backpacker type accommodations we were finding. Basic but comfortable apartments were US$25/night/person. No matter where we looked for food (although we didn’t look extremely hard), it seemed the best place for reasonable and safe food was also at the Castaway Bar, just above the dive centre. If you are lazy or in holiday mode like us, this is ideal. Main courses (and we never needed more than that) were about US$8-12 but Tiger beer was only US$2.50 a bottle.
Dive shop, We dived with Dive Timor Lorosae (DTL) based on a friend’s recommendation and I was very happy we did. There only seem to be two dive shops in town and the other one didn’t seem to be very active at all. DTL responded to all e-mails (actually Facebook messages) promptly and they were very helpful with pre-trip planning. The shop is Aussie owned but I don’t think much if anything gets taken out of the country in profits. It is managed by a British instructor, Marianne Woodward, and it is definitely a professionally run outfit. She was always helpful in taking care of needs and questions as well as suggesting other things to do and see in the country. All the dives we did were with a Will, a new DM but he was equally good and professional. I’ve dived with several zero-to-hero DM’s before who struggled with basic skills but that does not describe Will. He was great looking out for the customers, a good critter spotter and we always felt safe and comfortable with him around. Sadly, he’ll likely move on before anyone else from the forum gets there.
Dive conditions, Almost all our dives were beach dives and don’t underestimate the difference if you only have been diving from jetties or boats before. Despite the small waves, it took us the whole trip before we got very comfortable getting in and out of the water because of the slimy / rocky stuff you climb over at water’s edge. Maybe you younger folk will have better luck but with many hundred boat dives, I still didn’t feel right until the fins were on at two meters. Normally, you only do two dives a day but I am sure you could do more if you really wanted to. We also did two boat dives at the Pinnacles, about 15 minutes from shore, and two at Atauro Island, about an hour and 15 minutes across the sea. The boat was a 10(?) meter, fiberglass hull, dual engine, canvas covered speedboat but sadly, it sank in the harbor only 30 minutes after returning from our last dive!! I swear I didn’t do it. I understand that it has already been re-floated and sent for an overhaul (and, hopefully, a new plug) already.
Dive sites, Our first couple of dives were about 1 and half hours drive east of Dili. The dive sites looked the same to me underwater and were all within about 15 minutes of each other. I would rate the dives we did out there, Lone Tree, Bob’s Rock, K41 and Dirt Track, as better than Tioman / Aur but not by a huge margin. Highlights there were a wide variety of nudibranchs (about different 20 species on the first two dives alone), garden eels, turtles and more species of lion fish than I have seen on dives before too. The sloping coral reefs and 10-15 meter mini-walls looked very healthy and full of marine life. Viz was only 10 meters because of the recent rainy season but this did not cause me problems. I understand from March-November, viz at these sites is normally more than 20 meters. One the third day, we dived at the “local” dive site near a new drain just 15 minutes from town. Expectations were low at Tasi Tolu and Dili Rock but we definitely had an OH MY GOD day. The more I think of what we saw, the more I am convinced it was my best day of diving ever. At least it ties the day when in two dives at the Seven Skies, I saw my first (second and third) whale shark as well as several mantas who stayed with us the whole dives. On our first dive at Tasi Tolu, we managed to find a paddle-flap scorpionfish (my first), 2 weedy scorpionfish (my first), a leaf scorpionfish, lots of adult and 3-5 cm baby (my first) common scorpion fishes, several seahorses, a Halimeda ghost pipefish (my first), an ornate ghost pipefish, a bamboo shark, a frogfish, dozens of harlequin shrimps of all sizes, as well as lots of shrimp gobies, anemone shrimp, banded coral shrimp, nudibranchs, a school of razor fish, and the UML (usual marine life). To top it off, when we surfaced we heard shouts of “look down”. Cool! A dugong (my first), was two meters below me given me the once over. Life does not get better than that. All this in a dive site the size of a badminton court too. “Wow!” is the only thing I could say for the next hour. At nearby Dili Rock, the site appeared to have similar inhabitants but spread out over a wider area. We didn’t see any of the Rhinopias there but more banded pipefish and ornate ghost pipefish made up for it.
On a later night dive at Tasi Tolu, we saw everything above plus a couple of octopus (one obviously imitating a red crab while trying to escape the light), a clown snake eel (my first), a flat head (my first), cuttlefish, and too many different crabs.
Diving at the Pinnacles was very nice and a good deal better than Tioman / Aur pinnacles. With a minimum depth of about 12 meters, there were again lots of lion fish and nudibranchs, schools of barracuda, lone tunas coming through, jacks and other UML. Voz was 15-20 meters and if you made it all the way around the pinnacle in one dive, you moved much too fast. I didn’t bother going very deep here but I understand the coral is still healthy down to at least 25 – 30 meters where the sandy slope starts.
We also did drift dives at Pulau Atauro. The landscape at Manta Cove and the reef in front of the main town were so stunning, I was slightly disappointed to see only white tip reef shark and one eagle ray. The coral was very healthy and there were good schools of other large fish so I would have thought the dramatic 50 meter, perfectly vertical, walls at Manta Cove would have housed sharks on the sandy ledges but they didn’t. Both dives featured a current slow enough to give you time to enjoy the scenery but fast enough that you never needed to fin. This island is too unexplored to say these sample dives defined it.
At the end of the day, dive costs worked out to be less than I feared. They were US$40 for the local dives, US$45 for 2 east coast dives, US$55 for the boat dives and US$165 for two dives at Atauro. Night dives are an additional $15 on top of that. At the time I was there, they also had a special deal where you paid US$300 but got US$400 worth of credit. Instructors also got two free local dives but I can not confirm how long either deal will last. Between my wife and I, with a good variety of dives we did and the discounts, we averaged US$40 per dive which is about 20% less than in the Caribbean.
A simple lunch is included on all but the local dives. In summary, I would give an enthusiastic two (or maybe three) thumbs up for the trip to Dili. With flights, food, accommodations and diving, it isn’t cheap but it was worth it. Most of our dives only included one or two other customers, a DM and a DMT. In fact, there may not have been other divers in the water anywhere else within 100 miles of us. How is that for “off the beaten path”?
Finally some random thoughts: * Ignore embassy warnings about Timor Leste. It is safe. * Taxis cost US$2 to go anywhere in town. Air-conditioning is extra. * I understand that it may be possible to get better flight / hotel / dive deals with Island Explorer Holidays. I am not so sure though as their website only has very old and more expensive deals on it. * Take a day off to go to the mountains if your dive schedule allows. The trip to Maubese was priceless. Eco-Discovery in Landmark Plaza was expensive but worth it. Louis was a perfect guide / driver and US$200 gets you a very nice 4 wheel drive and the guide for up to 4 people. * Maybe 80% of the northern coast, Atauro and Jacko island in the east are unexplored. Maybe only 1% of the shoreline ever sees a diver in an average month. Opportunities here are endless.
Posted on a Fins blog site by Zippy http://finsonline.com/forum/showthread.php?p=78821 Check out the last few blog post for pictures doing their stay