Snorkelling The Reefs of Atauro Island, Timor Leste
The sea snake leads us on a merry underwater dance, both as it glides sinuously through the open water and as it winds itself around and through the coral. Our twins have never seen one before and are riveted, hanging in the water over it, following the blue and white striped serpent as it slithers and swims along. Like everyone and everything on Atauro Island, this sea snake is in no hurry.
Our daily snorkelling trips to the vast coral gardens off Beloi Beach, Atauro Island, each brought their own colourful delights; bright green, purple and pink giant clams, swathes of irridescent fishy friends and incredible diversity in the textures and colours of the corals, soft and hard. The fringing reefs were cabbages, antlers, massive boulders and bunches of softly coloured flowers, brought to life by the sunshine above.
But that sea snake is what we keep coming back to as we remember – with great fondness and excitement still – our very happy days at Barry’s Place.
Why visit Timor Leste? I hear you warble
Well, Timor Leste is a destination that not many people visit, but one that needs the tourist dollar more than most. This tiny and very new country of just 1.3 million souls is one of Australia’s closest neighbours, and one of the poorest countries in the world. That’s just not right.
My husband and I knew a fair bit about the history of Timor Leste, its colonisation by Portugal, then by Indonesia. In 1991 we’d seen the footage smuggled out of Dili showing the brutal massacre at the Santa Cruz cemetery. We’d seen the film ‘Balibo” and read the book too. We’d read Kim McGrath’s ‘Crossing The Line: Australian’s Secret History in the Timor Sea.’ My husband had worked in the oil and gas industry for many years and knew all too well how rapacious were Australia’s negotiations over the division of the oil and gas drilling rights in the Timor Sea.
Australia had basically screwed over this young nation, before being called to account, and we were not happy about it. It was time to make some economic reparations in our own small way, time to support this youthful country. Oh we are such good citizens of the world, are we not?
But I cannot lie… the fabulous coral reefs of Timor Leste were a real drawcard. The fabulous snorkelling we had read about had a lot to do with our long-held dreams of Dili and beyond.
So we decided to put all those years of reading books and watching films to good use. On a bright and sunny Darwin morning, myself, my husband Paul and our 13-year-old boy/girl twins boarded a flight to Dili.
The journey was short, less than one and a half hours, on our Air North flight. We stayed just one night in Dili, then hopped on a speedboat to Atauro Island.
Atauro Island lies 24km north of Dili. Although the island is 23km long and 9km wide, there is only 12km of road. The 10,000 islanders are mainly subsistence farmers and fishermen. Nowadays, a small level of employment comes from tourism, funded by the scuba divers and eco-adventurers who make it over to Atauro.
Barry’s Place Eco Lodge
The boat drops us at the jetty in Beloi, the main village on Atauro and then we walk the short distance along the beach from there.
There are only a few places to stay on the island. Some basic homestays, the Beloi Hotel, Atauro Dive Resort and then Barry’s Place, the eco-resort we made our home. Barry is a Queenslander who arrived in Timor Leste as a teacher and has now lived here for over 20 years. The Barry’s Place website is a breath of fresh air compared to every other hotel webpage I have ever perused. It makes a terrific introduction to the simplicity and generosity of spirit that guests rejoice in at Barry’s.
There are no booking buttons on the website, you just need to send Barry a text or give him a call and he’ll let you know if there is room for you. We had called and booked the family cabin with a queen bed upstairs and two single beds downstairs.
The cabins at Barry’s Place Eco Lodge are built traditionally using bamboo and lontar palm. Solar panels provide a bit of light and power for the tiny fans in each cabin. Water is scarce on Atauro so is carefully managed with composting toilets, bucket showers and a greywater system.
Things we loved at Barry’s Place
The other guests
There were so many interesting people staying at Barry’s: teachers from the Northern Territory, Australian storytellers and an American Peace Corps volunteer who spent loads of time talking with our teenagers. We met a teacher who works as a leader for school trips to Timor Leste, volunteers working on a coral reef project and various other off-the-beaten-track travellers.
The communal meals
Breakfast, lunch and dinner are included in the cost of a stay at Barrys Place and all meals are served communally. This means that guests mix and mingle, chatter and natter, play cards and blether and then plan the next day’s snorkelling trips. All whilst eating up the simple but filling meals that are served. NB The cost to stay at Barry’s when we did was USD$45 per person per night.
The deluxe long drop composting toilet – no smell guaranteed – and the bucket showers both worked really well and felt good to use as they are so sustainable. There’s no hot water, but also no need for any.
The books and island information
A plethora of reading material is available and the staff can also add their knowledge. Read quietly and widely and you will gain a real understanding of the island’s story and the challenges it faces in developing for the benefit of its inhabitants.
This was the best thing of all. We snorkelled every day from the beach just off Barry’s Place.
Snorkelling on Atauro Island
There are great swathes of fringing coral reef just offshore from Barry’s Place. Acres of it.
To get there, just ask the staff at Barry’s to arrange a boat. Grab a mask, snorkel and fins and you’re good to go. We usually shared a boat with one or two other guests, motoring out to a pristine patch of coral and leaping right in.
It cost USD $5 per person for the boat trip and USD $3 to hire the snorkelling gear from Barry. There’s also a USD $2 reef tax which supports the local community. Yes, it’s an absolute bargain.
The seas around Atauro Island are the most biodiverse in the world – it’s official. In 2016, a series of surveys by Conservation International confirmed that there are more species of fish to be found around Atauro than in any other place on the planet. At one site, 314 species of fish were spotted (you’d need to know what you were looking for!)
And so off we go for our daily snorkel. With the palm-edged beach around Beloi and Mount Manukoko providing the backdrop, the sea shimmers an intense turquoise and we get our gear on quick smart.
Most of the areas we snorkel are very shallow, but today we drop into deeper water and duck dive down to have a look at what is below. Huge tabletops of coral shimmer green, as the sunlight is stripped of red this deep. We fin hard to get down and check out the stripy blue and white fish, the shoal darts away as we near, finding shelter in the coral.
Today, like most days, we do not see any large fish. The reef has been significantly overfished in the past, however it is now managed by the locals as a marine reserve and the return of larger fish is hoped for.
As we snorkel into shallower water we see two large giant clams, each at least half a metre long. The twins duck down to wave their fingers, causing the clams to retract their fleshy mantles and filter siphons. I tick them off, explaining that we do not encourage mollusc harassment in our family.
Other Things To Do on Atauro Island
Our family snorkelled every day we were at Barry’s, and we could easily have snorkelled twice. However our cabin had a hammock which demanded attention and there was a whole lot of reading to get on with.
There isn’t much to do on Atauro, which is exactly why I will be back there soon. Doing not much beyond snorkelling, reading and chattering is so very, very enjoyable.
My husband did join two young people and a local guide to walk and climb to the top of Mount Manukoko, which towers at 963m. This hike involves a very early start in the morning and a lot of hard walking and scrambling up and down steep slopes. The views from the top are great though, he reports. And you can lie prone for the rest of the day, maybe with one slow snorkel to stretch out the aching muscles.
We also did a little expedition to Boneca de Ataúro, a women’s co-op which produces handicrafts including bags, toys and their famous dolls. We went by local tuk-tuk and visited the women and their spinning, speeding sewing machines.
Then we repaired across the dusty road to eat handmade pasta and pizza at Manukoko Rek which is also part of the co-op. An Italian priest taught the locals to cook genuine Italian food and it really is terrific. You do need to order ahead which Barry was happy to help us with the day before.
In Beloi, we wandered around the weekly market and took an evening walk up to the bar at the Beloi Hotel, which has wonderful views back over to the mainland. It is possible to do much longer walks on the island too, but we were far too
Since returning from Timor Leste, I do not think there’s been one day when, frankly, I wouldn’t rather have been over at Barry’s, putting that hammock through its paces, visiting the sea snakes and the giant clams and the coral reefs and the fish, sitting and chatting with others who found themselves happily marooned in this hideaway haven of relaxation… oh how I miss that.
Farwell to Atauro In Style
Our trip to Atauro Island ends in thrilling style. Barry takes a call from a missionary flying service, asking if any guests would like to fly back to Dili the next day at the same cost as the boat, just US$40 each.
We jump at the chance and arrive next day at the dusty and alarmingly short grass airstrip. With many thanks, we wave our goodbyes and hop on board to meet our youthful Swiss pilot. The tiny aircraft rises rapidly – always good – and we spend 20 exhilarating minutes crossing the azure seas back to Dili. Mr13 sits beside the pilot, there’s a memory that he will never forget.
Ah, take me back. We stayed on the island for five nights and, on any given day, we would be more than happy to pack our bags and head to Atauro to stay at least five more. Life at Barry’s is simple and sociable, scenic too, the sunrises and sunsets are simply divine.
Someday, we’ll be back at Barry’s Place, lazing in those hammocks with a cup of tea. But as soon as the call comes that the boat is ready for the snorkellers, watch us leap out of our hammocks, hop in the boat and then jump into the sea joyfully to explore the reef, its corals and teeming sea life once again. With no mollusc harassment, kids take note!
Here’s a little video I made – just two minutes – enjoy!
Atauro Island More Reading
Divers can find terrific info and images about scuba diving around Atauro Island on the website Indopacificimages here.
Does a bit of snorkelling from Atauro Island appeal to you?
If you’d like to know any more, please do ask a question in the comments.