Mount Ramelau - The climb that almost broke me!


I stayed in Maubisse the night before with intention to climb the mountain in the afternoon, photograph the sunset, camp near the summit overnight and then wake up for the sunrise and make my way down.

Everything went pear shaped from the point of leaving Maubisse to find Hato Bulico, the starting point for the climb.

From what I had read online the drive was about 20 minutes to the turn off to Hato Bulico. I missed the turn off and with some poor directions from a local wound up near Ainaro. After stopping to ask the local police for directions, whom spoke next to no English, the equivalent to my Tetum levels, they had informed me that I was in fact in Hato Bulico. I thought I had successfully stumbled onto the town…how wrong I was.

My next step was to find a guide to take me to the summit. Upon entering the town square I found a group of around a hundred of men huddled around a straw hut playing a game that resembled roulette. After watching a few rounds, and copping some encouraging cat calls from the men I decided to have a whirl. I blew $10, but in those parts $10 is about two days wages. The men encouraged me to keep playing but I slowly slid to the rear of the pack and watch on with the intention of finding someone who spoke English.

I eventually got chatting to a man who said I needed the priests blessing before climbing the holy mountain Tatamailau, the local name for Mount Ramelau. He pointed to a little cinderblock building at the other end of the town. I made my way over and sat a respectful distance away and watch the sermon.

After staking out the church for an hour, Sunday service ended and a gentleman approached me, he was a teacher in the local school. We got to chatting and I explained my plan. He said it was very hard, that I couldn't do it alone and that a guide was needed.

While chatting outside the church the whole congregation came past and shook my hand. I was swamped with kids kissing my hand and placing it to their foreheads, old man saluting me and old ladies giggling as they shook my hand. It was a moving experience.

The teacher passed me onto another man who told me to wait one hour by the church and he would send a guide. Being a Sunday it seemed no one wanted to guide me up. Little did I know I wasn't at the foot of the mountain...

Two boys approached me in time, one spoke very good English, he introduced himself as Leo. Leo was 20 years old and studied English in Dili. He said he and his friend would guide me up. I explained my intentions to him of staying overnight on the top, he seemed to understand. I asked how much for them to guide me, Leo said $50 each, I laughed and said $20 each to which they quickly agreed. They disappeared into the village to get their things for the ascent and camp out. The other boy returned in a pair of thongs, a hoodie and a pair of shorts with a backpack. Leo was at least wearing runners and long pants.

We made our way back to the car which I'd left on the main road by the police station, the boys seemed joyed passing everyone exclaiming what seemed like "we're taking the white guy up the mountain!" Once we got to the car I asked how far the drive was to the start point, Leo said 5 hours to the top. I pulled out a map and pointed at Hato Bulico, Maubisse and Dili. I think it was the first time either of the boys had seen a map like that. Leo had no idea what was what on the map and said to drive back toward Mabuisse. With some back and forth I got confused as to a 5 hour drive to the start point or a two hour drive plus the climb?

We hit the road and I retraced the hour long route I had taken three hours earlier almost back into Maubisse. The only markings or sign to point out the road toward Hato Bulico was a mountain and mother Mary mural on the rock wall next to the road that resembled a driveway. Turns out everything I had read was correct, it was only 14min from Maubisse to the turn off…I had driven just shy of an hour from Maubisse.

Leo said to be careful and the road was two ways, though was barely wide enough for my Toyota Land Cruiser alone. We crept along the pot hole laden dirt road for over an hour. Around hairpin bends with steep cliffs either side, through vibrant farming villages of thatched huts perched on the hillside, past kids screaming "Melai" (meaning foreigner) and the warm smiles and waves from the locals. We finally limped into the town of Hato Bulico at the foot of Mount Ramelau. 

I chuckled to myself at the thought of the police five hours earlier saying 'yeah mate, this is Hato Bulico' knowing this stupid, solo foreigner was two hours drive away from his intended destination.

With a quick pit stop for the boys to grab some food we made our way up to the start point where we were stopped by an elderly man with a battered old book and some sticks forming a roadblock. Leo done his best to explain who I was and what I wanted to do but the old man said we couldn't sleep on the mountain overnight and if we tried he'd call the police and priest. Point taken!

I changed my plan of attack. Leo said the climb would take three hours, sunrise being 6am, we would need to step off by 3am at the latest but I wanted to make the summit before first light to shoot some astro. The decision was made to wake up at 2am and start by 2.30am.

I had my heart set on climbing for the sunset at the top, but not wanting to disrespect any traditions I opted to shoot a time lapse of the mountain from down below. The old man with the book kept a close eye on me the whole time I was alone. I’m not sure if he was expecting me to dash off into the bushes and attempt the climb solo or what? We cooked our dinner of two minute noodles on an open fire before going to sleep for a few hours. The boys in the car and me in the swag next to the car.

The alarm went off at 2:00am, we grabbed our things and stepped off at 2:30am I was carrying 9kg of camera gear, 2 litres of water, an apple, peanuts, and a jumper. I was wearing a pair long hiking pants over a pair of thermal leggings, a long sleeve shirt with a thermal underneath, beanie, head torch and gloves. I had a thin blanket I purchased in Afghanistan tucked under my shoulder strap. Leos offsider was still in his tongs but had a blanket wrapped around him. 

5 minutes into the ascent I was already feeling the hurt. The boys seemed to glide up the rocky dirt track with me and my torch lagging behind. There wasn't a sound on the mountain, just the thumping of my heart in my chest and the gasps for air coming from my lungs.
Blackness surrounded us, there was no moon that morning with my $5 Kmart torch being the only thing keeping us on track. 

10 minutes of walking and no more than a 5 minute break was my rule to push myself up the hill. I wasn't encouraged by Leo's remarks of, "very long way to the top, we must keep going before the sun comes." Forty five minutes in and I had stripped off my jumper, beanie, gloves and long sleeve shirt but every time we stopped for a break I found myself freezing cold.

One and a half hours in, a piece of me wanted to turn back and head back to the comfort of my sleeping bag. My legs were shaking, I could hardly breath and the boys kept pushing me along in the darkness with the threat of not making it to the top and missing the sunrise.
The army has deeply instilled in me the respect for time and this was a challenge in itself. Not knowing how far we’d climbed, nor how much longer we had to go and with the reply, ‘Long way to go’ every time I asked how much further. I started to resent the young guy and his amazing ability to traverse the rocky terrain, in near darkness with only a pair of thongs. He seemed to glide effortlessly up the hill, while here I am dragging my ass and camera gear, fighting my own mind for every inch forward over the slippery rocky ground.

As my mind wandered and my inner demons started to take over, I caught a glimpse of a white figure in my torches peripherals. MOTHER MARY, this was it, we had reached the summit! I am not a religious man, but at that point, on top of that mountain I was closer to god than the time I visited the Vatican. A few minutes were spent silently thanking god for giving me the strength to survive the climb and taking in the whole atmosphere.

The summit was silent, there was not a sound nor a cloud between us and the heavens. I proceed to get my camera gear out when I looked at my watch and realised it was just after 4:30am…It clicked then that the boys had pushed me to do the climb in two hours, when everything I had read said three. At that point I felt proud, a feeling of relief swept over me.

Words cannot describe the number of stars there were in the sky nor how cold it was on the summit. I took a few photos before a wave of fatigue swept over me. I done the math, the sun was just over an hour from coming up. I curled into a ball in the dirt off to the side of the summit, wrapped myself in the Afghan blanket and shivered myself in and out of sleep for an hour.

The sun broke the horizon at 6:03am and quickly turned the darkened shadows below us into valleys and mountains. The view was incredible. We could see all the way out to Dili and Autaro Island but a thick blanket of cloud blocked our view of the south coast.

We spend half an hour on the summit once the sun broke before making our way back down. The decent only took us an hour and a half. After getting back to the car, I looked back at the mountain and a rush of emotion came over me. The boys had pushed me so hard we’d climbed the mountain an hour faster than the average person. I had conquered East Timor’s tallest mountain and walked one of its holiest pilgrimages.

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