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Atauro Island

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78

Atauro Island
Enticingly close to Dili, Atauro Island’s siren song can especially be heard when the capital
seems just too steamy, dirty and loud.
The 140-sq-km island, which can be reached by ferry or fishing boat, stretches about 25km
north to south and is very thinly populated by 8000 people who mostly live in two villages
on the island’s east side, where the only road is. Life here is hard and even in good times
there’s just enough food to go around. But the flip side is that the isolation has also kept
many of East Timor’s tensions of the last decade away. The atmosphere is very relaxed and,
although it’s clear everyone is poor, they don’t seem desperately so.
There are two small and delightful places to stay on Atauro. At either you’ll have time
to do virtually nothing while you work up the energy for some amazing diving, remote
trekking or intensive reading.
The land is not densely wooded, large areas are arid and there’s little water. People get
by with wells, and electricity is only found in the two main towns, Vila and Beloi, and then
only for a few hours.
If you like a place where the water is so clear you can see the fish as you arrive, where
you can stay in a simple, thatched beachside hut and where your day’s activities are simply
up to you, then you’ll love Atauro, where days can turn into weeks.
Atauro is directly north of Dili, 30km across the Wetar Strait. Its land is similar to the
adjacent Indonesian islands of Alor to the west and Wetar to the east. The people are from
three clans – the Adade, Humungili and Manroni – and as well as Tetun, they speak three
local dialects.

lonelyplanet.com

HISTORY
Like the rest of East Timor, Atauro’s population is predominantly Christian, but it’s
not 95% Catholic like everywhere else. Here
Protestants outnumber Catholics, and the
animism that always underlies East Timor’s
Christianity is particularly strong. Some villages (like Beloi) are predominantly Protestant,
while others (like Vila) are mainly Catholic. It
was only after WWII that Catholicism first arrived on the island. The large Protestant percentage is an important link to the Christian
regions of Indonesia, where the population
also tends to be Protestant.
The Portuguese used Atauro as a prison
island in the late 16th century, not long after
they first moved into Timor. The location
of the underground prison they constructed
in Vila may be pointed out to visitors, but
there’s nothing to be seen. On 27 August...
ATAURO ISLAND
ATAURO ISLAND
lonelyplanet.com ATAURO ISLAND •• History
Enticingly close to Dili, Atauro Island’s siren song can especially be heard when the capital
seems just too steamy, dirty and loud.
The 140-sq-km island, which can be reached by ferry or fishing boat, stretches about 25km
north to south and is very thinly populated by 8000 people who mostly live in two villages
on the island’s east side, where the only road is. Life here is hard and even in good times
there’s just enough food to go around. But the flip side is that the isolation has also kept
many of East Timor’s tensions of the last decade away. The atmosphere is very relaxed and,
although it’s clear everyone is poor, they don’t seem desperately so.
There are two small and delightful places to stay on Atauro. At either you’ll have time
to do virtually nothing while you work up the energy for some amazing diving, remote
trekking or intensive reading.
The land is not densely wooded, large areas are arid and there’s little water. People get
by with wells, and electricity is only found in the two main towns, Vila and Beloi, and then
only for a few hours.
If you like a place where the water is so clear you can see the fish as you arrive, where
you can stay in a simple, thatched beachside hut and where your day’s activities are simply
up to you, then you’ll love Atauro, where days can turn into weeks.
Atauro is directly north of Dili, 30km across the Wetar Strait. Its land is similar to the
adjacent Indonesian islands of Alor to the west and Wetar to the east. The people are from
three clans – the Adade, Humungili and Manroni – and as well as Tetun, they speak three
local dialects.
Atauro Island
HISTORY
Like the rest of East Timor, Atauro’s popu-
lation is predominantly Christian, but it’s
not 95% Catholic like everywhere else. Here
Protestants outnumber Catholics, and the
animism that always underlies East Timor’s
Christianity is particularly strong. Some vil-
lages (like Beloi) are predominantly Protestant,
while others (like Vila) are mainly Catholic. It
was only after WWII that Catholicism first ar-
rived on the island. The large Protestant per-
centage is an important link to the Christian
regions of Indonesia, where the population
also tends to be Protestant.
The Portuguese used Atauro as a prison
island in the late 16th century, not long after
they first moved into Timor. The location
of the underground prison they constructed
in Vila may be pointed out to visitors, but
there’s nothing to be seen. On 27 August
1975, when the UDT versus Fretilin civil war
swept the island, but still more than three
months before the Indonesian invasion, the
Portuguese governor and his administration
fled to Atauro. This was the final chapter of
450 years of Portuguese colonial history. They
were still there when the Indonesians arrived
on 7 December, complete with two modern
corvettes, the João Roby and the Alfonso
Cerqueira, which would probably have been
a match for any of the Indonesian warships.
The next day they slunk off to Darwin. Later
the Indonesians held as many as 3000 prison-
ers on the island between 1981 and 1986.
The 1999 Indonesian violence that devas-
tated the mainland had less effect on Atauro,
although close to the jetty at Beloi a memo-
rial records that Antonio Pacheco, the village
chief, was killed on 22 September 1999. The
people remain conservative here. This is a
place to dress modestly, except maybe when
you’re in the water.
AROUND THE ISLAND
Villages are scattered around the coast with
one village, Anartutu, high on the slopes of Mt
Manucoco. The biggest village is Vila (formerly
known as Maumeta), which has a number of
Portuguese buildings and is the site of the
old Portuguese underground prison. The is-
land’s main market is held here on Fridays.
The streets are shady and make for a good,
mellow stroll.
Beloi has the main jetty on the island, and
from here you can walk to Ekmonu, a spring in
the mountains. There’s fine coral directly off-
shore from Vila and Beloi. The coral reef ex-
tends most of the way down the east coast and
along the northern stretch of the west coast.
Dugongs, turtles and white-tip reef sharks, as
well as a varied assortment of colourful reef
fish and pelagics, are often seen around the
island. It’s not unusual to see dolphins and
pilot whales between Atauro and the main
island of Timor.
South of Vila, the village of Makili is one
of the most creative in East Timor. Wooden
statues are carved here, and the villagers are
also expert basketmakers. Walet birds, the
swifts whose nests are collected for bird’s
nest soup, nest in the cliffs overlooking the
village. There’s a fine white-sand beach at
Lampia near Makili.
Atauro’s mountainous spine runs the entire
length of the island and reaches its highest
point at Mt Manucoco (995m). You can climb
the mountain in about three hours from Vila,
and there are views of both east and west
coasts from the summit. Anartutu, the moun-
tain village, is noted for its traditional weavers.
The villagers also carve wooden bowls, play
ATAURO HIGHLIGHTS
You can visit Atauro as part of a day trip on the weekly Saturday sailing of the ferry Nakroma.
You’ll have about four hours to see the two main towns and walk the beach a bit. But to really
appreciate the place, stay longer so you can enjoy either or both of the two places to stay. The
walks into the hills and along the coast away from Vila and Beloit are rewarding, especially if
done outside the arid afternoons. Suss out your underwater equipment and enjoy time in the
crystal-clear waters. Swimming and dive spots abound, many reachable by chartered fishing boat.
Comforts are few on Atauro, but it rewards the self-sufficient.
W e t a r S t r a i t
Baroana
Akrema
Fatu'u
Adara
Atekru
Makar
Anartutu
Berau
Makili
Vila
Tua Koin
Beloi
Pala
Point
North
To Dili
Dugong Bay
Hood's Reef
Table Top
Frank's Crack
Two Mile Reef
Bruce's Drop Off
Rock
Big Fish
Point
Shark
Cove
Clam
(995m)
Mt Manucoco
ATAURO ISLAND
2 miles0
3 km0
© Lonely Planet Publications
78 79
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