The guides with tourists from Rotary at the top of Gruta Morutau. Photo by Dave Carlos.
Visitors to Balibó can now add hiking and cycling to their itinerary, thanks to the local tour cooperative, Balibo Trails. The manager, Egidio “Gido” Da Purificacao Soares, and his guides are all Balibó locals, who offer fully guided walking, hiking and cycling tours in and around Balibó. Mountain bikes are also available for hire for self-guided tours.
Balibo Trails is the first formal tour office to be opened outside of Dili. Gido – who is President of the Timor-Leste Tourism Operators Association – explains: ‘When the tourists come and they stay at Balibó, the local guides will show them where they can go and what they can see.’
A 75 minute guided walk of Balibó village introduces visitors to its history and culture as well as the present way of life. Many visitors may be familiar with Balibó’s history, in particular the events of 1975 in which five Australian journalists were killed by invading Indonesian forces. The Flag House, on the wall of which the journalists painted an Australian flag in the hope that it would offer them protection, has for some years operated as both a memorial to the Balibó Five and a community centre for local East Timorese.
Further afield, the Gruta Morutau walk takes visitors into the mountains north of Balibó, passing the Stations of the Cross as they climb, and ending with magnificent views into Atambua in Indonesia. Just a bike ride away is the village of Leohitu, with some amazing seasonal waterfalls and a fish hatchery; and, for those looking for a longer hike, the 13km walk to Batugade, on the ocean, is downhill all the way. The best time to walk to Batugade is the early morning, and Balibo Trails can arrange a picnic breakfast to help you on your way.
Mountain bikes are also available to hire for self-guided touring, or guides can be engaged to lead cycle tours of the area and point out cultural, natural and historic highlights. The district is home to many limestone caves, some of which provided refuge during the Indonesian occupation, and the mountains around Balibó provide wonderful vistas and beautiful viewing points for sunrise and sunset.
Balibo Trails started out as Balibo Walking Trails, with the help of a ‘Friendship Grant’ from DFAT, secured by the Balibó House Trust in 2019. Balibo Walking Trails partnered with Dili-based tour company Timor Adventures to train the guides. Now, thanks to a grant from the Victorian Government, the walking and hiking venture has been extended to include mountain bikes.
The Balibó Fort Hotel, stunningly set in the converted 300-year-old Portuguese Fort, is the perfect place to stay when visiting Balibó. It offers superior accommodation and dining, while also supporting economic opportunity for the people of Balibó. The hotel directly employs and trains 20 local people, and its proceeds support local initiatives such as the Balibó Community Learning Centre and a dental clinic.
The opening of Balibo Trails brings further opportunities for the people of Balibó. ‘Having a hotel is good, but you can generate more work by having activities for people to do,’ says Timor Adventures owner and director Dave Carlos. The 10 tour guides are locally trained in all aspects of tourism and first aid and attend English classes. With the addition of mountain bikes to the venture, the guides have been trained in bike maintenance and repair by a Dili bike mechanic.
Development of the Balibó Fort Hotel and Balibo Trails was supported by NGO, the Balibó House Trust. The Trust works to honour the memories of the Balibó Five journalists by enriching the lives and livelihoods of the Balibó community. Chair of the Trust, Rob Hudson, sees advantages for both tourists and locals. ‘Balibo Trails is a welcome addition for visitors to Balibó. At the same time, it will support employment, training and economic opportunity for the people of Balibó,’ he says.
During this difficult time of COVID-19, there has never been a better time for Dili locals and expats to visit Balibó. The Hotel remains open, seven days a week, and the Balibo Trails guides, and their local community, will benefit greatly from your visit.
For bookings and more information:
Balibo Trails is located next door to the Balibó Community Learning Centre