East Timor / Dili – A diving update

After comments made on the Dili Guide post and a rather heavy-handed (and angry, and vaguely threatening) email from Wayne at Free Flow I’ve kind of had my arm bent into putting this post up. Wayne is wanting (nay, demanding) an apology for my comment that Free Flow’s safety measures are (to quote myself) “rather slipshod”.

As Wayne has pointed out to me, Free Flow’s safety record is 100% – they have had no accidents, mishaps, deaths, injuries, lost divers or any such during the time they have been registered and keeping records. There. That’s clear.

The information I was given was from a third party PADI Professional and related to practices at Free Flow. I had no reason to disbelieve what that person told me, and to date I still have no reason. To the best of my knowledge, this individual has and had no axe to grind with Free Flow as an organisation, I had (at the time) made no mention of personally using them and it came up in conversation about diving in general and in East Timor specifically.

However, do bear in mind that I am one person who heard this from one other. While I am a PADI Professional (as Wayne pointed out) and must not defame PADI or other PADI members/organisations, I am also bound to be honest as far as I can be. As such, I reported one concern I had which had – as I stated – come from another PADI Pro (who I will now most certainly not be naming). As such, said individual is also bound by the same rules.

If the information I got was incorrect – and I knew as such – then I would unreservedly and without prompting adjust the original post and issue an apology. People who know me know that I’m stubborn as a mule, but very quick to back down if proved wrong. I am not too proud to apologise or to be corrected.

In this instance, though, I effectively have one person’s word against the other. One I regard as, if not a friend then a passing acquaintance. The other I regard as someone who – perhaps with justification, in fairness – has thrown some weighty messages my way and who I don’t know other than this.

I hope this puts my comments on the safety of Free Flow Divers in Dili, East Timor into some clarity. People, if you’re going to dig out info on a company or individual – do it through more channels than just one blog post.  My original post clearly stated that I had no personal experience with Free Flow and was only passing on something I’ve heard. Their published safety record and current  PADI Dive Resort status should also be brought into the equation when you’re weighing things up.

Even though I don’t really feel I have to do this, but to prove a point that there are many positive comments about Free Flow and Wayne himself out there if you look hard enough, do check out the “People Say The Nicest Things” post on Free Flow’s own blog. Notice that some of the sources listed are somewhat more well-respected and experienced than some guy’s travel blog.

For completeness, in his original comment (I won’t repeat his email on here as it does mention some other matters which I don’t believe are for public reading relating to Free Flow’s business) Wayne also had a go at me for my comments on pricing. Re-reading my original post, the mention of “pricey” was actually against Dive Timor-Larosae, another dive business.

However – and I have edited the post to reflect this – this was badly written on my part. I should have made it clear, or kept the pricing issue separate, as I had intended to emphasise that diving is expensive in East Timor as compared to other regions, such as the Gili Islands, Borneo, Ko Tao and the like.

For this, I do apologise.

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Sorry for the screaming caps, but I wanted to make this one stand out.

Regular readers may recall I mentioned that you can visit the Merpati office in Dili where they’ll book your flight for a $2 booking fee. No money changes hands, you simply take their printout to the airport in Kupang, hand over your cash, get your ticket and hop on the plane.

No. You don’t.

You turn up at the airport where they tell you that your booking is in status “XX” which means “cancelled”. It’s been cancelled because you didn’t pay for the ticket within three hours of making the booking. Or maybe it’s 4 days – the person I spoke to on the phone (after waiting 2 hours) seemed to change her mind partwat through the conversation.

I was told I would have to pay the short notice fare to get on the flight – twice the fee I booked at. I point blank refused and the guy at the counter kept saying “manager” and then failing to get said supervisor.

Eventually the little oik surfaced and proceeded to have a go at me for not following international air regulations (or some such utter crap) by not paying for the ticket within three hours. I pointed out that as I had booked the ticket in Dili and been told I had to pay in Kupang, this was physically impossible. This was Merpati’s fault, not mine, and I refused to pay for their mistake.

Only apparently it was my mistake – he kept repeating – for not following their rules. How, I enquired, could I follow their rules when the ones provided to me by their staff were incorrect? I asked for the rules, I was given some rules, and they were wrong. At what point was this my fault?

At this point he told me that he didn’t care about my problems and I think this is where I lost it and started yelling at him.

This seemed to work, especially as there were other customers around, and he hand wrote my ticket at the price I’d originally booked then tried to shake my hand. I just stared at him and walked off.

Thing is, I know at least one other person still in Dili who booked her ticket at the same time and who may have the same problem. I’m hoping my email to her gets there in time for her to check her booking.

Oh, and the plane was bloody awful as well. Broken seats, creaky overhead compartments, worn fittings, scratched paintwork… you name it. Most routes serviced by Merpati can also be reached by Garuda. If you have the choice, use the latter.

Just avoid Merpati.

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And back to Kupang



There had been a bad crash outside our hostel overnight. At a guess it looks like one 4×4 had been overtaking and gone head-on into another at speed. I’d suspect someone had been at the palm wine. Both cars were being lifted onto a car transporter by a crane when I got up.

Not a lot else to write about the drive to Kupang. Inside East Timor we passed a fuel truck that had gone off the road and rolled down a steep hill. Locals were siphoning out the petrol into plastic bottles – one or two with lit cigarettes in their mouths. Mad.

The journey took around 12 hours despite a burst tyre just past the Indonesian border. Nothing serious, just a very fast flat which the driver changed very quickly.

No smoking, please

No smoking, please

At the Lavalon bar I met Mariella, the Spanish girl who had been at the hostel in Dili. She had arrived the day before by motorcycle and was booked on a ferry to Flores the next morning. I had some nice fries and a decent steak sandwich (far too much onion for my taste) the price of which I justified by not having eaten all day.

There was some confusion at the hostel as none of the staff available spoke English and nobody seemed to be expecting me. Thankfully there was still a dorm bunk free which was all I needed.

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Quick Dili guide

This is my last full day in Dili and I don’t have much to do so I thought I’d rattle off a few of the things I’ve found out and some of the places I’ve been. It’s been a great stay and, allowing for the peace holding out here, I definitely recommend it as a place to visit.

Several times I have been asked who I’m working for here and the response to “nobody – I’m a tourist” is still interesting, and usually incredulous. I don’t think the people here realise what a beautiful country they have. It just needs time and care to become an excellent holiday destination. Right now, it’s ripe for backpacking and not as expensive as has been made out as long as you know where to look.


The cheapest place to stay at $10 for a dorm bunk is the Dili Backpackers. They can be contacted on +670 7238121. As far as I’m aware they have no email address. If you happen to visit the Lavalon Bar in Kupang on your way here, the owner there can send a text message to Rita to let her know you’re after a room. It’s well worth booking in advance as it can fill up. You could then be looking at $40 upwards elsewhere.


There is an ANZ ATM at the Tiger garage down the road from the backpackers which does not charge a fee for withdrawals and accepts foreign ATM cards. It’s the only one I spotted which will take non-East Timorese cards, but it does run dry on occasion as a result.

There’s a Western Union down Albeaqueque – come out of the hostel, turn left and walk past the roundabout. Take the next street down on the right and it’s on the next corner you come to after lots of shops.

Post Office

I found the Post Office this morning, but it was closed – I was told to go back either in two hours or at 2:00. My Portuguese isn’t too good! Katherine used them to send a package home and said the staff were very helpful. To find it, walk east along the main coast road past the Hotel Timor and the government building with the flags all around the courtyard. Just after this, take a right and then your first left. The PO is in the building on the corner – it’s name is in Portuguese but the symbol is of a bull’s horns and eyes. To send a postcard costs 75c.


You’ll need these if you’re getting a visa here. Don’t forget that the Indonesia application requires a photograph with a RED background.

There are two Fuji shops that I found. One just along from the Post Office (see above), one along the road from the Western Union – if you’re heading south to the WU, take a left at that corner. Look for the big circular sign.

$4 will get you the pics within minutes, $2 if you can wait a couple of days.


The backpackers’ rents motorcycles for $25 per day, though I used the Tiger garage as their bikes are apparently better maintained. Also, if something goes wrong (like the burst tyre I had), Tiger will generally fix it for free. I’d assume this isn’t the case if you ram it into a tree, though. They’re also $25 for a fully-fledged motorbike or around 1600cc, or $20 for a smaller automatic scooter. Yes, they also include a good helmet. All you need is the cash and a passport (or a photocopy of one).

Taxis are cheap, but don’t have meters. Generally, the drivers are pretty nice and don’t rip you off. To get to Dili Rock, around 15 minutes to the west of town, was $3. Little Pattaya to the east was $2. There aren’t any motos (flag-downable motorcycles as in Vietnam and Bangkok) as far as I could tell, just cars.

For longer distances, mikrolets seem to be the way to go. I didn’t use one, but they run regularly along major routes and are very cheap as they’re usually crammed full.

Getting in and out of East Timor is either very expensive (currently $230+ for a one-way flight to Denpasar in Bali) or pretty cheap ($20 gets you a bus to Kupang from Timor Travel). Note that if you leave by bus you MUST get an Indonesian visa here first as they don’t issue them on the border.

Timor Travel is not easy to find and it’s on a one-way street which makes it more awkward if you’re getting there by motorbike or taxi. Locate the stadium. You want to drive east along the south end of the stadium until you reach the shops. Look on your right hand side for a SMALL yellow sign, just on one corner, I think the second right. They’re very friendly and helpful and will pick you up from the hostel on the way out of town. The bus leaves their office at 8am and usually gets to the backpackers’ between 8:30am and 9:00am.

Book your flight from Kupang to Denpasar at the Merpati office just outside of town. Head west about 1.5km and there’s a “mall” – basically a restaurant, the airline, and a supermarket. They’ll charge you the exact price of the ticket you see quoted online plus 20,000 Rupiah ($2) booking fee. You don’t pay at the counter, but take your confirmation to the office at the airport in Kupang at least 3 hours before flying, and pay in Rupiah.

Of course, you can also get the ferry from Kupang to Bali, Flores or other islands if you’re continuing your journey that way. They are infrequent and packed to the rafters from what I gather, so don’t expect to travel in comfort.

It is possible to leave East Timor by boat – but very difficult and likely very expensive. Only cargo ships make the trip to Australia and it is very hard to book passage on these. Good luck if you’re trying.


Diving in East Timor is comparatively expensive if you’re used to the prices in Thailand, Borneo and so forth.

There are a few dive shops in Dili, though I dived privately with Andrew Zeelie who’s generally available on weekends and public holidays. He can sometimes swing weekdays, as well. Andy’s by far the cheapest option at $30 per dive, all in. If you do two dives, he even includes a light lunch. As a certified PADI Instructor, he can also put you through any basic courses you’re after.

Andrew can be contacted at andrewz@routelmail.co.za or by phone on 7405266 until May 2010 or thereabouts.

Of the dive shops, Dive Timor Larosae is the one Andrew recommended. If you want to do anything off a boat, they’re worth the effort but do check prices as they vary depending on size of party, day of week, time of year and so on.

One person told me they had an issue with Free Flow and that as such they would not recommend them (but see FF’s comments below, for completeness and both points of view, and the new post that Wayne from Free Flow insisted I put up – I have also reworded the non-bracketed part of this paragraph. Good grief).


The cheapest internet I found was across the road and a little ways east (about 50m) from the hostel. It’s inside a college, but has a huge banner on the outside wall. It’s just before the Sands Motel. $1 per hour (actually 25c per 15 mins or part thereof) for the cheaper machines near the door, more for the ones at the back. Speed varies depending on how many people are there and what way the wind’s blowing, but I found it generally good around 8-10pm when it was quiet. They have a very cold fridge as well and the drinks are reasonably priced. There is a “high speed” place at the Tiger garage, but it’s $6 per hour.

At present, the printer at the cheap place isn’t working. I used Global Net on Rua Jacinto Candido Caicoli who charged me 25c per black and white sheet. Locate the north west corner of the stadium. Head west from here and you’ll see it on your left after about 100m.

Mobile phones

I don’t know about anyone else, but my “3” phone from the UK won’t attach to a network here. I don’t know if it’s the lack of 3G or no compatible network, but it simply can’t find something to connect to.

SIM cards (and indeed phones) can be bought from Timor Telecom shops and topup vouchers from many street traders. The SIM is only around $2, but you need a passport or ID card to purchase and register it. One volunteer told me that he was receiving update messages from the UN (not a bad idea) and thinks it’s as a result of registering the SIM with a foreign passport – Timor Telecom passed his details to the UN who add him to the list to be informed of goings-on.


Where do you eat? Well, what do you want? There’s an Indian across the road and about 50m to your right as you exit the hostel which was very good. A small main with a nan bread and Coke will set you back about $5. The Indian at the front of the hostel apparently isn’t up to much but is fine if you don’t want to walk.

Wilton Bakeshoppe on Rua Jacinto Candido Caicoli (see directions to Global Net above) is excellent. The food’s good, the chap who runs it is super friendly and the prices are low enough. Eat in or take away. Do note that the drinks cost more than any of the food. They also do custom birthday cakes!

There’s another bakery right at the top of Albequeque, which is much nearer the hostel. A lot of other general stores also do pastries and the like and can be a little cheaper though have less variety. A good example is down Rua Colmera where you’ll see a few.

Fancy going western? Tiger Garage has a pizza place at the back with prices from $8. They’re good, too. Or Brothers Hamburger about 200m towards town from the hostel on your right do pretty darn good burgers, wraps, dippers and so on. $3.50 gets you a regular meal, $4.50 for a large. Watch them pour the Coke into your cup from cans out of the fridge! They also do rice and noodles for $2 or so.

There are some lovely restaurants around and the one we went to was Little Pattaya. Head east out of town along the coast. And keep going. There are about four restaurants in a row and Little Pattaya is the third, I think. Sai Gon is the next one. As the name suggests LP specialises in Thai, but it also has Lebanese and traditional western dishes like fish and chips, steaks and the like. The prices look steep, but the portions are very generous indeed, and the quality superb. It’s a beautiful place to sit and eat as the sun goes down. I’m sure the neighbouring eateries are worth a visit also.

I didn’t go there, but the Dili Beach Bar seems to do cheap food deals on occasion. Head out the hostel to the right and past Tiger. Turn right and walk right down to the beach, then left and keep going. $8 eat all you can for pizza and pasta sounds good.

Of course, there are many warung around which sell Indonesian food at very low prices. And there’s a Japanese restaurant called Wasabie about a block closer to town than the hostel. You’re not short of options!


On the whole, I’ve found Dili to both feel and be very safe, even late at night. All this nonsense on government websites about “only visit if strictly necessary” is nonsense right now. However, the UN are set to withdraw in 2012, I believe. That will be a tricky time for East Timor – it could either settle or just blow right up again. Do check for recent news, though. It is a changeable country.

Petty crime is rare, but heard of. One volunteer was the victim of an attempted bag snatch a week or so ago, but this was the first time anyone in her circle had heard of such a thing and some of them have been here for months. As a general rule, as anywhere, always carry shoulder bags with the strap over your head so that it can’t simply be snatched. Keep purses at the bottom of bags, watch your backpacks, keep a hand on your wallet. It’s safer than Thailand or Vietnam as far as I can ascertain, but where there are people there are dishonest people.

If you do see a large political or agitated gathering, steer clear. If you happen to be near the park on a Friday night and hear music – this is not a “gathering” this is a weekly concert. Go and enjoy it! Chances are you’ll end up chatting to some locals who want to improve their English.

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Dili to Baucau: attempt 2

More "wow"

More "wow"

Well, I made it this time. The bike I collected from the Tiger garage was a “proper” motorcycle with gears and a clutch and everything. I’ve never ridden one of these before. After a little fun trying to get the thing moving from a standstill, I got the hang of it and rode off east.

It took me a while to figure out that I should be using the clutch to change gears (it was very forgiving – as long as I wasn’t applying any throttle I could shift up or down), but other than that it wasn’t bad. Far comfier than the scooter from the other day, although numb-bum did set in before I reached Baucau.

The road, as detailed two days ago, is gorgeous. After the point where I had my blow-out on Tuesday it turns further inland and you don’t see the coastline again until you reach Baucau itself. The terrain changes frequently from dusty plains to lush vegetation which often canopies overhead.  There are a lot of twists and turns so good use should be made of the horn to ensure nobody’s taking up the entire road round the next blind corner.

Long, empty beach

Long, empty beach

Overall the road surface is good. Certainly there are B-roads back in the UK which have as many dips and potholes in them. As a hint. watch traffic ahead of you and if it seems to be slowing down then be prepared to do the same.

I’d also recommend long sleeves or good sunblock. Neither of which I had. Yes, I’m red again. I’d not mind if it was all of me, but I’m now so patchy I could pass for a giraffe in poor light.

As I got around 30km from Baucau, I passed through a series of villages. Lots of children were walking along the road, I assume on lunch break from school. The looks I got were hilarious. A glance – it’s a man on a bike. Then a double-take – it’s a white man on a bike!

A common game was to stick their hands out and wait for me to slap them as I rode past. This is pretty painful at 50km/h, just so you know. Especially when they swing at you at the same time. Also note that it works best if they’re on your left as you need your right hand for the throttle. It gets to be a challenge when you’ve lost so much velocity slapping hands that you have to drop three gears and throttle up with one hand.

More East Timorese prettiness

More East Timorese prettiness

Baucau itself isn’t much to write home about, though it does have some lovely views of the ocean. I admit, I didn’t explore for long just driving round the one-way system for a while then settling down for lunch at a place which did Portuguese food. I opted for a “green soup” and barbecued chicken with rice with a banana juice. It came to $8 which is the dearest meal I’ve had here, but after driving for three hours to get there I felt it was worth it.

After an hour to gather myself, I set off on the return trip. I felt a lot more comfortable on the bike by now and was hitting 80 km/h on the straights. The other traffic is generally rather forgiving (except some numpties in UN 4x4s) and I was still raising smiles by being a bit of a curiosity.

Amazingly it started to rain when I was about 30km away from Dili, but thankfully only a little. At 80km/h the raindrops sting a little when they hit bare skin! In all, I made good time on the return trip and got back shortly after 5pm. And half an hour before the rain really began to came down. Apparently it’s dry season – someone ought to tell the rain gods.

Not all trips end so well

Not all trips end so well

Definitely a drive I was happy to make and one I’d recommend. The roads are lovely, the scenery fantastic, the other traffic quite light, the people friendly and the food at the other end worth it. Plus it was a good learning curve for me with the clutch and all. 15o miles for my first motorcycle “lesson”. A shame, as I mentioned yesterday, that I’m not here longer to jump in the ute with the other group. Five days travelling these roads would be a great adventure.

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