Mount Ramelau (2986m), sometimes referred to as Foho Tatamailau, is the highest peak in the young sovereign state of East Timor (Timor Leste). The hike itself is very straightforward. The biggest challenge is to get to the foot of this mountain.
Getting to Dili
Previously, only Merpati was flying the route between Bali and Dili, but now Sriwijaya Air also operates the same route. Increased competition means lower prices thankfully. A few days before departure I easily purchased roundtrip tickets online for 170 USD. The former monopoly price with Merpati used to be USD 300 and upwards. I chose Sriwijaya Air because of Merpati's bad safety reputation. Sriwijaya Air uses a fairly old Boeing 737-500 machine on this route, but the refurbished plane was quite ok.
It was very easy to get a visa on arrival at the airport in Dili. We paid USD 30 per person (30 day visa). No questions or problems as long as you show them your passport and roundtrip ticket.
We had already pre-booked rooms at Timor Lodge, just 1 km away from the airport. This is a huge compound formerly used by the peacekeeper forces. Room rates range from 30 USD and upwards. Please remember that East Timor is much more expensive than the neighbouring countries. Timor Lodge also has a good restaurant (try the Indian food!) as well as a swimming pool. It's a few kilometers into the city center of Dili, but taxis and minivans are cheap.
One of the reason why I chose Timor Lodge was because the rental car company Rentlo is located within the same compound. I had booked a Toyota Landcruiser Prado, and we picked it up the next morning at 8:00. The ridiculous steep price was USD 100 per day + insurance USD 20 per day (which reduces the responsibility in case of accident to a maximum of 500 USD).
A long drive on terrible roads to the mountain
Dili is not a big city, so it was fairly easy to drive through the city with some assistance from my Samsung Galaxy S3 with google maps cashed in memory. The road south from Dili and up into the mountains was in a terrible state. The asphalt was only partially intact because of deficient maintenance the last few decades. Three hours and many potholes later we arrived Maubisse and drove straight up to the Pousada Maubisse located on top of a small hill. This place has a great view and you can also buy lunch at inflated prices (6 USD). We met a big group of Australian tourists who arrived in four Landcruisers with local drivers plus a guide. This group was going no further than Maubisse, so when they learned about our plans of going to Hatobuilico and Mount Ramelau, one of them even wanted to join us. After lunch in Maubisse we invited Tim from Australia to join us in our car to Hatobuilico, a drive that took almost 2 hours. The road up here was in very poor conditions but since it was dry weather and we had a sturdy Landcruiser it went quite smoothly.
In Hatobuilico there is only one guesthouse, so we checked in there right away. Accomodation is USD 10, dinner 3 USD and breakfast 2 USD per person. It started to rain and when darkness approached, a young couple arrived on a small scooter. It turned out to be a guy from Switzerland and his wife from Indonesia. They had spent the whole day driving from Dili, a feat in itself.
Soaked in rain
Several local guides in Hatobuilico offered to take us to Mount Ramelau for 20 USD (I've heard that the normal rate is 10 USD). I already had a GPS track downloaded on my Garmin device, so a local guide was not necessary for me. My plan was to start hiking at 5 AM in the morning, and the others agreed to join. After a huge portion of rice, eggs and cooked vegetables, we all went to bed. The rain continued throughout the night and increased in strength. When I woke up at 4 AM, it was pretty clear to me that we had to postpone the hike. The weather started to approve somewhat after 8 AM, but since we now had time constraints, we had to walk very fast. The wife of Kevin is by no means a sprinter, neither is Emily. So we agreed that the girls would stay behind at the lodge, while Tim, Kevin and myself were going to do Ramelau in a hurried pace.
We had been told that the 2 km uphills from Hatobuilico to the gates of Ramelau is not drivable in rainy weather. So we decided to walk from Hatobuilico. At the start of the hike I paid close attention to my GPS in order to take the right route through the village. We soon discovered that the dirt road was fairly steep, but that it would pose no problems for a Landcruiser. Being on a tight schedule, we regretted a bit that we had not decided to take the Landcruiser. After 30 minutes we came to the end of the road, and arrived at the gate of Mount Ramelau. No one was attending the checkpoint. After a short break we started up the initial concrete stairs, and then continued on a good path that was not particularly steep. Our fast pace had been a little tough on Tim, so he started to vomit when we reached an elevation of 2600 meters. Tim wanted to turn around, but I persuaded him to continue, and told him we were going to walk slowly from now on. Shortly after we arrived an outdoor church. The altar has a small roof and is located on a tiny hill above the square. We changed into dry clothes behind the altar, before we continued the last 15 minutes to the summit of Mt Ramelau. It was cold, wet and windy on the summit, so we limited our stay to 20 minutes. All we could see from the summit was a white Madonna statue and an abandoned telecom installation.
Scooter problems and epic roads
We arrived back at Hatobuilico 4 hours after we had set out. We decided to grab a quick lunch there before we returned to Dili. But Kevin and his wife had a big issue, because their scooter was dead no matter how many times they tried to start it. That actually turned out to be a lucky thing for them, because it would be almost impossible to drive any two-wheel-vehicle on this road. During the last 24 hours of rainfall the road had transformed into a mud river. We agreed that Kevin and his wife would abandon the scooter in Hatobuilico and hitch with us back to Dili. They had a flight to catch the next morning, so they really had no choice. They could not wait for the repair of the scooter, and to wait for the roads to become dry could take several days. How the rental company would handle their case, I'm not sure of. In best case Kevin would only have to pay a small amount to get someone to bring it down. In worst case, he must pay the full value of the scooter. Hence I don't recommend anyone to bring a rental scooter, because if it's raining badly, you can get stuck in Hatobuilico for several days.
It was an epic drive back to Dili, due to the bad weather and terrible roads, but we safely arrived Dili after dark. We dropped of Kevin and his wife at their hostel and Tim at his hotel, before we headed back to Timor Lodge. Next morning our plan was to see Dili and the nearby beaches, but Emily was sick with fever. So we took a rest day, before our flight back to Bali the next day, where our plan was to hike up Gunung Agung.
My drive from Maubisse to Hatobuilico at EveryTrail (also possible to download)
My hike to Mount Ramelau at EveryTrail (also possible to download)