Last Wednesday I was asked to go to Viqueque to check out the airstrip they reopened there recently. We weren’t to fly, but to go by road. A road trip sounded like fun. We were going with some Timorese from the Ministry of Health, whom MAF works closely with. I thought it might be fun to take Kim and Sam along, but as I knew the roads outside Dili were quite bad and it would be a long day, we decided against the idea. Good move in hindsight.
We left Dili about 9:15am, I climbed into a late model Mitsubishi Triton dual cab with hard vinyl seats… oh those seats, I’ll never forget them. I’d never met any of these guys before, so there was some awkward conversations in my very limited Tetun and before long I found it easier to just sit back and admire the scenery. The road began by following the coast for the most part, interspersed with climbing and descending turns around mountains that met the coast line and little detours inland through quaint little villages that felt more like stereotypical Asia. We stopped just outside of Baucau at the driver’s house for lunch. My first lunch inside a Timorese person’s house. Lunch and a bit of a nap in the chair on the front verandah and we were back on the road an hour later.
The front passenger, Francisco, told me that the road from Dili to Baucau was “Diak” – good. But the road from Baucau to Viqueque was “la Diak” – not good. Boy, was he right. The road from Baucau on got progressively worse, to the point where I was often thinking, “How long can this go on for?” in the last hour of the trip. I asked how they got patients that needed to be medically evacuated out of Viqueque at the moment. They said patients are driven out on this same road to Baucau for better care, then on to Dili if need be. This confirmed my suspicions that the need for the airstrip being reopened in Viqueque was nothing short of dire.
The driver did stop every now and then when they saw that I wanted to take a photo of something, like two whales in the ocean, which was nice. As even with a fast shutter speed, it was hard to compose a good clear shot out the side window when you’re zooming along at 80km/h and the car is… have you ever ridden a mechanical bull? I have and I think it rather like trying to take a picture while riding one of those.
It was 3pm when we finally arrived in Viqueque. With a quick stop to the local Ministry of Health office to notify some people there who would then accompany us. It wasn’t far, but did include a river crossing which would definitely put a halt to anyone wishing to cross too soon after decent rain.
We did a quick survey of the airstrip: length, width, surface, elevation, runway headings, latitude and longitudes, approach obstacles, etc. It was in much better condition than the road, and the non-adventurous side of myself was wishing that I could call the other pilot, Daniel and ask if he could pick us (or more importantly, me) up and fly us home. But I knew the Chief Pilot wouldn’t look kindly at this as it hadn’t been officially opened yet.
So. Back to the office to collect a broken driveshaft from an ambulance to take back to Dili for repairs. Of course this took an hour because it had to be accompanied by the official paper work which took an hour to prepare (maybe there were running Windows Vista). Time was ticking as I kept looking at my watch and I remembered as my head started aching that I hadn’t had a coffee since 7am that morning. I started making noise about getting a coffee while we waited for the papers… they’ll only be 5 minutes I was assured. It’s funny that living in Arnhem Land for 4 years hasn’t got me out of the Westerner mindset about time. Here time is similar to Arnhem Land: nobody is in a hurry except for “Malai” (westerners).
When we finally got the driveshaft, we headed out for coffee, which included coffee, doughnuts, and “Bakwan” that was quite tasty, but I assumed, not altogether healthy. We finally left Viqueque at 5:40pm. Based on the time it took to get there, I estimated an arrival back in Dili at around 9:30ish.
But wait, there’s more (stops, that is). After an hour or so, we stopped at Francisco’s sister’s house where we gratefully accepted an evening meal. This was a shorter stop than for lunch and it was interesting to see the more traditional houses up close. On our way again, this time with the Sister’s Father-in-Law sitting next to me in the back, another person in the tray of the ute and (I didn’t know for the longest time) that there was a young child sitting with the front passenger. That made for 7 people on the journey home. We took a back way home, so I was grateful for not having to relive the horrors of the Viqueque-Baucau road again, however this road started climbing, climbing, and more climbing, until we were in cloud and averaging about 10km/h in 1st or 2nd gear. I was glad the driver stopped in time when he realised that had he kept driving that way, it would have lead to an exciting plummet into an abyss.
Down the mountain was equally as exciting, averaging 5km/h down steep descents with deep washouts from what looked like last season’s rain. More stops to relieve the young child in the front who was sick every half hour from motion sickness, stop in some town to buy fire wood, another stop for a pee and yet another stop for… I can’t quite remember why now.
Back in Dili at 11:30pm. It was good to get on the motorbike and zoom home at break neck speed, although my bottom did hurt considerably. I’m hoping my next visit to Viqueque will be by air, and to be of assistance to some much needed Medevacs.