Matt Crook reports on a smack-you-in-the-face adventure.

A local man walks past the market in Dili.  Photo / AP EXPAND

A local man walks past the market in Dili. Photo / AP

I was at an ATM withdrawing money when I caught sight of 10 Australian travellers giggling and milling around.

"A coconut. We should so get one of those," said one of the girls to a street hawker. "How much for that hat? What about that flag?" asked another.

After I'd finished at the ATM, one of the girls came over and asked: "Can you give me a ride on your motorbike? I left my wallet at the hotel."

"Wow," I thought, smiling. I'd been working and travelling in East Timor for close to a year. When I first arrived, I saw few backpackers but, increasingly, the more adventurous of the gap-year (between school and university) market have been making East Timor a stop-off on their tours of South-East Asia.

Governments may warn against all but essential travel there (so travel insurance may be invalidated) but that hasn't stopped hardcore explorers putting this beautiful country on their gap-year itineraries. All that matters to them is discovering the footprint-free beach, the place that's just like Thailand before the guidebooks.

Yet those few adventurous souls who come here will find a special place: empty beaches, spectacular diving, sleepy fishing villages, mountains like Nepal's, wooden-hut villages, forests and monstrous rock formations.East Timor ticks all the boxes for the extreme traveller and earns maximum bragging points. There is barely any tourism. No luxury hotels, golf courses or malls. Not even travellers' huts and hippy markets elsewhere on the backpacker circuit.

Most backpackers start at the Dili Backpackers hostel, which has served an ever-growing trickle of travellers since 2002. There I met Iain Purdie, a 35-year-old Englishman who was staying for a week. "It's a beautiful place," he told me, describing the highlights of his trip: motorbiking round the Baucau district east of Dili, where he slapped high fives with local kids as he whizzed past; climbed up roads with gorgeous views of unspoilt beaches and coral-filled waters.

Dili is a gateway to near-virgin territory full of adventure and exotic cultural traditions. Within a couple of months in East Timor, I'd explored limestone caves in Viqueque and swum in hot springs in Venilale; watched the sun rise at the beach on Atauro Island where I'd been the only guest at an eco-lodge; and huddled around a ring in Dili to catch my first cockfight. The lack of tourists means locals are often overwhelmingly friendly. Cycling round Dili, I met a local family who invited me to a village called Manetu in Ainaro, a hilly district about 80km south of the capital.

They didn't speak much English - Tetum, the local language, or one of its dialects, is the norm - but we enjoyed cigarettes, food and alcohol.

I had no idea what to expect or even where I was going, but we jumped in the back of a pick-up truck - me, two families, a buffalo and a pig - for a long and bumpy journey through the countryside. Later that night, I was sitting in a hut at the top of the hill, drunk on tua sabu (local palm brandy) gawping at the huge, sprawling hills coloured with an uneven patchwork of treetops, bare earth and the occasional herd of goats.

I'd stumbled on my own Arcadia and I didn't have to share it with anyone.

I sauntered back down the hill towards base camp - more huts and a makeshift marquee - where about 100 Timorese people had gathered for some kind of ceremony. The sound of drumming rose. I looked down at the mass of people. Everyone was dancing. Two chaps beat a drum while old women smoked cigarettes and clanged gongs with pieces of wood. It was like some kind of eco-rave, fuelled on tua sabu and dollar-a-bottle whisky.

And it was totally authentic, not some sort of show. I was the only foreigner.

As I danced (ignoring the grisly sight of three buffalo heads hanging from hooks on the side of a wooden building), a one-armed man with fuzzy white hair jived over, his solitary hand clasping a cup of tua sabu. He held it aloft, giving me a series of emphatic nods, smiles and cheers. He took an interest in my yellow wristband, so I gave it to him and he roared "East Timor" before bumbling off on his merry way.

Every night I stayed in Manetu, once the old folks had settled down to chew the fat, the youngsters clad in neo-punk outfits fired up a sound system and we had a disco.

The DJ, using cassette tapes, played the same half-a-dozen Portuguese songs over and over and we danced until 6am each day, at which point the drumming would begin again.

This ceremony, a family event to honour dead relatives and strengthen cultural and community ties, attracted people from neighbouring villages, who walked for miles through the hills with offerings of pigs, goats and booze.

Ceremonies like this happen all over East Timor throughout the year and, for travellers who spend a little time getting to know the local people, there's no reason why they won't stumble on similar cultural festivities. This was a full-on, smack-you-in-the-face adventure - but it's the kind awaiting anyone prepared to go off the beaten track, take risks and dive headfirst into the country.

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