Sweat fills our eyes, our legs ache and we are desperate for a drink. Clinging jungle vines and bushes have scratched us, slippery roots and steep twisting track have tripped us and the heat and humidity have drained our little group.
Then, suddenly, the trail we’re following comes out onto a cliff ledge covered with fantastical gouges, lumps, bumps, colours, ridges and splashes of light. It takes a moment or two, as our eyes adjust, but it soon becomes apparent the ledge is part of a huge rock face, hundreds of metres high and honeycombed with caves, cracks and frozen, multicoloured waterfalls of ancient limestone.
This is Ile Kere Kere, a spooky place even in daylight.
The trip to the most easterly point of mainland East Timor – beyond which lies Jaco Island – is not for the pampered traveller but, if you do make it, you might be lucky enough to see the cliff paintings of Ile Kere Kere and meet their guardian, Ignacio.
DILI, THE CAPITAL of East Timor, is a chaotic maze of one-way streets and market-filled laneways.
The people are noisy, busy and break into broad, disarming smiles if you attempt a few words of Tetum, the local language.
Outside Dili – and there are not many roads to choose from – the country opens up as buildings taper away rapidly. Huge sweeping hills, wide river beds, deserted beaches and precipitous eucalypt-scattered cliffs vie for the attention of camera lenses. The occasional traditional house on stilts is a reminder of how sparsely populated Timor is.
As soon becomes apparent, Timorese roads do not suffer from over-attention. The good bits are interspersed with plenty of sections that look and feel as though they were last mended when the Indonesian military left, more than a decade ago, explaining why trucks and fourwheel drives are favoured.
The road east threads its way along the coast, through forlorn Manatuto, where evidence of the Indonesians’ angry and destructive departure still marks the buildings.
The next major town is charmingly run-down Baucau, the centre of Portuguese regional administration for three centuries. It boasts curiously chic openair swimming baths and an equally elegant yet almost derelict market. On the other side of town, the road winds past a massive deserted airbase and on towards the most easterly village in East Timor.
Tutuala, spectacularly perched on top of a cliff, consists of a tiny cluster of houses belonging to subsistence farmers and a large, abandoned guest house that is slowly sinking back into the jungle. Monkeys chatter and sea eagles wheel and glide high out over the glittering water.
It’s only a stone’s throw down to Valu Beach, a stretch of the whitest, finest sand anywhere on the planet, from where you can gaze out over staggeringly clear water to the holy and uninhabited Jaco Island. There is little more than a strip of Papua New Guinea between here and the South American country of Ecuador – and it feels like it.
Up from the beach, the four-wheel-drive track to Ile Kere Kere thins then disappears altogether into dense green undergrowth peppered with wild coffee bushes and the scat of civet cats. A 40-minute trek through jungle gives tantalising glimpses of ocean, hundreds of metres below.
Bursting out of the tangle onto the cliff ledge, it’s the dimensions that prove most impressive, at least at first – Jaco Island looks tiny from up here. But then, glancing up, we see a group of small – and clearly ancient – painted stick figures.
Standing there covered in sweat and scratches, marvelling at this art from the past, we are suddenly surprised by a man appearing as if from nowhere. He is wearing a T-shirt, shorts and a smile, and is carrying a razor-sharp machete. He has no shoes to help him along the treacherous track or over the rocks.
His name is Ignacio, he says, and he is the guardian of the rock paintings.
“Because I am here, you can see the paintings well,” he says, explaining that if he were not present, the paintings would not show themselves to us – or our cameras, presumably.
Ile Kere Kere has a very potent, ancient feel to it; we look over our shoulders and shiver.
“It is my job to make sure the paintings are given respect,” says Ignacio. “Every year, all the people in my family come together to respect them, to make offerings to the pictures.”
No matter where they live – the other end of the country, the next village, even some in Australia – Ignacio’s clan gathers every 12 months under the huge looming mass of the cliff, outside Lena Hara, the main cave, he says.
Ignacio points out monochrome black and ochre people, animals, fish, boats, turtles, geometric designs and more, all painted in hard-to-reach parts of the rock face. They are anything between 3,000 and 13,000 years old but evidence in some of the caves suggests there was a human presence here up to 40,000 years ago.
As we prepare to leave, to sweat back up the track, I notice a wooden lingam standing near one of the smaller cave entrances, surrounded by fresh offerings of food, cigarettes and flowers. Who made the offerings and to what god, I’ll never know.
We stand for a moment, staring out to the pure white sand of Jaco Island and listening to the silence as swifts flit in and out of the caves. Bees have built honeycombs here so fat and heavy, honey has rained down the cracks in the limestone for hundreds of thousands of years.
As we turn to go, we look back to see Ignacio, gripping his machete and doing his duty by the ancient paintings.