Venilale and the Japanese Caves of East Timor

My journey across East Timor had taken me from Dili to the country’s second city of Baucau, as I travelled to the mountains of the interior, towards the hilltop village of Venilale in search of the mysterious peak known only as The Lost World‘.

To get this far I’d driven along dangerous, dirt roads and a beautiful coastline that – I joke not – was home to the deadly saltwater crocodile.

From Baucau I turned inland and began travelling into the rolling hills of central East Timor, towards the small village of Venilale which would be the last stop before the mountain I was hoping to find.

Along the way to Venilale I rode through a rural world, past rice fields and farmland, past Japanese tunnels from World War II and guerrilla hideouts from the Indonesian Occupation.

In Venilale, I found  Timorese and Portuguese colonial influences in a hilltop landscape far removed from the coast I’d just travelled from.

Venilale East Timor

From Baucau To Venilale

Venilale is just a small village in the hills of East Timor. It’s 30 kilometres from Baucau on the coast, and the first real population centre in the rugged, mountainous interior of the country.

I travelled from Baucau on a motorcycle, dodging the odd pot hole and riding through mud and puddles left from the latest rains. The road rose ever slowly upwards, and the surrounding fields were sculpted into layered plateaus of rice fields, waterlogged and green right at the end of the long rainy season.

The road was quiet, a few locals cycled past and occasionally a bus overtook me but for the most part I sat back on the seat and could admire the scenery flashing past with little traffic to worry about.

Venilale, being situated in the hills above Baucau, is the gateway to the mountains and through East Timor’s long, at times troubled history, the surrounding area has been the scene of fighting and conflict. During the Indonesian occupation, East Timorese guerrillas would hide out in these hills and mountains, waging war against the Indonesian army for decades, while earlier during World War II the Japanese Army used the area as a defensive line during their occupation of the island.

It was these Japanese Caves that I found dug into the rock on the side of the road from Baucau to Venilale.

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The Japanese Caves of Venilale

The Japanese Army occupied the entire island of Timor – East and West – from 1942 until 1945 and locals and Australian forces from nearby Darwin waged a guerrilla campaign in the mountains. Venilale became a Japanese stronghold, and the Japanese Army dug out tunnels and caves to use as bases and shelters in the fight.

On the road from Baucau, I came across some of the remnants of these tunnels. Known locally as Fatuk Kuak Hitu, which translates as Seven Caves, this collection of tunnels start on the roadside and spread into the hills.

There were no signs advertising them, and I was simply going on local knowledge, but the entrances were orderly and the tunnels interconnected with each other, unmistakably man made. I took my torch inside and walked through several of the chambers, an historic sight simply lost in the mountains of Timor.

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Venilale, A Village In The Hills

After exploring the darkened inside of the Japanese Caves, I returned to the road to carry on to Venilale.

Venilale was once the site of very traditional villages and houses, and although a few still remain, for the most part these wooden, spiritual abodes were destroyed over the course of the Indonesian Occupation which lasted from 1975 until 2002. Despite surviving hundreds of years of Portuguese colonisation, the majority of these traditional houses unfortunately didn’t survive the ravages of the Indonesian army in more recent times.

Today, the village and the surrounding area is home to a few thousand locals and Venilale itself is the centre of life in this region, hosting markets and being home to a school and church.

The village was used by the Portuguese as a hilltop retreat during the colonial years, as the Europeans escaped the hot temperatures of the coast by travelling into inland to the cooler mountains.

The long main road into the village is flanked by houses and shops and the centre of Venilale is where aged but still colourful Portuguese Colonial architecture is found – the original school and the church built by the Portuguese, which still serve their functions today.

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In Search Of The Lost World

Venilale is a small village, and as intriguing as its ramshackle colonial architecture and beautiful surroundings were, I couldn’t stay long as I was searching for the mountain known as Mundo Perdido – The Lost World.

This was much further south, and higher into the mountain ranges, and the locals of Venilale told me the road after the village became difficult and long.

It was time to leave all too soon, to continue the journey across Timor.

Venilale East Timor

Venilale East Timor Travel Advice

Interested in travelling to Venilale in East Timor but don’t know where to start or what to do? Then read on for my quick guide to all things Venilale!

How To Get To Venilale

Venilale is located 30 kilometres south of Baucau on the road to Viqueque. The journey is rugged and rural, and the road is in mostly good shape, although potholed and in places in states of disrepair. From Baucau there are are local trucks and old busses which will drop you off at Venilale before carrying on to Viqueque. Many of these busses will travel all the way from Dili too, so it is possible to reach Venilale completely by public transport, although the journey and departure times are always unpredictable.

I travelled all the way from Dili on a rented motorcycle, and the road from Baucau to Venilale is in much better condition than the one from Dili to Baucau. Just make sure to fill up on petrol and supplies in Baucau.

From Venilale I travelled further south towards Loihuno to find Mundo Perdido – The Lost World – a mountain peak. The road from Venilale to Loihuno is in a state of terrible repair, and for stretches is simply just rock. It’s difficult to motorcycle and can take hours to travel.

Where To Stay In Venilale

Venilale is hardly set up for tourism and there are no hotels in the village itself. It is possible to stay at the local convent with the nuns, if they have space, who will also be happy to cook up a good local dinner too. It’s expected to give a donation in exchange, at least USD 10 per person.

There are hotels available in Baucau, and Venilale can be seen on a trip from here, or Loihuno has the odd homestay if travelling further south.

Travelling to East Timor? Sign up for Air BnB to book your accommodation using this link HERE and you’ll get £25 free credit towards your first booking!

If you’d rather stay in a hotel, then use this link,  as an awesome gift to you, will apply a 10% discount on your hotel booking!

What To Do In Venilale

The Japanese Caves – Known variously as the Japanese Caves, The Seven Caves, The Japanese Tunnels and locally as Fatuk Kuak Hitu, these historic caves are found halfway between Baucau and Venilale. Simply follow the one road between these two places, and the caves will appear on the right hand side.  There are are no signs, there’s no information or anything, but it is obvious when you find them.

Escola do Reino – This is the old Portuguese school building, and it’s one of the finest examples of colorful Portuguese colonial architecture in the entire country. It’s still used as the local school today, after being heavily restored with funding from the Portuguese government.

The Portuguese Church – Next to the school, is the Portuguese built church, another fine example of colonial era architecture which has again been restored and continues to be used as the local place of worship.

Venilale Market – Being the centrepoint of the Venilale region, the village is the scene of lively markets, particularly on Wednesday and Saturday mornings when people travel here from all over the area to buy and sell, and it’s a really great opportunity to purchase authentic souvenirs from East Timor.

Location Of Venilale In East Timor

All Words and Photographs by Richard Collett