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Commando Campaign Sites – East Timor Bobonaro District - Marobo

Edward Willis

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GPS: 8°58'48”S, 125°21'14"E


Location of Marobo shown on map from the Area Study of Portuguese Timor [1]

“Marobo is 3 miles (5 km.) from Bobonaro at a bearing of 359°.  It is situated in a deep re-entrant at the foot of Mt. Uso Lau.  The town is a resort on account of its sulphur springs.  It is connected to Bobonaro by M.T. road.  There are about 12 stone houses and the town is concealed from the air”. [2]


Marobo viewed in 1927 [3]


Signaller Corporal Harry Wray [4] described Marobo as it was in July-August 1942:

Leaving Rita Bau

“We left the house in Rita Bau ….  The country from the house sloped more steeply as one progressed from the house, to a very deep gully with a small swift stream running along the bottom.  After crossing the stream, we came to a village after a climb, and obtained some sour mandarins, then the path ran along the sides of the mountains for some distance then turned to the right and downwards.  The path sloped downwards very steeply, so much so that in places it almost made one dizzy to look downward to the rocky river bed far below.

Just as we commenced this descent I was seized with the most agonising cramp all over the body, but chiefly in my legs.  Once or twice I nearly took a header downwards as my legs stiffened with a spasm of cramp.  I made the long steep descent suffering acutely most of the way.

Approaching Marobo

Once on the riverbed, which was a mass of huge granite boulders and about twenty yards wide, we had not far to go.  After reaching the other side of the river, a path led up a cliff for about a hundred feet or perhaps a little more, and there on what can be likened to a flat shelf, lay Maroubra [Marobo].

As the path into Maroubra [Marobo] was provided with steps to make the ascent easier, I had to take a more difficult path, but easier for me, as when I lifted my foot to climb a step I would be seized with cramp, but by climbing the slope alongside the steps I was able to escape the cramp to some extent.

Marobo Described

I went to the house in which Archie [Campbell] was staying to see him, and collapsed on the veranda doubled up with cramp again.  I had to be very careful to keep still and make no sudden movement or I would get another attack.

We arrived not long before the evening meal, and after finding out which cottage we could stay, several of us went off to take a hot sulphur bath, as Maroubra [Marobo] was the watering place for the island.

Along the edge of the cliff overlooking the river I have mentioned, were about a dozen neat little cottages, all well-built bungalows with tiled roofs.  All well finished too.  The drains simply shot over the side of the cliff down the cliff side, so the Portos easily disposed of all drainage and sewage problems.

Archie and his Section were quartered in some of these cottages, and the Porto and his daughters I have mentioned earlier had one cottage, and a few of our unit passing through, or at Maroubra [Marobo] for a few days were in other cottages.

About quarter of a mile from the cottages a large stream of almost boiling water issued from the earth.  This water was heavily sulphur laden, and the smell of sulphur was very much in evidence.  A concrete erection marked the place where the water issued out of the ground, and the hot water ran along an open concrete ditch for a short distance to the bathhouses.  One bathhouse was apparently for the natives, and us, the other a fine looking building for the Portos.  There were no shops at Maroubra [Marobo], just the row of cottages, and the bathhouses, as apparently it was simply a rest place and health resort for the Portos.

The Bathhouse

The bathhouse we used was along low building with a thatched roof.  The interior was divided up into a number of small rooms.  Each room had a sunken bath in it like a miniature swimming pool.  The bath extended the width of the building, and each was about four feet wide.  On the right hand side of each bath was the wall dividing off the next bath, and on the left hand side was a concrete floor about three feet wide.  Along the back of the bathhouse ran a concrete drain open at the top.  The hot sulphur water raced along this drain, which was about six feet from the back of the bathhouse.  Between this drain and the back wall of the bathhouse was a deep drain into which the baths could be emptied.  To fill the bath, it was necessary to manipulate a large bamboo pipe into the drain of fresh sulphur water and so conduct the water across the six foot gap to the bath selected.  The water was so hot that if the bath were filled it would be unbearably hot, but if one entered the bath immediately the water began to run in, and remained in the bath as it was filled, it was possible to endure the heat of the water without too much discomfort.

I had a hot bath the evening I arrived at Maroubra [Marobo] suffering so acutely with cramp, and found that it worked wonders so far as the cramp was concerned.  The heat of the bath left one feeling somewhat weak for a time afterwards.

The constantly running drain of fresh water discharged into a large concrete pit below and beyond the two bathhouses.  This pit would be about ten yards by fifteen yards at a guess.  The cavalry from Bobonaro made a practice of riding their Timor ponies over once a week and swimming them in this hot sulphur pool as it kept their ponies skins in good condition.  The overflow from the pool ran down into the river below.

There were other hot sulphur springs not far out of Maroubra [Marobo].  I came across them later as you will hear.

Healing Qualities of the Waters

The Porto and his family of daughters were still at Maroubra [Marobo] while I was there, and the old man used to take a daily visit to the sulphur baths, as did one of his daughters.  I saw her sitting at the edge of the drain bathing her legs with the water.  Her legs were in a bad state with tropical ulcers.  I do not know if the treatment did any good or not.

One of our men had to go the Doctor with a severe form of dermatitis all over his body, and the condition took a long time to cure.  It was caused through taking too many of the hot baths.  I believe the Doctor told him that by having too many too hot baths he had mildly scalded himself all over.

… a Jar of Vegemite

The next morning, I wrote out a report on Rita Bau and sent it off to Bobonaro as Dex was there.  I was talking to one of the unit cooks who told me that he was going with Dex to Rita Bau or wherever he was going as cook.  That afternoon a message came that the cook was to proceed to Bobonaro at once.  He had wind, unofficially but correctly, that he was required there, as he was to be sent back to Australia.  He was in a jubilant mood, and presented me with a jar of Vegemite, and with a tin of cheese, and a tin of meat”. [5]


Marobo first came to notice and significance in late March-early April 1942 when Sparrow Force reconstituted itself in the more secure environs of south-west Portuguese Timor.  Christopher Wray described the circumstances at this time:

“Before long [Brigadier] Veale decided it was necessary for him to move closer to the Independent Company Headquarters then located at Bobonaro, and accordingly moved his headquarters to Mape.  Soon after his arrival, Veale berated some of Lieutenant David Dexter's men for not shaving.  Dexter's prompt reply was, 'We lost our razors not our rifles' - an obvious dig at the unarmed state of the Brigadier's party on its arrival in Portuguese Timor.  Mape was taken over as Force Headquarters, and Dexter's section was relocated at Marobo.

Major Spence, realising that the way from Dutch Timor was unprotected, decided to station a party at Maliana to cover the Nunura Plains.  These plains were covered with head-high grass and extended from Balibo on the Dutch border through Maliana to the hills below Cailaco.  Spence wanted a small force at Maliana to patrol towards Balibo, Memo and other frontier postos to watch out for any Japanese approach from that direction”. [6]

The veracity of these dispositions became apparent later on during the ‘August push’ by the Japanese against Sparrow Force; the ‘Official history’ records:

“On 9th August the Japanese methodically bombed Beco and Mape.  Next day the bombers were over Mape again and also attacked Bobonaro, where Callinan had his headquarters, and the near-by Marobo, thus ushering in a series of raids on the villages which the Australians had been using as their key points.  It quickly became clear that the Japanese were launched on a widespread and well-organised move to envelop and destroy the Australians and the Dutch”.  One column “… crossed the border at Memo and drove at Bobonaro through Maliana”. [7]

After the fierce fighting in the area, in which the No. 2 Independent Company lost two men killed in action, Marobo remained more within the Japanese controlled sphere of influence and was not as frequently occupied by our men.

Following the departure of Lancer Force from Portuguese Timor in February 1943 the colony settled into a harsh regime of Japanese occupation and the spa at Marobo was used as a ‘Rest and Recreation’ site by the garrison forces.


A less well known aspect of the Japanese occupation of Portuguese Timor was the sexual exploitation of Timorese females known as “comfort women”.

Military Sexual Slavery during WWII

The so-called “Comfort Women” system, i.e., military sexual slavery under the former Japanese military regime before 1945, is a typical case of rape as a form of torture in which the State was directly involved.  During the Second World War, the Japanese Imperial military set up the “comfort stations” all over the occupied and colonized areas in Asia and the Pacific, where women and girls were forced to sexually serve the rank and soldiers.

Many of these women, most of whom were minors, were tricked by fake job recruitment or taken by force and then confined in small rooms where they were raped by more than twenty men a day.  When the Japanese military were defeated, most of these “comfort women” were abandoned or even killed.  Although this crime against humanity has been addressed at some of the international human rights organizations, the Japanese State has continuously failed to meet its obligations to investigate, prosecute those responsible, bring just and adequate redress and remedy for the victims, and to educate the public about the issue. [8]

The “Comfort Women” System in Portuguese Timor

Cleary describes the introduction of the “comfort women” system to Portuguese Timor as follows:

“Shortly after arriving in the colony the Japanese rounded up young girls, many of them only about 12, and forced them to work in as many as 15 comfort stations around the country.  This policy was often aided by village chiefs, who were acting under duress and frequently found their palatial huts turned into comfort stations.  The Portuguese governor, de Carvalho, who feared that Portuguese women would be targeted by the Japanese, also supplied Timorese women to the Japanese.  De Carvalho ordered prostitutes who had fled Dili to be brought back so they could serve the Japanese.  He called this the ‘lesser of two evils’”. [9]

The Struggle of Avo Marta [10]

Along with Ms. Esmeralda Boe, who passed away in February last year, Avo Marta was a forerunner of the activities to investigate the harms of sexual violations by the Japanese Army.  She also served as a bridge to connect Japan and East Timor.  At the Women's International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan's Military Sexual Slavery, Avo Marta and Esmeralda publicly announced for the first time as Timorese women the fact that they were turned into “comfort women.”  Asked by the court clerk to speak the full truth upon making testimony, the two women replied, “We did not come to Japan for sightseeing.  We came to speak the truth.  What is there for us to do but to speak the truth?” and received huge applause from the audience.  Documentary Japan later interviewed the two, interviews which were meant to be broadcast via NHK (National Broadcasting Corporation of Japan). [11] In August 2001, Avo Marta cooperated and gave testimony for the filming of the onsite investigation at the Marobo “Comfort Women” site, where she once faced cruel violence.


Marobo “Comfort Women” site, photo taken 28 April 2018


When Avo Marta faced cruel violation, she was still little, and it was before her menstruation began or her breasts grew.  “When I had to deal with 10 people, it was so painful that I couldn’t even move.  It felt as if my vagina and anus became one,” she said.  “Dealing with soldiers at night, and constructing roads in the day...  The kind of labour I had to tolerate was worse than an animal.  Why? Animals can sleep at night.”  She expressed her anger and said, “Japanese men were also born from mothers...  How could they have done something so cruel?”


Marobo Springs (Bobonaro District)

“Location (spring M I): 754465 E, 9005792 N, elevation 459 m. A second spring (MII) lies 20 m to the west.  MI is a non-flowing pool with temperature of 47°C and strong gas ebullience.  M II discharges clear 46°C water with a flow of 10 kg/s.  It forms a sludgy deposit of calcite and possibly some gypsum and sulphur.  There was a minor odour of sulphur.  The geology of the area consists of Pliocene Ainaro Gravel with limestone outcropping on ridges above the springs.  An off-set in this formation suggests the springs are located on a fault contact”. [12]

Getting There

The Marobo hot springs are justifiably recognised as one of the premier rural tourist attractions in Timor-Leste.  The site can be reached in a long days drive from Dili most directly via Gleno, Lete Foho and Atsabe, though road conditions are poor beyond the first way point; the final last few kilometres steep, winding descent into Marobo are the worst.

The site was extensively and expensively redeveloped around 2016-2017 with the bathing pools and water channels resurfaced and properly retained, toilets and change rooms installed, and timber walkways, viewing platforms and picnic spaces put in place. [13]


The sign at the turnoff to Marobo from the road between Maliana and Zumalai, taken 7 May 2019

All these facilities (except the toilets) were in good condition and being well-used by local people during a weekend visit in late April 2018.  Unfortunately, when visited a year later in 2019, the whole site had degraded significantly in the harsh weather conditions, with the toilets unusable, the timber structures requiring urgent maintenance and the main bathing pool essentially empty.

Cultural Tourism Potential

The following report provides an assessment of Marobo as a cultural tourism site:

The Marobo Complex

The area surrounding and including Bee Manis has been identified by leaders in Bobonaro as a potential tourist precinct.  This area includes many aspects of culture attractive to tourists.  There is living evidence of traditional cultural beliefs that the Kemak people are happy to share with tourists.  The local leaders are actively pursuing ways to reinvigorate their traditional ceremonies and see tourism as a way to help achieve this goal.  The Kemak people have been fortunate to have had their history recorded by the Ethnographer Brigitte Clamagirand whose written and pictorial records provide an invaluable starting point for cultural tourism; Timor Aid and the Fundasaun Alola have created a high quality exhibition based on this work.  In addition, there are people who are able to articulate the history of the area from Portuguese, WW2 to Indonesian times.

Through the support of NGO’s such as OHM and the Fundasaun Alola there are women’s groups active in the area who have the capacity to showcase Timorese culture through production of high quality weaving as well as local products and traditional farming techniques and crops.  Additionally, these groups are eager to work together to learn more about providing hospitality for tourists.  OHM has been exploring the possibility of conducting farm stays for tourists interested in learning more about traditional crops and agricultural techniques.

In terms of destination, the hot springs are an excellent example of Portuguese times and of themselves provide a reason for tourists to visit the area.  The surrounding environment is pristine and affords tourists with abundant opportunities to engage with nature.

The missing elements are amenities and access.  There are plans in place to address the issue of amenities.  Local leaders have a clear understanding of how to go about filling this gap in an environmentally sustainable way, but they need resources and leadership.

Of more concern is the road access to the Marobo complex, without significant investment in improving the road the area will remain accessible to only the most intrepid travellers.  The ILO and The Secretariat of State for Employment and Training (SEFOPE) plan to complete this work in 2013.

Given the access issues to the Hot Springs an interim compromise strategy could be to support improvements to amenities in Bobonaro Vila and or Maliana.  The fort area in Bobonaro Vila while quite degraded could provide an ambient back drop for a guesthouse and café complex. [14]


The redeveloped Marobo site viewed April 2018


[1] Allied Geographical Section, “Portuguese Timor,” Monash Collections Online, accessed January 11, 2020, http://repository.monash.edu/items/show/31869

[2] Allied Geographical Section Area study of Portuguese Timor (ASPT): 27, Monash Collections Online, accessed January 11, 2020, http://repository.monash.edu/items/show/26455

[3] Timor Português : nos banhos termais de Marobo. - Timor: Missão de Timor, [ca 1927]. - 1 postal: castanho; 9x14 cm http://purl.pt/23917/1/index.html#/1/html

[4] Arthur Henry Kilfield Wray, WX11485 https://doublereds.org.au/history/men-of-the-22/wx/arthur-henry-kilfield-wray-r727/

[5] Corporal Arthur Henry Kilfield ‘Harry’ Wray (WX11485) Recollections of the 2nd Independent Company Campaign on Timor, 1941-42, manuscript in 2/2 Commando Association archives.: 138-141.

[6] Wray, Christopher C. H. Timor 1942: Australian commandos at war with the Japanese Hawthorn, Vic. : Hutchinson Australia, 1987: 89; the location map for Marobo reproduced from the ASPT clearly demonstrates the tactical significance of the site in relation the villages referred to.

[7] Dudley McCarthy South-west Pacific area - first year : Kokoda to Wau Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1959. (Australia in the war of 1939-1945. Series 1, Army ; v. 5): 607-608.

[8] The truth of the Japanese military "Comfort Women" compiled by Northeast Asian History Foundation. Seoul: Northeast Asian History Foundation, 2014: 15. http://www.sfcomfortwomen.org/img/comfort-women.pdf

[9] Paul Cleary. - The men who came out of the ground : a gripping account of Australia's first commando campaign : Timor 1942. - Sydney : Hachette Australia, 2010: 122. https://www.hachette.com.au/paul-cleary/the-men-who-came-out-of-the-ground-a-gripping-account-of-australias-first-commando-campaign-timor-1942

[10] ‘Remembering two “Comfort Women”’ Women‛s Asia 21, Voices from Japan No. 19 Summer 2007: 19-20 http://www.ajwrc.org/english/sub/voice/19-2-2.pdf and The truth of the Japanese military "Comfort Women" compiled by Northeast Asian History Foundation. Seoul: Northeast Asian History Foundation, 2014: 15. http://www.sfcomfortwomen.org/img/comfort-women.pdf

[11] The interview was not broadcast.  In Japan, the effort for media coverage of the Tribunal encountered a number of obstacles.  One such obstacle was the right wing pressure exerted to change the content of the NHK programs aired in January 2001.  The second episode of this series, which was going to focus on the Tribunal, was mostly edited and replaced with new scenes by the NHK staff just a few days before broadcasting.  For more information, please see http://www1.jca.apc.org/vaww-net-japan/english/backlash/mediasabotage.html

[12] James V. Lawless, Brian G. Lovelock, and Greg N. Ussher ‘Geothermal potential of East Timor’ Proceedings World Geothermal Congress 2005 Antalya, Turkey, 24-29 April 2005: 4. https://www.geothermal-energy.org/pdf/IGAstandard/WGC/2005/2604.pdf

[13] US$500,000 was spent on the renovations; see https://www.lonelyplanet.com/timor-leste/attractions/be-manis/a/poi-sig/1582353/356190

[14] Jose Ximenes and Shirley Carlos The potential for cultural tourism Bobonaro, Ainaro & Lautem DistrictsDili: Timor Adventures, 2013. http://www.timoradventures.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Cultural-Tourism-Report-2013.pdf

Prepared by Ed Willis

Revised: 11 January 2020


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Hi Ed

I was away when you posted this and I've only just seen it.

Just like the story of the 2/2, the awful history of the sexual slavery imposed by the Japanese on girls and women in the areas they occupied should be much more widely known.

Great work.


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