Little airline, big country

Jo Kennett buckles up for air adventures from Elcho Island to East Timor.

Our steward on the 30-seat aeroplane is showing two passengers how to open the door and throw it out. I can't see who is sitting next to the emergency exit but I'm praying it's not a pair of children. Wendy, the steward, must be reading our minds - she looks at us and adds with a smile, "but only do it on my command".

It's a characteristically offbeat introduction to one of Airnorth's unusual destinations: Dili, East Timor. This little airline with the rather unimaginative motto - "together we fly" - is the major regional airline for the Top End. Based in Darwin, Airnorth has for the past 30 years served remote communities and stations, regional centres and run industry charters.

It was the first airline to establish services to Dili during the post-election crisis of 1999.

I take a taxi from Dili airport into the dusty downtown. The streets are buzzing with army transport and the four-wheel-drives of the United Nations and other agencies.

The wind is blowing onshore at the beach that fronts Dili and the tree-lined esplanade is full of hawkers selling coconuts, tropical fruit, fish and mobile-phone cards.

A few kilometres away a giant statue of Christ the Redeemer - a gift from Indonesia modelled on the statue in Rio de Janeiro - looks down on Dili from atop Cape Fatucama.

Some of the buildings are still in ruins but much of the city seems to be recovering. Even so, poverty is everywhere. During the next few days I talk to many people - Australian soldiers, UN workers, Cuban doctors, NGO staff and the First Lady of Timor-Leste, Kirsty Sword-Gusmao - about the recovery process and life in East Timor. The Australian soldiers describe some of the most beautiful places in the country and are adamant that the beaches of East Timor are better than those of Bali. Later, travelling up the coast road fringed by white, palm-lined beaches and a flat, turquoise sea, I have to agree.

Sword-Gusmao, the Australian wife of Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, tells me that peace and security reign and "now you can see mums out on the street with their kids at night so it's all really positive".

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On my nights in the capital I walk to beachfront bars to watch the sunset over the ocean and feel completely safe.

Although the trauma the East Timorese have suffered is so recent, I find them incredibly hospitable and friendly. When I get lost, children and their mothers and grandmothers walk me back to my hotel. It's a fascinating trip and great to talk to so many people who are helping to rebuild this tiny nation.

In the mid 1990s, Airnorth offered the experience of a lifetime with its day-long "Outback Mailrun". A friend, Patty, and I took the flight west from Katherine on a four-seater plane. It was nearly 40 degrees and the pilot had us hold open the windows to catch the breeze as we taxied down the runway, his idea of air-conditioning.

We flew west from station to station, delivering mail that was quickly scanned and greeted with those immortal words: "More bloody bills!" We stopped at an Aboriginal community to pick up an old woman named Annie who was on her way to Katherine for a check-up after a glaucoma operation.

One of our stops was Bullo River station. The pilot didn't tell us it was the home of author Sarah Henderson, so when her housekeeper, a middle-aged woman with a mop of blonde curls, ran out to the plane yelling "tourists, tourists!", we looked around for the marauding horde, then realised, with some chagrin, that she was referring to us. We imagined ourselves more as maverick adventurers.

We delivered mail to remote properties where jillaroos shooed cattle off airstrips so we could land; places where, in the wet season, station-hands often come to meet the plane by boat.

We flew into Kununurra in Western Australia over Lake Argyle and the Ord River - shimmering blue in the red-rock earth below - then swooped in low over a smaller lake surrounded by lush greenery with flocks of birds rising from the water. It was a kaleidoscope of colour in an ocean of redness.

We flew to Sir Joseph Bonaparte Gulf in the north-west of the Northern Territory and spied crocodiles lolling in the mud of wide tidal rivers. At one station we saw a moving cloud of dust and the Marlboro Man - I swear it was him - galloped alongside the runway as we came in to land. At another, two girls rummaged feverishly through the mail bag for their mail-order goods. They were miles from anywhere but you can't keep a good shopper down. The Outback Mailrun still operates, although not for travellers. Charter flights are still available to many of the locations.

In 2006, I had taken a 95-minute Airnorth flight from Darwin to Kupang, the capital of West Timor. There was great excitement among devoted travellers to the region when Indonesia's Merpati Airlines joined forces with Airnorth to cover the route. We used to applaud a smooth landing, in fact any landing at all was seen as a product of some divine intervention. Airnorth, in comparison, was the epitome of comfort and efficiency.

Flights to Kupang have ended due to a lack of passengers and now there are regular buses making the day-long trip across the border from Dili.

There are many other fascinating destinations on Airnorth's routes. It flies to Perth (only during the dry season), Broome, Kununurra and Dili, and remote NT communities including Groote Eylandt and Elcho Island, Gove, Milingimbi, McArthur River and Maningrida. If you're cashed up and after a real adventure, you can devise your own itinerary on a charter flight.

Groote Eylandt is the largest island in the Gulf of Carpentaria. It's the land of the Anindilyakwa people, who run a historical art site tour, bush tucker tours and a shallow-water hunting tour on Emerald River. Travellers can stay at the Dugong Beach Resort and for fishing fans there is Andrew Ettingshausen's Escape Sportfishing Lodge.

Another unusual destination is Nhulunbuy on the Gove Peninsula in East Arnhem Land. It's an attractive tropical town and home to Rio Tinto Alcan Gove, which runs free mine tours most Fridays. Nhulunbuy has a yacht club and surf club with fantastic ocean views, as well as the Arnhem Club, a golf club, great fishing and Aboriginal cultural tours.

A 15-minute drive from Nhulunbuy is the award-winning Buku-Larrnggay Mulka art and craft centre. Permits are required to enter most of Arnhem Land - see the Northern Land Council website for details.

For something even more adventurous, you can catch a 45-minute flight from Nhulunbuy to Elcho Island, where Aborigines still sing songs about the visiting Macassan fishermen who, from the 1720s to the early 1900s, sailed each year from Sulawesi in search of sea cucumbers. There is an Aboriginal art and craft centre on the island, which is home to the band Yothu Yindi, the Chooky Dancers of YouTube fame, the Warumpi Band and the acclaimed singer Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, who sings a hauntingly beautiful creation song of the Yolngu people of Elcho.

There is no tourist accommodation and permits are required from the Northern Land Council before arrival.

It's only 95 minutes from Darwin to Dili but Wendy, our steward, has no intention of letting us go hungry. She hands out an assortment of snacks, one after another. We're all laughing at such abundance and our own greed - like children, we grab everything. Wendy just smiles. It's the sort of unexpected and quirky warmth that a traveller can find in the remote destinations served by a little Top End airline.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Airnorth flies to 11 destinations, with plans to expand from Darwin to other cities in Australia and South-East Asia. It has flights from Darwin to Dili from $436.20, Kununurra ($432.31), Groote Eylandt ($351.56) and Broome ($465.22). (Fares are low-season return from Darwin and include taxes.) Australians require a visa, issued on arrival in Dili for $US30 ($44.50), for stays of up to 30 days. There is a $US10 departure tax.

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