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AIRNORTH to DILI - TRAVEL REPORT

 

Travel Feature Report from SMH 14 February 2009 -

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".

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 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.

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.

Contact  Bob at Guidepost Tours for information and special packages on travel to Dili and East Timor. Click on the enquiry button at the top of this page.

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