Cameron is on his GAP year and chose to volunteer with MAF after he heard MAF pilot Dallas Pattern speak about her work in PNG at his church. He liked what MAF stood for and its values, and wanted to give his time to a cause he believed in. Moving to a remote town in the top end of the Northern Territory is not most eighteen-year old’s idea of a fun couple of months. Nor is spending three weeks doing accounts in 30 degree heat.
However, despite warnings of killer crocs and dangerous jellyfish, he moved to Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia to volunteer with MAF for the months of June and July. What he discovered is that it was not only much warmer than Wellington, but MAF is doing amazing work serving the indigenous (Yolngu) people of Arnhem Land through aviation.
It’s not until you arrive in Arnhem Land, and realise how remote it is, that you can get a sense of why planes are such a key part of life up there. Travelling between homelands and communities is a very important part of culture, especially when attending ceremonies of the deceased. However to drive between communities is a long, dangerous process on dirt tracks, and during the wet season often impossible! There’s a reason why a four wheel drive is part of the recommended packing list; the sealed road only goes to the edge of town. The only reliable and efficient mode of transport is aeroplanes, which makes MAF’s regular and charter flights so important. Flights mean Yolngu people can continue to live in their homelands right across Arnhem Land, practicing their traditional hunter gatherer lifestyle, but with medical care and other essential services just a flight away.
One highlight of Arnhem Land was the time that I spent in the community of Gapuwiyak (Lake Evella) with MAF pilot Matt Henderson and his family. MAF currently has families stationed at four of these communities, where they are able to offer direct flights between communities. Apart from learning how to do landscaping “bush style” (think a can of petrol and a lighter) or visiting the local creek for a swim, I learned something more important. Families in community often have the most chance to impact on the lives of the locals that they live with. The Henderson’s seem to help the community not just as pilots, but also everything from a tyre shop to maintaining the local playground—all from their back yard! One day a young man called Tomtom came around to get the tyre for his truck inflated, and ended up showing me the results of his last successful hunting trip for buffalo with Matt. In a culture where young men so often lack role models, seeing Tomtom have someone invest in him was incredibly encouraging.
Another memorable moment with MAF was the Awaken Arnhem Land festival, run by Yolngu for Jesus and Youth for Christ Australia. For 10 days Yolngu and Balanda people all across wider Arnhem Land met to be part of Jesus School teachings during the day, followed by rallies and open worship at night. The theme for the event was “Celebrating and Spreading the Love of Jesus”. The opening night we had a traditional feast, complete with buffalo and turtle, and ended up with hundreds of people dancing around a field praising God. Awaken Arnhem Land was especially powerful in how it equipped Yolngu to disciple other Yolngu back in their communities and homelands. MAF was a key part of helping make this event happen. Over one weekend they flew in almost 200 Yolngu from all across Arnhem Land to attend. Without MAF’s support, whole communities would have missed the chance to have their leaders equipped with the tools and knowledge to share the Gospel.
Have you ever made friends with the frog who lives in your toilet? Or had your food shipped in on a barge? Even learning to live in the Top End of Aussie was quite a challenge. Don’t be fooled by the picture perfect landscape and tropical climate, Arnhem Land is a tough place to live. It can feel like everywhere you go something is out to eat you. While I was out gardening I was stung and bitten by ants and wasps, and almost everything in between! Even the dirt can be deadly, harbouring a nasty disease called Melioidosis.
It may not be your typical trip to Australia, but to see first-hand the work that MAF is doing in Arnhem Land was truly unforgettable. So if any of the Arnhem Land staff are reading this at morning tea in the lunchroom overlooking the planes, thank you. You’re work and commitment is making a real impact. And if you’re reading this thinking about supporting or even heading away on mission, do it. Shark bites don’t even hurt that much.