MAF Reservations Officer loading an aeroplane.
J Rytkonen

Arnhem Land is in the north-eastern corner of the Northern Territory, Australia, but for most Australians, it can be like living overseas.

When Imogen Caudell joined MAF in Arnhem Land in September 2023 for a 12-month Mission Experience Placement, she had expected Australia to be Australia, but she soon realised that she had landed in a culture that was foreign to her.

“It's an odd feeling, because you're in Australia, but it feels like a different country,” Imogen said. “It’s a different culture that you're working alongside.”

Aerial photo of Nhulunbuy town
Janne Rytkonen
Nhulunbuy, population 3300, is a mining town roughly 3000 km northwest of Sydney, or a 1000 km drive east of Darwin.

In her role as Reservations Officer, Imogen had to adapt quickly to working with Yolŋu clients who do not speak English as their first language, and she also had to adjust her own approach to communication.

“Over the phone it can be a little bit tricky, with accents to pick it up,” said Imogen. “So, it took a while for me to know what people were saying. And sometimes you just have to figure out how to say things differently, so that people will understand.”

Imogen, from the Queensland regional city of Toowoomba, has embraced the cross-cultural challenges, and she is working on learning Yolŋu Matha, the language of the Yolŋu people of Arnhem Land.

Resrvations officer at ticketing counter
Janne Rytkonen
MAF reservations officers handle ticketing, luggage weigh-ins and luggage tagging, in addition to loading aircraft, escorting passengers to the planes, keeping drinking water stocked on the planes and much more.

“I think it's important to at least try to learn language when you're here,” Imogen said. “One of the best ways to respect people and show that you care is trying to speak the language and putting effort into that relationship.”

In addition to learning the Yolŋu Matha, Imogen has had to learn the language of aviation, from industry acronyms to safety protocols to aircraft characteristics.

“I'd never worked in aviation before, and it's like a different language,” she said. “So, it was a learning curve, definitely.”

Her role at MAF Arnhem Land includes taking bookings for scheduled flights and charters, ticketing, checking in passengers and baggage, updating daily flight records, and loading aircraft.

“In the beginning, you're trying to learn all the place names and all the prices and wondering what on Earth you're doing,” said Imogen. “It took about a month before I started to find my feet and do a lot of those things confidently.

MAF luggage tags
Janne Rytkonen
MAF is the only air operator in Arnhem Land that offers a Scheduled Service between isolated communities such as Milingimbi, Ramingining, Gapuwiyak, Maningrida and Galiwinku.
It's an odd feeling, because you're in Australia, but it feels like a different country
Imogen Caudell, Reservations Officer

“It's a really mixed role. A lot of it's in the office answering phones and emails and sorting out the schedule for the next day, sometimes for hours, but there's a totally physical side to the role as well.

“I’m also checking bags for drugs and dangerous goods. And weighing bags and passengers and then loading and unloading our GA8 Airvans and Cessna Caravans.”

For Imogen, a task which is both distressing and rewarding is the planning and booking of domestic violence rescue flights when the need arises.

“I've loved being part of organising charters for the domestic violence shelter,” Imogen said.

“It's unfortunate it has to happen, but it's great to be able to help. I help to organise the charters and go back and forth with the pilots, and we make it happen. It's a really fulfilling part of this job.”

Resrvations officer at work at desk
Janne Rytkonen
In a typical day, a MAF reservations officer in Arnhem Land may take bookings for the shuttle service, plan and book a charter flight, schedule the week’s school flights, arrange a medevac flight, or coordinate a domestic violence extraction flight at short notice.

Outside of hectic office hours, she captains a local volleyball team, meets regularly with a group of other young adults for Bible study and activities, and worships at the Uniting Church in the large Indigenous community of Yirrkala.

For other young people considering a Mission Experience Placement, Imogen offers this advice, “You don't know how different the culture is and how much of a culture shock it will be until you get here. So that's something to pray about. I did pray about it a lot, and I know that my parents and my family were praying for me.”

Those prayers have stood her in good stead, and Imogen has loved the experience so far.

“It's very busy, but it's definitely been worth coming up here,” she said.

Loading an aeroplane woth groceires
Janne Rytkonen
MAF flights provide people in remote communities with access to grocery shopping, in addition to education and healthcare and other vital services.