IT WAS a trip that started with a plane full of nerves and ended 10 hours later with 14 of the biggest smiles you could imagine, and an experience never to be forgotten.
Two days after defeating the Western Bulldogs at TIO Stadium, Gold Coast players and staff dispersed across the Northern Territory to explore all it had to offer as part of the club's two-match, 10-day stint in the Top End.
That included a trip to the storied Tiwi Islands, 80km off the coast of Darwin.
If you know your history of Australian football, you'll know something about the Tiwis. They're the home of the Long and Rioli families. Ronnie Burns came from there, as did Austin Wonaeamirri and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti.
This was a chance to explore how such a small mass of land could produce such an incredible array of talent for the national competition.
Eight players, five staff members and this lucky reporter boarded two 10-seat planes for the 15-minute flight north.
Most of the passengers had never flown in planes that small – more akin to mini-buses with wings.
Former Fremantle midfielder Connor Blakely was moved from the first plane to the second, swapping with yours truly, to even out another 20kg of the load. Such was the fine line we were treading.
First-year sensation Bailey Humphrey climbed in first, awkwardly squeezing into a seat just behind one of the two pilots. Hewago 'Ace' Oea hid his nerves behind his beaming smile and laugh.
It wasn't long before we touched down on Bathurst Island, the smaller but more heavily populated of two islands that make up the Tiwis. Melville Island, with two smaller communities totalling just over half of Bathurst's 1500 residents, adjoins.
One small field, one big pool of talent
Once the first plane of eight disembarked – the second would follow 45 minutes later – we were greeted by Tiwi Tours, who would host us for the day.
First stop was the island's primary school.
As our bus rolled in, about 100 children – almost all Indigenous – who were scattered over the playing field began to make their way to the school's entrance to greet us.
Five and six-year-olds raced up alongside the bus waving frantically, trying to catch the attention of anyone inside. A reciprocal wave was greeted by a huge grin.
Ben Long stepped off, followed by Jed Anderson, rookie Lloyd Johnston, Humphrey, Oea and Bodhi Uwland. Blakely, Sam Collins and the club's Indigenous programs coordinator Jarrod Harbrow, would be on the next flight in.
"Ben, Ben, Ben." It didn't take long to find out who the star was. And it shouldn't have been a surprise, with the SUNS' robust defender another of the famous Long heritage to have made it to the big time.
The 25-year-old grew up in Darwin and was a regular visitor to the Tiwis on holiday through his childhood.
He embraced the attention. For that day, the former Saint was the biggest star on the islands.
Footballs were flying all over the place. There was no structure and no order to what was going on. Goalposts at one end (a little wider than the norm!) were being peppered from all over the place.
Among the 100-odd kids on the field, there were at least 40 footballs going in all directions.
Three boys who could only have been 10 or 11 years old were unloading bare-footed torpedo punts travelling 40-50m. Another, closer to five years of age, was playing kick-to-kick with Humphrey, his ball drop and languid left-footed action and accuracy something many would envy.
The bare feet and shocks of black hair were standard. Dogs roamed around the field, somehow knowing how to stay out of the way, but always knowing where to head for a pat.
Music was blaring, with Indigenous rapper J-Milla a regular voice in the air.
Oea was becoming a favourite, with many children lining up for photos as footballs whizzed past their ears.
The young man from Papua New Guinea who moved to Australia at the age of 15 was hoisting youngsters on his shoulders as often as he was kicking a ball to them.
Always cheery, the smile appeared tattooed on his face: "They're going crazy, they just love their football, don't they?"
Teachers watched on from the fence-line. One said 196 students were enrolled, although just over half would attend each day as a mix of family and health reasons would keep some away.
Another asked if I knew about the Tiwi League. A league comprised of eight teams – EIGHT – and would draw the attention of the entire community for one game on Thursday nights and three others on Saturdays.
We headed into the classrooms where kids would do art projects for a while. They're very inquisitive, and so confident. "What's your name? What do you do?"
The players would all introduce themselves to the students, with two youngsters – including one who had performed at the SUNS-Bulldogs two days earlier – dancing with Long, much to the excitement of his classmates.
Long, sporting a broad smile beneath his SUNS cap, did not break eye contact with the pair until the dance concluded to rapturous applause and screaming.
This was a moment that meant as much to the footballer as it did to the kids that looked up to him.
After some damper and billy tea mid-morning, the next stop was all about cultural education.
We sat in a semi-circle on a perfectly mown lawn, surrounded by bushland and towering trees, providing some respite from the 30-degree day.
The tour leaders explained the origins of the Tiwis and more importantly for some of us, how connected the Indigenous community is through its family structure.
Not only does everyone on the islands seemingly know everyone else; quite often, they're connected through blood. The Rioli and Long families are the most famous in a football sense, with Maurice Rioli (1982), Michael Long (1993) and Cyril Rioli (2015) all winning Norm Smith medals.
Players had their faces painted in different totems, with Humphrey opting for the crocodile.
The leaders explained how spiritual Indigenous culture is, with a smoking ceremony undertaken to get the SUNS "more wins" and traditional dances for the crocodile, shark and buffalo – the totems of the tour leaders – taking place.
Island of champions
Another three-minute drive and we were at the museum.
Everything from housing, the schools, museum and supermarket was all super close. We were never longer than five minutes in the van to see anything.
The history of the islands was on show with a running replay of Grand Finals from the Tiwi League on the television.
The sporting Hall of Fame was central to the display, with big framed pictures of Michael Long, Burns, Wonaeamirri and McDonald-Tipungwuti taking pride of place.
As the afternoon meandered on, we headed to the high school, which adjoins the primary school, to visit the older students.
As we gathered in a large classroom where the students could pull up cushions and seats that laid scattered around the place, a five-minute highlights package of the win over the Bulldogs was being played for everyone to see.
Humphrey's match-sealing goal and resulting 'stir the pot' celebration – taken from NBA star James Harden – was met with raucous applause by the dozens of children in attendance.
After much encouragement, the SUNS teenager got to his feet, ran towards the seated kids, stirred the pot and waved his arms around to re-enact his celebration from two nights earlier. It got the biggest cheer of the day and was suddenly a "thing" that others wanted to mimic.
Humphrey, the 18-year-old from Moe, was as wide-eyed as anyone at the start of the day and embraced every opportunity to engage and learn about a different culture. In turn, the powerful midfielder was embraced by all, even promising to do a crocodile dance if he kicks a goal against Adelaide on Saturday night.
"They treat you like their hero," he said.
While the morning was all about kicking footballs around a vacant field, the afternoon was a huge game of dodgeball undercover on a cement basketball court.
The kids – and players – were not mucking around. If you didn't pay attention, there was a soft orange ball smashing you anywhere from your head to your feet.
Long was again a hit, as was Humphrey, whose celebration had been copied by several of the youngsters.
The 'Tiwi MCG'
A short walk from the school was Wurrumiyanga Oval, the home of the Tiwi League and the Tiwi Bombers, who play in the NTFL.
This patch of turf, surrounded by a hip-high fence that was rusting in parts, has been graced by some of the most skilled players ever to play the game.
The grass coverage was good, but in the midst of dry season, the surface was rock-hard. The centre circle was barren and looked more like a fire pit, but it didn't bother the locals.
This is where the locals come to watch four games of football each weekend, then the Bombers in the NTFL season that runs from October to March.
Blakely said it reminded him of a venue from country Western Australia, where he came from.
On the outside of the fence was some slightly overgrown grass and sandy dirt tracks that would be covered by people on game day.
It is the 'Tiwi MCG'.
And before we go …
As if we needed another reminder of how football-mad the community is, we came across a man in a wheelchair wearing a Port Adelaide polo shirt.
His favourite player? Stuart Dew. The elderly man was quick to recite the playing history of Gold Coast's coach, all the way back to his days at Central District in the SANFL before he was drafted by Port Adelaide.
Shortly afterwards while seven of us waited for a return flight to Darwin, a ute pulled up and its occupants greeted Long, having recognised him.
"Oh, I know you, you're Harbrow," came a voice from the front seat. "I remember you back from when you were playing the Bulldogs".
He was right. Harbrow, who played 192 of his 262 AFL games with the SUNS, was doing as he had all day, embracing, taking part, but taking a back seat to afford others a greater chance to learn.
While Harbrow and Long chatted to the men, out came a footy for two young brothers to have a kick with Blakely and show off how proficient they were on either foot.
The nerves that had filled the flight nine hours earlier were a distant memory for the return journey, replaced with smiles and an appreciation for what the game means to one of the northernmost parts of Australia.