By RUSSELL BAILLIE
As far as pre-landing instructions go, they're short, to the point and slightly worrying. "Hold on behind the pilot's seat here," shouts a crew member into my earplugged ear, "hold on with your other hand up there. And bend your knees."
There are various means by which to arrive in Suai, East Timor. But, really, the only way is standing on the flightdeck of an RNZAF Hercules.
It's a relief to get up front after the sensory-deprivation that comes with travelling cheek-by-jowl on webbing seats inside the deafening, almost windowless and dimly lit aircraft.
Heck, but you should have seen us yesterday. Today it's only 90 minutes from Darwin to Suai, yesterday the lumbering transporter took 12 hours from Whenuapai via a refuelling stop at a RAAF base near Brisbane. It rattled all the way. So did we.
We are the members of NZ Teamfet. That's "New Zealand technicians, entertainers and musicians for East Timor", which extends to the four members of Tadpole, pop singer K'Lee, comedian/MC John Glass, Army minders and organisers Sergeant Aileen Tough and Warrant Officer Dave Pilgrim, a crew of two and a payload of musical and sound gear.
Also on the plane are 30 or so replacements for NZBatt6 - the sixth and last New Zealand Army peacekeeping deployment - and four RSA blokes on a goodwill visit cum membership drive.
The band and K'Lee aren't the first Kiwi entertainers to do a tour of duty for the troops. But they are the youngest, most contemporary, the sexiest and in Tadpole's case, the most rock'n'roll.
With their second album The Medusa - which sounds like a great leap forward from their debut - coming out, the band invited me (with due Army clearance) to come too.
Quite aside from seeing East Timor, it made sense. The Auckland quartet of singer Renee Brennan, drummer-manager Dean Lawton, guitarist Chris Yong and recent addition bassist Shannon Brown are one of our hardest-working live bands.
Tadpole formed in the mid-90s, with Lawton (serious, driven) and Brennan (quiet off stage, loud on) now the only original members. Guitarist Yong (quiet and Spock-like) joined in time for 1999 album Buddhafinger. Hamilton-based Brown (class clown and a human jukebox) joined this year after the departure of Paul Matthews. They roped in a turntablist, DJ Kritikil, for a while but he departed after finding out he didn't like touring. It sounds like they wear people out.
"I think to some extent that we go so hard that does make people prone to burnout," says Brennan. "I can completely understand people not wanting to live like that because there is not a lot to compensate for it and you have to enjoy the live stuff because there ain't much more after that."
That Buddhafinger is heading towards triple platinum locally is due as much to its run of hits as to their trusted method of promotion: tour and then tour some more. So spending some time on the road with the band is to see Tadpole in their element.
Except in East Timor, on-the-road will mean hours of lurching on the back of Unimog trucks on rutted tracks that may have been roads in a former life. Or rumbling down beaches in armoured personnel carriers. Or landing in a heavy Hercules on a very short runway.
Lawton: "I just said yes because it was time for us to do something totally different and it was a good opportunity for us to test our new songs."
As the plane lumbers across the Timor Sea, the combination of engine noise, earplugs and hearing muffs makes conversation impossible. Instead, we pass Brennan a notebook, pen and an impromptu pre-arrival inflight questionnaire.
Will you be recommending this airline to your friends?
"Not only will I not recommend it, I will never complain about economy class again."
What do you think the various military types really think about having you wild rock kids aboard?
"I think they find us quite amusing. They probably think it's a shame we're not new recruits and they can't hassle us too much."
Nervous about the shows? Or worried about the heat, the wildlife, the lack of alcohol?
"Yes, a little. Partly I'm worried about playing in the heat and partly I think most of these guys have not seen or heard of us before and I get nervous before a new audience.
"No alcohol doesn't stress me, I'm not a big drinker (there goes the wild rock'n'roller image) but I'm not too keen on mozzies, snakes or scorpions. I don't mind heat - I just do mind being made to move in it."
Current state of mind?
"Really looking forward to it. It actually feels like being back in school camp. Quite enjoying the camaraderie. Just hope we can show these guys a good time after all the effort they've gone to, to bring us here."
By the time the plane approaches the south coast of the world's youngest nation, the flightdeck has beckoned. The Hercules slowly carves figure eights while descending into Suai. From the cockpit window there are beaches, paddy fields, scattered villages and palm trees as far as the eye can see.
From above, it looks benign enough - welcome to Club Timor, is my room ready yet? But then you remember everything you've read about the place's violent, tragic history. This is where it all happened. And you're not too sure if you're up to seeing its aftermath.
Behind one last hill, the runway appears. There looks to be not quite enough of it, even to the untrained eye. Adopt that knee-bend position. The wheels touch. Brakes ... brakes ... brakes. Stop. Phew. Turn. Back up. Open the doors. Clamber out. That heat you've been worrying about? Here it is, then.
At the airbase we meet our protection squad, who for the next few days will ride shotgun - or indeed automatic rifle and machine-gun - on our movements outside base.
Usually they are a reconnaissance patrol, and undoubtedly this is their cushiest mission ever. Behind the peaks of their blue United Nations caps and wraparound shades, they look curiously like the Hollywood idea of modern soldiers - easy-grinning, suntanned and chisel-jawed. Some of us christen them "Dude-squad" (but not to their faces). And for the next three days while NZ Teamfet is disturbing the peacekeepers, their fingers are never far from their safety catches or triggers.
Ever thoughtful, our hosts have put foam squabs on the wooden seats of the Unimog to protect our non-military, Hercules-damaged posteriors for the ride to the NZBatt6 base.
The short trip is still largely discomfiting. There is the obvious poverty of what must be a subsistence existence for the villagers, with every dwelling a home to a bunch of smiling kids (some shout "kia ora" back), a few chooks and a couple of skinny-ribbed dogs. Every third or fourth house is an empty, often scorched and graffitied, concrete shell, stripped of roofing. It's hard not to wonder what fates the former residents met.
Later that day, the group visits the Ave Maria church - the scene of the Suai massacre where in 1999 up to 200 people were killed by militia led by Indonesian Army (TNI) officers two days after East Timorese voted for independence.
As a local who lost family in the atrocities recounts in halting English the events of that day and shows where the church's three Catholic priests were murdered and the scattered memorial plaques to the other victims, it's plainly affecting for the entire party.
If the signs of past violence give the place an uneasy atmosphere, there is an exorcism of sorts with the battalion's welcoming haka - with its actions miming shooting and throat-cutting at certain points, it feels like it confronts the ghosts of Suai's dark past.
The musicians reply to the powhiri with Neil Finn's Better Be Home Soon. It hits the spot, especially among those soldiers being replaced and coming home with us in two days.
The base, the HQ for 600-plus troops drawn mainly from the Linton and Burnham camps, is an old hospital formerly run by nuns. Its whitewashed Portuguese colonial charm has gained barbwire-topped perimeter fences and guard towers. The battalion administration, senior officers' rooms and guest quarters are in the old buildings, but most of the accommodation is semi-permanent plywood cabins. It comes complete with a gym and recreation centre - part of the gym is tonight's stage and the basketball court is the dancefloor.
After MC John Glass's irreverent warm-up routine, K'Lee's short solo set of R&B-pop gets buzzcut-heads nodding and combat boots tapping. She tells the audience about her own Army connections - her dad was a military policeman who served in Bosnia: "Someone came up to me today and said, 'Are you Kaleena McNabb? Well, I changed your nappy."'
It's hot and a long way from home but the slightly surreal aspects of this first gig don't stop there - first, there's no alcohol. Secondly, almost everybody is armed.
The troops must have their Steyr automatic rifles or sidearms within reach at all times. So a few songs in, Tadpole, with the voluble Brennan cajoling the crowd - four of whom have turned up with "Tadpole Groupie" stencilled on their protective overalls and a "We Love You Renee" banner - to dance, the band soon find themselves playing to a heaving, excited moshpit, many of whom who are, as they say, packin' heat.
They sing along to the old songs, they bounce along to the new ones - which are darker and deeper than Tadpole's early cheerier material - and at the end they want more. Eventually they let them go, Glass tells his closing gag involving a baby sparrow not for the last time this tour, and that's the end of the strangest gig Tadpole have ever played. Until tomorrow.
Afterwards, the band are sweaty, tired but well pleased with the opening night of the tour. They spend the best part of an hour signing autographs and getting their pictures taken with the newly expanded membership of their East Timor fan club.
"It was hard in a way because we had such an exhausting day getting used to the heat," says Brennan. "Halfway through the day when we were going through the church I was thinking, 'I am just not going to be able to do it. No way. I just want to go home.' Luckily it was cooler in the evening."
Yong: "I think it just goes to show that we can never be sure just who is listening to us. You tend to get stereotyped that only teenyboppers or young people would be into the band, but we've been proved wrong so many times when we play gigs."
That night it's not the day's excitement, the heat, the mozzies or snoring from NZ Teamfet's male dorm that disturbs sleep - it's a rooster just over the barbwire which crows at everything but the dawn. Given the crackshot neighbours, this bird is living on borrowed time.
The next morning soundman Chris Gee and Army helpers have already left with the sound system before sunrise, when the concert party departs Suai for the day's shows at smaller New Zealand bases nearer the border.
The band have been told the troops up there will be a harder, stauncher mob to entertain. Most will be coming off patrol to attend and be going straight back out. But first, it's the two-hour drive up into the hills - it would have been 10 minutes by chopper but the UN didn't approve - so the Unimog rollercoaster it is.
As we head up the hills, we see a school the Army has helped to rebuild. It's one visible sign that the Kiwi peacekeepers have done far more than just patrol the border - there's been projects in preventive healthcare, civil engineering, agricultural education.
But, says battalion public relations officer Lieutenant Zac Prendergast, they've been careful to get the East Timorese involved in and take ownership of the projects themselves because the Kiwis won't be here forever.
Soon we are near enough to the border to be able to see TNI outposts across the hills. Higher up the landscape changes from tropical lushness to something akin to Central Otago, but twice as hot.
The first show of the day is at Belulik Leten - or "BL" - a small dusty base near the border. Many of the troops look as if this time last year they were in school uniform rather than an Army one.
As the band sets up, an Iroquois helicopter regularly touches down and takes off in a nearby field, delivering troops from their patrol duties for the show. That includes soldiers of other nationalities - Irish, Nepalese and Singaporean - under New Zealand command.
The day is a blue-sky scorcher and the stage built across the back of two trucks offers no shade. So the band opt for a 40-minute greatest hits set rather than the 90- minutes-plus blast of the previous night.
Across the fence behind the stage a hundred or so locals gather as the band soundcheck, and they stay until the end.
The Army audience is more sedate than last night but still appreciative. Glass' attempts at crowd participation results in the Irish platoon dropping their trousers, which must surely rank as a success.
"That was probably the hardest one," says Brennan afterwards "because it was hot and everyone was sitting down and I just knew there was no point in trying to get them off their seats because there were so few of them and it was the middle of the day and they still had work to get back to."
With the gear packed up, we head back the way we came to Tilomar, the base of Alpha Company high in the hills in and around an old Portuguese colonial mansion with 360-degree views.
We arrive just as the sun is setting over Indonesian West Timor, and it's breathtaking. Especially as the company's petrol-powered nightly rubbish burn-off adds a certain something to the atmosphere.
In front of the building is a memorial cross to soldier Private Leonard Manning, who was based here when he was killed in a firefight with militia nearby two years ago.
The tour party and their gear is getting a little worse for wear. K'Lee is feeling off-colour from the heat and truck ride and Brennan needs a lie-down before playing. Some sound system fuses have blown during set-up. And there aren't any spares - until Army electrician Corporal Carl Fairbairn does his best MacGyver act.
K'Lee proves she's - and in borrowed fatigues looks like - a trooper.
Having been given a little something by the resident medical officer, she's up for her short but sweet pop set. Brennan, too, has recovered and the temperature has dropped to comfortable levels.
While tonight's audience starts off as sedate as the one earlier in the day, it is soon going wild - especially after Glass comes on and passes on an order from above that anyone not dancing will find themselves on cesspit cleaning detail.
About 50m away down at the fenceline, a group of East Timorese gather to listen, watch and scream their approval after each song (unless it's Tetum "For can you turn it down a bit?"). Among them, one boy can't help himself - he's playing air guitar on a piece of bamboo.
The set brings on the tour's first stage divers, who are caught with a certain efficiency by their comrades below.
"It's the first time that anyone has ever jumped up on stage and asked my permission to jump off it," laughs Brennan later.
But like the night before, it seems as if Tadpole have acted as a pressure valve for many of the young troops. They've been allowed to go a little nuts for an hour or two before getting back to a job that requires the utmost in level-headedness.
And then that's it. Last song, thank you, good night. In appreciation, the battalion haka rings out again led by four young soldiers who have been dancing in the dust. It's a moment that leaves many of the tour party glassy-eyed.
We hear the haka once more - the next day before the flight back to Darwin.
That morning we've packed and then gone for a spin on a RNZAF Iroquois, which with its open doors, mounted machine-gun and the palm tree-dotted terrain below, feels oddly like a Vietnam War theme-park ride.
Back on the runway, it's also a farewell to those troops who are going home.
Battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Dean Baigent addresses each of his departing officers individually. To each of them, he repeats a phrase which must mean as much as a medal: "You have made a difference to the lives of the people of East Timor."
The haka rings out. We clamber aboard the Hercules again. And if you thought the landing in Suai was hairy, hey, you should experience what they do on take-off ...
* The Medusa is released on August 31.