Getting away from the land of the Inuit was not easy. I was at that stage of travelling when money becomes most noticeable by its absence. Hitching seemed the best option, but in this case I needed to hitch a lift on a plane.

I was in the northern Canadian settlement of Coppermine, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. My ambition was to procure a ride on the much-talked- about Hercules cargo plane that was expected to arrive at any time. Coppermine, or Kugluktuk, its native name, lies 200km beyond the Arctic Circle and is home to about 1,100 mostly Inuit (Eskimo) people.

Walk in any direction from the community - and since the sea is frozen for about eight months of the year you usually can - and there is no sign of human presence for hundreds of kilometres. There are two general stores in town, but otherwise the nearest bakery, butcher or pub is at Yellowknife, 600km to the south. The sense of isolation is intense.

The sun, which had not set for two months, circled the sky, brushing the horizon on a daily, or at least nightly, basis. Talk in the community centred around the "imminent" arrival of the cargo plane that had been chartered by the construction firm involved in extending the town's only hotel. Every summer a barge navigates the ice-free waters of the Coronation Gulf with the entire year's supplies of non-perishable food, off-road vehicles, construction materials, petroleum and diesel. The plane was bringing what had been overlooked by the barge; for example: the hotel cesspool and cans of Coca-Cola. It would be laden on the return leg to Yellowknife with soil samples of a diamond exploration company.

I asked the diamond boss about the possibility of being squeezed in. "Sure, hop on tomorrow; there's plenty of room. We'll have a game of cricket!"

In this part of the world, where most people over 40 years old remember a childhood of tents and following the caribou migration, there is the concept of Inuit time to contend with. For a week, the promised plane made no appearance. However, there could not be a more hospitable place than Coppermine to be marooned. There is no crime to speak of and kids run among the wooden houses, pausing only to quiz strangers about other worlds. Without exception, people greeted me in the street, often asking me over for coffee.

By mid-afternoon, my jaw would be aching from smiling. By late afternoon, new friends would ask, like old friends, if I was interested in going fishing. Even a first-timer was rewarded with catches of Arctic char (a member of the salmon family), throwing back anything under eight pounds.

If only trees grew this far north, I could have tallied up notches on the trunk for each passing day of perfunctorily inquiring after the plane's expected arrival. At last I was given the answer: "It's in the air." I was even told to get to the runway four kilometres away.

A dot in the sky grew bigger and bigger. Soon four engines were visible, emitting thin streaks of brown smoke. It was a blatant affront to the Arctic serenity, an incongruous rudeness. The mass of metal glided with surprising ease on to the dirt runway, scarcely long enough to accommodate the new arrival.

The beast reappeared from the dust cloud of its own creation. The lorries and forklifts swarmed around, itching to get at the cesspool. Only after four hours of pulling, shouting, groaning and sweating by the labourers and an operation akin to a magician producing two caribou, a moose and a golden eagle out of a hat - not forgetting the sanitary receptacle - did the cargo bay lie empty.

In its place went 20 tonnes of hopes in diamond fortunes - and, of course, me. The plane sparked into life and we taxied in a cloud of dust down the runway. Eight of us sat or stood in the cockpit, there being only five seats.

We thundered due south over a mosaic of shimmering lakes and patches of ground gasping for air. From above, the Northwest Territories looked more water than land, despite being an area so lacking in precipitation as to be almost classified a desert. The permanently frozen sub-soil is impermeable to drainage. The noise of those engines made conversation impossible on the flight deck. In any case, the beauty of the scene before us demanded nothing less than total attention. Halfway through the flight, the first scrawny trees began to make a showing on the fragile surface below. Smoke hazed the sun, from scores of smouldering forest fires between here and the Pacific, 1,500km to the west. How strange that what had shortly before seemed such an overpowering machine should now appear humbled and vulnerable over uncompromising endlessness.

Ninety minutes after take-off, the plane began its descent - but to where? Still no signs of human presence below. Lower and lower the altimeter read: 10,000ft, 5,000ft ... Finally, through the mist, appeared Yellowknife. No less incongruous in its surroundings than Coppermine, though with 20,000 inhabitants and the shiny buildings fitting of a government provincial capital, a somewhat more determined attempt to put permanent human habitation on the map.

The plane lined up and landed on the clean Tarmac runway, parking among the jets that maintained contact with Edmonton, 1,500km further to the south. I left the airport, initially almost surprised to see once again cars, shops, even a McDonald's. But as the now sub-arctic sun set that night around 11pm, I felt a chill in realising that the homeliness of Yellowknife came from the neon signs rather than the strangers going about their lives among them.