Tame Trip to Australia's Wild West

SOMETHING looks familiar about the sandstone escarpments and the flood plains of Kakadu. I can almost see Mick Dundee's muscular chest, his grinning, leathered face.

Welcome to ``Crocodile Dundee'' country.

Kakadu National Park, in Australia's Top End, was one of the locations used for the Australian film that - for better or worse -

has come to symbolize Australia to the rest of the world. This is Australia's Wild West - filled with truckers, miners, croc hunters, and geologists.

Outside the towns there are other kinds of wildlife: poisonous snakes and spiders, and crocodiles that everyone here treats with respect. But for all its threatening inhabitants, Kakadu National Park has a stark, peaceful beauty about it. Because of its beauty, its wildlife, and its remnants of Aboriginal culture, it has been declared a World Heritage site by the United Nations.

I'm traveling with Billy Can Tours (a ``billy'' is a metal can used to boil water for tea). An air-conditioned minibus is not quite the equivalent of the open-air truck with clanging pots that was used in ``Crocodile Dundee.'' Aside from our young, quiet driver and guide, Tony, we have two German girls who seem to laugh nonstop, a December-May Australian couple, a taciturn college student from New Jersey, and a demure but self-sufficient Japanese woman.

Kakadu is the size of Wales, Tony says, and there's no way to see everything fast. So we settle back and watch the gum trees go by, occasionally braking to avoid families of wallabies (small kangaroos) that hop across the road.

We're here to learn about the watering holes, the wildlife, the bird life, and something about Aboriginal culture. Crocodiles, however, are the main motif.

Heading out of Darwin, we pass the ``Hard Croc Cafe.'' There's also a new resort, run by Aborigines, shaped like (you guessed it) a crocodile.

From time to time, Tony swerves off the road to point out plants and birds. Over there are paperbark trees, he says, whose peely bark was used by Aborigines to wrap food, light fires, and fashion containers for water.

We pull up to a cluster of termite mounds, some more than 20 feet tall: an insect Stonehenge. Termites make them by mixing their saliva with bits of dirt and excreting the glop, which hardens.

Our first real stop is at the end of a dirt road that abuts the muddy Adelaide River. A long, flat boat with a fringe on top awaits us, and off we putt upriver to look for some ``salties'' (saltwater crocodiles). While brochures of other tourist operators show huge crocodiles leaping out of the water, this boat's too small to get involved with the big ones, says Brendon Naylor, the boat owner.

``We do it more the ecotourism way,'' Mr. Brendon says. ``We show how they live on the banks.''

Despite some disappointment at missing the greater drama, we try to train our eyes to see as the guides see. They can spot crocs that look like proverbial logs to us. While we scan the turbid, yellowish water, Brendan tells us why crocodiles keep their jaws open (he says it's to cool their brains, located way back in their long skulls).

We see them on the banks, buried in wet sand to keep their body temperature even. Finally, a triangular head swims toward us.

``That's `Aggro'; forget it,'' Tony calls out. The last time they tried to feed Aggro, he decided he wanted to jump in the boat. So we give him a miss.

Finally, we see a more acceptable one. Brendon puts a big chunk of meat on the end of a long steel pole and hands it to me. I dangle it above the wary croc, tease him with it once to make him jump. He lunges out of the water, and with a strong, quick tug, chomps it off.

At lunch time, Tony drops us at a billabong (pond). After assurances that we're safe from triangular heads and big teeth, we gingerly dive in for a quick swim. Then we eat lunch in a shady spot near some old buffalo hunters' huts with their iron beds and corrugated tin roofs.

Late May is a good time to travel here, because there are fewer people and it's neither too hot, too buggy, nor flooded.

But for the same reasons, that's when controlled burnoffs of the undergrowth occur. So for much of the trip we're going through eerie burning areas.

Just when we think we are on a safari through hell, wetlands appear, and with them scores of birds: white egrets, brown-and-white magpie geese, pelicans, and large silvery-gray cranes called brolgas.

Our cultural stop is Ubirr, home of famous Aboriginal rock art. The drawings are painted on smooth rock surfaces under rock overhangs. Some are red ochre paintings that depict X-ray-style figures. Others record important events, animals, and spirit figures. Some are estimated to be 20,000 years old, making them some of the oldest human works.

That night, in a large tent, we dine on steamed barramundi (a Northern Territory fish), veggies, and damper. The last is an old Australian staple, a basic bread that is cooked in the coals. Ours is a fancier version with sultanas (raisins), whipped up by Geoff, the December half of the happy couple. We all sleep in another large tent with rows of cots, each with its own mosquito net. Dingoes set up a group howl about 5 a.m.

Later that morning, we stretch our legs with a steep but brief climb to the top of Nawurlandja, a sandstone hill. At the summit, we look out over a tree-studded valley that falls away in all directions. Climbing up on these outcroppings is the only way to get a sense of how vast and desolate Kakadu is.

The last day is the high point: canoeing up Katherine Gorge. The sleeve of turquoise water pulsing through steep red sandstone cliffs is the most dramatically beautiful thing we've seen. Our measured glide through the water is perhaps the best way to see it, despite noisy, motorized boats carrying other tourists.

It was perhaps a more sedate trip than I had imagined, but enjoyable nonetheless. There are more rugged trips available - including some by motorcycle, but they keep themselves well hidden.

Just like the crocs.

* Billy Can Tours, GPO Box 4407, Darwin NT 0801, Australia.

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