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,
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
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)
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). …