Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Tame Trip to Australia's Wild West

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Tame Trip to Australia's Wild West

Article excerpt

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). …

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