Danger: human crocs

Queensland is no place for wimps, feminists or anyone scared of Crocodile Dundee.
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The Independent Culture
Before I went to Australia I imagined that films set in that country were pure fiction and that Castlemaine XXXX ads were playing on a stereotype of an outback male who no longer really existed. I don't think I really imagined that far north Queensland would be all motorways, cappuccino bars and poetry readings, but it still came as a shock to find Crocodile Dundee, and squalid bars full of unshaven men in singlets.

And no roads.

Until recently, Queensland had a spectacularly corrupt state governor; the hundreds of miles of dirt tracks are blamed on him. But I think the men of the region rather like it that way; they get to roar about in four- wheel drives and brag about how they made it through some seemingly impassable swamp to get to the pub.

The other thing they like is the fact that the coastline is a-snap with killer crocodiles. I found this a little inconvenient myself, because there are miles of beautiful, unspoilt beaches. I was told at least a thousand times as I set off on a shoreline walk: "watch you don't swim; there's a whole heap of crocs around." I don't know whether "heap" is the correct collective noun for crocodiles, but they seem to think it is in Queensland. I'd also think a crocodile would eat you, kill you or perhaps just bite you, but no - a crocodile will "take" you.

Nevertheless, I tried to close my mind to crocodiles - and besides, as an obvious pom, I had enough trouble with some of the people.

In one very small town, I decided to send some postcards. I'd already sent a parcel from the post office and had noted that the sour, surly man behind the counter didn't like the look of me at all. As he'd weighed and stamped my parcel he'd glowered at me, while I'd remained pleasant, polite and blatantly English. As I stood in the queue with my postcards I knew that he and I were never destined to be friends.

I turned against him even more as he served the customer in front of me, a young Aboriginal man who was taking some of his own money out of his own post office account.

"You've spent 300 dollars in one day."

The Aboriginal just stared at him. Didn't even flinch. The official slammed down the young man's withdrawal, and started talking to his assistant before the customer was even out through the door. "Look at that. I bet he drank all that money, and now he's going to drink the rest of it."

I wished I were braver. I wished I had the guts to say: "Perhaps he had bills to pay; and even if he did drink it, what's it to you? It's his money. And quite frankly, if I were an Aboriginal in this town I'd drink incessantly."

But I just stood there, shocked. I glanced behind me to see whether there was anyone who might share a glance of agreement with my distress. But there, leaning against the counter, looking me up and down as if he were appraising horseflesh, was Crocodile Dundee.

He had the whole leather outfit, knife at his belt, teeth in his hat and thongs round his biceps. There any resemblance to Paul Hogan ended. He'd a mean, nasty sort of face with too-small eyes, a beer gut and pasty, freckled skin. I scowled at him to try to stop the lecherous eyeing. He just smirked and carried on. I turned away quickly. The counter clerk was waiting.

I asked him for two stamps to Europe, which he produced. He then barked: "What about the cards? Have you got to pay for them?"

"I bought them in the newsagent's this morning."

The clerk's eyes narrowed. "Did you?"

Meanwhile Crocodile Dundee was moving up behind me. I could feel his smirking gaze.

I tried not to be intimidated, tried to be cheery.

"Well, this would be quite a lot of writing to have done in a couple of minutes in the queue." I laughed.

The postman stared stonily.

I could smell Crocodile Dundee now, right behind me. I wanted to be Emma Peel - give a sharp back karate kick to Crocodile Dundee while smacking the official's jaw. But I've lived a wimpish life, untutored in martial arts and the wearing of skin-tight cat suits. I flung the postcards in the counter clerk's face and said: "That's right, I came all the way to Queensland to steal two postcards." Then I fled back to my hotel, terrified that Crocodile Dundee might be in pursuit.

A lie down in an air-conditioned room made me feel slightly less as if the whole town were about to storm up the stairs and crash through my door. I calmed down enough to admire the tropical scenery, including a tree filled with noisy parrots just beside my balcony. I told myself that I should be relaxed here, enjoy the remote location, feel more empathy for people who had to live in the male-dominated middle of nowhere. The post office clerk was probably just shy, and Crocodile Dundee was probably lonely, and simply trying to be friendly.

I almost had things back in perspective, when I turned on the early evening news. There was a local item about a dog that had been "taken" by crocodiles on a jetty a mere hundred yards from the hotel. The newsreader introduced the local crocodile expert for comment.

There he was, the post office Crocodile Dundee, looking tough. "Oh yes, it's only a matter of time now before a child's taken. We reckon this one's a 30-footer. We've been trying to catch it for days, but it's a sly one. Don't you ladies worry, though; we'll make sure your kids stay safe."

Fact File

Getting there: If you can travel before the end of July, extremely good value air fares to Australia are available - the normal April-to- June low season has extended this year. For lowest fares, consult a discount travel agency rather than going direct to the airlines.

The only airline with direct flights to Queensland is British Airways, daily from Heathrow via Singapore to Brisbane. A dozen other airlines will get you to Brisbane or - for crocodile country - Cairns. The lowest fares to Australia are on Emirates from Manchester or Gatwick to Melbourne via Dubai, or Garuda Indonesia from London to Sydney via Jakarta. Add- on flights to Queensland are available from specialist Australian agents.

Getting in: You need a visitor visa for Australia; specialist agents issue these electronically. Call 0891 600333 for more information.

Getting information: The Australian Tourist Commission (Gemini House, 10-18 Putney Hill, London SW15 6AA) is making telephone callers pay premium rates for information. You can order brochures on 0990 561434, or speak to a human on the 0891 070707 "Aussie Helpline" (49p per minute).