The crocodiles were pretty scary. Nearly as frightening as the cockroaches

TRAVEL AUSTRALIA : Driving in a motorhome to Darwin, David Hunter- Thompson meets the toothy star of `Crocodile Dundee'.

Ever since my father related his crocodile story from his Merchant Navy days, I have wanted to visit Australia's northern coast myself, just to see the gigantic beasts he described. His ship had put into Darwin in 1959, and he had been rowing across the harbour when an "enormous" croc jumped almost clear of the water and took a bite out of the small dinghy's stern. Steve Redgrave couldn't have rowed back to his ship any faster.

However, Australia was just one destination on the "must visit" list that my wife Joanne and I had been compiling for some time. We decided to leave our jobs, budget for six months of travelling and take in North America, Honolulu, the Cook Islands, New Zealand and finally Australia. By the time we reached Oz we had learned the hard way that the best method to travel long-distance around a big country was by motorhome. Quite simply, taking your own living quarters with you eliminates all the stress of scrabbling around strange towns in darkness, looking for a motel room and unpacking (ughh!) every night. Just as well, as towns here in Australia can be 300 miles apart.

We booked ahead with Hertz, who have depots in all the bigger cities, even in Alice Springs. We chose a spacious four-berth van, built by Winnebago on a sturdy Volkswagen chassis. This meant we could leave the overhead berth for sleeping and use the rest of the space as our living area. It cost A$120 (pounds 55) per day, but as we booked for two months there was no drop-off fee for picking it up in Melbourne and dropping it off in Adelaide. Pricey? Well, not really, when you consider the cost and scarceness of decent motels away from the towns and the motorhome's easy convenience.

Our van was superbly equipped with hot water, a shower, a flushable loo, full-size gas stove and fridge, although we needed mains electricity (from a camp site) to work the microwave, main air conditioning and colour television. Hertz even installs GSM telephones in most of its vehicles for emergencies, although it was quite a novelty to call up friends in London from Alice Springs at midnight local time and describe the sparkling stars of the Southern Cross - and the fearsome size of the roaches.

Australian camp sites range from the diabolical no-stars, where the cockroaches are big enough to carry their own mobile phones, to plush four-star sites with sparkling showers and Graeco-Roman style swimming-pools. A four-star site typically costs pounds 10 per night or less, which includes individual water and electricity points. Taking turns at the wheel, Joanne and I made the 1,500km journey from Alice Springs to Darwin in four days. You can reach Darwin by air from most Aussie cities, but to drive there is to experience this country's enormous scale. After resting and looking around the city we headed for the Darwin Crocodile Farm, 40km south of Darwin on the Northern Territory's only tarmac north-south road, the Stuart Highway.

Here, close-up encounters with seawater crocodiles are guaranteed - in more ways than one. "Anyone for a crocodile vol-au-vent?" ventured the young waitress, as innocently as if she were asking whether we wanted another cuppa. Most of the tourists in the farm's snack bar accepted the challenge. Some way through the third mouthful, however, I realised that crocodile meat tastes, well, somewhat tasteless, really. If pushed I would say there is the mildest hint of chicken.

So, there we were, nibbling our reptilian snacks and patiently awaiting Susan, our tour guide. A few crocodile farms in Australia's Northern Territory aim to remove some of the over-aggressive crocs from the wild each year, especially those from Darwin's coastline, and farm them for meat and their exquisite skins. They make wonderful belts and, before you ask, I couldn't resist buying one.

The massive skull and jaws of "Charlie" sit at the entrance to the farm, perhaps as a warning. He was a particularly bad-tempered and aggressive male, living around Darwin, but a few years ago he sadly turned up dead, probably from getting caught in fishing nets. His skull bears the scars of many battles and he was estimated to be about 90 years old. I wondered if it had been Charlie who met my father back in 1959.

The "salty" crocodile is much larger than its Australian freshwater cousin, and both species are now protected by law. Salties can grow up to 20 feet in length, though there are some folk tales of thirty-footers prowling the coast. The name is a bit misleading though, as all salties have to reach fresh water inland once every six weeks or so to flush the excess salt out of their systems.

The farm has about 14,000 crocs in various stages of development. Most younger ones don't get to grow very old, unless they've got breeding or "show" potential. Like Burt, for instance, who was the real star of Crocodile Dundee. He it was who reared up and fastened his teeth on the heroine's water bottle as she washed by the river's edge. Susan, his keeper, didn't go into much detail, except to say that if it had been for real, Burt would not have missed.

Burt weighs about a ton and eats two or three chickens (from the conveniently located "chook" farm next door) per week. Feeding him was truly awesome. His massive jaws dispensed with the (dead) bird in a few greedy gulps. The yolk of an egg that never got laid flew sideways out of his mouth to splatter like a glass of egg-nog a few feet away. Burt's jaws shut with a loud, hollow thump; even though we were on the safe side of the fence, we all took a pace backwards.

These reptiles can stay submerged for two hours or more, drop their heart rate to around four beats per minute - and wait. They have good vision but detect most prey from vibrations through the ground and water. The occasional clod-hopping tourist does go missing every year.

An adult croc's jaws close with a force of around five tons per square centimetre. That's like two Rolls-Royces sitting on top of a snooker cue, with you underneath at the sharp end, although it is hard to imagine how anyone's ever actually measured this. What is certain, though, is that if you do ever suffer a crocodile mugging, you are unlikely to escape with your life unless it decides it doesn't like the taste of your safari strides and lets you go. So, before Susan enters the enclosure with her two colleagues, she borrows a scene from The Sweeney: "Book out a shooter, George, better go tooled up for this one!" Though George wouldn't reveal whether he had ever had to fire at one of the crocs.

A highlight of our tour was the chance to hold a four-week-old baby crocodile. Some baby! It wriggled and squirmed with the strength of a medium-sized pitbull terrier, apparently trying to beguile us with its crooked smile at the same time. Fingers were kept well out of reach, even though Susan had taped the beast's mouth shut for us.

Darwin itself is an extremely pleasant place to spend a few days. It's not short of a decent slice of history and is ideally placed to visit the tropical wonderland of Kakadu National Park. Stroll along the town's main pedestrianised street - a mix of colonial and modern buildings - and you'll find a hundred and one different trips on offer for the less independent traveller. These range from day trips to Kakadu (an area the size of Wales), to overnight excursions deeper into the tropical jungle. The latter can include dips in beautiful freshwater swimming holes - which, I might add, are crocodile-free. If you take the time to look around you, you'll see wallabies, kangaroos, peacocks, extravagantly coloured spiders and all sorts of wildlife that the average Brit has only ever seen on TV.

Darwin was strategically very important during the Second World War. The Japanese thought it would make a good invasion entry point and carried out several bombing raids, damaging the port's fuel oil stocks and docks. The Australians then built defences and underground oil storage tanks, around which you can now take a tour. In the midst of the humid wet season as we were, it's a cool underground resting place.

"The Big Wet" is the local name for the cyclone season when the humidity reaches 85 per cent, temperatures hit 40C and it rains - big time! It's as if an impatient rain god starts lobbing it down to earth by the bucket load. Great swathes of flat desert become catchment areas for billions of gallons of water, which channel themselves into a gigantic Mexican wave sloshing from town to town. The downside to this is that during the wet season, most of the dirt roads into the Kakadu National Park are only open to four-wheel drive vehicles, and motorhomes such as ours have to keep to the tarmac.

We covered 9,000 miles in two months on the road with no breakdowns. Virtually everything about Australia was bigger and better than we expected. The scale of the country defies description, but I can say definitely that kangaroo tastes better than crocodile. As for the latter, my new belt is definitely coming with me on the next big adventure.

FACT FILE

Getting there

David Hunter-Thompson flew to Australia as part of a round-the-world tour which he booked through Trailfinders (tel: 0171 9383366). His ticket allowed as many stops as he wanted in airports covered by Virgin Atlantic, Air New Zealand and Cathay Pacific and cost pounds 1166 per person (minimum of two people booking together).

Trailfinders offer flights to Darwin on Garuda (via Djakarta) for pounds 616. Fare valid from17 Sep to 9 December.

Getting about

Hertz Campervans: 59 Unley Rd, Parkside, South Australia 5063, tel: 00 61 8 2718281, fax: 00 61 8 2718546. Four-berth motorhome costs from AUS$98 to 175 per day depending on time of year and length of hire. Book well in advance.

Others

The best time of year to visit is sometime between September to December (which is their spring).

Didgeridoo making: Whoop Whoop Tours operate from Darwin in the Northern Territory. They can be contacted at PO Box 43292, Casuarina, Darwin NT 0811, Australia tel: 08 89459974. Tour cost is A$130 (pounds 65) per person.

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