Crocodile Park : The vast Kakadu National Park, near Darwin, is the perfect place to encounter Australia's deadly beast.

This humid, cosmopolitan community--named after Charles Darwin, who based part of "On the Origin of Species" on data gathered near here--is the capital of Australia's Northern Territory, and the main city in the country's so-called Top End. It has a distinction of another sort, too, though: As the nearest major port and airport to Kakadu National Park, about 150 miles east, it is also the capital of Australian crocodile territory.

Kakadu is a dramatically varied 3,600-square-mile complex of landscapes and ecosystems owned by the Gagudju Aborigine tribe ( Kakadu is another version of their name) and leased to the Australian national parks and wildlife service. Declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO, the park is a treasure house of Aboriginal art, with rock paintings found at more than 120 sites, many of them open to the public.

It is also rich in natural wonders. Its flora and fauna include about 1,000 varieties of plant life and several hundred kinds of reptiles, birds and mammals. Its land formations are as striking as anything found in the American Southwest--among them a remarkable 300-mile-long escarpment that marks the edge of the Arnhem Land Plateau.

The dominant physical presence at Kakadu besides rock (both painted and natural) is water. Frequent rainfall throughout the summer (the months of December through March) has given the park an immense network of rivers, lakes, estuaries, tidal flats and swamps. These are home to about 50 or 60 species of fish. And they are home to crocodiles galore, both the freshwater and the saltwater variety. The latter are the deadly ones.

Much of "Crocodile Dundee" was shot in Kakadu, and crocs are a big draw here. The park welcomes as many as 200,000 visitors a year, from Australia and elsewhere, and the reptiles are inevitably high on the must-see list.

Crocodiles are sacred to the Gagudju, who identify Ginga, a giant mythological croc, as a spirit ancestor of their tribe. According to legend, Ginga was originally a man-god who helped create the rock formations of the area. One day, though, he accidentally caught fire--and when he rushed into the water to extinguish the flames--he was transformed into a reptile.

I once traveled through the waterways of Kakadu National Park with a zoologist who works in the area. Our little metal boat, heating up like a saucepan on the stove beneath the bright Top End sun, putt-putted through warm, reedy water. A platypus ran along the grassy bank beside us. Then the zoologist spotted a crocodile and brought the boat to a halt. He pointed to what looked at first like a log--just like in the movies. Then the log slowly came alive, poking its ugly head up into the hot afternoon air. For a moment it wriggled its leathery hips like a belly dancer. I was mesmerized.

"A woman was recently attacked here by a croc," the zoologist drawled. I looked at the 12-foot reptile again, this time more warily. "She was a woman professor from Sydney," my guide continued. "She was canoeing and the croc chased her. When the park ranger staff found her a few hours later, her buttocks and thighs had been severely bitten. Lucky to survive, actually."

I was pleased when he started up the boat again and we moved on. We chugged past freshwater mangrove swamps, saw giant anthills--like Gaudi-esque sandcastles--just beyond the riverbanks and glided under paperbark trees, ghostly in their blue-silver hue, as if moonlight was upon them in midafternoon. It was a stunning landscape--but, even in the heat, the thought of an attacking croc gave me a chill.

Australians are ambivalent about crocodiles--a reflection of the strange role the myth of the outback plays in the urban Australian mind. During another of my visits to Australia, a 24-year-old American model, Ginger Meadows, was attacked and killed by a crocodile while standing under a waterfall near the charming pearl fishing town of Broome, in Western Australia, in the far northwest tip of the continent. I was in Sydney at the time and observed local reaction to the tragedy with some interest.

Urban Australians, for the most part, seemed shocked that a tourist's visit could so quickly turn deadly. At the same time, I thought, some also displayed a tinge of resentment that an American could spoil the outback's carefree image with careless behavior.

In the outback itself, of which the Northern Territory and Western Australia are the broad back, Meadows' death was not considered particularly unusual. Just a few weeks earlier in the Northern Territory, a local man had been "taken" by a crocodile as a busload of horrified tourists watched. The event was regretted, of course, but it ultimately provoked no more furor than arises in Los Angeles--or Sydney--when a pedestrian gets struck and killed by a speeding car. In northern Australia, locals know better than to step into crocodile-infested waters--just as in L.A. or Sydney they know better than to cross the street without looking both ways first.

The outback is real, but to many Australians it also has the quality of a myth; it is something to fear. The neat, red-roofed suburbs that surprise visitors to Australia--who perhaps expect the outback to begin at the Sydney airport--might be seen as a defensive reaction to the untamability of the harsh surrounding habitat. "The trimmed gardens of the suburbs show a paranoiac fear of nature," Australian novelist Helen Garner once remarked to me. "They try to keep nature at bay, to keep it out of the cities."

Yet they certainly don't want it to disappear altogether. About 80% of Australia's citizens are urban dwellers. They would not know how to survive in the outback. They have never been threatened by a crocodile. Yet the idea that they are surrounded by a largely untamed wilderness is of great importance to Australians.

Crocodiles are big business in the Northern Territory. Not only do crocs draw tourists, they also yield skins that sell for $250 or more apiece, and end up as shoes, wallets and purses in Tokyo, Milan and New York. There is also a market for crocodile teeth.

In Kakadu National Park, it is even possible to stay inside a crocodile--to stay, that is, at the 812-foot-long, 110-room Gagudju Crocodile Hotel.

Guests arrive at the crocodile's mouth and step into a lobby within its jaws. Guest rooms run along the reptile's sides, overlooking a billabong (pool) in its belly. The neck holds a restaurant. The four feet are emergency exists.

Inside the beast is a shop selling local crafts and a gallery filled with historical artifacts from the area (provided by the Northern Territory Museum and Gagudju Assn.) and photographs of inaccessible Aboriginal rock art.

Tours of the park can be arranged at the hotel, as can cruises through the Yellow Water wetlands and along the South Alligator River.

There's obviously something kitschy, even surrealistic, about sleeping soundly within the body of a crocodile in the middle of croc territory--but there's something oddly reassuring about it as well. At least you're inside the croc and not outside.

GUIDEBOOK: The Crocodile File

Getting there: Qantas and United Airlines have daily nonstop flights from Los Angeles to Sydney, and there are connecting flights on to Darwin on Ansett Australia. There are also connecting flights on Qantas from LAX to Cairns and on Qantas and United Airlines to Brisbane, with connections to Darwin on several carriers. Round-trip fares from Los Angeles to Darwin start at $1,346. From Darwin, the most practical way to get to Kakadu National Park is to rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle in Darwin and drive the 150 or so miles to Kakadu--especially since you'll need such a vehicle to explore the park independently once you get there.

Where to stay: Gagudju Crocodile Hotel, Flinders Street, Jabiru; tel. 011-61-89-792-800, fax 011-61-89-792-707, reservations (800) 225-5843. Rates: $115 double per night. There are low-cost campsites all over Kakadu, but because of wildlife and extremes of weather, these are recommended only for experienced campers.

Exploring Kakadu: Visitors to the park are advised to contact Kakadu Park Headquarters, Box 71, Jabiru, N.T. 0886, Australia, tel. 011-61-89-799-101. Entrance fee to the park: about $4.

For more information: Contact the Northern Territory Tourist Commission at (800) 468-8222.

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