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AUSTRALIA // THE FITTEST SURVIVE DARWIN

If you don't mind biting the backside off an ant, Tim Nelson will show you how to enjoy a "bush tucker" dessert. The rear pod of the green ant is the candy of the Aborigines and tastes like lemon in the dry season, like honey in the wet.

Nelson also knows how to extract and share the best of the daunting region that formed the backdrop for the Crocodile Dundee films. He gave up telling tales as a newspaper reporter in Western Australia to tell more vivid tales as a tour guide among the crocodiles, brumbies, firebirds and box jellyfish of the Northern Territory.

Like other "Top Enders" (people who live in and love the Northern Territory), Nelson proves that Crocodile Dundee was not just a comic part for actor Paul Hogan, but a composite of northern Australian characters, with their special brand of leg-pulling humor and quiet pride in their country.

Nelson gets short-tempered when American tourists complain that their kids are bored because there are only two television channels. And he fumes at those visitors who can't appreciate the beauty of, or _ more importantly _ respect the danger of, the bush.

He'll explain that people who live in the Top End are more multicultural and tolerant, despite their isolation, than people from big cities in the south of Australia. For example, the word "Aborigine" is rarely used by locals. They're called "black fellers" by the "white fellers," and that seems to satisfy the need to distinguish.

If there's any part of Australia where white fellers are sensitive to the fact that they are the interlopers on the homeland of the black fellers, it is in the Northern Territory. Nelson points out that white fellers identify just two seasons (wet and dry), while black fellers are so sensitive to nature that they identify six. The finer distinction was important to the nomadic hunter-gatherers who formed Australia's first societies.

Darwin is the gateway to Kakadu National Park (where much of the Crocodile Dundee films were shot), the Adelaide River, Katherine Gorge and the bush. The city has about 68,500 people. But they come from 84 ethnic backgrounds. It's a young city, with an average age of 28. It's also a relatively new city.

It was almost totally destroyed in 1942 by the same Japanese fleet that bombed Pearl Harbor. Among few buildings to survive was the Hotel Darwin, which prides itself on its saloon (a Top End version of the famous Raffle's in Singapore). Local legend has it that Japanese pilots were told, on pain of death, not to bomb the hotel because the generals wanted it for their headquarters. The pilots didn't bomb it but the generals never got it, either.

The hotel proved its durability in 1974, when Cyclone Tracy virtually demolished the city again with 11 hours of winds clocked at 180 mph, an attack far more powerful than the Japanese bombs.

Today Darwin is a city of pleasant malls, excellent multicultural restaurants, a casino that combines Las Vegas neon with London pretentions, and Outback rough-and-readiness. It also has new, stringent, cyclone-resistant building codes.

A short boat ride across the harbor is the Cox Peninsula, where "brumbies" (wild horses) hide in the spear grass and the gum trees and where birds keep bush-fires going.

The spear grass, prevalent throughout much of the Top End, grows to 12 feet in height. During the wet season, "knock-down rains" flatten the grass. As the heat builds up during the dry season, spontaneous combustion causes flash fires.

Most of the trees and plants need the fire to germinate, and as the fires roar, the kites (similar to hawks) dine on the fleeing small animal life.

But, if the fire dies, the kites may pick up burning twigs and drop them elsewhere, to re-ignite the blaze and thus keep dinner on the move. Tim Nelson says he wouldn't have believed it if he hadn't seen these "fire-birds" in action.

The drama is not only in nature. It's also artificially produced.

Hidden in the spear grass and the gum trees, World War II aircraft wreckage and deserted gun emplacements starkly illustrate that this place was on the front lines a half century ago. Top Enders are still resentful that the British were prepared to sacrifice northern Australia to the Japanese, and they proudly point out that their own government withdrew troops from Europe to defend the homeland.

The U.S. sent thousands of men and planes to northern Australia. The 500 or so air strips built then are still there, and the U.S. Air Force refuels its bomber and spy planes at Darwin's combined military-civilian airport.

Locals think that Darwin deserves a modern air terminal, rather than its ramshackle, open-air hangar. But it's somehow symbolic of the individualistic informality of the Top End that you pluck your luggage off a baggage cart in the mid-day heat of a scene from Casablanca.

Darwin does, however, provide the creature comforts, and immediate access to the wilderness splendors of the Northern Territory. But it's no place for tourists who want to watch television.

Nelson recommends, and quite rightly, that a good starting point for explorers is Darwin's excellent Northern Territory Museum. Its first startling displays are outside: two of the ramshackle craft in which Vietnamese boatpeople escaped to Australia. (Other such vessels are in Darwin Harbor, where they are used for fishing.)

The museum offers an introduction to aboriginal culture, legend, history and in particular, sacred beliefs.

The black fellers' relationship with the land and animals stems from the "dreaming" or "dream time," the mystical and spiritual explanation of the Creation that gives Aborigines their individual responsibilities as custodians of particular places or species in nature.

An afternoon at the museum will help explain the rock paintings at the sacred sites in Kakadu National Park, and will provide a good introduction to the region's most famous predator, the saltwater crocodile.

Here, Sweetheart, a 14-footer who ate outboard engines, is stuffed and mounted _ intimidating but harmless. Nelson tells the story of a 30-footer rumored to be in the area.

Peter Benesh is a free-lance writer who lives in Europe.

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