Crocodile Dundee – the film that put Australia on the international travel map – turned 30. To mark the milestone, Kendall Hill visits the Top End, retracing Paul Hogan’s journey through the Never Never.

When Paul Hogan stood on top of Ubirr rock and declared, “That’s the Never Never land – nothing like that where you come from”, movie-goers in 1986 must have been awestruck at the magnificent, alien scenery – just as I am now, squatting on the sandstone outcrop overlooking the Arnhem Land plateau, the Nadab floodplain and a rose-gold sunset filtered through louvred clouds.

It’s Gunumeleng season in Kakadu, the build-up to the big wet: the time when bright-orange Leichhardt’s grasshoppers call for their father and the formidable lightning god Namarrgon duly arrives, banging his axes in the clouds. I can hear him up there now, crashing and smashing his way across an ominous Top End sky.

Directly beneath us is a treasury of rock art far older than more-celebrated sites such as Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain. But there are no cages, no security, no crowds in this open-air gallery. Just me, Kakadu’s interpretation ranger, Christian Diddams, and the occasional short-eared rock wallaby. The bonus of visiting Kakadu during Gunumeleng is the absence of tourists. Diddams says that during the dry months of May to September, 300 to 400 people a day come here at sunset. This evening there are seven.

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Each painting tells a story, its meaning often hidden to outsiders but well known to Bininj, the Aboriginal people from this area. There are cautionary tales warning against the dangers of crocodiles, detailed X-ray paintings of animals showing the best bits to eat and giant megafauna that predate the last Ice Age. The most recent paintings portray pipe-smoking Europeans in clunky boots. Diddams puts this extraordinary legacy into context: “That’s 20,000 years of eyewitness accounts of life. It’s just jaw-dropping.”

In Kakadu National Park, there’s a story behind every season, every plant, every animal, every landmark. Aborigines have studied this country for countless generations, amassing a store of ancestral wisdom enhanced with each passing year. The Bininj and Mungguy have called Kakadu home certainly for 20,000, probably for 40,000 and possibly 60,000 years, according to archaeological evidence. The exact date is academic. This is one of the oldest living human cultures on the planet – and one with a profound spiritual connection to country. That connection, that “living cultural landscape”, was recognised by UNESCO when it put this rare place on the World Heritage register in 1981.

But it was another five years before Kakadu achieved worldwide fame, thanks to another story, this time told on the big screen. Next month marks 30 years since Crocodile Dundee charmed audiences with its tale of an unlikely romance between a larrikin bushman and a New York City reporter in the Northern Territory outback. Watching the film again in 2016, it comes across as a cheesy romp littered with stereotypes as dated as female lead Linda Kozlowski’s shoulder pads.

The blockbuster success of the movie sparked a boom in Top End tourism (kakadutourism.com), which sired the only crocodile-shaped hotel in the world. The Indigenous-owned Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel is the pride of Jabiru and my home for the night. Opened in 1988, it is holding up remarkably well. The central pool, the “heart” of the crocodile, is a blessing and the Escarpment Restaurant has original dishes such as crocodile spring rolls and steaks from nearby Gunbalanya Station served with “café de Kakadu” butter infused with mountain pepper and lemon myrtle.

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At 19,804 square kilometres, Kakadu is the same size as a small European country – Slovenia, in fact. To appreciate its vast scale, next morning I take flight with pilot James Clayton of Kakadu Air. Viewed from above it’s easier to picture the 500-kilometre-long, one-billion-year-old Arnhem Land escarpment as an ancient coastline bordered by woodlands and sea. The rock formations remind me of crumbling temples: an Australian Angkor Wat or My Son, which is apt because these, too, are steeped in religion.

As we swoop back to Jabiru Airport, Clayton points out a ridge called Djidbidjidbi, the most sacred site in Kakadu. It’s said the rainbow serpent creator crawled over this range and came to rest on the other side. If the site is disturbed it will bring catastrophe to all, believe the Bininj.

Don McGregor, a Jawoyn guide from Cooinda Lodge, picks me up in his jeep to show me Kakadu’s other masterpiece of rock art, Burrunggui (formerly Nourlangie Rock) – shown in the film only as a backdrop to the couple’s first-night camp site. “The rock art sites are everywhere once you get up into stone country [the escarpment],” he says as we tour the lower galleries. “They say there are 5000 recorded sites but it’s estimated there could be 15,000.”

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McGregor knows this site better than most; his mother and aunts are senior custodians here. All three women are pictured on the information board at Burrunggui. There’s a quote from his mother, Violet Lawson, about the significance of this site, first used as a monsoon shelter some 20,000 years ago. This was “a place for making tools, telling stories, doing string games while the tucker is cooking”, says Lawson. “Go hunting down the river when the water goes down a bit.”

McGregor is a soft-spoken encyclopedia of Indigenous lore. I learn quickly to keep quiet and let him tell stories as they come, triggered by the world around him. Darwin woollybutt trees are good timber for didgeridoos, he explains, and their flowers signal the start of burning season. Flagellaria vines make superb fishnets. Wattle-seed pods are good for soup. Each observations brings this opaque land into sharper focus for an outsider like me.

Neighbouring Angbangbang billabong is where Hogan and Kozlowski cruised among crocs and waterlilies before their first night in the wilderness. There’s no chance of following in their wake today because the billabong is almost dry – but I have a far better option.

Cooinda Lodge, where I stay in air-conditioned comfort overnight, is beside the Yellow Water wetlands, home to Kakadu’s most memorable wildlife cruise. The birdlife here is spectacular – one-third of Australia’s bird species are found in Kakadu – but most visitors are drawn to Yellow Water for their Crocodile Dundee moment: a guaranteed close encounter with the Top End’s top predators.

There are roughly 40 saltwater crocodiles per square kilometre and we see dozens of fearsome creatures during a three-hour tour. Some even smile at us. “They’re looking at the floating bain-marie,” deadpans guide Dennis Miller.

The next morning, Cooinda’s tour supervisor, Adam Firth, and I head south to idyllic Gunlom falls, where Hogan was filmed spearing a fish for dinner in the glassy green lake beneath the cascade. Firth has packed a more conventional morning tea that we eat in the shade of pink-trunked salmon gums before scaling the rock face to reach Australia’s most stunning infinity pool.

Floating in Gunlom’s tiered lagoons while gazing across the South Alligator River valley, with small cherabin (freshwater prawns) nibbling the legs, proves to be one of life’s simple, slightly ticklish, joys.

The allure of Kakadu, for me, is captured in these words by respected elder Jacob Nayinggul of the Manilakarr clan: “Our land has a big story. Sometimes we tell a little bit at a time. Come and hear our stories, see our land. A little bit might stay in your hearts. If you want more, you come back.” I want more. 

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