WHEN the buffalo trophy hunters stopped coming to the Wildman River Wilderness Lodge, the wilderness quickly began to reclaim it. Now the disease-carrying wild buffalo are virtually eradicated, and a new breed of visitor is coming to Wildman, some 170 kilometres east of Darwin. They're still shooting . . . but the crocs, geese and 280 species of bird that call it home are perfectly safe. This is ecotourism, and the shooting is done with cameras. Tourism for the conservation-minded is an increasingly fashionable approach worldwide now being adopted by the Northern Territory. Last August, the old hunting lodge was bought by NT tour operator Australian Kakadu Tours and, after an intensive face-lift, is ready to show that new face to the world. Wildman's new manager, John Hilbig, sums up the new approach: ''We are taking you to nature. This is not like a zoo or even a wildlife park where nature comes to you.'' Of course the unfortunate thing about going to nature is that it inevitably involves some discomfort - often a deterrent for those of us who like our close encounters to come with sheets and hot showers. But at Wildman the downside of seeing the Australian outback at close quarters - tents and primitive toilets, camp fires, camp beds and all those bags - has made way for a surprising level of comfort and fine food at realistic prices. Its new operators hope the promise of screened, hotel-style bedroom cabins, a swimming pool in an oasis of lawns and gardens, and a convivial lounge and dining room will bring Asian, American and European tourists keen to see a different side of Australia without suffering for their interest. Wildman is just a 20-minute flight (it has its own airstrip) or two-hour drive from Darwin. But it is at the heart of a wetland area, complete with monsoon rain forest, that lets visitors see Australian wildlife in natural settings yet almost at touching distance - from the wallabies bounding down the airstrip to the crocs that brush the side of the aluminum boat as John steers it down a narrow waterway that in the NT's wet season (November to March) is 10 kilometres across. As he moors the boat, Blackie, the six-metre crocodile that lives by the boat ramp, circles, only his eyes and the tip of his nose visible above the murky water. He's a menacing sight, but John says, ''Blackie's OK. We know he's there. It's the one you don't know about that's going to get you.'' The quantity and variety of wildlife, seen from the boat, on foot in the rain forest, and bouncing down rutted, dusty roads in the Land Rover, is breathtaking. There are so many birds that the next day the famous Yellow Waters cruise in the neighbouring Kakadu National Park comes almost as a disappointment. And the genuine enthusiasm of John, his partner Samantha Hofstede, and their staff (including a qualified naturalist) for their surroundings and their desire to share it, contrasts with the impersonal professionalism of the tour operators who each day bus hundreds of tourists into Kakadu, at 20,000 square kilometres, Australia's largest national park. But the alternative to such a tour is to drive vast distance on unfamiliar, sometimes unsealed roads, some passable only in a four-wheel drive even in the dry season. Doing so in a hire car can add to the stress of such a trip. At Wildman, the driving is done for you, as small groups in 4WD vehicles view the wildlife with guides on a maze of roads along which you could so easily get lost. But while unspoiled Wildman, with so much to recommend it, is on the little known Mary River wetlands, Kakadu, with its World Heritage listing, its crocodile-shaped Gagadju Hotel with rooftop ''eyes'' that shine red at night, is becoming world-renowned. The park is owned by Aboriginals and its art and archaeological sites are an educational experience for the casual visitor and even experts such as British naturalist David Attenborough. Nourlangie Rock is one such site, a ''gallery'' of ancient rock paintings in an area where local Aborigines have gathered for 20,000 years. Here they sheltered from the violent early wet season electrical storms and used natural ochres to paint Namarrgon, the lightning man who creates a storm by striking his stone axe against the clouds. Thanks to the Australia National Parks and Wildlife Service, the rock area is well maintained, wooden steps and a walkway ring the paintings with a hand-rail to discourage touching or tampering with the silicon drip lines that divert damaging surface water. And there's no souvenir shop. For independent travellers there are illustrated boards explaining each painting and regular talks by rangers - probably preferable to visiting this important site, itself enough reason to come to Kakadu, en masse with a tour group, a sketchy commentary from the bus driver and not an Aboriginal person in sight. The park offers two hotels, lodges and camping, enabling a leisurely visit which the local visitors' centre can help plan. You can take a scenic air tour (expensive, but so much of Kakadu's most spectacular scenery can't be seen from the road). There are bush walks, ranger guided walks and lectures, local art sites and art galleries, the Yellow Waters cruise and even fishing- but not in the aptly-named East Alligator River system. There are also day tours by 4WD to see some of the almost inaccessible scenery such as the Jim Jim falls. The Kakadu visitors' guide says those who enjoy it most are those who stay longest. But for visitors wanting to see more than just one area of Australia, that's not always practical. The alternative, though, and the way most Asian visitors see Kakadu, is the one or two-day tours. It's a long (usually 11 hours) and tiring day, driving through a monotonous landscape of spindly trees, their trunks blackened by the annual burn-offs, and dusty terrain dotted with massive termite mounds. And all to the accompaniment of the driver's unrelenting commentary. When he runs out of worthwhile things to say (fast), he's likely to resort to tactics such as guess-the-length-of-the-lines-on-the-road competitions. Is it worth it? To see one of the world's great heritage sites in such a short time the answer must be yes. But for those with the chance to stay longer, a carefully planned independent visit, even combining bus tours in and out of the park with independent days while there, must be more rewarding. Magnificent though Kadadu National Park is, for those who want to see Australian wildlife close-up, enjoy a friendly personal approach, good food and good friends, for just a little more effort, Wildman River lodge wins all the prizes. Gazing at a huge red sunset over the billabong, Wildman guide Phil pauses in his croc-spotting and says: ''Sometimes I come for a walk down here at dusk and, looking at all this, nothing else matters.''