HE used to make me wince.

I was far from an avid viewer of Steve Irwin's TV shows, and had always dismissed him as a croc wrestling boofhead with the embarrassingly jingoistic catchcry (always shouted at full volume): "CRIKEY!".

His daughter Bindi, who has carried on his work, has just turned 20, and it's nearly 12 years after Steve Irwin's death - but it's taken me almost as many to appreciate his legacy.

I was, to put it simply, blinded by my own snobbery. Cultural cringe, with a light smattering of tall poppy syndrome.

In 2006, I was living in London when news came through that Steve Irwin had died.

Initially, I didn't think about it a lot. I'd been there for a year and I wanted to distance myself from that kind of Australian; those who came across, in my mind at least, as a throwback stereotype.

Maybe Blighty had got to me. It was, however, likely a more simple truth: I refused to define myself in the same category as Irwin. I might be Australian, but I was nothing like him.

But there was something that lodged itself in my brain in the days after Irwin's death.

There was an outpouring of grief for him, and it wasn't just from Australians.

My colleagues, who worked on an intellectually august BBC radio show and usually a bit baffled by pop culture, asked me if I was OK at the news.

They knew, better than I did, that he was a national hero, and that he was deserving of that status.

Steve Irwin with his son Robert at Australia Zoo in 2005. (Pic: Supplied)
Steve Irwin with his son Robert at Australia Zoo in 2005. (Pic: Supplied)

It made me stop and think, but I was a long way from embracing Irwin as an icon.

I aligned myself - again, only in my own mind - with the likes of learned compatriots like Germaine Greer (although I met her once while there and she turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, in a way that has made more sense with the clangers she's delivered in recent years).

But something else was working away on me in my years abroad.

The distance made me appreciate elements of my culture I had written off: I ate as much Vegemite as I could, I sought out Australian music, films and books, and while I had great British friends, I made a beeline for the company of Australians, delighted by how direct they were in a country often defined by emotional constipation.

What's more, no matter how much I thought I had adopted the Queen's English, everyone in hearing distance knew I was Australian.

As some kind of reflex move, I started to pepper my conversation with as many jingoisms as I could. I might have even started to use the word "crikey" regularly.

After five years of living in London, somehow I felt more Australian than ever. I missed the open spaces, the wildlife, the weather and the people. I needed to come home.

I returned, reconnected with old friends, spent as much time as possible outdoors, and marvelled at the natural beauty that bordered our cities, photographing practically every native bird I saw.

In the intervening years, something else slowly dawned on me about Steve Irwin: I had got him completely wrong.

A few months ago, on a family holiday, I finally made sense of his legacy. We bundled ourselves into the car and went to Australia Zoo.

"The best zoo in Australia," were my brother's words of recommendation.

Steve Irwin with daughter Bindi and an alligator at Australia Zoo. (Pic: Megan Slade)
Steve Irwin with daughter Bindi and an alligator at Australia Zoo. (Pic: Megan Slade)

As we pulled into the zoo's carpark, I still had a few doubts.

But something clicked as we wandered through its pristine grounds, and watched the antics in the Crocoseum as AC/DC's Thunderstruck blasted at near deafening volume, and the zoo's present day staff paid tribute to Steve.

He was clever enough to entertain while educating about wildlife, and it was this combination that gave him an audience of hundreds of millions, as the posthumous Walk of Fame star he was awarded earlier this year attests.

He did all of this by playing himself on TV; a knockabout Australian guy with an unbridled enthusiasm for our native animals.

It's also the reason that so many years after his untimely death, his message of conservation lives on.

Steve Irwin was smart, in a way that had initially passed me by, and more fool me for not seeing it earlier.

Most importantly, he wasn't self conscious about embracing who he was, and that's why people loved him, and still do.

We could do a lot worse when it comes to national heroes.

Victoria Hannaford is a writer and producer for RendezView.