Christina Pfeiffer admires the real stars of Baz Luhrmann's new movie - more rugged than Jackman, more beautiful than Kidman.
Everything about Australia, the film, could be described as epic: the budget, speculated to be about $US120 million ($146 million); the egos; the plot - think Gone With The Wind in the outback; the hype, led by a Tourism Australia campaign estimated to cost between $40 million and $50 million; and, of course, the expectations, which are surely bigger than the Top End itself.
Baz Luhrmann's film is set during World War II and follows the (epic) journey of Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), an English aristocrat who inherits a vast cattle property in northern Australia, and the outback drover (Hugh Jackman) who helps save the station from English cattle barons. Together, they drive 1500 head of cattle to Darwin through harsh terrain but get caught in the bombing of the Northern Territory capital.
The cast is star-studded, including Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown and David Wenham. The real star, however, is the spectacular scenery of the Northern Territory and outback Western Australia. These landscapes are mysterious and wild and will be irresistible on the big screen, with their dusty plains and burnt gorges, theatrical blue skies and mesmerising orange sunsets.
Some of the film was shot in other destinations around Australia, such as Sydney, Camden and the Queensland sugar town of Bowen. It was considered an ideal location to recreate Darwin because of two huge vacant lots by Bowen's wharf. Both harbours face the same direction, so the natural light is similar.
About 600 Bowen residents were cast as extras and another 100 worked as volunteer guides for tourists visiting the town during filming last year. A 6.5-hectare set incorporating some of the town's existing buildings was built to resemble wartime Darwin.
Tourism promoters are hoping that if you love the movie locations, you'll be inspired to take a trip to the real stage of northern Australia.
Darwin's World War II history
On a sultry morning we gather next to the Darwin Cenotaph in a park overlooking the city's harbour, listening to a group of World War II veterans recall their experiences of the Darwin bombing.
A chat with the veterans - members of the Darwin Defenders, a non-profit organisation that aims to spread the word about Darwin's real wartime story - is an eye opener. It's not usually part of a tour itinerary but members are keen to talk to anyone interested.
Although the cenotaph is a memorial to the soldiers who fought in World War I, it was here that the guns of the 14th Anti-Aircraft Battery fired the first shots on home soil, during the Japanese air attack on February 19, 1942 - 10 weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. Eight of the 45 ships in Darwin harbour were sunk, 34 aircraft destroyed and hundreds of people killed. This attack was followed by 63 further bombing raids before November 12, 1943.
Australia reprises this largely suppressed episode in national history. The group's secretary, Rex Ruwoldt, says the wartime government of Labor prime minister John Curtin downplayed the attack on Darwin in order to cover up the country's inadequate defence. Fearing political backlash, the government imposed strict censorship laws banning all photographs, diaries and letters mentioning enemy action. After the war, official documents relating to the bombing of Darwin were stamped "not to be released until 1995" and references to the Darwin bombings were removed from school history curriculums.
"Darwin was a war zone," says Ruwoldt, who arrived in the city with the 19th Machine-Gun Regiment in 1942. "We had a pretty tough time after the first bombing because most of the supplies were sunk in Darwin Harbour. We went back to half rations - we didn't need Jenny Craig to lose weight back then, I can tell you."
About 100 of Darwin's 400 buildings survived the war and there is plenty of history still apparent in the city. The final battle scenes in Australia were filmed at Stokes Hill Wharf near the city centre, which was bombed by the same aircraft used to attack Pearl Harbour. The Japanese were methodical in their research; they bombed at morning tea time, when many of the air-force men were smoking on Stokes Hill Wharf.
The most scenic view of the area is from the harbour and can be seen during a cruise on the Anniki, a restored pearling lugger with beech decks, traditional gaff sailing rigs and solid timber spars. In the movie, the Anniki is the boat on which Kidman's character sails to Darwin. Her skipper, Grant Rubock, was involved in the filming and happily recounts his brush with fame.
Outback journey, NT
From Darwin, we head south along the Stuart Highway. The airstrip at Coomalie Creek, a private property about 85 kilometres from the capital, was the base for 31 Beaufighter Squadron, a squad of "silent" aircraft sent to catch the Japanese by surprise in Timor.
Ten kilometres further, in the town of Adelaide River, is the Pell wartime airstrip, a former camp for the air force and 4RSU, a repair and service unit. The airstrip is on a 153-hectare property owned by local veterinarian Jan Hills. Although there's little left of wartime facilities - just trenches, concrete floors, furniture, rusty implements and tools - war-history buffs will warm to Hills's guided walking tour of the heritage-listed site. Her vivid imagination and passion for history and storytelling bring the era to life.
From Adelaide River we roll through open plains. After travelling 240 kilometres we take a welcome break on a cruise through Katherine Gorge in Nitmiluk National Park, the sacred ground for the Jawoyn people. Later, on the grounds of the Katherine Outback Museum around a meal cooked by campfire, Geoff "Marksie" Marks entertains us with funny, sometimes far-fetched outback stories.
The next day is full: horse riding in the morning at Charles Darwin University's NT Rural College - a training school for jackaroos and jillaroos on the outskirts of Katherine - followed by an afternoon of running amok on four-wheel-drive farm bikes through the college's back blocks.
Station life, NT
A stay in a Northern Territory cattle station is the best way to get a feel for Lady Sarah's life on her fictional cattle station, Faraway Downs. One famous Northern Territory station is the remote, Sydney city-sized Bullo River Station, which sprawls across 1600 square kilometres in the north-west corner of the Northern Territory, about 800 kilometres from Darwin. The property was made famous by author Sara Henderson, who documents her family's struggles to manage the huge cattle station in six books including the 1993 bestseller From Strength To Strength.
In 2001, after a bitter, public dispute, Henderson's daughter, Marlee Ranacher, and her husband, Franz, bought Bullo River Station. They provide modern accommodation in a 12-room homestead for travellers keen to experience life in a working Top End cattle station.
Like the cattle station in the movie, Bullo River Station is so vast, many areas have never been explored. On a tour of the property, we clamber over boulders for a closer look at ancient Aboriginal rock art. Later on horseback we pick up a few mustering tips from one-eyed former rodeo rider and bull wrestler Evan Houston, while mustering cattle into the yards.
But the best way to see this immense landscape is from a helicopter. Franz Ranacher flies us over swamps, plains and rock formations. We watch wild pigs sloshing through billabongs and crocodiles sunning by Bullo River. Ranacher lands the helicopter on a white beach at the Cascades, a lovely string of freshwater rock pools that tumble down a canyon.
Kimberley region, WA
Only a few hundred kilometres away, in Western Australia, the red, rugged setting of the eastern Kimberley region plays a starring role in the movie. Filming took place at Carlton Hill Station, which is owned by the Packer family's Consolidated Pastoral Company; Diggers Rest Station, located 30 kilometres from Wyndham; and El Questro Station.
The 400,000-hectare El Questro station has natural features such as hot springs, waterfalls, four rivers teeming with barramundi, the Cockburn mountain range and an inspiring landscape dotted with baobab trees. It's too vast to cross comfortably on land, so we take a helicopter ride. Our pilot points out locations to look out for in the movie including Emma Gorge waterfall - a spot chosen for a romantic scene - and an out-of-the-way plain called the mud flats.
El Questro was established in 1958. It became a tourist park in 1990, when a wealthy English couple, Will and Celia Burrell, bought the property. Today it is owned by Voyages Hotels & Resorts. Accommodation includes camping, air-conditioned riverside bungalows at the Station Township and tent-like cabins at Emma Gorge Resort. Or, for a luxury stay, the homestead has five rooms and the Chamberlain Suite, which hangs 15 metres above the Chamberlain Gorge.
You could easily fill several days here: hiking, horse riding, cruising through the gorge or soaking in the tranquil Zebedee hot springs. But the best experience is heli-fishing. We fly to remote waterholes teeming with barramundi, some up to a metre in length, and throw in a line.
Although staff at El Questro are admirably tight-lipped about the stars, Jackman gets the thumbs-up for being "a good bloke". Kidman may have been disappointed at being turned away from the homestead last year while filming - it was full during peak tourist season. But when you're a movie star, why not buy your own station? Kidman and her husband, Keith Urban, recently bought Bunya Hill, a 45-hectare cattle stud with a grand 19th-century Georgian mansion in Sutton Forest, in the NSW Southern Highlands - a case of life imitating art.
Christina Pfeiffer travelled courtesy of Tourism NT and Voyages.
Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin Blue fly to Darwin from Sydney and Melbourne, with connections on Air North to Kununurra in Western Australia. Tiger Airways flies from Melbourne to Darwin.
* El Questro Wilderness Park, 110km west of Kununurra, is open April to October. Camping from $15 a person; homestead rooms from $1790 a person, twin-share, for two nights including meals, beverages and some tours. See http://www.elquestro.com.au.
* Bullo River Station, NT, is 200km from Kununurra. Open February to November. Rooms cost from $750 a person a night, including meals, drinks and most activities. See http://www.outbackencounter.com.
While you're there
* Sail on Darwin Harbour on the Anniki; phone (08) 8941 4000 or see http://www.star chaser.com.au.
* Darwin Walking & Bicycle Tours has guided heritage tours, see http://www.darwinwalkingtours.com.
* Pell Mell farmstay has guided World War II tours, see http://www.pellmell.com.au.
* Marksie's Stockman's Camp Tucker Night is $45 a person, phone 0427 112 806.
* Learn jackaroo and jillaroo skills at the NT Rural College, Charles Darwin University, Katherine, see http://www.outbackjj.com.au.
* Australia is scheduled for release on November 26. See www.australiamovie.com.
* Darwin Defenders, see http://www.darwindefenders.org.