In November 2008 People magazine chose Hugh Jackman as the sexiest man on the planet. We can't be sure whether they'd taken a peek at the trailer for Australia, which was to debut a month later, but if they did, it can't have hurt Jackman's chances to be seen in the impressive setting of his native country. It's unsurprising that the film costs of over $120 million were paid in part by the country's tourist authorities, given the world-wide exposure to the magnificent outback scenery that must make any viewer want to pack their bags and go walkabout.
Playing opposite Jackman in the big screen epic was Nicole Kidman, whose Australian parents and Sydney upbringing mean she also has strong ties to the land Down Under. Here, though, she plays the prim English aristocrat Lady Sarah Ashley, who at the start of World War II inherits a ranch in Australia and, in the company of Jackman's character Drover, embarks on the adventure of herding 1,500 head of cattle cross country to Darwin. The vast landscapes of the outback seem hostile at first, but along the journey she learns to love the country and, of course, the rough stock-man who has joined forces with her to save her lands from an unscrupulous cattle baron.
The horseback journey through the wild dusty interior is the most scenic of the 165-minute film, which also pays homage to ancient aboriginal traditions, as well as touching on the controversial subject of the 'stolen generation' of indigenous children who were taken from their environment and placed with white families or in missions.
Written and directed by Baz Luhrmann, himself born in New South Wales, the entire film was shot in Australia. Except for a handful of scenes filmed at Fox Studios in Sydney, the locations were practically all exteriors, although not all were filmed in the Northern Territory – already familiar to film goers from such hits as Crocodile Dundee and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – where the action is supposed to take place.
Darwin itself may be recognized from the old Stokes Hill Wharf in the scene in which Lady Sarah first sets foot in the Antipodes, but although the population of this tropical city in the Northern Territory is less than 100,000, it was still considered too big to recreate the atmosphere of Australia in the Forties. Instead it was replaced for filming by the seaside town of Bowen and the crew set up camp in this unspoiled corner of Queensland for seven weeks. The whole town of Bowen was transformed into a film set, and this is where the spectacular scenes of the cattle entering the city took place, as well as the recreation of the Japanese bombing suffered by Darwin in 1942. The local institutions aided financially towards the most expensive film in the history of the continent, no doubt hoping thereby to attract film fans to this beautiful corner of the Whitsunday coast.
The most impressive scenes are those of the journey through the desert filmed in the arid landscapes of the outback, in the untamed region of Kimberley. Here, in the natural red setting of the National Park of Purnululu you'll find the domed hills of the same name, which appeared on screen in magnificent aerial shots. And near the small town of Kununurra is Carlton Hill Station, the real-life cattle station where the fictional Faraway Downs ranch inherited by Lady Sarah was set.
From Kununurra you can take the Gibb River Road, built in the Sixties and known today as the cow trail, which gives access to the heart of Kimberley, either independently or as part of an organised safari. Along the way, Home Valley Station is a must visit, where, besides finding welcome food and accommodation in this out-of-the-way place, you can learn to ride and try your hand at mustering cattle. The ranch also offers trips to some of the film locations including the Pentecost River that Kidman and Jackman forded on horseback. Beware, though, if you take a dip in the Bindoola Falls: today they're known as 'Fertility Falls,' and Kidman herself fell pregnant in the middle of filming, as did six others on the shoot!
After flying to Darwin, you'll find that there are good local services either for independent or organised travel. Distances are vast, and even small towns like Kununurra and Bowen have air links.
Where to stay
In Bowen, the Grand View Hotel where some of the film crew stayed and where Keith Urban, Nicole Kidman's husband, gave a concert to celebrate the end of filming. Near Kununurra, at the Home Valley Station, where you can take part in horseback cattle mustering. Or take a cruise on the True North and discover some of Australia's most remote and inaccessible coastal regions.
Where to eat
In Bowen, the restaurant 360 (1 Margaret Reynolds Drive, Flagstaff Hill), which Keith Urban hired to celebrate his wife's 40th birthday during filming. The actors and crew also frequented Anchors at the Yacht Club (1 Starboard Drive). Hugh Jackman and his son Oscar got so fond of the cakes at Jochheim's Pies (49 George Street) that the owners ended up adding a Jackman Special, a Baz Baguette and a KidMango Cheesecake to the menu. On a side note, some of the historical photos on display in this old Bowen bakery inspired costume designer Catherine Martin, herself an Australian , and influenced some of the outfits for the film.