Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman on the set of <em>Australia</em> in Bowen.

Photo: Janie Barrett

The tour bus pulling into the north Queensland town of Bowen is not here to see one of the area's seven beaches, or go on a bushwalk.

It is not even here to visit the museum or the award-winning pie shop.

The visitors which emerge from the coach's air-conditioned innards, blinking in the sunlight, are here to see a whole load of cattle being moved from one end of the town's dusty main street to the other.

Oh, and maybe also catch a glance of a Hollywood superstar in the process.

This is because Bowen is the main location for Baz Luhrmann's latest epic movie, Australia. Starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, the film is set in the 1930s, and revolves around the relationship between a respectable English aristocrat (Kidman) and a rough-and-ready cattle drover (Jackman).

The two are caught in World War II bombing raids, which is where Bowen comes in: it is the stand-in location for Darwin.

For a town which lists The Big Mango as one of its chief attractions, this is a bit of a change.

Known by some as the tomato capital of Queensland, Bowen's usual core of visitors are backpackers who stream in for fruit and vegetable picking season to earn enough cash to have some fun in Airlie Beach, 90km south, or Townsville, 200km north.

But thanks to Baz and company, Bowen is attracting those on sleek air-conditioned coaches as well as economy greyhound buses. It has meant that beds are in short supply; great for the town's resorts, not so great for the backpackers or people wanting to visit right now.

Thankfully Bowen is just a 45-minute drive from serene resorts of Hydeaway Bay, at the northern edge of the Whitsunday Islands.

The absence of a few backpackers is no cause for complaint by the townspeople though, who seem to have been swept up in the movie excitement themselves. Chance meetings with megastars at the fish and chip shop, the local cafe and even the supermarket have left the locals star struck.

Shops on every street hang signs welcoming Hollywood to town, and opportunistic businesses are selling Beefy Hugh Jackman pies or dressing up mannequins to look like fair Nicole.

Even the Shire Council website now greets cyber guests to: "Bowen Shire Council: Hollywood style."

For the coach group, the first hint of the changes is the slogan written in apartment block-high letters on the water tower which overlooks the highway coming into town. It reads: "Bowenwood."

But real (or reel) action is at the far end of town, where whole streets have been roped off for the filming, stretching from the central Grand View Hotel to the waterfront and its long jetty.

It is this corner which the visitors make a beeline for, once they are off their coaches. What Bowen locals say was "a hole in the ground" has been turned into a 1930s town through the addition of tonnes of red dirt, a thousand short-horn cattle and half-a-dozen temporary buildings.

Among the new edifices are an open-air theatre (The Pearl), a brothel, and an outback pub called the Territory Hotel. On filming days, movie fans seek glimpses of the action by peering through the windows of the pub, which has an extra layer of exterior to make it part of the set.

But no-one seems to mind a limited view: many movie aficionados point out that filming in a real town is unusual in the Hollywood world, where entire fake towns are built to provide closed sets.

For the coach group, today is the cattle driving scene, so the set is filled with the clouds of dust raised by the hooves of the short-horn cattle and the horses carrying Jackman and his body double.

Volunteers smartly attired in "Australia"-branded polo neck shirts greet the visitors and give them the inside gossip on the film, the stars, and the town.

Joan, 72, is one of the 90 volunteers (the film's management asked for 60) giving her Bowen tales a coating of Hollywood glitz.

"I have to keep remembering that it's meant to be Darwin," she said, chiding herself. "It's not Bowen."

As always, the best tales are personal: Joan's husband wandered into the volunteering hall himself to take a look, only to be given acting roles as a barman, storekeeper and movie-theatre attendant.

"I told him I was going to kill him when we got home," she joked, before launching back into movie details. "He told me the film they are meant to be showing (at the 1930s Darwin theatre) is The Wizard of Oz, which didn't come out for another four years, so it shows you they have to cheat a bit."

Joan also explained that the temporary movie set was unlikely to stay up for long after filming as they were not cyclone proof. The irony is that it was a cyclone that cost Darwin most of its old buildings; part of the reason Bowen was chosen as the location.

Even now Bowen evokes the feeling of an age gone by; streets as wide as a six-lane highway and hotel buildings so old you feel like you are already on a movie set. Baz Luhrmann himself was taken aback when he discovered the 1940s Summergarden movie theatre already in Bowen, and immediately started using it to view the end-of-day "rushes" - the raw footage he had shot that day.

When the set is taken down and the crew drive out of town, it will be places like the Summergarden which people will still flock to - maybe even to watch the end product.

But others have called for there to be a more lasting monument to the day Hollywood fever came to Bowen. One businessman even suggested the set should be preserved as it is and turned into a permanent tourist attraction.

Yet it is more likely that Bowen will mark the moment in a way they are more familiar with: a mural. Bowen's history is already celebrated in 24 murals painted around the town, so maybe a 25th will be on the cards.

The Bowen Shire Mural Society has been giving guided tours of the murals on Thursday evenings between April and September - long before Baz ever came to town. Their committee's next decision might be whether the latest mural includes the day Hugh Jackman went body surfing in pristine Horseshoe Bay or the night Keith Urban played an impromptu gig at the local pub.

But there's no doubt that there will only be one way to get the full story: get off the coach and ask a local about the day Baz came to town.

IF YOU GO:

Filming on Australia is due to continue in Bowen until the start of July 2007, before it moves on to other locations around the country.

Cape Gloucester Eco Resort, in Hydeaway Bay, is around a 45-minute drive south of Bowen and offers motel rooms (from $100 midweek/$165 Fri-Sun) and cabins ($165 midweek/ $220 Fri-Sun) next to a pristine beach with views to Gloucester Island, one of the largest islands in the Whitsunday group. Details: visit http://www.capegloucester.com.

Visit http://www.tourismbowen.com.au for details of resorts and attractions in Bowen; http://www.australiamovie.net for more on the film.

AAP