Australian Screen

Australia’s audiovisual heritage online

Australian Walkabout (1958)

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The little town of Katherine education content clip 1, 2

Original classification rating: PG. This clip chosen to be PG

Clip description

Charles and Elsa Chauvel have come through the dry outback to camp on a riverbed just outside the little town of Katherine. Elsa gives the viewer a tour through voice-over commenting on shots of the town.

Curator’s notes

It’s fun to see how the Chauvels organised their camp during those long months of the Australian Walkabout safari. It’s Elsa who’s doing the washing and cooking while the men clean the gear and check the rushes. Earlier in the film there is a shot of Elsa with the camera, which reminds us that she was very much a partner with Charles in their filmmaking ventures. And she shares in the narration of the documentaries, as in this clip. Her narration is nicely personalised, drawing the viewer effortlessly into the life of the family on the road, and the task of filmmaking.

There’s also a glimpse of Katherine, very different from the town of today with its myriad motels and hotels and tourist industry. Elsa comments on a 'native prisoner’ walking through the shot handcuffed to a policeman. She says that such a sight is unusual.

The first shot betrays the real skill of what was one of the best filmmaking teams in Australia. It starts on a simple two-shot of unloading supplies, pans across with Elsa Chauvel looking outside the tent past her to see Charles, perfectly framed in the sunlight outside, as he brings some water back from the river towards us.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This black-and-white clip shows filmmakers Charles and Elsa Chauvel and their film crew camped by a river near the town of Katherine in the Northern Territory during the filming of Australian Walkabout. Shots of Katherine that show the post office, police station and a handcuffed Indigenous man being escorted by police down the main street are accompanied by Elsa’s voice-over commentary. The soundtrack includes orchestral music and birdsong.

Educational value points

  • A small town when this footage was shot in 1957–58, Katherine was established in the 1870s about 320 km south-east of Darwin. Like so many settlements in the NT, the town grew up around a telegraph station, which was built there in 1872 as part of the development of the Overland Telegraph Line from Adelaide to Darwin. Katherine moved to its current site in 1926 when a railway bridge was built to link the town to the north–south railway line at Pine Creek.
  • In 1862 the explorer John McDouall Stuart (1815–66) named the local river the 'Katherine’ but, contrary to the narrator’s explanation, Stuart was not motivated by loneliness for 'faraway wives and sweethearts’. He was in fact honouring an obligation to his sponsor, the South Australian pastoralist James Chambers, by naming numerous places after members of his family. Katherine, spelt incorrectly, is named after Chambers’s second daughter.
  • This clip comes from Australian Walkabout, a series made by Australian filmmakers Charles and Elsa Chauvel for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and shown on the ABC. The series was filmed over a year during a trip from Sydney to Broken Hill, through central Australia to Darwin and back again. It introduced British and Australian viewers to the outback, and continued an interest in the Australian landscape evident in the Chauvels’ feature films.
  • This clip is in the style of a travelogue, a genre that features distant or exotic locations, shows scenes, landscapes or towns that are unusual, and often depicts other cultures. There is generally a narration in which the filmmaker explains what is shown and gives a personal account of their journey. The genre was popular prior to the advent of affordable and widespread air travel, in that it allowed the viewer to be an ‘armchair traveller’.
  • The clip includes two comments about local Aboriginal people – the commentator first refers to the people as 'natives’ and then comments that it is unusual for them to get into 'serious trouble’ with the law. The term 'natives’ was and still is offensive to Indigenous people. As most of the Indigenous people worked on cattle stations or were confined to reserves away from town, they were less likely to come up against 'whitefella’ criminal law in the 1950s than now.
  • Katherine has a mean daily maximum temperature above 30 degrees Celsius every month of the year and the design of the post office shown in the clip reveals many of the architectural features developed in inland Australia to deal with the heat. The building is surrounded by verandas to keep the interior cooler. The verandas are fully screened with woven pandanus matting and the floors are elevated to catch whatever breezes there might be.

Charles and Elsa Chauvel and their film crew are camped by a river near the town of Katherine in the Northern Territory. In the morning, Elsa fetches food supplies from a tent and begins to prepare breakfast.
Elsa Chauvel (voice-over) These are really blue heaven days as we camp on the river below the little township called Katherine. The lonely men who first came into this country called their homesteads and little townships after faraway wives or sweethearts, like Alice Springs, Charlotte Waters and Katherine.

Shots of Katherine. Their van is parked outside the post office. While it is parked, a handcuffed Indigenous man is escorted by police down the main street. Ian returns to the car from the post office carrying a parcel.
Elsa Chauvel (voice-over) Well, here’s Katherine. Our driver has gone to the post office for mail. Oh, and look, there’s a naked prisoner going past handcuffed to the local policeman. But it’s very seldom the natives get into any serious trouble. And isn’t the post office an interesting place! Its verandahs are all built of plaited pandanus plants – you know, to keep it cool. And that’s a big parcel that Ian has. It looks like some of our film returning to us after being developed.

Exterior of police station and then close-up of Wanted poster.
Elsa Chauvel (voice-over) This fortress is the police station and jail. ‘Wanted for murder’. Perhaps he’s escaped into this vast region of the Northern Territory.

The van drives across the stream and back to camp. Ian exits the car carrying the parcel under his arm to the waiting Chauvels.
Elsa Chauvel (voice-over) Here’s Ian with our package of film. I wonder which scenes have returned to us. Perhaps Charles will show them to you.

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Terms & Conditions

australianscreen is produced by the National Film and Sound Archive. By using the website you agree to comply with the terms and conditions described here and elsewhere on this site. The NFSA may amend the 'Conditions of Use’ from time to time without notice.

All materials on the site, including but not limited to text, video clips, audio clips, designs, logos, illustrations and still images, are protected by the Copyright Laws of Australia and international conventions. ALL rights are reserved.

You must read and agree to the following terms and conditions before downloading this clip:

When you access ABC materials on australianscreen you agree that:

  1. You may download this clip to assist your information, criticism and review purposes in conjunction with viewing this website only;
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  3. Downloading for purposes other than non-commercial educational uses is Prohibited;
  4. Downloading this clip in association with any commercial purpose is Prohibited;

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