Karina Holden worked as a producer and field director on the TV series Magical Land of Oz. Supplied by ABC-TV.
Karina Holden worked as a producer and field director on the TV series Magical Land of Oz. Supplied by ABC-TV.

Behind the scenes of ABC's first big nature doco in 18 years

IMAGINE it's 8am and it's already a scorching 45C. The sun is beating down on you and all you want to do is go for a swim to cool down, except if you do then it's highly likely you'll come face to face with a saltwater crocodile.

Those were some of the challenging conditions filmmaker Karina Holden faced in order to film nesting brown booby birds while working on Magical Land of Oz, the ABC's first original natural history series in 18 years.

"The Lacepedes Islands off the Kimberley coastline were just extraordinary," Holden says. "We were waking up at 3am, going 100 nautical miles out to sea in a jet boat to get there before the light even hit the horizon.

"The humidity was through the roof. You wanted to dive in the water but you couldn't because there were crocs there. We had a four-metre croc following the boat, but it was just an extraordinary experience to be amongst such beautiful wildlife in such a remote place that is protected and owned by traditional people."

Karina Holden with a green sea turtle during production of Magical Land of Oz.
Karina Holden with a green sea turtle during production of Magical Land of Oz. Supplied

In stark contrast, Holden also spent time in Brisbane filming eastern water dragons and how they've adapted to their urban environment.

"I was a herpetologist early in my career, so being in Brisbane day after day with water dragons was completely natural," she says. "We're trying to show the diversity of Australia, so not just the remote and extreme but how much wildlife there is in our own backyards."

The three-part series, a co-production with the BBC, PBS and Oxford Scientific Films, is themed around the loose categories of oceans, land and human shift.

A Numbat (Myrmecobius fasciatus) in the Dryandra Woodland of Western Australia Green in a scene from Magical Land of Oz.
A Numbat (Myrmecobius fasciatus) in the Dryandra Woodland of Western Australia Green in a scene from Magical Land of Oz. Robert McLean

"Myself and Tosca (Looby, the series director) were part of the ABC's natural history unit in the 1990s and we were part of the very last time ABC put a big three-part series to air," Holden says.

"It had always been an ambition to revisit the genre and bring this level of blue-chip programming to Australia about Australia. The challenge is how it gets funded. Getting the BBC on board took a good year in itself."

A dozen cameramen and women spent 14 months filming for the continent-wide series, which ranges from the land's highest snow peaks to the depths of the wild southern seas.

Green sea turtles arrive to lay their eggs on Raine Island on the Great Barrier Reef in a scene from Magical Land of Oz.
Green sea turtles arrive to lay their eggs on Raine Island on the Great Barrier Reef in a scene from Magical Land of Oz. Supplied

Some animals and behaviours are captured on film for the first time, including Gould's petrel chicks on Cabbage Tree Island, the music-making palm cockatoo and Arnhem Land's diving tarantulas.

"The important thing for us was finding new visuals and new stories. There was a time when natural history shows were just basically portraits of animals," Holden says.

"Gould's petrel chicks, for example, climb to the top of a tree to take off for the very first flight and we were trying to find those moments. It's about not just showing you what lives here, but the experience of the animal and how it navigates its environment."

Actor Barry Humphries adds a very Australian flavour as narrator.

"We started playing with the idea of always looking through a magical lens - so it's not just dry facts but emotions - and when we knew we were working with Barry we knew we could be even more playful," Holden says.

"We had two scripts, the overseas script is a little bit straighter and with the other Barry could have the inside jokes with the Australian audience."

Magical Land of Oz premieres on Sunday at 7.40pm on ABC-TV.