Sniffing out a rain forest in the heart of the city

Sue Green

THE smell of eucalyptus, the sights and sounds of the Australian forest, the breeze in your face - for many visitors to Australia, these sensations are their reason for coming.

But now those with limited time don't actually have to go to a rain forest to experience it. And they don't need to seek out a museum to learn a little of Australia's history.

All that's needed is A$6 (about HK$30) and 50 minutes to sit in the AustraliaGate theatre on the banks of Melbourne's Yarra River. It's much like going to the movies, but this is no ordinary picture show.

In fact, it's being hailed by its creators as a world first in entertainment technology. Called Sensor Vision, it uses three video projectors, 24 slide projectors, 18 speakers, 24 channel digital sound and computer controlled systems which can change thesmell, temperature and humidity of the theatre in a show called ''Experience Australia''.

For tourists there's a simultaneous translation via headset in Mandarin, Japanese, German, French, Italian, Spanish or Greek to replace the narration of local actor Charles 'Bud' Tingwell (Cantonese will be available within a few months).

Via those screens, the story of Australia from the early Aborigines and the beginnings of European settlement to the post-war lifestyle is told.

Smells such as eucalyptus (the forest scene), smoke (the bushfire) and gunpowder (the firing of a musket during the Eureka rebellion) are contained in computer controlled boxes outside the theatre, released electronically and pumped in through pipes whichrun along the back of each row of seats.

Experimenting with that technology took a year and the show was two years in the making from the time it was conceived by Italian-born publisher Rosario Scarpato who put together the production team.

Randall Berger, the show's scriptwriter, said: ''What we are creating is a museum of the mind. The audience lets its imagination take over.

''For instance they can imagine what it is like in the hold of a convict ship or to be at the 1956 Olympics. It isn't virtual reality, but it is giving their imagination the triggers that let it take over.'' The show, which hopes to inspire tourists to see more of the country, purports to cover more than 50,000 years in 50 minutes.

''Experience Australia'' was opened by the Prime Minister, Paul Keating, recently, and its creators say it's the tourist attraction Melbourne was lacking. ''It's the sort of attraction we've needed for 15 years. We don't have postcards (views) in this town, our attractions have to be a little bit more cerebral,'' Mr Berger says.

Maybe so, but it's also an experience that involves the body, and not always comfortably. The theatre is extremely cold and has a ''negative atmosphere'' to aid the introduction and escape of the smells.

Mr Berger says the audience won't notice it or feel popping ears, but there is a rather odd feeling, compounded by the flashing lights, fog and smoke.

Nonetheless, the show is novel, the technology impressive and the complaints of most who have chosen to record them, petty - no penguins, not enough about cricket, for instance. Randall Berger says it's ''entertainment before education.'' ''We wanted people to experience Australia, not learn about Australia, and be left with a residual impression rather than knowledge and to come out knowing more about the type of people we are than our history.'' Whether it achieves that aim is open to debate, but for a visitor to Australia it is an interesting experience and a useful introduction to the nation's history and culture.