By Stephen M. Silverman And Anne Marie Cruz
Updated December 30, 2003 04:50 PM

Aussie Toni Collette, who played the mother of the boy (Haley Joel Osment) who saw dead people in 1999’s “The Sixth Sense,” went home for her latest role, that of a Perth-based geologist in “Japanese Story,” which opens New Year’s Eve and has Collette’s character chauffeuring the son of a Japanese steel magnate around the unforgiving Australian desert.

Speaking to PEOPLE about the movie (which costars Gotaro Tsunashima as the spoiled son) and its arduous location, Collette, 31, who didn’t have to mask her Aussie twang for the role, says: “It was a relief speaking in my own voice. And there’s something really nice with working with your own kind.”

There was also something nice about working in the desert, she says. “That part of the country, in the desert in the center of Australia,” she says, “I haven’t spent much time in the center either, but now I’m planning to go back, because there’s so much to explore and the place is totally inspirational.”

Her reaction to the vast landscape, she says was “overwhelming….The towns that we stayed in were constructed as if it was, ‘Just add water,’ and out pops a town. They were all mining villages. Very undeveloped and very industry-driven. Mining, not filming.”

Still, the experience left her with some travel expertise. “I think, if you’re going to travel, Australia is gorgeous,” says Collette, “but if you’re scared of things like (animals), go to New Zealand, because you can go camping in New Zealand barefoot, you can run around naked the whole time, and anything that bites you, there’s nothing (that’s) poisonous. It’s the safest place to be.”