The Three Hour Tour—with apologies to Gilligan's Island

A journey on the Simplon Great South Pacific Express

I was beginning to feel a little unhinged. I was only four days into this oddessy and already a kind of reality creep was setting in. I was having time out on the journey in Port Douglas Far North tropical Queensland that would eventually lead me to Kajabbi a tiny township of 50 or so people 200 kms north of Mt Isa in Northern Queensland, a professor a wild and woolly outback pub and a donkey with it's own web site that raises money for the local tin shed school. Only in the Outback!

I'd left the train in Cairns and scammed a ride the hour North with my traveling companions TheTownes, Louisa, Robert and their young daughter. He told me that he wrote movies for a living. It took a while for the penny to drop that I was basking in the aura of greatness. Chinatown, Three Easy Pieces, Mission Impossible 2.

I was on a three story trilogy ultimately to wind up in the Outback.

I took another soothing swig from my freezing cold stubbie and leaned back on the bench outside Port Douglas's Courthouse pub, being slowly toasted by the afternoon's balmy tropical winter sun. I blissfully surveyed my hedonistic suroundings. A panorama of distant mountains greeted my squinting gaze. An old jetty, a tiny beach shaded by listless coconut palms and a picture postcard little white chapel where a wedding was in progress perfected the scene.

A white marque under the palms held the promise of fresh seafood and crispy cool champagne while the flower garlanded bride and groom finalised their vows. The distant Daintree Rainforest provided the Chocolate box picture perfect backdrop.

An old dog wearing sunglasses and carrying a money belt in its slobbering toothless jaws ambled past. My immediate neighbours sharing the bench, a trio of leathery skinned and deeply bronzed fishermen, didn't bat an eyelid.

Gudday Khan, one muttered. The old hound wagged its tail in greeting and wandered on its way.

"Just another bastard of a day in Paradise," offered one, breaking a long companionable silence. "Yep," replied his mate lazily and returned his myopic gaze towards the shimmering turquoise sea. "Another beer luv?" queried the bar maid leaning out of a convenient window and added whimsically, "shit of a day, hey?"

The story begins...

At Brisbane's Transit Centre a shiny red antique train lay silently against the platform. A regiment of impeccably uniformed staff stood slightly to attention and greeted us with good afternoons and transfixed smiles.

"Mr. Larder?" inquired one of the brightly clad trooper who broke from the serried ranks. "My name is Mathew and I will be your cabin attendant for the journey." How DID he know my name?

But then that was how it was to be on the brand spanking new thirty five million dollar Great South Pacific Express, Australia's answer to Europe's Orient Express. The staff had a knack for providing me with some whim or fancy fractionally before I had thought of it myself.

I clutched my copy of Paul Therouxs Riding the Iron Rooster and was led to my opulent suite in Car G.

For the next two days I was to be cosseted and swathed in theatrical luxury aboard Queensland rails latest and seriously sumptuous addition to its fleet of long distance trains. But this train stands well clear of the others by way of its refined, if ostentatious, elegance. If you have to ask the price of your ticket you shouldn't be here. The GSPE departs Brisbane in the afternoon for its stately 2000 km sojourn north to Cairns in Far North Queensland (FNQ). Creating the GSPE was a four year project that combined the special talents of Queensland Rail engineers and Venice�Simplon-Orient- Express group. The decor mimics luxury found on late Victorian and early early Edwardian Australian trains of that vintage.

The title "express" is something of a misnomer or wishful thinking on behalf of its designers. The GSPE hits warp speed at a lurching 55mph. Mental visions of us thundering theatrically through the night with screaming whistles, a massive iron monster belching steam and bodies being hurled from the train as we crossed international borders were dashed. Not even a "Pizzport plizz or ve place you under arrest, Ya?"

Ahh welI. I sat back and savoured my silver serviced afternoon tea delivered by a very unmenacing Mathew. I munched delicately fashioned smoked salmon sandwiches and deliciously unidentifiable little fancies that decorated my plate and thought of Theroux enjoying curdled yaks milk somewhere in the middle of China.

We lurched on into the sunset being greeted with whistles, hoots and waves by orange clad railway gangs and sugar cane farmers trundling endlessly up and down freshly planted sugar cane fields on dust encrusted tractors.

From this point on the journey took on an aura of almost Gilliganesque fantasy.

There were millionaires. There was a professor. There was a banker. There was the glamorous blues singer. There was even a Hollywood screenwriter. And a stunning blonde British socialite afflicted with an erotic upper class lisp and there was a captain (albeit of a jumbo jet and not a leaking fishing boat) and we were heading for tropical islands.

Dinner was approaching but first there were the pre feast drinkies at the rear of the train where half the car is open. We supped champagne at ten bucks a pop. Liberally infused with the nectar of the grape the next trick was to make it way up to my boudoir sixteen carriages and thirty two doors away. I soon learnt, along with my well heeled companions, not to leave anything that you might need back in your cabin. It's a long, sometimes bruising hike away from the action end of the train (namely the bar car) to get forgotten cameras, cigars, condoms or items of clothing etc.

The trick (quickly learned from the staff) is to pick your moment and dash up between the slender polished and richly engrained timbers of the companionway. The knack is to predict the sway. It's not pretty to watch but effectively reduces the bumps received as the carriage sways. (Due to an historical anomaly states of Australia have different gauge tracks. Queenslands are more slender than the southern states. Bogies are changed at the borders to facilitate differing rail widths.)

Back in my suite I dressed with care. Passengers are invited to dress up for the dining experience. Even my best friends tell me that I'm destined never to be a picture of sartorial elegance but I thought I looked pretty snazzy in my ensemble hastily acquired from Target and a Life Line shop the day before.

I had been invited to dine with Louisa and Robert Towne, a fashionably scruffy screenwriter currently working on Mission Impossible 2 and famous for such classics as Chinatown and Bonny and Clyde. Robert cut an einsteinesque figure with wispy white shoulder length hair and was on another scouting mission for a new screen play. He was coy as to its subject. He wanted to buy sapphires for his family so with the aid of a mobile phone I called my subterranean mates in Rubyvale, several hundred kms west in the outback. It�s amazing how easily things can happen when money is no object and a deal was struck without buyer or seller ever meeting. And all over a AUD $150 bottle of succulent Chardonnay.

After dinner we retired to the piano car where a baby grand resides. Cognac all round whilst we listened to the spunky blues singer dooby dooing Hogey Carmichael classics.

Another Cuban cigar (a brand enjoyed personally by Castro himself according to Robert, who devoured them with undiminished relish) and it was off on the long journey north to my suite where Mathew had let my bed down and left some exotic tasting chocolates for my delectation.

I layed back in my exquisitely ornate cabin and wondered what the poor bastards were doing?

Next morning Mathew delivered my continental breakfast where apon I chided him for being 28 seconds too early. He grinned and promised to do better next time.

We were arriving at Proserpine, a picturesque small town that features its sole reason for existence, a steam belching cane-crushing plant. A waiting coach transferred our camera-clutching group to the nearby coastal party town of Airlie Beach. A squadron of helicopters awaited to provide an eagles� eye view of the Whitsunday Islands, all 74 of them, and out to the greatest living organism in the world, the Great Barrier Reef.

We soared and swooped through the island's passages spotting the occasional wallowing female humpback whale with her newly born calf. These behemoths of the deep travel north every year to calve and turn the warm tropical waters of the Whitsunday's into a pelagic nursery. Then they head back south to the inhospitable waters of the Antarctic to suck down tons of krill, get pregnant and come back north for the birth and like us, a holiday.

We dropped out the cloudless cobalt blue sky onto a floating pontoon that amounted to a floating restaurant anchored to the edge of Hardy Reef there to devour a seafood lunch and barbecue and more champagne. A tame giant rass called Charlie and a loggerhead turtle peered up at us limpidly from the crystal clear water. Our entourage, sated by a gourmet feast, donned snorkels, masks and tanks and plunged in to get up close and personal with the eighth wonder of the world it's psychadelic inhabitants and infinite variety of corals. I dived in company with the blonde Sloane Ranger. She was wet suitless. Armed with my sub aqua Nikonus, I mentioned how much better pictures were when one swam without being encased in rubber and with her erotic lisp she simpered, "Would you like me too take my Cothstume off asth well?"

Later after a sunset flight back to the train (all this is included in the fare structure) we were greeted by our crew as we'd left them hours earlier, standing at light attention to greet us in anticipation of spoiling our socks off us that evening. I wondered if they had been propped there all day. Nahhh!

The champagne corks were already popping in the bar car and canapes were handed around as we pulled out for the last overnight leg. The spunky blues singer had lithely oozed herself into a crimson evening gown that left very little to the imagination and was held up by, I suspect, will power and a delightful pair of ear rings, and little else. She was seductively caressing a clarinet. Was she going to play it or make love to it? Both as it turned out later #151; a lady of many ethereal talents.

It was at this point in the journey that a feeling of unreality made its self felt. So this was how the other two percent lived.

I dined with The Lisp� that evening. I kept my elbows in and used the cutlery in its correct order. The evening concluded with coffee and liqueur and the boo boo be dooin blues singer pouted pneumatically across the baby grand. For the record, there was no subsequent offer from my companion to shed her clothing.

A blood red sunrise saw the early risers on the back deck sipping latte and polishing off a gooey chocolate cake leftover from a birthday party the previous evening. We were nearing our journeys� end. Our train swapped locos at Cairns. We were heading for the mountainous rainforest that skirts tropical Queenslands, capital. This final leg was to be the finale. The big finish. We had mountains to climb and rivers to cross. The GSPE began its dogged climb into the mountainous rainforest that over shadows Cairns. Our ultimate destination was Kuranda a small village snuggled under the World Heritage listed rainforest.

But what was I hearing over the popping of more champagne corks. A didgeridoo droned amongst the throng of travellers crammed into the observation car. An Aboriginal musician in full regalia and tribal markings had been spirited aboard and perched himself on a Victorian armchair honking away to enthralled Americans and Europeans. The poor blokes retinas must have taken a caning from the continual and blinding blast from flashguns. Meanwhile a waterfall was traversed relatively unnoticed. The rainforest experience was a hard act to follow but the trip contained one extra treat. A cable car flight back across the ancient forest and a slither down a stunning mountain face and back to the outskirts of Cairns where the voyage ends.

We left the train as we had found it squatting silently beside the platform but this time under the tangled canopy of the rainforest. The crew inevitably was at light attention saying good bye. It was like walking away from a movie set and back into reality. Or was it.

ends