Making tracks Down Under

An Australian adventure begins by chugging from Brisbane to Sydney

It's a beautiful afternoon here in Queensland, not far from the border with New South Wales. Through the windows of our train, we can see sunbeams playing among the fluffy clouds, cattle grazing serenely upon a thousand hills, the late spring foliage lush and green.

Pascal Deyrolle, manager of what he proudly calls a "palace on wheels," is taking a break to unwind for a few minutes in the lounge of the train.

Which is not moving at all.

Which is no problem at all because aboard this train, the emphasis is less on getting there than on being there.

Luxury train travel has arrived in Australia in the form of the new Great South Pacific Express, but it must roll over tracks that do most of their business with freight trains.

As a result, there is an occasional teacup-rattling bump along the way from Brisbane to Sydney. And our journey is punctuated with pauses on sidings while we wait for a freight train, or, occasionally, a passenger train, to roar by in a blur.

The pauses are not unpleasant; they are an opportunity to move out to the observation car and listen for a kookaburra, or for the unfamiliar music of other Australian birds and wildlife. And there is no rush. Just by climbing onto this elegant antique-style train, we have arrived.

The train is a joint venture between Queensland Rail and Venice-Simplon Orient Express, based in London.

"When we first started working with Queensland Rail," says Mr. Deyrolle, a five-year veteran of Orient Express in Europe when he came to Australia last year, "their people had to be trained not to get there fast.

"QR has a culture of freight trains and very few passenger trains," he adds. "The Queensland Rail engineers were used to getting a bonus for getting the train into the station early. But that isn't what we are doing here."

Whereas the famous Orient Express in Europe consists of restored antique carriages, the Great South Pacific Exress is a new train built in an old style.

Skilled craftsmen were called out of retirement to work with apprentices on the new train, at a workshop in Townsville, Queensland. "It was a way to transmit skills to a younger generation," Deyrolle explains.

The result of this intergenerational collaboration is extraordinary - compartments with Tasmanian cedar and myrtle burl paneling, brass lamps and other hardware, pressed aluminum ceilings with real gold highlights, and stained glass ("clerestory leadlights") bearing the logo QGR - Queensland Government Railways.

The friendly staff - solicitous, ubiquitous, and discreet -is another part of the luxurious experience. So is the dining-car service, under the direction of executive chef Craig Wheate. The cuisine is modern Australian, with strong emphasis on local seafood and produce.

Travelers can book a Brisbane-Sydney itinerary for one night, take a 2-1/2-day trip from Cairns to Brisbane, or go from Cairns to Sydney in five days.

Included in the fare on the longer trips is an excursion - via helicopter or seaplane - onto the Great Barrier Reef, as well as a cable-car trip through the rain forest at Kuranda, near Cairns.

The scenic highlight of the Brisbane-Sydney leg is the Hawkesbury River Valley. Here the train makes dramatic bridge crossings and comes within camera range of small harbors and other picturesque sights.

The Great South Pacific Express started making preview runs in late 1998; the first official run was on April 25, 1999.

Deyrolle seems satisfied with how well the venture is doing - as some 4,200 passengers have taken the journey on a train acccommodating 100 at a time.

The company sees its market as roughly 80 percent international and 20 percent domestic travelers. On the Brisbane-Sydney run, the passenger mix is closer to 50/50. This shorter trip is more suited to a quick celebration of some sort - a birthday or an anniversary, Deyrolle says.

As we roll along toward Sydney, my 30 fellow travelers include a pair of honeymooners from California doing the whole itinerary; an Australian couple celebrating their silver wedding anniversary; two journalists who have won their passage as a prize; and a couple of Australian railroad buffs whose daughter is apprenticing as a chef on board.

In the dining car (we have all "dressed" for dinner), I share a table with a Swiss couple into railroading. He is an engineer and she a stationmaster on a narrow-gauge line near Lucerne. She tells how they picked this particular excursion as the centerpiece of their Australian vacation: "We were going through all the brochures in the travel agency, stacks and stacks, and we saw this, and thought, 'We have to try it.' "

Fares on the train start at about US$1,100 per person, double occupancy, for the Brisbane-Sydney trip, and range from $2,380 to more than $4,000 for a five-day itinerary, depending on compartment size.

For more information on the Great South Pacific Express, which will carry the Olympic flame from Mackay to Prosperpine on June 23, visit the train's Web site www.orient-expresstrains.com/gspe/train.html or call Abercrombie & Kent, 800-323-7308.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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