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Open Features: Great South Pacific Express

Mike Larder dined in style when he took a trip on Australia's Great South Pacific Express.

Mike writes for Bonzer! magazine. For further reading treats visit www.bonzer.org.au

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. Queensland's 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 II, and screenwriter for such classics as Chinatown and Shampoo. Robert cut an Einsteinesque figure with whispy white shoulder-length hair. He was on another scouting mission for a new screenplay and 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 A$150 bottle of excellent 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 Hoagy 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 Matthew had let my bed down and left some exotic tasting chocolates for my delectation.

I lay back in my exquisitely ornate cabin and wondered what the poor bastards were doing.

Next morning Matthew delivered my continental breakfast whereupon 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 give us an eagle's 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 islands' 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, which 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, its psychedelic 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 to 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 the socks off us that evening. I wondered if they had been propped there all day.

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Mike Larder is a photo journalist.



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