CAIRNS, Queensland, Australia – Is that Hercule Poirot, the debonair detective, seated on the observation platform, mulling over clues and sipping booze – champagne, of course – as endless green waves of sugar cane are parted by the train’s engine?
“Should be drinking rum, my dear,” he mutters to his stunning companion, who resembles Agatha Christie. “Bundaberg Rum. Superb stuff. Made from this very cane. We’ll be passing through Bundaberg in a few minutes. Not much of a town, but the rum makes it famous.”
“Ah, demon rum, Hercule,” she sighs.
“Indeed. And there’s a demon somewhere on this train. A killer. But, don’t worry. I’m onto his scent, Aggie.”
“Smashing! Wonderful idea for my next book. I’ll call it ‘Murder on the Orient-Express.’ ”
But my eavesdropping from behind a book does not continue. I look up and they’re gone from the open-air back porch. In fact, never were.
Still, riding this elegant train from the past toward Cairns on Australia’s northeast coast can time-warp you, carry you into daydreaming of stylish and mysterious characters from a Christie novel.
You begin to think of affairs and intrigue. Perhaps recalling Alfred Hitchcock’s film “Strangers on a Train” and the smooth looney, Robert Walker, plotting murder with Farley Granger in the club car. Or Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes,” a thriller reeking of espionage and set on a train in eastern Europe during the tense days preceding World War II. Maybe “Some Like It Hot” and Tony Curtis’s pursuit of Marilyn Monroe in a Pullman car.
We are all strangers on this train called the Great South Pacific Express, in its second year of operation as the Australian partner of the Orient-Express. If spies or murderers are among us, they haven’t identified themselves. Clearly, though, there are romantics, nostalgists, and pleasure lovers in an international cast. I’ve met Germans, English, Australians, Canadians, Americans, French fellow passengers, none in a hurry to get anywhere.
This Express is no speedy rival to France’s TGVs or Japan’s bullet trains on which a swift journey is the essence, and isn’t intended to be. Here, swaying in a jaunty rhythm on a roadbed that wouldn’t support rapidity anyway, the train itself is the star, its ambience and mood the reason for coming aboard.
A diesel choo-choo, it has been conceived to take you not only from Brisbane, the glistening seaside capital of Queensland, to Cairns, a jumping-off port to the Great Barrier Reef, but to take you back to the Edwardian Era for 2 1/2 days of luxury. Days such as himself, that Limey dandy, King Edward VII, relished during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. You glance at your lady (or gentleman) love and imagine Edward – prior to the throne, as the Prince of Wales – and his gorgeous great-and-good-friend, actress Lily Langtry, sharing a similar joyride in Europe.
“But they would have had a private car,” says my friend, Aurelio, “and their own chef.”
“What do you need a private car for? To play tennis? This compartment isn’t exactly a flophouse. And Chef Peter’s grub is abundant and succulent enough to keep everybody happy, including Edward and Lily if they were on board.”
She agrees, admiring the decor of our handsomely gleaming, wood-paneled room of sorrel hue, the moldings and broad window with clerestory. Deep carpeting. The bathroom, also paneled, with shower stall, is parquet-floored. Brass fixtures holding crystal globes impersonate gas lamps. A floral-patterned ceiling of aluminum evokes the pressed tin of the Gay Nineties. The sofa and easy chair are quickly transformed into beds. Of course Edward and Lily would be in one of the larger compartments with a king-sized bed.
Checking in at Brisbane’s Roma Street Station, where we’d once caught a fine, contemporary-model train called Spirit of the Outback (heading northwest into the Queensland bush), we were struck by the very different sight of the Great South Pacific Express. An antique? The maroon and cream cars (carriages, as they’re known locally) could have been parked on a siding at London’s Charing Cross Station a century ago.
Were they carefully preserved and refurbished rolling stock of that vintage?
“Oh, no,” chuckled Pascal Deyrolle, a cosmopolitan Frenchman who manages the train. “Brand new when we launched last year. Steel exteriors that resemble the wood of the old days. All construction up to date, including air conditioning. But the interiors, as you will see, are carefully detailed to revive the period in rich shades of deep red, say roan. The all-but-disappeared use of rosewood, Tasmanian myrtle burl, and Australian cedar could only have been done by master craftsmen.
“When this project that took four years was begun, with Denise Corcoran of Adelaide as the designer, we revived several craft industries in Townsville. It’s on our route, the Express’s hometown. They were aging their way out of business. But now the elders, instead of retiring, are teaching young woodworkers and other craftsmen. There’s a new market for their highest quality work that includes our wooden mosaics called marquetry. Most materials are Australian, but we’ve imported some. The brocaded fabrics on the mahogany chairs and sofas are from Italy.”
Splendid. Fit for a king – or somebody who wants to live like one for a couple of days. The disguise has been well done; the past works. “It’s fun to go backwards as the train moves forwards – but with a shower, flush toilet, and air conditioning,” says passenger Sharon Taylor, the athletic director at Lock Haven (Pa.) University. “Sometime I’d like to take the run that goes from Brisbane through the Blue Mountains to Sydney.”
“All aboard, please,” says Dey rolle, and the 21-car express, accommodating 100 voyagers, is ready to roll (and rock a little) up the east coast. He will be in evening clothes at dinner, along with numerous passengers. “But a sports jacket and tie are fine,” he assured me, “and lunch is casual.”
However, no jeans or shorts, please. It’s hard to picture Edward and Lily in dungarees or cutoffs, anyhow.
If Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s slick sleuth, were on the case, he would surely track down a few killers because the staff is loaded with them. They kill you with kindness, cheery and efficient service. Chef Peter Stevens, presiding over two dining cars, takes you out with rest-in-peaceful-bliss cuisine. Genevieve Rosvall is a maitre d’hotel par excellence.
In our car, the stewards, Raymond Schwarz and Richard Measures, are attentive-plus, serving breakfast in bed and afternoon tea.
Although Aurelio says, “I want to take Raymond home,” she can’t afford him.
The Glasshouse Mountains, astounding volcanic plugs that just pop up from the plain, were passed on the first afternoon. Sighted and named by the English explorer Captain James Cook in 1770, they reminded him of the glass foundries in his native Yorkshire.
Through cattle country, the train crossed the Tropic of Capricorn at Rockhampton, and stopped farther along at Proserpine for an excursion to the Barrier Reef via helicopter. Wouldn’t Edward have loved that? Hovering above the aqua sea and patches of reef that seemed giant amoebas before landing on a concrete platform. Then snorkeling amid rainbow blizzards of fish.
Back on the train, and chugging through Townsville, presently a small town named Ingham. Poor Ingham. That would be William Ingham, who started the sugar cane planting and processing business in 1874, becoming the settlement’s namesake. Three years later, traveling in New Guinea, he became the roasted entree for a tribe of cannibals.
“They may have enjoyed him, but I think Chef Peter’s kangaroo appetizer – seared rare slices over vegetable ragout – is preferable,” says Aurelio. “Best ‘roo I’ve ever had.”
Deyrolle, the manager, takes pride in “our having no TV, phones, fax, e-mail, or recorded music. If you care for music, ours is live, in the observation car.”
So it is, with Alison Riethmuller on piano and Seamus Kirkpatrick on clarinet, flute, and vocals. After dinner there is dancing. An English couple, Sheila and Terry Gandy, are particularly formidable, swirling about as Alison and Seamus perform the old Ellington standard “Take the A Train.”
Through my brandy snifter I see them as Lily and Edward on the Orient-Express.
For Great South Pacific Express bookings and information, e-mail Reservations, Australia@orient-express.com