A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
robots business class travel
First class adventure
IT'S THURSDAY, so it must be Mauritius. That's because it was Nairobi on Tuesday, then the wondrous game parks of Kenya's Masai Mara and we've just overflown Mt Kilimanjaro, which looks like a giant snow cone thrusting out of the clouds above east Africa.I'm feeling very spoilt, just as I have for the past 14 days.
Georgia, one of the Qantas crew staffing our chartered 747, has been around to top up the wine. There are only 170 of us scattered about the cabin.
We're on what's called the Captain's Choice Tour of Asia and Africa, and it's been billed as the experience of a lifetime. Rightly so though on this trip the highs of visiting some of the most exotic destinations imaginable, in a style to which I could seriously become accustomed, will weigh against the profoundly sad death of a much-liked tour guide.
Tour manager Phil Lasker and his team from Melbourne's Croydon Travel coped with the loss of their colleague and friend, tour guide Bronwyn Sheath, as they did with the myriad problems that cropped up on the 17-day journey: with sensitivity, professionalism and an abiding sense that no imposition on their time was too much.
Lasker, 60, has been running these charters since 1994 in association with Qantas. And while the average age of my travel companions is late 60s, he's never before had to contend with a death while away let alone that of a woman with whom he had worked for 11 years.
As we flew towards the speck of lush tropical greenery in the expanse of the Indian Ocean that's Mauritius, 800km east of Madagascar, Lasker reflected on the effort required to keep what he calls "the show" on the road.
It's by no means cheap. A seat in the economy cabin where passengers are guaranteed the seat beside them is empty costs $19,990 based on twin-shared hotel accommodation.
Business class is $32,290, with the supplement to upgrade to a single room in either category worth another $2160.
Still, this is by no means your standard style of travel. For a start, there's the convenience of your own Qantas 747.
The chartered aircraft has 31 Qantas crew, including alternative pilot, load controller, security specialist and three chefs. In addition to the nine tour escorts, there's a full-time doctor, Steve Howle. His presence is clearly a selling point, especially with the aged clientele.
Lasker says he would like to attract a younger crowd when he started up the Captain's Choice luxury tours his target market were time-poor executives, not time-rich retirees.
But that seems somewhat moot, given a paying customer is a paying customer and some 61 of the passengers on this trip already had done a Captain's Choice Tour before. In fact, one elderly lady is on her eighth.
Anyway, Lasker is quite right to say that there's nothing else in the world like this travel experience, although he does mention there are a couple of charter operators in the US, but their offerings are on a much less grand scale.
Luxury travel to remote and exotic destinations is the mission statement, and this year's tour began in the Indian metropolis of Mumbai, went on to Amman, Jordan, with side-trips to the magnificent ruins of Jerash and Petra as well as the Dead Sea.
We continued to the Moroccan city of Marrakech, then to the newly reopened travel destination of Tripoli, Libya, and the Roman ruins of Leptis Magna. Two days on safari in the Masai Mara were followed by two days on the beach in Mauritius, before it was home to Sydney.
In all, we were away 17 days and, for mine, these were the highlights ...
This will be the only time we will have to carry our own luggage through immigration and customs.
For the rest of the trip, our bags will be delivered to our rooms. In fact, in many of the stops we will be spared the usual arrival formalities, being ushered through this side door or that to avoid the queues. A perk of having your own chartered jumbo.
We fly to Agra on a domestic charter to visit the Taj Mahal, which lives up to its billing. So does the imposing Agra Fort.
Then it's back to Mumbai, which the locals insist on calling by its old name of Bombay, for all the efforts of the Indian Government to have the city's new one catch on.
With its population of some 18 million, a million of whom live rough on the streets, Mumbai is not only India's financial hub but also capital of its thriving film industry Bollywood.
Lasker thought about skipping this leg of the tour and diverting either to Cairo or Damascus but, after seeking advice from Qantas security experts and Australian Foreign Affairs, he decided there was no need.
The heavy security presence at our hotel is additionally reassuring. With our own armed guards, we travel to the Roman ruins of Jerash and then to the Dead Sea, which is like floating in a very salty mud bath. Suddenly, the war on terror seems very real.
The Place Djemaa el-Fna is its beating heart. A vast square framed by a labyrinth of souks, or traditional markets, it fills with snake charmers, food hawkers, jugglers, magicians and acrobats at dusk, and the party lasts long into the night.
As we fly out, bound for the Libyan capital of Tripoli, Lasker breaks the news about Bronwyn.
She had taken ill the previous evening, our third in Marrakech, while we were off watching a horse-riding exhibition. The usual stomach bug, it had seemed. She had felt better in the morning, but was told to stay in bed until Howle dropped by to see her.
Aged 42, and with three teenagers and husband at home in Melbourne, she had died by the time he arrived, apparently of a heart attack.
Lasker had to break the news to her husband. And to the rest of us.
"Bronwyn would have wanted us to carry on, to continue to enjoy the trip," he said over the plane's PA. Later, he confided: "It's been very difficult for everyone on the team . . . we've just had to stick together."
He was expecting to land at Tripoli's main international airport, but was diverted without notice to the VIP strip used by President Muammar Gaddafi.
Trees overhanging the tarmac forced him to shut down the plane's outer engines sooner than normal; and it was only after a frantic search of the airport that suitable equipment to unload the luggage was found.
After renouncing terrorism, his nuclear ambitions and accepting a measure of responsibility for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, which blew a Pan-Am jumbo out of the sky over Scotland, killing 270 people, Gaddafi is set on becoming respectable again.
He has re-opened Libya to tourism, and we're among the first Australians to visit. The splendid Corinthia Hotel is reputed to have been built with Maltese money. It's so new the paint hardly seems to have dried.
But you don't have to look far for reminders of the bad old days. Mobile missile batteries bristle from the military barracks near our hotel. The US bombed Tripoli a few years back in a bid to take out Gaddafi, but killed one of his daughters instead.
Yet if there's any lingering hostility towards Westerners, it's not apparent on the streets. People are friendly and happy to chat; in sharp contrast to Marrakech, we're left alone in the souks, and the prices are good.
Zebra, elephant, herds of wildebeest and stately giraffe parade beneath us. Someone thinks they've spotted a pride of lions in an overgrown creek bed.
This is the penultimate stop before we hit the beach in Mauritius and fly on to Sydney. At Nairobi airport, we were waved through immigration, then whisked through a back door on to our domestic charter to the game reserve, 30 minutes' flying time from the capital.
There, we went straight on safari. The Masaai Mara is located on the equator, but its elevation means that the climate is relatively temperate year-round. Game is plentiful and so are the predators.
A leopard has killed a gazelle and dragged the carcass high into a tree. We watch as it guards its feast, so close we can see its glowering cat's eyes. Returning to the Mara Simba Lodge, we're served icy Tusker beer and salted peanuts.
Crocodiles bask on the creek bank overlooked by the open-air bar. I find myself thinking: "How good is this?"
The Captain's Choice Tour won't be for everyone. Some in the party found it too regimented, a little too redolent of a bus tour for their taste.
But that hardly seems fair to Lasker and his crew: moving 170 people about takes organisation, and his was flawless given the challenges inherent to some of the destinations.
So if you seek exotic locations, ease of travel and everything from your bags to your meals catered for, and you're prepared to pay for the privilege, then this is for you.
This year Lasker will offer Captain's Choice tours of South America, Iberia, Alaska, the fjords of Norway and the Baltic and the eastern Mediterranean all based from cruise liners.
Qantas willing and the availability of its aircraft is very limited he is also considering another Captain's Choice tour with a chartered airliner and Qantas crew.
He likes the look of "unexplored Africa" Ethiopia, maybe Ghana and Togo. But he could do much worse than re-offer his marvellous 2005 itinerary.
Jamie Walker travelled on The Captain's Choice Tour to India, Jordan, Morocco, Libya, Kenya and Mauritius as a guest of Croydon Travel, Melbourne.
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