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Weathering Tropical Australia by Luxury Train

July 06, 1986|GRANT GERRISH | Gerrish is an American doing graduate research in Australia.

BRISBANE, Australia — "In Queensland's far north, crocodiles inhabit some of the rivers. It's best not to swim in them."--Trans Australian Airlines Travel Guide.

Recently Queensland, twice the size of the United Kingdom and France combined, launched in understated Aussie style what must rank as one of the great railway journeys, the world's first luxury train through the tropics.

Offering sleeping compartments, 1 1/2 dining cars specializing in fresh seafood, a two-page wine list, video movies and a wood-paneled lounge car, the train, The Queenslander, is more likely to achieve fame as "The Barrier Reef Express."

The train runs for a day and a half along the edge of the Coral Sea paralleling the Great Barrier Reef, which twists and turns just offshore, disappearing into the sea where Australia meets Papua New Guinea.

Consider Lingering

If you begin at the northern terminus of Cairns, consider lingering. It is a former gold rush town on the shore of Trinity Bay where it's considered bad form to kill a marlin that weighs less than 900 pounds.

The urge to swim, snorkel or dive can be satisfied by strolling to Platypus Wharf, where boats will drop you off for the day (or month) on Green, Fitzroy or Lizard islands on the reef.

To experience the rain forest, a Queensland Railways spur line climbs east past Kuranda 2,000 feet up the plateau. On the way, passengers delight in seeing the waterfalls splash against the train.

The mood is set as The Queenslander heads south from Cairns. In the lounge car, passengers are welcomed to morning tea. This is not one of those canned mechanical greetings that you might expect from an airline or other railroads. This is a face-to-face greeting.

The women Queensland Railways selected are breezy and the heart of hospitality as they offer tea, freshly baked cakes and scones served British style with jam and good whipped cream.

As the train rolls south, a storm unleashes a reminder that Queensland's rain forests owe their lushness to celestial irrigation. We are heading for Tully, which yearly soaks up 168 inches.

Watching the Weather

Wind-driven rain has a drum-like hiss as fat raindrops splat against panes. Inside the snug lounge car, passengers watch trees and sugar cane take a beating. For most of us, comfort is curiously enhanced when we can safely gaze out at adversity.

By late morning the storm has been left behind and the train winds through uninhabited bush. Just as The Queenslander snakes into a swamp, Harrison Ford races through a jungle--as the lounge car video screens his latest adventure.

The train trundles past Cardwell, affording a rare water view. An institutional block of school buildings is wholly redeemed by its setting. Like upside-down windshield wipers, coconut palms brush the school's forgettable profile.

But schoolboys lean out windows, tempted by something a richer green than teacher's chalkboard--the horizon-filling Coral Sea. Swap the kids for sailors, switch a few signs and you'd have a passable set for "South Pacific."

"The first sitting for lunch has now commenced," smiles the steward, "and where do you feel like sitting?" His railroad, one of the few to turn a profit, has decided to imaginatively designate the train a rolling showcase of Queensland food.

Among the appetizers offered is chicken and pork terrine with biscuits and continental salad. Robyn, the waitress, suggests a lightly grilled fish from the Great Barrier Reef known as sweetlips, adding, "We Queenslanders call it the mother-in-law fish." For dessert, fresh Redland Bay strawberries are recommended ("grown near my hometown"), liquored and served with cream.

The train continues down the coast to Townsville, the largest tropical city in Australia and a major gateway to the reef.

World's Largest Island Park

Magnetic Island is a 35-minute ferry ride away. Ringed by 15 beaches, it has a marine observatory, a koala sanctuary, resorts of every class and, because it is the world's largest island national park, audacious Aussie wildlife.

Continuing south, the train passes Prosperine, then Mackay, both departure points--by boat, plane or helicopter--for the reef. Prosperine is an ideal stopover and forms the mainland link with the most famous section of the Great Barrier reef region, the Whitsunday Islands. About 75 of them lie scattered like tropical green icebergs in the fishbowl clarity of Whitsunday Passage.

While most are uninhabited, dozens of them, including Hayman, Lindeman and Daydream offer everything from raging night life to abundant marine life (painlessly examined from underwater observatories).

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