Eight countries, three weeks, 87 strangers: Paul Sheehan boards a private jet for a serial adventure.
Our plane lands and the airport appears deserted. It is the middle of the day. Ours is the only plane on the tarmac. There is a large terminal building, but it seems empty. We know we are in the middle of obscurity because when the plane breached the dense cloud cover, what emerged below was an enormous snake of water, wide and brown, coiling and coiling to the horizon. I've never seen a river like it. The Amazon.
Now we are disembarking at the frontier city of Iquitos, in Peru's Amazonas region, a long way from the famous tourist zones and impossible to reach by road. For hundreds of kilometres in every direction there is jungle, forest and water. The nearest major road is 500 kilometres away.
Even as our party, nearly 100 people, walks across the empty tarmac there are no signs of life at the terminal. If things don't work out we can always get back on board and leave. This is not just any plane. It is our plane. Flying on our schedule. A white Boeing 757, the words "The Captain's Choice Tour" emblazoned on the side, all business class, with a chef and seven attentive, good-looking cabin crew who have been with us for the entire journey. Our escorts, the six people who do all the gritty work of getting us through foreign airports with baggage intact, transport waiting and hotel rooms ready. We even have our own doctor.
Luxury, security and continuity in the midst of obscurity.
No need for concern at Iquitos. There are customs officials and security inside the terminal. Our transport, a row of minibuses, is evident. As befits a frontier town near the equator, these transports are rattle-traps with no glass in the windows. They take us through the shabby centre of the city to the river, where several motor launches are ready for the high-speed trip up the Amazon to the Ceiba Tops Lodge.
A buffet dinner awaits, with ice-cold Amazonica beer and a local indigenous dance group led by a comely young woman in a grass skirt who spends a lot of time dancing with a pliant python coiling around her neck.
In the morning we take a two-deck open-air cruiser, the Amazon Queen, to look for pink dolphins and view the forest canopy. We encounter the shockingly pink snouts of freshwater dolphins emerging from the brown water to blow air, then dive. Some in the group go fishing for piranha, which is offered at dinner that night. So ugly and bony on the plate, but the flesh is surprisingly sweet.
It all begins two weeks earlier, when the group meets for the first time at the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington.
All up it's 88 passengers, 14 crew, 12 flights, eight countries, six escorts, three weeks, two luxury yachts, one private airliner and a serial adventure. It's disturbingly easy to get used to having your group's own jet waiting for you.
The first meal sets the tone: a generous buffet at the five-star hotel in London, where the tour's manager, Bas Bosschieter, sets a funny, professional, personable tone that will not falter for the duration of the trip. At dinner I find myself sitting next to the tour's doctor, Guy Grenhill, easy company and, it turns out, a generous wine steward during the flights. This makes him an even more reassuring presence.
I arrive in London several days early to visit friends and find myself uttering a sentence I never thought I would say: "London is cheap." What a difference a 40 per cent drop in the pound to the Aussie dollar has made since the 2008 financial crisis.
The trip is billed the Equatorial Explorer. The all-inclusive price is $30,840, including a round-the-world ticket from Australia, plus extra for those who want more than economy class to London or, for solo travellers, to have their own room.
The itinerary is exotic and eclectic, even by the standards of The Captain's Choice: London, the Azores, Havana, Antigua (Guatemala), Panama City, the Amazon, the Galapagos Islands (Ecuador), Easter Island (Chile), Tahiti, Sydney.
When I first read the tour brochure and see the words "four-day/three-night cruise around the Galapagos Islands", my eyes widen. They would have widened even more had I realised I would be snorkelling in clear water with seals diving nearby, grey reef sharks cruising below, flashing schools of fish, birds swooping along the water's surface, frigate birds circling and iguanas perched on the moonscape shore. All encountered in a single sweep.
Just getting to the Galapagos is hard enough and this experience is delivered to our feet, including two cruise ships. Mine is the Isabella II, with just 21 berths, which for three days takes us around several islands, with two expeditions each day to walks on shore or snorkelling.
I'm travelling alone but by this stage of the trip I've made buddies, and my snorkelling companion is a sheep farmer from Victoria travelling with her mother.
I'd spent years avoiding group tours. My caution is confirmed on the first flight, Luton to Ponta Delgada. My seating companion informs me she's on her 14th Captain's Choice tour. Fourteen! She settles into her Women's Weekly and we exchange little for the rest of the flight. Or the rest of the trip.
Perhaps that's why seat assignments for solo travellers are rotated throughout the trip.
I'd had concerns about spending three weeks tied to the fates of 87 strangers. What sort of people take Captain's Choice trips? Not budget travellers. Not young travellers. The predominant hair colour is grey. Not singles. The clear majority come in pairs. Would luxury and convenience be offset by crotchety travellers?
No. Most Australians are pragmatic travellers, not prima donnas, and this group is no exception. The travel arrangements go smoothly, the cabin crew never stop being cheerful, the luggage is always accounted for, destinations are rarely dull, there's no culture of complaint, and nobody died. I'm impressed by the group's overall stamina and good humour, including some women in their 80s who are indomitable.
As for the inevitable bores - it is the law of averages when you throw 100 strangers together - I encounter only four people I come to actively avoid. That's a very low bore score when you consider the odds.
Some people come to regret not paying the supplement for single accommodation. Other solos become friends. The tour's favourite odd couple are Sam and Brian, two middle-age men who left their families behind for the trip. Sam likes to go bar-hopping every night, no matter where we are, and Brian has to wake him to get him on the coach on time. They dine together every night.
I make friends: an ebullient judge and her droll husband; the sheep farmer and her mother; an older widow who had so forgotten what it was like to dine in the company of a man that she had to take a Panadol after our first dinner. Nearly all the guides are lively. So are the English cabin crew, on our Monarch Airlines charter based out of Manchester, and by the end of the trip they seem like family, familiar faces in unfamiliar settings. The crew chief, Emma Chilton, runs a tight ship with a light touch.
The group's first vault into the unfamiliar lands is the Azores, a necklace of Portuguese islands in the middle of the North Atlantic, way off the beaten track for Australians. (The Azores had long been a goal for me; I spent 10 days there in 2008 and loved it.)
The rest of the group is in for a lovely surprise. The Azoreans are house-proud, so the volcanic beauty of the islands is complemented by roadside gardens, neat farms and towns built like miniature versions of Lisbon.
The itinerary is not designed for people who like to loll and laze. We're travelling to see and learn. The only full day in the Azores is an all-day tour around the island, Sao Miguel.
Next stop, Havana, and walking tours around the shabby grandeur of the city, dinner and a show at the Tropicana nightclub, an afternoon at the Havana Club, and we can't help but notice that the communist revolution is falling apart.
In Guatemala, our destination is the beautifully preserved colonial capital of Antigua, a trip that takes us into the former Spanish empire, past volcanic peaks and lakes, with an elegant five-star hotel for comfort. Antigua is also a hot spot for jade.
On to Panama City, bigger and more cosmopolitan than I was expecting. Being the money-laundering capital of Latin America has done wonders for the economy. Our main purpose is to spend half a day navigating the locks of the Panama Canal.
Then to the exotic sectors of the tour: the Amazon, the Galapagos and Easter Island. The Galapagos are duly the highlight of the trip for most, with a general feeling the cruise is too short.
I had given little thought to what followed, Easter Island, and had no great expectations.
I was wrong. The island and its rows of statues, the moai, are beautiful, with an ethereal feeling. Nearly everyone I talk to feels the same. For some reason we sleep more deeply on Easter Island.
By the time we get to Tahiti, everyone is ready to subside into the five-star InterContinental Resort, with its views of the soaring peaks of Moorea across the water. It might be luxury travel, but we're collectively spent.
The people who run The Captain's Choice Tour know how to pace a trip. The Melbourne-based managing director of the company, Phil Asker, and his wife, Kaye, are travel-industry veterans who took a punt in 1994 and chartered a Qantas 767 to Africa and Asia to test their theory that it was possible to organise an exotic itinerary with five-star service, make a profit and not lose anyone.
The formula has worked because, 18 years later, the company offers about 50 trips, ranging in scale from a luxury cruise on the Mekong, limited to 32 guests, to a chartered Qantas 747, with four classes of service, for 20 days throughout South America.
There are trips within Australia on chartered Qantas 36-seat Dash 8 aircraft; "opulent" luxury cruises around various parts of the world and 10 tours in Europe; the Silk Road by private train; a tour on the Orient Express and Queen Mary 2; a safari across southern Africa; and an Africa extravaganza from Cape Town to Cairo. Even North Korea is on one itinerary. The most common cost and length of trip is about $20,000 for three weeks.
For my trip, the 757 has old-school business-class seats but the service never flags and the crew are first-class.
On their last night before they depart Sydney, I invite the entire cabin crew to dinner. They all turn up. It is that kind of trip.
Paul Sheehan travelled courtesy of The Captain's Choice Tour.
The Captain's Choice Tour has a 22-day Equatorial Explorer tour including stops at the Azores, Havana, Antigua (Guatemala), Panama City, the Amazon (Peru), the Galapagos Islands (Ecuador), Easter Island (Chile) and Tahiti on a chartered business-class Boeing 757, costing $30,840 a person, twin share. The next departure is on March 6 from Sydney to London. The tour is also available in the reverse direction; the next departure from London is on February 11. The cost includes all flights (including economy airfare from Sydney and Melbourne to London), accommodation, five-star hotels or best available, all meals and drinks, sightseeing excursions, local guides, tour escorts and a doctor accompanying throughout, tipping, taxes and transfers. Phone 1800 650 738, see captainschoice.com.au.