Travel by private jumbo jet: heaven is your own 747

Take one private plane, several countries and sit back and enjoy the ride, writes Keith Austin.

The style is set with the arrival of a posh-looking royal blue leatherette zip-up document wallet with "The Captain's Choice Tour" embossed on the front cover. Among the goodies inside are three personalised luggage tags, a pin-on name tag, a monogrammed pen, a day-by-day itinerary and a colour-coded idiot's guide.

Nothing, it seems, is left to chance - an ethos that proves to run through the entire tour like words through a stick of British seaside rock. Indeed, it's not too long into the trip that someone, good-naturedly, says "what's it going to be like when we have to think for ourselves again?"

Welcome to the Captain's Choice Tour of South America by privately chartered Qantas 747, where you check your luggage and brain at the door and pick them up again in Sydney 20 days later.

This is not a trip for the faint of heart - in the 20 days we visit Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Panama, Peru, Ecuador and Chile. Nor is it for the faint of wallet, what with the cheapest seats weighing in at a mere $25,999 each (deluxe economy, with a constant empty seat next to you). Those souls at the pointy end of the plane have shelled out up to $46,990 (single supplement is $3850).

Anyone who has ever skimmed stones across the surface of a pond will have some idea of what the tour is like. We touch down, take off, touch down, take off, rarely dipping below the surface but, then, that's pretty much the whole point.

By the time we return to Sydney it's obvious that for many of the 205-strong group this is a Bucket List Tour. Havana? Tick. Machu Picchu? Tick. Galapagos? Easter Island? Tick, tick. While for others it's more of a Suck-it-and-See Tour. Would we go back? Will we go back? That's certainly the case for retirees Lillian and Stewart Esdale from Victoria, who, in Buenos Aires, say that while one day isn't enough to get to know the city, it's enough to decide whether they want to go back.

It doesn't start well, though. There is something wrong with the plane. And because this is our plane, especially chartered for the tour, we can't just swap it for another one. It was something, I think, to do with a de-icer on a wing. I'd tell you more but by the time little details like that came out I'd been in the Qantas business lounge for four hours, five Fat Yaks, an Abels Tempest chardonnay, two (or possibly three) Fifth Leg shirazes and a large scotch of some description.

"They're going to have to pour us on to this plane," says someone who shall remain nameless, mainly because by this time I am having trouble remembering my own name. I did find this overheard conversation scribbled in my notebook afterwards, though: "My son rang earlier and wanted to know what all the noise was. I said, I'm in the Qantas lounge, getting sloshed, spending your inheritance. He said, 'Mum, just go for it.' "

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When the boarding announcement is finally made there are cheers and whistles and applause. At the entrance to the aircraft there is a sign above the door: Welcome Home. In hindsight this is particularly appropriate as this giant machine does become a home away from home during the next three weeks.

Certainly both the Qantas crew (27 including three pilots, 16 cabin crew and eight support team, which includes the engineer, charter manager, ramp operator, load controller, security representative and three chefs) and the 14-strong Captain's Choice yellow-shirt team become "family" - though I'm still waiting for those adoption papers to come through. And, yes, I'm looking at you Mary Kotzmann.

For Mary's little boy Dan is both the company managing director and our tour manager, his younger sister Kate has been press-ganged into being a tour escort and I want in on this all-in-the-family gig. Midway through the trip, in the Galapagos, I buttonhole 71-year-old Mary for adoption into this globe-trotting clan. I'm still waiting, Mary, you tease.

Apart from a few 40 and 50-year- olds, this is mostly a tour for cashed-up retirees or soon-to-be retirees. It's certainly the most follically challenged holiday I've ever been on.

Among the people on the tour is Jan Alblas, an 84-year-old retired Uniting Church minister from Canberra. We are seated together on the first leg of the tour and I discover that, as a 13-year-old, Jan watched the American Fleet steam in to Pearl Harbour a week before the infamous Japanese attack. In the ensuing world war Jan and his Dutch family got stranded in Australia and he's been here ever since. Honestly, you can't make this stuff up.

Jack Youens is an actor turned primary school drama teacher who says he was looking at a bunch of brochures for South America "and this was the trip that ticked all the boxes . . . Iguazu Falls, Cuba, Galapagos . . . and who ever thought of going to Easter Island?"

Youens has also decided to take the optional extras of a helicopter ride over the falls, and a boat trip along the river to the smaller falls from a pontoon peppered with iridescent butterflies. "After all," he says, "when are you ever going to be back this way?"

It's also on the first few legs of the tour that the sheer logistics of it begins to dawn. At none of the airports that we arrive at or leave from are we asked to pick up our own luggage. The suitcase mysteriously arrives in your room and, when left outside overnight, is whisked away by the Captain's Choice pixies only to magically reappear in your next hotel.

Somehow Dan Kotzmann and his team also manage to make light work of most customs halls as well as ensuring a smooth exit through the airport and on to the fleet of buses that regularly sweep in to swoop us up and take us to our swish hotels.

Special mention to the Qantas crew - our very own Qantas crew - who turn each leg of the journey into a mile-high fancy dress-cum-street party. After the seriousness of the trip across the Pacific each subsequent leg sees the crew dressed up in costumes inspired by the country we've just left - and the safety demos left to the passengers (take a special bow, Steve Steigrad, of Rose Bay, NSW, who showed - hilariously - that all that safety belt, exits, oxygen mask stuff isn't as easy as it looks).

It was as if the joie de vivre of the South American continent had infected everyone, especially after Brazil (the Carmen Miranda round-the-plane conga line) and Havana (the fleet of old American cars that arrived at the wonderful old world Hotel Nacional to take us all out to dinner, and be welcomed back on board by Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and several plastic cigar-smoking senoritas).

Even this, though, was outdone on our return to the aircraft in Lima after three days in the Galapagos when we were greeted by madcap stewards Ray Galea and Damien O'Connor dressed as blue-footed boobies, a well-known Galapagos seabird. It's not too often you hear "would our blue boobies please start arming the doors" over a Qantas intercom, that's for sure.

Before we'd even reached the Galapagos Jo Sleigh, from Glen Waverley in Victoria, told me: "I've never been on a trip where I've stood there gobsmacked so many times and said, 'I can't believe I'm here.' I just loved Rio, with all those mountains around it."

Later, on the top deck of the MV Santa Cruz, our ship in the Galapagos, Vivienne May, from Indooroopilly, Brisbane, is taking pictures of the dozens of frigate birds which, because they cannot swim, walk very well or take off from a flat surface, take advantage of the ship's rigging to rest.

"I've seen so many of the things I came here to see," she says, while clicking away with her camera. "It's absolutely marvellous. I always wanted to come here but didn't want to do South America as a single woman. Safety was an important factor for me. This just ticked all the right boxes. And have you seen how they've been looking after Gwen? The Captain's Choice people and the Qantas crew have been fantastic."

The Gwen she's referring to is Gwen Heron, of Phillip Island in Victoria, a feisty 85-year-old travelling on her own.

When her late husband, Tom, retired, she tells me, he decided to build his own crazy golf business, called Grumpy's. "When people used to ask us who was Grumpy we used to point at each other," she laughs.

Grumpy's is still there, run by her daughter and son-in-law, but Gwen's out travelling the world. Of the CC tour she said: "This is definitely not a holiday; it's an adventure. And if you don't want an adventure, well, don't come."

Another passenger agreed but added: "This is for people who want adventure but aren't adventurous."

Our last port of call is Easter Island and its enigmatic statues. We join the aircraft again for the short hop back across the Pacific. But before we board the plane there's an impromptu party on the tarmac beneath the massive 747.

Ray Galea and Damien O'Connor are found hiding in the long grass dressed as gorillas, passengers are having their photographs taken on the lip of the engines, the revheads are peering into the plane's innards and asking questions.

As everyone mills about excitedly, Margaret Flynn, from Yarraville, Victoria, reckons it's a lesson in how to beat adversity by piling on the fun: "Just when you thought you couldn't enjoy yourself any more . . ."

Julie Scott, of Pyrmont, NSW, is on the tarmac too, and says: "Complaints? Well, I've got to go home."

The writer was a guest of Captain's Choice.

Upcoming Captain's Choice private jet tours include trips to the Silk Road, China and India in 2014. An Around the World tour taking in Mexico, Brazil, Easter Island, Tahiti, Australia, Cambodia, India, Tanzania and the UK is planned for March 2015. For more details and prices see captainschoice.com.au/Tours/private-air-tours or phone 1800 650 738.

FIVE BEST MOMENTS IN LUXURY'S LAP

TANGO IN BA

The tango show in Buenos Aires was a revelation. Amazing dancers, amazing dances. This is the closest you can get to having sex in public, standing up. Food a bit chicken-in-a-basket but the show at the Esquina Carlos Gardel (Carlos Gardel 3200, Buenos Aires) is astonishing.

RIO BEACH

Watching a group of young lads playing beach volleyball on Copacabana Beach, Rio, with their feet only. Brilliant skills on show, and genuinely friendly people - next year's World Cup will be a winner.

OLD HAVANA

Walking the streets of beautiful old Havana; Hemingway's room in the Hotel Ambos Mundos where he began For Whom the Bell Tolls; listening to live music and drinking daiquiris in La Floridita, one of Hemingway's favourite bars.

MANTA RAYS

Snorkelling in the Galapagos was amazing enough but the huge manta ray that "flew" silently and gracefully under us a few metres away was the icing on a very big cake.

EASTER ISLAND

The quarry on Easter island, scattered as it is with those giant statues - finished, half-finished and partially buried - is one of those places that everyone should see once in their lives. A monument to human ingenuity and folly.

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