Head for the hills!

On Monday we headed off to the Dandenong Ranges for Puffing Billy. It’s been years since I’ve been up there, and after taking a look recently at an old family video of one such trip, we were all keen to go again.

The removal of zone 3 has made these occasional jaunts to the city fringe a bit cheaper, and the train ride out was fairly uneventful (if a little slower than expected). But we were at Belgrave in time for the 10am Puffing Billy departure for Lakeside. If I had been wishing we’d brought my nephew Leo (who is train-crazy at the moment), that was doubled when I realised he and his mum or dad could have ridden on the Family ticket for the same price. Ah well, next time.

We didn’t get a spot on the coveted south side of the carriage. No matter, it was an enjoyable ride, and close to the engine so we could hear it working hard up the hills. There’s something quite magical about steam engines. It’s some kind of undefinable combination of nostalgia and old machinery that had me grinning from ear to ear during the trip.

From the look of them you’d be forgiven for thinking that the development of the steam locomotive was driven purely by aesthetic judgment, possibly with some old vicar at the helm giving his thoughts on the pitch of the whistle.
— Robbie Coltrane, Coltrane’s Planes and Automobiles

The ride hasn’t changed much. Oh sure, they’ve restored the line from Lakeside to Gembrook (which we didn’t ride that day; it seemed just a little too much, and from my memory there’s not that much exciting at Gembrook for kids, and there was only one train up and one train back), and they don’t issue those little cardboard “Edmondson” tickets anymore, but fundamentally Puffing Billy is the same as when I first went on it in the 70s as a kid. The (mostly) little engines, the little carriages, the tight curves, and the echo of the whistle through the mountains — all the same. A wave of nostalgia came over me. I had soot in my hair and smoke in my eyes, but I was blissfully happy.

One innovation since my last visit (or perhaps I just didn’t notice it last time) was the fire patrol, a little diesel-powered carriage that runs a few hundred metres behind the train making sure the steam engine doesn’t set fire to anything. Maybe it’s only used in midsummer. We saw a couple of those moving around, and later saw a fully sized ute with train wheels, which the kids considered mucho-cool.

Puffing Billy, level crossing

As the train rolled through the forest, we’d come across the occasional level crossing. It must be a legal requirement that the locals wave at the train, though frankly I think if you saw a 100+ year old narrow gauge steam train rolling across your path full of kiddies waving at you, you’d have to have a heart of stone to not wave back. Every crossing we passed, everyone from little kids in cars to crusty old blokes in trucks waved back. Only one — a grumpy-looking young man in a P-plated Commodore, failed to wave back, and I believe the train crew would have passed his licence plate number to the sheriffs who will be paying him a visit.

After an hour or so we arrived at Lakeside, and a friendly Brummie offered to take our photos. I offered to reciprocate, but he said his family had already taken heaps, thanks.

We took a look at the model railway (2000 metres of HO track?! Whoa!) before sitting down for a lunch of pre-packed bagels. Suddenly my little backpack felt so much lighter.

We strolled around the lake, with Jeremy (who had last been there about 18 months before) noting the waterslide has disappeared — to my mind it was rarely in use even in my childhood, and now it’s been closed permanently. We almost went on the paddle boats aqua bikes, but the kids decided at the last minute that they didn’t want to.

The train back was hauled by a bigger loco than the traditional Puffing Billy specimen, a hulking big unit called G42, known by those in the know as a Garratt. We made sure to get a spot on the southern side of the train on the way back, to make the most of the sweeping vistas of the distant Cardinia reservoir, and of course that view — Puffing Billy’s money shot — going over the trestle bridge near Belgrave.

The kids loved that — with their feet hanging out the windows in the time-honoured tradition, they said it felt like flying.

Back at Belgrave, we headed back to the big trains, and headed towards home. It had been a good day.

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.

9 replies on “Head for the hills!”

Daniel, As a Hills resident we often hear the Puffing Billy whistle on clear days. It’s a great sound and always brings back memories.

The last time we went (18-24 months ago) the old cardboard tix were still being issued. It’s a pity they’ve gone the way of the dinosaur.

I also think it might be in the Shire Residential contract that locals MUST wave as the train goes by. Maybe the Commodore driver was from out of town ;)

I’m fascinated that people are allowed to hang their person out of the carriage. In this day and age of litigiousness (a word?) I thought it would be a public liability nightmare! If PB was in Sydney, there’d be no way you’d be doing that.

I think we’ll have to take the kids again soon.

On a different note, I completed the Great Puffing Billy Train Race last year for the first time. While I didn’t beat the train, I did enjoy the run from Belgrave to Emerald and managed to do it in under 80 minutes for my first attempt.

your blog today is a real gem. Very entertaining, funny and informative, with universal appeal. It’s good to see a high-tech person like yourself can derive so much enjoyment from a 19th century contraption.

Hee! I took the Trans Alpine train across NZs South Island earlier this week and the same thing! I was a 37 yr old woman on the train who couldn’t help waving to the cars with a big smile on my face! I think it’s an instinctive thing and can imagine people feeling obligated to wave at those passing by atop mammoths!

Applause for Michael in completing the great Train Race. As with many things in life, it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s the train ride back to Belgrave that counts.

The Garratt came from the Beech Forest spur at Colac. In my youth I saw it sitting steaming at Colac before the closure of the track.

As for Gembrook – the timetabling allows for a pleasant meal at the pub, a wander around the township, and a gawk at the routine of steam loco husbandry.

If, like us, you go in the middle of winter with snow melting as it hits the ground, you’ll always have a whole carriage to yourself..for some reason lol.

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