Yarra Ranges Get Away – Misty Mountain Hop

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By Jake Vos

In the hills, there is an army, a legion of nearly 1000 volunteers keeping the old Puffing Billy trains on their tracks and ensuring the engines puff away for another day. From humble origins as a small freight train, servicing mines and isolated townships in the Dandenong’s, the days as an essential lifeline are long over, but Puffing Billy’s long life, as a scenic vessel and a pillar supporting the rich heritage of the region, is stronger than ever.

To the outside world it seems quaint, but there’s a pronounced reverence to what the community along the line has inherited. To this day Puffing Billy maintains a steady draw of patrons, embedding the trip into the minds of awestruck children whose legs dangle precipitously out of the windows, and the crowd of international tourists; overwhelmed with the rare, triumphant sight of a steam train pulling into the station.

Off the main street and just across from Belgrave’s mainline metropolitan station, passenger carts wait at the platform with a small trickle of soon-to-be passengers emerging out of the historic Puffing Billy station. Cameras are instantly brought out as, down the line towards the rail yard, an engine billows out a huge blanket of steam from the smokestack, announcing itself with a long blow from the steam whistle, sending camera shutters a-chatter. I was explained to by the conductor, who was present on my carriage, that the first main sight of the trip would be the curved trestle bridge; he assured me that it was “the third most photographed bridge in Australia”.

There were stirs of excitement from children as we approached the bridge and they continued minutes after the bridge had been crossed, and then the adults joined in. Those with sharp eyes and are quick with a camera caught slivers of what lay beyond the forest around the train, but once we hit the clearing everyone on the train squeezed over to the right side to take in the view of the endless canopy below, mountains come and gone, and in the centre was Cardinia Reservoir, gleaming in the sunlight overhead. But as soon as the vista had come, it was gone and small traces of civilisation began to reappear.

We passed a maintenance crew who customarily waved to the train as it passed. I turned to the conductor who nodded knowingly, without me saying a word, and explained their job was to inspect and replace worn wooden sleepers that sit under the tracks. To maintain the heritage of the railway, the engineers need to replace the wooden sleepers at a much more regular rate than modern railways (which today use concrete sleepers beneath their tracks). This kind of diligence and attention to detail is what keeps Puffing Billy an authentic experience instead of a shallow rollercoaster ride, but it is also another falling stone in an uphill climb to enshrine heritage in the soul of the railway.

The first, brief stop is Gembrook Creek. Presumably this is normally a much longer stop, but the main attraction of this station; the steam train museum, was regrettably undergoing development during the time of my trip. On the move again we pass the Nobelius Shed. Not a particularly gripping sight, but the railway has repurposed it into a versatile asset for its alternative journeys. Formerly a utilitarian freight shed, the Nobelius stop has been fashioned into a dining hall and modest auditorium. The stop is used by Puffing Billy for activities like The Dinner & Dance train, Jazz on the Puffing Billy, Off the Rails comedy train and the Murder on Puffing Billy Express; a dinner staffed by local actors from Emerald’s Gemco Players Community Theatre, it’s a curious opportunity to solve a murder on a train, set in the styling’s of the jazz age.

Passing through Emerald, the train approaches its main destination for the day. Lakeside station is a picturesque little area, a perfect area for picnicking, fishing and mild adventuring. There are also a few attractions on offer by the lake: if you aren’t keen on wandering, pedal-powered paddle boats are available, and uphill from the station is the model railway, the largest of its size ratio (1:87) in the southern hemisphere – 2 kilometres of miniature track is impressively crammed into what looks like a small aircraft hangar.

Before you know it, it’s time to go back to Belgrave and the journey starts again, this time with the steam engine running in reverse, which is a sight to behold. It’s a good opportunity to see or capture photos of the sights you missed first time around, and a good time to wind down after a quick hike around Lakeside Park.

A visit to the Dandenong’s is incomplete without a pilgrimage aboard the Puffing Billy, especially if you’re unfamiliar to the region. A ride will quickly endear you to the friendly faces, endless landscapes and relaxing atmosphere that run parallel with the voyage, and beyond.

Puffing Billy runs every day of the year except for Christmas. For bookings you can visit www.puffingbilly.com.au or phone: (03) 9757 0700

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