“Stand clear, stand clear, the Puffing Billy is now ready for departure!” The general chatter from the passengers in our First Class carriage turns to excitement, and for a moment it feels like we have stepped back in time to The Man From Snowy River era as the Station Master rings the bell and blows his whistle for departure. With a jolt and creak from the great wheels underneath us, we slowly chug away from the platform – as one fellow passenger puts it, our journey back in time has begun …
As we arrive at Belgrave Station, we are delighted that the damp weather has not prevented the use of the steam locomotive, which on heavy rain days can be replaced by a diesel engine. As we step out onto the platform, we can’t help but visualise what it must have looked like in days gone by – men in coats and hats, ladies with their long skirts and parasols, set against a backdrop of carriages surrounded by swirling eddies of smoke from the engine. We are greeted by Station Master Ross Peterken – in full uniform and cap as it was back then – and taken into his office where he proceeds to tell us about the history of the railway line. Having worked here for over 9 years as a volunteer, he is right at home in his vintage office, and a fountain of knowledge about the workings of the line and the Society whose volunteers ensure its survival.
Built in the early 1900s, the Puffing Billy Railway is a unique experience guaranteed to leave you feeling as if you have just stepped back in time. Running every day except Christmas Day, it is a genuine relic and reminder of leisurely days gone by. Having not set foot on our modern electric trains in over five months, it was with pleasure and a little bit of humour that we passed the white timber signs throughout our journey stating “10 Miles Per Hour”. Steeped in history, the train line was used to transport goods and passengers throughout the district from 1900 to 1953, when financial constraints followed by a landslide over the tracks led to the decision to close the line in 1954.
In 1955, the Puffing Billy Preservation Society was established in an attempt to keep the line running. Such was its success, that the Society now employs over 900 volunteers ad has transported over 9 million passengers since it successfully reopened in 1962.
As we are called to take our seats in the First Class carriage, which fits up to 22 guests, we step up onto the carriage and into life as it was. The timber windows held closed by large leather straps; luxury curtain trimmings; chandelier lights; mirrored windows drawing your attention upwards to the ornately carved ceiling. We happily put the rest of the world behind us as we slowly move out from the station and over the iconic Monbulk Creek Trestle Bridge. Chances are if you have seen photos of the Puffing Billy, they have been while it is perched on this solid timber bridge that has somehow managed to stand the test of time.
Immediately upon departure, first course is served by our waiter, Simon, another volunteer who is just happy to have a carriage full of friendly visitors open to enjoying the sights, sounds and history of the rail line. The kitchen carriage is located directly behind ours, and we are informed that full beverage service is available in addition to our 3-course lunch menu, though guests are encouraged to hold onto their drinks as we pull in and out of the stations!
Travelling 25km through the forests and fern gullies of the Dandenong Ranges, we pass by open fields with views to Cardinia Reservoir, rainforests with towering gum trees that often cause track issues due to falling branches, and other heritage sites including the Paradise Valley Hotel and townships of Menzies Creek and Emerald. The slow and steady pace with steam floating past the windows is an obvious attraction for locals and tourists alike as we make our way down the track, and young children waving with smiles of excitement on their faces cause other passengers to remark with pleasure that it “brings back memories” of their own childhood. It appears we are not the only ones feeling a bit of nostalgia.
A quick stop at Menzies Creek is followed by a lengthier stay at Lakeside, where we are encouraged to stretch our legs on the timber-bordered platform, grab a refreshment or two from the on-site shop, chat with the driver, and watch as the crew shovel coal into the fire for our journey home. It is here that the great steam engine is detached from the passenger carriages, taken down the track, and reversed back past us to be hitched onto what was the rear carriage. As there is nowhere on our journey for the train to turn around, our return trip is managed by the engine operating in reverse.
As we were informed by Ross before our journey, steam trains are a sight to behold but also carry risks, something taken very seriously by the volunteer crews. In warmer months, CFA volunteers travel behind the Puffing Billy on each trip to ensure that any embers floating through the air don’t place the surrounding forests and homes at risk, and all guests are reminded that “For the protection of the train, smoking is strictly prohibited”!
Our journey length in total is 3 hours, and despite the slow pace of the train the time passes surprisingly quickly. We are disappointed when we arrive back at Belgrave Station, though overwhelmed with gratitude for the chance to have experienced something so unique, and thoroughly satiated by the feast that was provided for lunch – worthy of any 5-star restaurant plate.
Entrées: Trio of Dips accompanied by flat bread; Vegetable Soup served with toasted Turkish bread, brushed with garlic oil
Mains: Pollo Verde – Free range chicken breast stuffed with sun dried tomato, pine nuts, fetta and spinach, topped with a creamy based sage sauce, accompanied by seasonal steamed vegetables
Desserts: Chocolate Delight finished with raspberry coulis and fresh cream; Lemon Curd Shortcake served with lemon coulis and a dollop of fresh cream
To make your own memories on the Puffing Billy visit www.puffingbilly.com.au, but be warned – seats book out well in advance and you don’t want to miss out on your chance to experience this wonderfully preserved piece of Australian history.
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