| NYL |
YOU CAN hear them before you see them.
The great hum of steam engines pierce the stillness of the serene landscape, wheels screeching under the load of the grand locomotive.
For over 200 years, steam-trains have been objects of mystery, romance, amazement and awe.
Even though they have long since been made obsolete by the rise of diesel and electrical-powered trains, steam locomotives continue to capture the imaginations of millions of history-buffs and train enthusiasts around the world.
An enchanting experience reliving the golden era of travel, we took a ride on the Puffing Billy Railway in Australia.
The century old steam train lovingly preserved and maintained by an army of volunteers, runs on its original tracks from Belgrave, about 40km outside Melbourne and crosses picturesque spots of the Emerald Lake Park and Gembrook. Waiting excitedly for it to start, I marvelled at the magnificent engine; the great feat of engineering and its beauty.
Watching the steam locomotive given life by the lighting of a fire is a remarkable experience.
First, a coal fire in the fire box heats up water in the boiler, producing steam which is used to move a piston back and forth.
Finally, the movement of the piston turns the wheels via a driving rod and crank.
At 10.30am, the conductor shouts “All Aboard!”
A bell swings back and forth, dinging and clanging and a powerful steam-whistle lets out a deafening, farewell blast.
Metal creaks and rattles but like a grand dame used to being centre stage, Billy slowly begins to move.
On the platform, well-wishers, friends and relatives waved goodbye to the passengers lucky enough to ride on one of mankind’s most amazing inventions.
We met Ron Price, one of the longest-serving volunteer on board the train. He joined in 1958 and has since held most positions on Puffing Billy – both voluntary and paid.
According to Ron, the railway was originally one of four low-cost narrow gauge lines constructed in Victoria to open up remote areas for settlement.
However, after a landslide in 1953, the line was closed, as it sustained operating losses.
It opened up again with the formation of the Puffing Billy Preservation society in 1962; however, only as far as Menzies Creek.
The section to Emerald opened in 1965 and to Lakeside in 1975. The final section to Gembrook opened in 1998.
“Why is the railway called Puffing Billy?” I asked.
“No one really knows,” says Ron. “At one stage, it was called Hissing Jenny, and it has also been called Coffee Pot. It’s just something that someone used and it caught on.”
A day out on Puffing Billy is one to be remembered.
The historic carriages, the sound of the engine’s whistle and the smoke drifting past the window evoke memories of a bygone age of steam train travel.
At a time when the whirlwind pace of modern life threatens to sweep us away, it reminds us that sometimes the beauty is in the journey, not the destination: one can just simply sit and watch the world go by as the steam engine makes its way through forests, over wooden bridges and past fields while enjoying the peace, pure air and pristine forests of the picturesque Dandenong Ranges.
One of the best spots to view Puffing Billy is just over a kilometre east of Belgrave at the viewing area on Gembrook Road where a long wooden trestle bridge carries the railway line over the adjacent creek and roadway.
It is a tradition to hang your legs out of the carriage windows when riding the train but no one knows why.
For all its majesty and romance, Ron says that being a passenger on board a steam engine train is a fairly messy experience: “There’s a lot of smoke and soot, sometimes the engine spits out oil and water. Even when you’re inside one of the passenger cars, if someone opens the window you’ll get dirty, so you definitely don’t want to wear nice clothes on the train,” he added.
While Puffing Billy draws in many visitors, young and old, Belgrave offers visitors a chance to unwind as they step into the quaint village with its narrow streets full of history and tradition.
Wildlife enthusiasts will get to see well-loved native animals and birds at the Birdlands Reserve.
The 75-hectare reserve is also a great, family-friendly spot for an afternoon picnic or a bushwalk.