Puffing Billy — Southern Aurora 60th anniversary tour

Our food-filled adventure on Southern Aurora took a different turn in Melbourne.

While Southern Aurora waited for us somewhere at a siding in rural Victoria, the tour group was spending Anzac Day 2022 on the historic Puffing Billy steam train in Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges.

We had an early buffet breakfast in the hotel. Plenty of choice, and freedom to move around and make our selections, so we felt no impetus to eat everything put in front of us as captive diners. As a result, I was beginning to feel less over-full as we set out from Southern Cross for Belgrave, on the Victorian METRO rail service.

When we got to Belgrave we left the suburban train and walked down a ramp through leafy bush to the Puffing Billy platforms.

The Puffing Billy station at Belgrave.
There she is!
Loading up. We were a train load of enthusiasts.

This narrow-gauge line was opened in December 1900 as a way to open up the remote areas in the Dandenong Ranges. It quickly became a tourist attraction, but it was a vital supply line to the people who chose to live in these hills. Not just mail and newspapers, but equipment, tools and even livestock. It made living in the Dandenong Ranges a viable concern. However, it was an expensive one and was eventually downscaled in importance as a result. When a landslide blocked the line in 1953, it was the final blow and the line was closed.

Public interest stepped in, boosted by media coverage. The Puffing Billy Preservation Society was formed and a combination of volunteers, CMF (Citizen’s Military Forces, these days called the Reserve Army) and also with a nod from the state government, bypassed the landslide and got the line reopened in stages.

At 11 am at Belgrave there was a short Anzac Day remembrance, and then we boarded the train. Again, in keeping with staying in our own Covid bubble as far as possible, we were allocated a carriage.

Fern fronds for peace.
They were a bit sad by the time we got up to Lakeside, but there were plenty of fresh fronds to replace them.
Simple, but heartfelt. Remembrance message chalked on the side of the engine.

Puffing Billy’s carriages are open at the sides, a wide sill on each side with horizontal bars ensuring people can’t fall out, even if they choose to sit on the sill with their legs hanging out (surprisingly permitted along the first section of track where we were going).

The open carriages allowing people to sit on the sills, if they choose.
…and we’re off! Thanks, mate.

As we wound up higher into the Dandenongs we could see small villages along the track, some of which were still having their Anzac Day services. People not involved with the services were waving to us as we passed, the little steam train clearly a local favourite.

Riding on the sills as we go over the trestle bridge is apparently a ‘thing’.
Starting our wind up into the Dandenongs.
Ours wasn’t the only train doing trips.
The Anzac Walk parallels the train track.

There was a walking track for part of the way along the line as well, the commemorative Anzac Walk. QR codes allow walkers to hear the stories of the Emerald Anzacs who served. The vegetation varied between tall timbers or groves of palms.

The view of Melbourne from up in the Dandenongs.

Up at Lakeside we had lunch organised for us all (of course! More wonderful food!). We had some interesting speakers over lunch. One man, Graeme Legge, represented Emerald RSL (Returned Services League). He was born in Emerald, grew up there, his father served in WWI. He told us that 32 local Emerald men died in WWI and local communities developed the Anzac Walk to commemorate their sacrifice.

 We had some time to wander around the beautiful and historic station, looking at some of the displays on the history of the Puffing Billy, before our return trip later in the afternoon.

In the small museum at Lakeside you can learn more about the history of Puffing Billy.
Happy engineer.
Yours truly, grabbing a moment on the footplate.
Beautiful countryside. Plenty of fern fronds.

Back in Melbourne we took advantage of the complimentary dinner that our tour host had arranged for us, although we still didn’t have room for much.

Back at Southern Cross in time for dinner.

After dinner we decided to forgo the bright lights of Melbourne and instead avail ourselves of the free wi-fi (sadly lacking on the train) and catch up on emails.

Sitting with legs out the window is definitely not permitted on Southern Aurora.

Back on Southern Aurora tomorrow!

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