We were driving from Margaret River to Albany and desperately needed a comfort stop. But towns were few and far between on this empty country road.
The bushland to either side of the alleged highway was too open and too muddy. Intensely green, though.
We’d planned to stop for coffee but there was nowhere en route. We had s long drive to go, to get to Albany and (as usual) we had not booked ahead. Soon morning coffee was drifting into an early lunch, but the need to find a loo of sorts (in Australia on the roads, I won’t dignify these with the euphemism “bathroom”) was becoming more urgent. Even an outback hole in the ground would have been welcome. Avoid the snakes on the path, check under the seat for redback spiders, and relief!
Then — a town! Well, a village… no, maybe just a collection of buildings. “Welcome to Rocky Gully” was on a sign somewhere. No shops we could find. We’d done one loop of the whole housing settlement (two minutes and about 100 metres in total) and headed back to the main road.
Hang on, a fuel stop! We pulled in. Mean Street Café was stencilled on the wall. At the door, a sign with yellow L-plate warned, “”We are still learning. May stall unexpectedly. We thank you for your patience.”
“Sorry, we’ve not got any petrol yet,” the proprietor told us. Today’s our first day open, we’re still getting ready.”
By this time we were walking awkwardly with our breakfast cuppa having thoroughly worked through our bodies.
“Can we use the loo?” I asked.
“Sure, no worries,” they said. “Thataway.”
Lovely. Scented soap, pristine porcelain, not snake or redback spider in sight.
When I emerged, the next pressing need surged to the fore. “Is there anywhere around here where we can get a feed?”
“Well, we’re a bit short of food supplies, the delivery was due yesterday, but we can do a ham and cheese toastie for you. And coffee, of course.”
It was too much to hope for, that they could do lactose-free, gluten-free, but we were travelling with my lactose-free milk and gluten-free bread. I dashed back to the car for supplies which mine hostess skilfully turned into a delicious, if impromptu, meal for us. While we waited, I wandered around the small shop. They were selling some very bespoke t-shirts and the rock ‘n roll/biker theme was obvious, especially with a perfectly-chromed Harley-Davidson parked beside the pot-belly stove.
It was a cold day outside, grey clouds hanging low and heavy. We enjoyed the break from the long sit in the car, enjoyed the toasted ham and cheese sandwich and the coffee was excellent. The company was fun, we grooved along to Meatloaf and had a lovely chat to the staff. For their first day’s customers, they did very well. But then, the level of friendliness is typical of almost any Aussie country road stop.
I stashed my milk and bread back into the car and we got back on the road again. Only a few more hours to go…
We had just arrived in Perth to be met by wild weather coming in off the Indian Ocean. Three storm cells in sequence had been forecast with heavy ocean swells preceding them, making any outdoor activities, especially ones involving being on the water, totally out of consideration.
Perth wild weather feels different to Sydney weather. Or maybe where we were staying (at a gorgeous B&B we stumbled onto) was a bit more sheltered. The trees outside were tossing, we could hear rain (and hail) on the roof but there were still periods of less rain, when we could do a dash to the car.
Lunch with friends had been booked in King’s Park, the sun was even trying to peek out occasionally between dripping clouds. The road there was at times closed because storm surge had waves (on the normally quiet Swan River!) splashing over onto the freeway. We could see water levels well above normal. So much water!
At lunch we apologised for bringing the appalling NSW floods with us.
Whatever the weather, Perth is a beautiful city. It glistens. Although at times views were obscured, the mist only served to add to the romance.
Once the UK family arrived, a number of activities had been planned but had to be changed. Rottnest Island ferry was cancelled due to heavy seas, and the weather was foul anyway. So we went indoors. The aquarium!
It’s the Aquarium of Western Australia, or AQWA for short.
Getting there was a challenge. The rain had eased but the winds were blowing a gale. Cold, icy, the sort of wind to tangle your hair and make your ears ache. While the recent arrivals slept off the jet lag and the previous night’s excitement (they’d landed in Perth to a terminal in blackout due to storm damage) Jeff and I spent the morning exploring Fremantle. Once we got the nod to meet up at AQWA, we got on the road to Sorrento, in the north of Perth.
I’d brought some of my medieval clothing sewing to work on, including a caped hood (the buttonholes needed work). To save my suffering ears, I pulled on the hood then put my heavy jacket over the top. The jacket hid the liripipe of the hood nicely, nobody would know it wasn’t a standard clothing item. An unusual one, but I didn’t want to attract too much attention for my weirdness. And it did the trick — my ears were protected. Even the occasional rain scud didn’t soak through.
AQWA is a fascinating place to take a child who has never travelled outside the UK. Her head had been filled with stories of how scary Australia is, so we didn’t hold back. AQWA has sharks, rays and other denizens of the not-so-deep in a giant aquarium. Smaller tanks held other delights, but when you are safe from the beasts on a moving footway in a bubble under the tank, you can enjoy the experience once more. Our young friend was delighted to have sharks and a giant ray swim over her. Later, in a glass-bottomed boat, we floated over the sharks. In an aquatic petting zoo, she got to stroke a Port Jackson shark, a small, pretty gummy shark (no teeth). Sharks don’t feel scaly like other fish, they have skin like sandpaper.
Out on the deck it was wet from waves splashing over the sea wall and into the aquarium. Somehow appropriate…
The next morning was the dingo experience. The place we went to is a sanctuary, specialising in black cockatoos, but our young English friend got the chance to get up close and personal with a pair of dingoes.
People think of dingos like they think of dogs, but they are different. Even the species name reflects this — Canis lupus dingo. There is actually still some dispute over the scientific name. It used to be (and in some circles still is) Canis familiaris dingo. Dingoes can interbreed with domestic dogs to produce fertile offspring (this used to be considered a hallmark of creatures being the same species, just a different breed or sub-species) but the books are currently being rewritten.
We met our two dingo friends on harnesses being led for ‘walkies’ with their keepers. Dingoes greet by sniffing your breath and (if you are in favour) by licking your face. They have a very strong social rule system, and this was explained to us carefully. We spent a wonderful cuddly hour with these creatures before it was time to walk them back to their enclosure and meet the other animals in the park.
Next day we took ourselves off to the WA Museum, and the WA Art Gallery. The museum had a special exhibition on dinosaurs, and as museum junkies, we walked our feet off (metaphorically) exploring everything we could about Dinosaurs of Patagonia.
The dinosaurs were amazing and we were blown away by the size of the largest specimen. Jeff stood next to it and we realised, he was knee-high to the massive creature.
While much of a museum’s exhibits are not location-specific, there was a lot to learn about the area just from the building and the general exhibits.
It was the same in the Art Gallery (the buildings are next to each other). Some general art, but a strong focus on indigenous art from WA and we learned a lot about the state and its artists, especially their history.
We lunched in a kiosk between the galleries, sharing the space with some street-wise but reasonably well-behaved pigeons.
It was time for bed. We had an early start next morning, heading off to see what else WA had to offer. We could explore Perth in more outdoor detail, hopefully, when we returned.
It’s been three years since we last flew anywhere. Covid has had us in repeated lockdowns and our country’s borders were closed for all but the most essential travel. Government officials excepted, of course.
Even within Australia, crossing state borders was fraught. And at times, even going more than 10 kilometres from home for anything other than shopping needed a note from the doctor (not your parents).
But now, even as Covid still wreaks havoc (only more quietly, no more daily announcements at 11 am telling us how many more have died) restrictions are opening up and travel is once more permitted.
There’s an important family gathering in Perth, WA. That’s Western Australia, folks. Not Washington state in the US. So we’re flying over.
Given past events and challenges, we decided to go over early to at least get within state borders before any possible lockdown. Not likely, but not taking chances. Besides, weather in NSW has been horrible for most of the year, we’d like to get away from it and explore a sunnier state.
Our Sydney weather has been surprisingly pleasant over the last couple of weeks. The unfamiliar blazing ball of light in the sky has even had me dusting off my sunglasses.
For the week before, our usual stringent family Covid precautions ramped up a few notches. Masks when around anybody else outside the home; dash in-dash out shopping trips; no social events. We wanted no chance of catching Covid to sabotage the trip.
We watched weather forecasts. We wanted no airport closures to affect us either.
As flights have been coming back, problems have been exposed in the check-in and baggage systems. It became prudent to pack at least one change of clothing, plus essential medications, in the carry-on bags.
Weather reports for Sydney were for continuing sunny weather. NOW the sun comes out!!?! But for Perth, a negative Indian Ocean dipole was already spelling wetter weather there and across to Sydney, with news of three severe low-pressure systems coming in just in time for our arrival. Oh, joy…
By the time our day of departure dawned, we were already on the road. Our son was doing his weekend bread run early, just for us, dropping us and our luggage at the railway station before collecting his cargo of fresh loaves for the return trip.
We aimed to get to the airport early, we’d heard the horror stories of check-in queues and long delays. But in the end, it all went fast and smoothly. I had packed my sewing bag (small needle, no scissors or unpicker) with my book so I could sew on the plane. Or read. Security let it through. We kept our masks firmly on and did our best to stay away from the crowd. But as boarding time drew near, the departure lounge was filling up.
Nearby shops provided some distraction.
Boarding at last! Time to enter the tightly-packed steel tube about to hurtle through the sky.
I’ve been on bigger planes. I’ve been on smaller planes. This one was cramped, and packed full of people. Airlines are apparently determined to get as many fares as possibly on board every flight, to make up for the last two-and-a-half-years’ losses. We were warned that the flight was short on space for carry-on luggage and some people might have to send their carry-on via a later flight. So much for our planning to carry urgent essentials so they could stay with us, I thought. But we were lucky, our carry-on wasn’t offloaded.
I’m short, I don’t have legroom issues, but this plane was a squeeze for me. I could barely fit between the armrests in my middle seat of three. Wearing a heavy winter jacket didn’t help. The window seat passenger arrived, and he was a tall bloke. A landscape contractor, I later discovered. He did not fit well either, his long legs had to be splayed in order to fit in the space. On the other side of me, Jeff’s long legs had to be pulled in every time someone walked along the aisle.
Safety instructions are different now. They also include rules about wearing masks, including the injunction to leave them on, between mouthfuls of food or sips of water.
The flight was expected to be about four hours. We were ahead of the forecast bad weather, they said. But we might meet it along the way. The worst of the blow would be after our arrival.
I just wanted to get it over with.
I spent the flight squeezed into my seat, struggling to find where to plug in my headset then struggling again to find the buttons I needed to access to work the darn thing. I wanted to tilt my seat back but no way could I find THAT button! Meanwhile, to my left and right, both were manspreading into what little remained of my space. It was an unfortunate necessity for them due to the small legroom. While I have no concerns touching thighs with my husband, I did find it awkward to be on closer leg-rubbing terms with a total stranger.
We managed the meals, and a couple of glasses of juice. It was tricky, but we didn’t spill anything. I gave up on trying to do any sewing. I had no elbow room. Reading my book was enough challenge. I dropped my pencil at one point, and had to do without it for the rest of the flight. No way could I reach down there. Not without evicting both my fellow passengers and getting down on the floor.
Through the flight there were increasing announcements of our delayed arrival. Turns out the bad weather had sent its advance party, and we had a strong headwind. The flight eventually took five and a half hours. Cabin crew kept coming round to tell people to put their masks back on, and my brain was visualising Covid viruses floating freely around the cabin.
As we were coming in to land, the cabin crew urged me to tilt my seat back to the upright position. I was surprised — I hadn’t realised that my squashed thigh had been pressing against the seat tilt button on the armrest.
When we arrived we chose to wait in our seats while other passengers impatiently waited in the aisles for the next twenty minutes. Our fellow passenger continued to browse through catalogues of earthmoving equipment. We chatted a bit more. “I’m a FIFO worker,” he told me. [That’s Fly In, Fly Out]. “But this is my first flight to WA in years, I’m off to see a mate up north. I’ve been nervous of flying, with Covid. Hate it. Especially crowds.”
At last the crowd cleared and we had space to get out of our seats, grab our bags from the overhead locker, and get off the plane. It couldn’t happen fast enough for me.
It took another hour to get our bags, and after all the stories we’d heard, we were delighted to claim our own once more. It was a short walk to the car hire place, that process was much quicker.
It was cold, windy and damp, but the forecast torrential downpours weren’t happening. Yet. We’d rung Aunty Meg who said she’d made a batch of her famous creamy vegetable soup for us.
We got to Aunty Meg’s in mid-afternoon. She welcomed us with a fresh cuppa and a welcome chat. I got out my sewing.
The wind rose outside but the sky was still clear. It would be a cold night, but we’d be warm inside. Aunty Meg put the heater on, then commented, “It’s two hours later for you. I’ll put the soup on to heat up.”
Just then, the power went out. “It’s been doing that all day!” Aunty Meg remarked. “What a nuisance! The whole neighbourhood has been having momentary drop-outs in power.”
But not this time. Aunty Meg called the neighbour. “Is your power out again too? No?”
“Maybe you should check the fuse box,” Jeff suggested. “In case it’s a circuit breaker or something.”
With nothing to look at inside, all three of us traipsed out to the fuse box. We could smell burning plastic and could see sparks arcing across the circuit breaker, which hadn’t tripped. It should have. Jeff found something inert and used it to force the main breaker switch off. The sparks stopped.
It was a Sunday night. We rang emergency electricians and found nobody available. Aunty Meg’s previous electrician had moved ‘up north’ and she eventually found a new contact who was unable to attend that night but would be out first thing.
The power company came out to inspect, said it wasn’t their problem. “A good thing you managed to shut it off so promptly,” said the power company electrician. “The way this was installed originally, fire could have gone up into the ceiling, you could have lost the house.”
Meanwhile, nobody was going to have any soup so Aunty Meg and Jeff went searching for easy takeaway to eat by candlelight. I stayed and waited outside, where there was still a little light to read by.
It was a cold, dark night so we went to bed early. I’d used my phone briefly to connect to the internet and get emails. My battery was getting low. Meanwhile Jeff charged his in the car.
Next morning we were up and dressed early when the electrician arrived. We’d been able to tell him what had happened and what model of board components we had, so he arrived with the right parts and within fifteen minutes, we were back with power and light.
“It’s good it happened yesterday and not today,” he told us. “With the three big blows coming in, I’m going to be real busy for the next week, from tonight.”
The next night Aunt Meg’s daughter and family arrived from the UK. The big blow had hit hard and the airport terminal was in darkness. Most flights had been diverted, but with a plane low on fuel after a long haul, they made an exception.
Despite all this, Perth is really a very welcoming place. And at least we were here, not trying to cross the country by plane, in a narrow metal tube packed with mask-wearing people.
On our last full day aboard Southern Aurora we woke somewhere in NSW, with another early start. We were just sitting down to breakfast as we reached Albury railway station on our way back into Victoria.
Buses were waiting for us when we got to Benalla railway station. Once again we were kept in our Covid bubbles and had each been allocated to a specific bus depending on our train carriages and dining room seating plan.
The buses wound their way up into Victoria’s high country where our first stop was Chrismont Wines, a cool-climate vineyard in Cheshunt.
The views from the balcony at Chrismont were gorgeous. If I lived there I’m sure I’d never get any work done. We had a birds’ eye view across the vines, to the road and mountains beyond.
After a sampling of their best wines we all had lunch together before leaving to drive to Milawa, a small village in the heart of foodie country.
Our first encounter with Milawa was back in 1999, when our family spent a week in Bright. During our stay we drove around the Victorian Alps area as well as the gourmet areas nearby. Our cheese-loving daughter was delighted when we stumbled on Milawa Cheese Company. We’d also stopped in to Milawa Mustards and sampled some delicious relishes and mustards. As we were travelling with a family and on a tight budget, we bought mustards, relish and cheese, then stopped at the bakery for some crusty warm bread rolls. Then we drove out of town to find a quiet spot to have a family picnic on this glorious fresh local produce.
We’d told our now-adult children of our expectation to visit Milawa Cheese Company and knew they’d want us to ‘stock up’. The family favourite is Milawa Gold, almost impossible to find outside Milawa. It’s a creamy, strong-flavoured cheese, bold and with bite. Once tasted, it’s unforgettable.
We made a bee-line for the cheese counter and selected our favourites. The staff on the train had offered to store our perishable packages for us, in the fridges on board.
From Milawa we wound our way back on the buses through Wangaratta, to re-board the train in Albury.
Before we left Albury there were more speeches, and a surprise (for me). I don’t know why I hadn’t realised, but the staff on board this historic train were volunteers. They worked hard, their service and courtesy was gold standard, but they were there because they loved the train and the historic railway journeys.
The journey back to Sydney could have been sombre, as our adventure on Southern Aurora was drawing to a close. But we still had dinner, and breakfast next morning, to keep our mood relaxed and golden.
The train was taking us through a damp and misty Southern Highlands as we enjoyed breakfast next morning. After packing, we moved to the lounge car to chat to our new friends and listen to their excited arrangements for their next trip with St James Rail (stjamesrail), and Owen Johnstone-Donnet.
There are tours which take you to wonderful places; there are tours where you get to knew some wonderful people. There are tours where they spoil you rotten. We’d just had all three. Can’t wait for more!
It was time to once again board the Southern Aurora and head north.
Violet Town is a small Victorian country town that under many circumstances you’d blink and you’d miss it. It’s a pretty place, as many country towns are, with a railway station and level crossing. It’s reason for existence was purely as a stop on the rail line to Melbourne.
But in 1969 all that changed. On 7 February at just after 7 am, the Southern Aurora collided head-on with a goods train at an estimated combined speed of 172 km/h. Nine people were killed and 117 were injured. Both drivers were among the dead. The fireman of the goods train jumped clear at the last minute. The locomotive of the Southern Aurora and several of the leading goods carriages became airborne. Spilled fuel caught fire and added to the problems. It was an appalling mess.
Immediately afterwards, volunteers got busy searching for survivors, setting up communication and transport and providing what assistance they could.
The Southern Aurora had gone through three red signals and should have been stopped on a siding waiting for the goods train to pass. Instead, it sailed through without a pause.
What happened? It took a while to work it out, but it appeared that the Southern Aurora driver had a heart attack and was either unconscious or dead at the controls. But there should have been a back-up — the fireman and the guard should have been watching the signals in case the train disobeyed them. The fireman should have alerted the driver and/or the guard, and the guard had the ability to independently stop the train.
The inquest laid the blame with the Southern Aurora’s driver, fireman and guard. A bit unfair on the driver, since he was determined to have been dead at his post before the first signal was missed. It was believed the fireman had been boiling the kettle instead of checking on the alertness of the driver when the Vigilance Control alarm went off (after the train went through the first signal to stop) and the guard was claimed to have been dozing on and off and not watching the signals reliably. Other possible problems were not openly criticised but perhaps should have been. The doctor who cleared the driver to work even with a pre-existing heart condition. The Vigilance Control system should have been automated. The means for the guard and fireman to watch the signals needed cleaning and was difficult to monitor. And perhaps the relationship between the driver and the guard — the driver was in charge, the fireman may have been reluctant to challenge him or take control. That might have caused sufficient delay and confusion in the fireman’s mind, to allow the disaster to play out.
Following the inquest a number of improvements were made, notably to the Vigilance Control system, which now requires both driver and fireman to cancel it once triggered. The various factors which contributed to the Violet Town crash have been analysed and are no longer possible. Train travel these days is much safer as a result.
Due to the length of the train, it was unable to simply drop us off at Violet Town and wait. Instead, we were dropped off at Euroa railway station and took buses to Violet Town to have a good look at the Southern Aurora Memorial Garden there. We were met by local officials who explained what they have done here by creating the Southern Aurora Memorial Gardens.
The Gardens have a theme of Helping Hands, to honour all the people who stepped forward to offer assistance. Staff, passengers, injured, whole, locals, travellers — people just stepped up. The paths at the Memorial Garden are embedded with positive words reflecting the best of the human spirit. Courage. Hope. Generosity. Kindness. Love.
A central feature of this memorial is a sleeper carriage from a similar set to the ones involved in the accident. There are murals around the park, depicting various scenes from the 1969 incident.
The gardens are a place of peace, remembrance and recognition of what we all can do together when we step up to meet needs.
This is a small town where something big once happened. People came together to help under horrific and extraordinary circumstances and this should always be remembered.
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.
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.
PuffingBilly’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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We’d boarded this special anniversary run of Southern Aurora the evening before. A few wakeful moments but we slept fairly well and woke to dawn light streaming in our window, and southern NSW countryside flashing past. Just in time for breakfast. Because we’re early risers, we blessed being allocated to the first sitting.
The mist lay low on the paddocks as NSW countryside flashed past our window. Our table mates were a little late, there were a few missing heads in the dining room for the first breakfast sitting at 7 am.
We rolled in to Albury Station soon after breakfast (for us). The second sitting was going to be later, it had to wait until after the morning border crossing ceremonies.
With the early morning sun splashing gold over the heritage-listed Italianate station buildings, we gathered to hear some short speeches including one from sitting Federal MP, Sussan Ley. She mentioned the previous MP, Tim Fischer, who was well-known for his obsession with trains, including Southern Aurora. Tim’s funeral train also passed through Albury, paying respects for the many years of hard work he put in there. According to his wife Judy, Albury Railway Station was one of Tim Fischer’s favourite places. We certainly admired it for its architecture, its planning and the amazing length of it — 455 metres, the longest in Australia!
We left Albury just as “second breakfast” began. Although it was for other passengers and not us, we were finding that the food on offer, both the quality and quantity, was making us feel like well-fed hobbits. Instead of thinking of food, I took the opportunity to attempt a shower, in a tiny cabin bathroom of a train on the move.
The trick to showering on the train is to strip off in the cabin, outside the bathroom. Leave your clothes within reach outside the bathroom door. Toiletries (soap, shampoo etc) can fit neatly on the shelf under the mirror. Go into the bathroom, close the bathroom door, then slide the shower curtain around to also cover the bathroom door. There was a very thoughtfully-provided grab rail to hold onto when the train was going around a bend. Because the bathroom is so tiny, it’s easy to reach whatever you need.
I was sitting in the lounge car sewing when we pulled in to Violet Town to be met by some local dignitaries for the occasion. Southern Aurora has a special connection with Violet Town, which I will go into in a later episode.
We left Violet Town just as the first sitting of lunch began. Lunch? Who’s got room for lunch? But it was so delicious we managed to force it down. Other passengers at nearby tables were exclaiming in delight at the food. “As good as ever,” they said. “These St James Rail tours are about the food as much as the adventure.”
We weren’t going to starve, then.
It was mid-afternoon when we finally arrived in Melbourne, at Southern Cross Station (formerly Spencer St Station). We were to spend two nights in Melbourne in a hotel across the road from the station, but coming back to the same compartment on Southern Aurora after that. The staff (who had been waiting on us with such professionalism for our meals) were going to stay on the train while it parked at a siding somewhere out in the country. I hoped they were going to get some well-earned rest.
We left our bigger bag in the cabin and took a change of clothes in our smaller bags to the hotel.
And at the hotel, we met our first glitch. They were not ready with all the rooms. Despite knowing how many were arriving, and when, despite the bookings having been made several months ahead, they were not ready. We actually didn’t mind very much because being fed so well and so frequently, we had a sort of detached attitude soaking into every pore. But the hotel staff were profusely apologetic, and invited us to partake of their Swiss-influenced ‘death by chocolate’ happy hour.
It’s amazing how much chocolate you can still stuff in, even when you are full as a tick.
While we were tasting little pots of mousse or indulging in chocolate truffles, our tour organiser Owen was working hard on our behalf. He couldn’t get us into rooms any faster, but he did manage to gain a concession.
“I’ve asked them to compensate you in some way for the inconvenience of having to wait for the room,” he began.
I downed another chocolate truffle. Inconvenience? Oh, yes, I suppose so.
“They’ve offered you a complimentary dinner in the dining room,” he beamed.
Dinner? Where would we put it?
“Tonight or tomorrow night, what is your preference?”
“Tomorrow. Definitely tomorrow.” We were very much in agreement. Maybe by tomorrow night, we’ll be able to squeeze in a morsel of food.
Our room was finally available, so we dropped off our bags and headed out to explore Melbourne. Along the way we decided to find something very light for dinner. Soup. We headed for Chinatown which we found was packed. Really packed. There were long queues outside some places. We weren’t keen on crowds (Covid makes a person a bit paranoid) so we kept moving on.
Finally we found one place that seemed to have room. We had to wait, but that was okay. As we waited, I realised that it was the same place we’d visited in February 2020, just as the pandemic was starting in China. Back then, Melbourne’s Chinatown was almost deserted. We’d been the only customers for dinner in this very restaurant. Back then, we’d been served by an older Chinese woman who treated us like beloved children who needed to be nourished. And here she was again! Of course she did not remember us, but we remembered her.
I felt so bad for her when all we could order was one bowl of soup each.
She didn’t know that we were in no danger of starving.
In the lead-up to Anzac Day we signed up for another trip. A very special one.
The Southern Aurora was a luxury train when it first began its regular commute between Sydney and Melbourne. The full commute on the one train was only made possible when the standard gauge track was completed between Sydney and Melbourne in 1962, with the first freight train completing its run on 3 January 1962. The first passenger train to go the whole distance in the one trip was the Southern Aurora, making its debut trip on 12 April 1962.
Often used as a business train, Southern Aurora would welcome you on board in Sydney in the evening, perhaps have dinner in the dining car with a friend while the train sat at Sydney’s Central Station, then you would settle into your sleeper compartment for the night as the train worked its way through the rat runs of tunnels on the beginning of the overnight journey to Melbourne.
A nightcap, perhaps? The lounge car had a bar, or you could simply retire early after the luxury of a shower in your own bathroom.
The Southern Aurora was the first train in the world to feature showers in the cabin bathrooms. It took decades for the rest of the world to catch up.
When rail was first built in Australia, there were different gauges in different states, which meant that those travelling interstate by train had to change trains.
Before 1961, the overnight trip from Sydney to Melbourne was punctuated in the wee small hours by the announcement, “Albury — all change!” and the grumbling of passengers as they emerged blearily into the darkness and cold of the Albury night to change trains for the next leg of the journey. The rank of the passengers did not matter. Some celebrities who travelled from Sydney to Melbourne and had to endure the train change included Agatha Christie, Don Bradman, H G Wells and even the famed race-horse Phar Lap. Australian opera star Nellie Melba (my one-time namesake, who made her professional debut as Helen Armstrong) travelled between Sydney And Melbourne by train, also having to endure the necessary train change in the night.
When travelling from Sydney to Melbourne in 1895 (pre-Southern Aurora days) celebrated US author Mark Twain commented on the lack of uniform gauge that necessitated this. “The oddest thing, the strangest thing, the most baffling and unaccountable marvel that Australia can show… think of the paralysis of intellect that gave this idea birth.”
The completion of a standard gauge track all the way from Sydney to Melbourne in 1962 finally made the trip possible on just the one train.
Our trip was on the sixtieth anniversary of that first Southern Aurora trip. It was going to involve a little more than just overnight.
As with a lot of adventures these days, there is always uncertainty about whether it is safe to travel. We had to prove we were Covid-safe by having a negative RAT on the morning of departure and show certification of our vaccination status. For us, we had the added problems of landslides on our road due to flood damage. Rain had kept falling and we had to allow extra time to get in to the city. Landslides to the south on the rail lines had caused a lot of problems too. For the organisers, this was particularly problematic as the usual location for the storage of these heritage carriages was cut off by landslides and floods. Luckily most of the carriages had already been out and in use before the landslides. However, the planned locomotives were still trapped behind the earthwork barriers and replacements had to be found.
With the combination of floods, landslides and Covid we spent the week before departure carefully avoiding crowds and gatherings. We weren’t going to miss out!
Of course we arrived early to Central Station. Due to Covid (and perhaps the later afternoon hour) there was no café open on the concourse, and we had an hour to kill before check-in, so we dragged our bags downstairs in search of caffeine. We knew we’d be fed on the train, so we avoided food.
Back upstairs, we noticed that all the other people checking in were on a first-name basis with the organisers. Everyone knew each other. A good sign — repeat business with the company.
This was very much a ceremonial event. Although we were early, the trainspotters were even earlier. Also gathering on Platform 1 was the Railway Band, ready to give us a proper send-off suitable to the historic occasion.
Some speeches, some music as the sun set, and soon we were ready to board. Some important announcements — the rolling stock is sixty years old, treat the cabin with care and respect. Special instructions regarding toilet-flushing were shared. Get it wrong, we were warned, and the carriages would run out of water. As the only toilets on board were the ones in our cabins, we had to get it right.
Finally we officially boarded, found our cabin and headed to the dining car allocated to us, for our first meal on board.
The problem with the landslides had robbed the train of a dining car, so there had to be two meal sittings. We were lucky to be in the first sitting, although it did mean early rising. For us it was no hardship, it meant we could watch the sunrise from bed.
In order to reduce Covid risks, we were allocated the same dining partners for our four-seat table for the trip. We also were required to wear masks when out of our cabin and moving about the train. Two carriages per dining sitting, and we were kept in those carriage groups as much as possible for all the other excursions on the tour, as our own Covid-safe bubble.
After a delicious (and very filling) dinner, we rolled back to our cabin and investigated the mysteries of the bathroom. It was tiny, but comprehensive. The shower head was on one wall, there was room to stand as long as the toilet and basin were folded up into the wall. To use the toilet, you had to fold it down. Leave it down to flush, we’d been warned. Don’t fold it back up while it’s still flushing or the mechanism could go doo-lally and not shut off the flushing water. The other passengers in the carriage would be very unhappy when the water ran out. There are very few opportunities these days to refill a carriage’s water supply.
The basin also folded down from the wall to use, but it would automatically empty as it was folded back up.
Compact and a little challenging. The pile of fluffy towels that had been left for us had nowhere to go, so I stacked them on the shelf in front of the mirror. I had just washed my hands when the train lurched a little, and the pile of DRY fluffy towels tumbled into the basin full of water.
Train travel is not without its challenges. I wonder how Nellie Melba would have handled this sort of Pullman-class bathroom catastrophe. After hanging the towels to dry, we climbed into our bunks and settled down for an early night.
I was woken during the night by lights shining in the window — we’d stopped in Goulburn to pick up another engine and driver. As we got underway again, the gentle rocking of the train soon lulled me back to sleep.
What adventures would tomorrow bring? Watch this space…
My hand-sewing binge has gotten a little more out of hand.
Regular readers will know that I sometimes attend medieval fairs. I also sing with a choir that performs medieval and Renaissance music, in historical clothing. After sewing myself a 15th century kirtle during lockdown in 2021, a fellow chorister asked if I’d make him a ruff. I’d never considered it before. In the end he bought himself one. But he’d started me digging again.
With my first ruff I used an old cotton sheet, using a rotary cutter to ensure the strips of fabric were perfectly even. I did a narrow hem top and bottom and rolled the fabric tightly, ready for work. Before stitching the ruffles I looked at a lot of videos and settled on the following for a guide in how to stitch the outer edges of the ruffles together. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fHuDl0_Yoqg Probably not canon, but who knows?
Some makers are reenactors like me, they break rules in order for the end product to be easy to manage. For example, I don’t consider squishing the neck-side down into a single seam, to be a true ruff. But that’s me. I want to be able to throw it in the washing machine (in a delicates bag!) and not need to starch it. These is for a stage costume.
I finished my first ruff and wore it to our Christmas concert in the heart of Sydney. During Covid lockdown we had nowhere in the city to change, so we travelled on the train in costume. That’s one way to get a seat!
By the end of the evening, my ruff was a little the worse for wear. I also found that my new red mask stained the ruff pink. Thankfully, it was the neck band (generally not seen) that bore the brunt.
So I resewed it. That required a new neck band (made out of the same old cotton sheet). The ruffles are stitched to each edge of the band, leaving all the fabric in the middle unattached and free (like many a Lord in Tudor court…)
The re-sew looked more even, but it’s still too densely packed. Back to the drawing board…
My young grandson wants ‘to dress like a Tudor prince’ so I made a small-scale ruff for him. It’s blue, which was a banned colour in the court of Queen Elizabeth I (blue being the colour of the flag of Scotland, over which her hated cousin Mary ruled) but at the time of Elizabeth’s younger brother being King, that was not an issue. His outfit should hopefully be ready for Book Week at school in August.
So now my guide on how to make a ruff. Remember, I hand-sew so I can still travel around, only not just with a notebook and camera, but also with a needle and thread.
I’ve found stitching the edge of the ruffle can be done discreetly and holds the ruffles in position. That first link shows how.
Then as the length of ruffle gets longer, start attaching it to the band.
Measurements I use are easy to code, depending on what you want. My first white cotton ruff, and now my new one, were done with X = 1”.
For my grandson’s tiny ruff, X = 1 cm.
Here are the measurements I’ve learned through this process. On your long trip of fabric (historically, linen) I marked intervals along one edge with a very fine soft pencil (I use a propelling pencil so it’s always got a fine point).
Instead of using pins I mark intervals from the left-hand top edge of X, 1.5X, X, 1.5X and so on. When sewing (according to the Elizabethan Ruff Tutorial) you insert the needle two dots across, stitch the two points together then travel the needle back inside the tiny seam to the previous dot. Then stitch through two dots ahead again. And keep going!
Depending on what material you’re using, you might find it starts to get a bit too long to handle. That’s when you start to attach the ruff to a neck band. Make the band the length of your neck plus a cm or two for comfort. A ruff needn’t be uncomfortable! Make the ruff 2X in width. Slightly narrower is okay, don’t make it wider.
Now mark the band with the pencil at 0.5X intervals. Offset top and bottom by 50% (which means the top, say, is 0.0, 0.5, 1.0, 1.5 etc, the bottom is 0.25, 0.75, 1.25 etc). How far it stands out from the neck depends on how wide you cut your strips, and is completely independent. Cut them too wide, though, and it will be more inclined to flop and need starch.
My most recent ruff was a cheat – I bought 6 metres of ribbon (A$3 a roll) and some op-shop lace (3c a metre!). No need to hem the ribbon, which saved me a lot of time and effort.
I tried machine-stitching the lace to the ribbon, but the ribbon didn’t like it, it puckered. Hand stitching was almost as quick and much neater.
By marking the points with a soft lead pencil instead of using pins, it means I could carry the work in progress in a pocket at times. With the last one, I had the lace on a card and the ribbon on a roll, so I worked out of a shoulder bag. I’ve sewed on buses, on trains and in the car. Waiting around at various places. Watching TV, or even historical clothing YouTubes!
Measurement needs to be as exact as possible, I use a pacer pencil with 2B leads for marking. With a roll of fabric, I used safety pins to stop it unrolling and tangling in my bag (or pocket). The satin ribbon/lace ruff was maybe three or four days of hand-sewing. The neck band can be machine-sewn from cotton or linen, but be accurate! I used press-studs on the neck band to fasten this one. Definitely not canon!
I sewed an extra flap on the neck band so the press-studs aren’t pressing into the neck. The more trad option is narrow ties, but for this one, the ties would have to match, and that ribbon is too slippery. It’s horrible to sew, even slightly rough skin on my thumb was snagging the ribbon and pulling threads.
I have a month to be ready for the next costumed outing with the choir. First step, padding…
With the ruff done, it’s time for me to move to the next part of my Mary Queen of Scots gown. But where to start?
I’ve mentioned before, how I went a bit nuts during last year’s four-month lockdown and immersed myself in historical clothing, mostly from 13th Century to early 17th Century.
One of the choirs I belong to performs medieval and Renaissance music, and we perform in costume. I mentioned this in Travelling in Costume — at Christmas! helenjarmstrong.home.blog/2021/12/17/travelling-in-costume-at-christmas/
Over summer I got busy sewing more costume items, working at my own pace with no deadlines. Hand-sewing can be taken anywhere and I often sew while a passenger either in a car or by train. I discovered that old flannelette sheets make an acceptable visual substitute for wool, while being more lightweight for a warmer climate.
Before I rediscovered hand-sewing, I got involved in Boomerang Bags in our village. We are a group of volunteers who make cloth bags from discarded, donated fabric. Another group near us formed as an offshoot of our group originally. I met up with one of them while browsing a new second-hand fabric shop which has opened in our district. I’d gone there looking for more old flannelette sheets (no such luck).
I was exclaiming over some lace I found, when my fellow Boomerang Bag sewer from the neighbouring group heard my voice (we couldn’t really see each other’s faces, current guidelines are for mask-wearing in shops). Her sewing group had plenty of sheets, she told me, which their group won’t use.
There was a brief lull in the rain on the day when I visited her home to collect the fabric. At the last minute she warned me that she had just been diagnosed with Covid, so we did a quick outdoor transfer of bags. I didn’t get a chance to check the fabric until we got home several hours later. It all needed to be transferred from my husband’s car to mine.
When I inspected it, I found to my joy that there were several flannelette sheets. They were old, badly pilled and had no other use. A tablecloth was a bit too worn and had a couple of stains. Ideas!
My car was full to the back of the seats with bags of fabric. “Not a problem,” I told hubby. “I’ll hand it over at our next sewing bee on Wednesday.”
The next day one of our kids tested positive for Covid. We were locked down.
I got sewing. No sewing machine, but I’m getting more confident with my hand-sewing.
Women in Tudor times wore a precursor to stays, called “pair of bodies”. They were in two parts, laced at the front and back, stiffened with bundles of reeds. The purpose was not to tightly lace a person into their clothing, but to provide a smooth shape in order to better display the fabric of their clothing. Fabric was expensive and labour-intensive to make, and the best was on display.
Because a pair of bodies was something all women wore, often as part of their undergarments, it was worn to death. Literally. Few examples survive, because these were patched, re-stiffened, repaired, re-lined and re-purposed until they fell apart. When people died, their clothing (including underclothing) was too valuable to throw away, it was passed on, until the next wearer passed on…and eventually the underclothing itself died in service.
As a result, few examples survive. But when Elizabeth I died in 1603, an effigy of her was commissioned, along with clothing to her measure. The dressed effigy was paraded through London, with the queen’s body, on the way to Westminster Abbey. This pair of bodies is still on display there, perhaps the best remaining example in the world, as it was never worn by any person living or dead, and never simply passed on to the next wearer.
We learn a lot from portraits also.
So here we were in lockdown, and I still need to keep working on my costume project for the dual purpose of dressing up at medieval fairs, and being suitably attired for the Renaissance choir performances.
An old, stained and frayed tablecloth became the mock-up. A practice run.
Because this is for a costume rather than true historical accuracy, I had no qualms using heavy-duty cable ties for boning. In Tudor times bodies were often stiffened with buckram, a sort of heavy linen canvas liberally coated in glue made from rabbit skin. Not exactly washable… I did consider making my own modern and washable buckram using acrylic house paint instead of rabbit glue, but I wanted to play with boning. I’ve never done it before and it looked like fun.
As this was hand-sewn, I was able to take it with me. When we were allowed out of lockdown to at least shop for food, I would take my sewing bag with me and work on the bodies in the car (hubby driving). Doctors’ waiting rooms too, got a close-up look at my stays in development.
Because I carry a seam-ripper in my pocket, spare thread in my bra and my current sewing project in a cloth bag, I’m at the ready for any other sewing tasks that come my way.
Yesterday on the train in Melbourne, while I was hand-felling some seams in a chemise, hubby said, “I need to put a few stitches in the strap of my shoulder bag.” He quickly added, “I don’t need you to do it, just give me some thread when we get back to the hotel, I have a large needle in my pack.”
I reached into my sewing bag, pulled out a bargain-shop array of sewing needles and invited him to select one. I threaded the needle for him (challenging on a moving train!) and he got to work, both of us sitting side-by-side on the train, sewing companionably.
I’d started the boning at the back for the lacing. Then I tied myself in and realised, it was too big. So I took to it with scissors and hacked out the centre. Did I cut too much? I’d have to do all the boning, and sew it all up closed, before I could know.
With a long trip coming up (another post coming soon, I promise – with REAL travel!) I wanted the job done. And I did it, by one day. I laced myself in and found that it fits. A bit rough, the final result may need to be re-made, but I’ve learned a lot in the process.
And isn’t that what life is about?
Two days before we travelled, I was finally able to drop off the spare fabric I’d been given.