After a few days with Lynette and Robert, Ruth and I were having breakfast with them when the phone rang. It was Qantas to tell us some bad news…our flight was cancelled…and some stress-producing news…if we could be at the airport by 10 am, we could still go to Melbourne. It was 9 am.
We actually made that flight and, since goodbyes suck, we were spared some sadness around leaving our friends for no telling how long. We were also in one of our favorite cities by noon.
Two days later we met Puffing Billy. At that time, I was doing a series of articles for International Railway Traveler about historic railroads, and Puffing Billy was by far the most fun.
Ruth and I took a Connex train to Belgrave Station where a gentle path took us to the Puffing Billy Station built in 1992 but intentionally looking more like the 1920s. Belgrave, Railway headquarters, was one of the original stations on the Upper Ferntree Gully to Gembrook Railway that opened in 1900 to transport passengers, timber, and produce. One year later, Confederation would make Australia a new nation.
One of four lines of the Victorian Railways, all of which lost money, the UFGGR stopped running in 1954. Steep grades, countless curves, gauge changes, the increased popularity of cars, and, finally, a catastrophic mudslide made closure inevitable.
But the popularity of a series of special farewell trips led to the formation of a preservation society, and a 3 month trial period attracted 10,000 riders in the first two. Simply refusing to die, narrow-gauge Puffing Billy is now Australia’s oldest steam railway. Five of the six Puffers in rolling stock are tank engines built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia, USA. The sixth is a G42 Garratt built in 1926 for the Victorian Railways.
Passengers included lots of young Australians who sat on Billy’s sills, legs extended outside the car. We joined them as Billy, complaining mightily, took us into some graceful mountains, the Dandenongs, at the southern extremity of Australia’s great coastal range where magnificent tree ferns with curious fiddleheads share the landscape with eucalyptus trees.
On the ascent, we crossed some impressive trestle bridges, stopped briefly at the appropriately named town of Cockatoo, and chugged between some diagonal potato fields before pulling into Gembrook, the original terminus of the line that reopened in 1998 and now a sleepy town with a few gift and craft shops, tea rooms, and cafes.
On the way back, conductor Max Miskin said to me, “If you listen, you can hear him say his name.” Sceptically, I leaned out of the window with my face toward the engine. My cheeks were instantly peppered, not unpleasantly so, with cinders, and under all that chuffing, hooting, and huffing, I’m pretty sure I heard, “Puffing Billy, Puffing Billy.”