By David Hawkins
For the born-and-bred Victorians reading this, riding on a steam train is a classic childhood experience. The Puffing Billy Railway is a Melbourne institution that was first built over 100 years ago and across that time has transported innumerable families through gorgeous scenery at the foothills of the Dandenong Ranges. For me, an interstate migrant, steam trains are a dream image from watching Thomas the Tank Engine. I had no idea that there was a super amazing choo-choo train, an hours drive from the Peninsula, that whisked you away to that world of the past.
Most people have ridden Puffing Billy from the famous station at Belgrave, but fewer know about the most scenic part of the trail; a hill-climbing, bridge-crossing ride from Lakeside to Gembrook.
Lakeside, the station within Emerald Lake Park, is a perfect place to begin your family day out. There is a distinct English vibe about the area, with old-fashioned station buildings and tea house, a miniature model railway display and even paddleboats that can be hired to traverse the lake. We arrived an hour before the scheduled train departure so that we could meet up with our friends and spend some time taking in the parkland.
Lake Treganowan is picturesque and tranquil. As you wander the pathway, the birdlife comes to check you out; our mini-munchkins loved the ducks that quacked their way up close with swamp hens and speckled wood ducks waddling within inches of us. The laughter of kookaburras sounded from the treetops overhead. We crossed over the bridge that spans the lake and stopped for a brief picnic-style snack at the public tables.
And that is when we heard the old steam whistle peel – toot tooooooooot!
We hurried up to the heritage buildings of Lakeside Station and collected our tickets through the grill of the booking office. I was thinking that this all had a Hogwarts Express feel to it when the train pulled in and proved me correct. The rhythmic chug-chug of the pistons soothed the air and pillows of white steamed out, over the platforms and up toward the clouds. The kids made a mad dash along the yellow line on the platform, slightly obscured by the billowing steam, to the smiling driver leaning out of the engine. He invited them inside, one by one, to point and question earnestly about every twist of metal and glow of ember that they could see. The driver was so friendly and patient with the children that they felt safe to be curious.
As the conductor waved his flag, we sought out empty seats on the carriages. Now, the carriages are where the Harry Potter connection departs as they are not closed-in compartments but open-sided windows to the world. We all stuck our heads out the side of the train as it chugged its way out of Lakeside station and began the 40-minute adventure to Gembrook.
The breeze reddened our cheeks and rippled through our hair. Beams of sunlight broke through the leafy canopy of the tall trees and shined through the swirling clouds of steam and smoke. The pulse of the engine rang through the carriages, matching within our own internal rhythm. There is something visceral about riding in a steam train, both exciting and calming.
The signs of suburbia fall away and bushland surrounds the parallel sleepers. Each carriage was filled with kids, teens and adults chatting, snapping selfies and closing their eyes as they leaned out into the wind. The whistle sounds as it approaches each curve in the track, the engine turning into its own plume of steam and disappearing momentarily from sight. Passengers were photographing and Instagramming like mad as they tried to capture the beauty of this journey.
There are some small shed-like stations along the track to Gembrook and brief emergence into the passing towns, but the main attractions are the three wooden bridges that the train traverses. One of these is the largest on the Puffing Billy line, spanning over 60 metres in length and 15 metres in height; an engineering feat of wood and metal to support the great weight of the train and its passengers.
Before long we arrived in the village of Gembrook for lunch and a leg stretch. Gembrook is a quiet little town with a number of dining options available; we decided to bundle all eight of us into the Gembrook Bakery to grab some pies, salad rolls and coffees. Very tasty and affordable. The ladies perused the local Op Shop whilst us dads shepherded the children around the quaint local lolly shop, filling small paper bags with a range of sweets from old fashioned jars. Then, bursting with sugar-fuelled energy, we unleashed the kids onto the train-themed playground that sits beside the station.
The train’s weekend schedule affords an hour and a half to enjoy Gembrook before hopping back onto Puffing Billy, amidst the sounds and steam, to relax on the return journey. As we chugged back towards Lakeside station, passing once again over the weathered wooden bridges, our kids tumbled from their sugar-high and settled into a sleepy meditation. They sat back onto the padded bench-seats and watched the passing distant hills and clouds.
If you have never been for a journey on Puffing Billy, I highly recommend scooping up the family and embarking on a timeless day out. And if you are an experienced Puffing Billy traveller, consider an adventure at the far end of the line, from Lakeside to Gembrook.
David Hawkins is a Peninsula based stay-at-home-dad who realised that he needed to improve his Dadding. So he set himself the simple task of being an Awesome Dad. He now challenges all dads to be awesome dads, by doing something out-of-the-ordinary with their kids.