Well the time had come for our groups fourth Victorian Rail Bash tour. A tragic loss of steam train operation in New South Wales has led us south of the border down Mexico way for another great weekend.
Last year we were going to try heading up to the NSW/Victorian border and the town of Echuca for a ride on the Murray River hopefully on a paddle steamer. One of the party then had committed to going to the US of A to ride a train from Seattle to Chicago and points east. So we waited for him to get back and then did our second run of the double R class locos out to Moe and ride the narrow gauge line at Walhalla. So we said for 2019 we will try and finally get to Echuca.
On studying the Steamrail calendar there was a trip listed from Bendigo to Echuca and including the options of a ride on the Murray River on three various paddle steamers and differing levels of food ranging from a full sit down meal to one with sandwiches. We selected the one with the sangers not because it was the cheapest option but because it was a genuine steam powered vessel. So that was the general plan and this is how it all went:
Friday May 10
This year we had to reverse the trip and fly to Melbourne on Friday and then travel up to Bendigo to be in position for the steam trip on Saturday morning.
The flight from Sydney to Melbourne was intended to depart at 10.30am and four of us met up at Mascot airport at least one hour prior to take off in accordance with the airline requirements. Three of us got our seat allocations but the fourth member had issues with the boarding pass only because his first name was listed as 'Mike' and not 'Michael' even though mine was accepted with 'Bob' and not 'Robert' - Go figure, crazy airline. We thought of leaving him behind but he finally got through. We were all scattered throughout the plane. I was lucky in that I had a seat directly behind the business class and despite a piece of plastic hanging down in front of me I was able to see everything they were dished up and worse I was able to smell the nice food. For a trip on just over an hour you would have thought they could survive. Must admit the quiche smelt nice. Maybe it isn't fully blocked off so that the plebs in cattle class can see what there is to offer up front. The food trolley finally managed to work its way up the aisle and I settled for a bottle of water and a nice lemon and ginger muffin. I was also able to look at the business 'larger than our class' screen through the seats. Mainly commercials but I didn't want to drain the battery on my phone playing billiards all the way down.
As we came down through the clouds there was rain on the windows, a sign of the weather to come. The trusty brolly is always part of my survival kit but I will tell in advance that is was not used at any time over the weekend.
We finally got off the plane and we headed towards the SkyBus service to Southern Cross station where luckily the bus terminates. One of the party had gone to Victoria with his wife to meet up with their friends and then the two men joined us in Melbourne at Southern Cross. As it was now after 1.30pm the four off the plane decided to have some lunch and call the other two to come and join us. The plan was then to catch the train up to Bendigo and be ready for the steamer on Saturday morning.
We ambled over to platform 16 ready to get the Bendigo train. It was a three car Velocity train and these locally made trains are very impressive. Some time ago the rail corridor between Melbourne and Bendigo was upgraded to a high speed line and these trains are capable of 160km/hr speeds. Formally double track, certain portions were made single line (was it cheaper to maintain only one track?). The service is impressive with on average trains every hour. The trip was uneventfull but is quite scenic in the early stage where an impressive high bridge is crossed. The line also includes a tunnel which are rare in Victoria. Many of the road bridges were made of local stone done in the time when tradesmen were common. They have remained in place since the line opened between Melbourne and Bendigo on the 20th October 1862, not a bad innings. What was also noticeable were the many station buildings and good sheds that were either stone or brick built. Built to last and last they have.
On arrival at Bendigo the seven off us headed down the hill towards Charing Cross, then to turn right, follow the tramlines to the next block and to our digs at the Shamrock Hotel for two nights layover. On the way down the hill we went past an electoral office that had some of the party faithfull trying to thrust their 'Vote for me" forms at us but when they heard the luggage trolleys we were dragging behind us they then assumed we were 'out of towners' and wouldn't be interested. Australia will be holding a Federal election this coming Saturday the 18th May.
The Shamrock Hotel (https://www.hotelshamrock.com.au/) from the outside looks very old and it looks old from the inside as well, although modernised a bit. The room Ross and I shared had the typical high ceilings. There were two beds, a single and a 'get lucky' queen bed which Ross had.
We met in the cafe at 6.0pm for dinner and the meals were very nice.
On Friday night my football team 'Manly' were playing the Brisbane Broncos at Suncorp stadium in Brisbane. After dinner I snuck into the 'Sportsmans Bar' hoping to find a TV that may be showing the game. Amongst around twenty different screens I managed to find a small one with the game being telecasted. At that time we were leading six nil, but when I got back to the room in the second half we ended losing 26 to 10. The Broncos needed to win that one.
Saturday May 11
|View from the hotel window. It was raining somewhere but not in Bendigo|
The steam train trip on the Saturday actually started from Castlemaine some 40" odd minutes towards Melbourne away. We tried to get accommodation there but it was none was available so we decided to base in Bendigo instead. Phil wanted to get his moneys worth and planned to catch an early morning train from Bendigo to Castlemaine and start his day there. I think the fact that he said we would need to get a train from Bendigo around 7.0am made him the only one keen enough to go. Now also what was to happen was that we were going to meet up with the eighth member who was also a former school pupil. Now to explain how long it has been since I last saw him well it has been around fifty two and a half years. How about that. Damon met up with Phil and travelled together on the steam train to Bendigo.
|Our train arriving from Castlemaine|
After a nice continental breakfast I headed up to the station to get a photo of the train arriving from Castlemaine. Eventually I spotted Phil and Damon on the other platform and we met up and re-introduced each other. It was good.
The remainder of the group eventually arrived at the station and we crossed the line via the footbridge to join the train. Hellos were exchanged and we went to find our compartment for the trip up to Echuca. Steamrail were happy to book six in a compartment but for this trip we managed to squeeze in eight bodies of various sizes. Four on each side. Heating was provided by sliding the door shut to the compartment and relied completely on our own body heat for warming the air space.
|Our train pointed towards Echuca|
|A luxury Parlor car at the front of the train|
|Ready to in her full glory|
|A nice looking loco|
When you are use to the vast distances you have to travel in New South Wales from Sydney to the various borders, in Victoria the northern border of the Murray River seems very close in comparison. Echuca from Bendigo was around a 90 minute trip by train. Although cloudy on the morning and cool there was no rain about and the sun greeted us on arrival at Echuca.
At Echuca we boarded a coach to take us through the town to the wharf and down to the SS Canberra for a cruise and lunch. In this time of drought it was an interesting comment from the coach driver to mention when there was a huge flood in the past, the paddle boats used to sail up the street and tie up to the first floor railing to get a drink at the pub. (At least that is what we were told)
|The sign says it all|
Arrival at the wharf drew an instant comparison with Circular Quay in Sydney, there seemed to be boats everywhere. The Emmy Lou was there along with others of all shapes and sizes. We squeezed aboard and set sail or should that be paddle and headed upstream past the historic Echuca wharf which had multiple loading levels to cater for the varying river levels.
The wharf had been served by a rail line at the top of the wharf. Our journey on the Murray was to last an hour, travelling past all shapes and sizes of paddle steamers and there was also a huge amount of houseboats tied up to the banks of the river. Many were for sale, one I spotted for a mere $292K. It would be easy for the novelty of a houseboat to wear off quickly, the only choice you would have on the day would be upstream or downstream.
|Pride of the Murray|
|Paddle boats everywhere|
|Heading towards Echuca wharf|
Nothing like being on the Hawkesbury River system with multiple choices of direction.
We soon got the call for lunch and there were sangers of mixed type cut into triangles waiting collection. I must say they were quite nice. Also to go with it was a plate of cakes and biscuits. We had a running commentary from the skipper and he related to Murray Cod in the past being so big they didn't have any scales in the town to weigh them. No quite so these days.
|Wood powered steam engine|
The SS Canberra was powered with a true steam engine powered with wood logs. You could look down and watch them being fed into the firebox and smell the hot oil wafting around. Reminded me of the good old days travelling on the South Steyne ferry and seeing the steam powered engine going through its paces.
|You can see how low the river is at the moment|
It is great to see these relics of the past still providing a sustainable income for some and providing a great tourist reason to visit the town.
Too soon the trip was over and we returned to the wharf. A nearby road had many tourist trappings that you could visit. I had to feel sorry for the guy and the two horses with the replica Cobb and Co coach just hanging around waiting for some passengers. The two horses looked bored just standing there side by side and with blinkers on couldn't even have any eye contact with each other. We had an hour to wait for the coach back to the station so we just moseyed around. Licking down a peppermint ice cream helped some. Back in a park near the wharf there was a group of rock and roller dancers strutting their stuff. The Chevvie parked close to the dance floor set the scene. Our group of eight who just happened to watch the proceedings for a while, were beckoned over by the organiser. The fact there were only two pony tailed ladies there dancing, made me think there weren't enough to around our group and I didn't fancy dancing with my mates. So we just gave the organiser a polite wave and drifted across to the bus stop to await our lift back to the station. I also noticed that the on the coach above the drivers head there was Lee Keernigans signature. I guess if you are famous you can make your mark anywhere.
|All ready to head for Bendigo|
When we returned to the station, the train was turned and ready to return back to Bendigo and right on 2.20pm we headed off. And back to the reminiscing from the good old days in the compartment.
On return at Bendigo there was an option to stay on the train to Castlemaine and then return on one of the frequent services back to Bendigo. Only Phil and I decided to get our moneys worth and Damon also had to return back to Castlemaine to get a lift back home. I was just coming on dark when we got there.
|Nearly home for K153|
We had around a half an hour to fill in and after saying our goodbyes to Damon and watching the empty train chuff off towards Maldon, our Velocity came into view and after a half hour or so we arrived back in Bendigo at 6.35pm.
|Old Farts reunion dinner Victoria 2019|
We had another table booked at the cafe for dinner that night. Again another nice dinner and at least two of the party couldn't fit all of their cheese cake dessert in the pieces were that big. Another night in front of the TV for a bit more footy and then off to sleep. Another great day.
Sunday May 12
Down to the cafe at 8.0am for our second continental breakfast which was included in the charge for the room. It was quite sufficient. This Sunday also happened to be Mothers Day and two of our party had to return back to Melbourne early to celebrate the day with their wives. We said our goodbyes at the table as they were off to catch the 9.20am train. The rest of us returned to the rooms and packed up and left our bags and reception and then headed off towards the tram depot to have a look and then do the trip on the tram.
|Three of the tramway fleet|
|Showing its heritage|
I mentioned to the very informative depot staff that the last time I was there was way way back in 1971, one year before the tramway system closed down in 1972. Bendigo still retains five Birney tramcars, the largest fleet in the world. No excuse required for another cappuccino and then onto the tram for a run up to the Joss House terminus. It brought back memories for me when I was very much younger.
We arrived at the Gold Mine to change over trams and a quick group photo shoot for the record. We had decided to catch the 11.20am train back to Castlemaine for lunch and a look at the town, but we also had to return to the hotel to pick up our bags and then head off uphill to the station.
|No 44 at Charing Cross Bendigo|
Time was quickly running out and with only under 15 minutes to get there we headed off. We were all dragging our bags on wheels behind and you could tell how far we were away from each other by how loud the wheels were. It was very close and the last of us raced through the train doors with the conductor ready to close up and depart. But we(all) made it!
|Inside the Restoration barn|
|Chandelier made from old lamps?|
The main reason we were visiting Castlemaine was to visit a store called "The Restoration Barn". They said it was just up that street, turn right, then left down a bit. It felt like we were never going to get there, having just completed the sprint earlier between the hotel and the station. Hunger won the day and although John knew a good cafe, it turned out when we got there that it was chockers probably owing to Mothers Day. We settled for the Cadillac Shack opposite. I almost expected the Fonz to come in through the door any minute. Various burgers were consumed and then we headed up a few doors to the restoration barn. The store seemed to fit a category between an antique store and your local Bunnings. Although we didn't buy anything and Michael didn't get his screws it is an interesting time waster.
We headed back to the station and made our way to the island platform where we went to the shop operated by the Goldfields Railway and had yet another coffee. It was also a bit warmer in there. We moved over to the main platform to wait for the next train down to Melbourne again the Velocity set.
|On our way back to Melbourne|
We were scattered throughout the carriage owing to the number of people on board, yes they are popular. Two of the guys near me chose to nod off while I looked out the window. Eventually reaching Melbourne late afternoon, we then headed across the road from the station to our new digs at the Savoy Hotel. It seemed more upmarket than our usual overnight hotel up in Queen Street and looks a likely candidate for our 2020 tour. The room was well appointed up on the 10th floor overlooking the roof of the Southern Cross station opposite. We crossed over the road again to a local bar within the station and I had a pizza washed down by a schooner of cider, very nice. Returning to the room it was still early so we settled down to watch some house reno shows on the room TV.
Monday May 13
|View from the Savoy Hotel window|
|Morning peak Southern Cross|
Normally on the last day we would all travel back to Sydney by plane, but this time three decided to fly back and three of us returned by the daylight XPT which was due to leave Melbourne at 8.30am and arrive Sydney around 8.0pm. Breakfast comprising a brioche roll with bacon and egg and yet another coffee at our usual cafe.
|From the smoky cavern of Southern Cross the XPT is ready to depart|
We returned back in First Class which I think converts to meaning 'more pensioners and old farts in the carriage'. The carriage was virtually full for most of the journey, some seats being vacated at intermediate stations only to be refilled by new passengers. By the time we reached Albury on the NSW/Victorian border we were about half an hour late, thanks to the track maintainer ARTC not doing their job properly. We picked up time at a few stations further on but also slipped back what we had gained. I had sandwiches for lunch and was slightly reluctant to try a hot dinner having tried them the previous year. But pork shoulder and vegetables sounded nice. You have to go up to the buffet car and collect them when they let you know they are ready. With a warm bread roll to go with it I found the dinner enjoyable. It was getting dark around Goulburn so the rest of the time I just chatted and annoyed Michael who drew the short straw and sat with me.
Returning via the East HIlls line we arrived Central around 10 minutes late. We then transferred over to a local service and I accompanied Michael to his home station to make sure he didn't drop off to sleep again. At the end of the line I got out and arrived at the 'family' pickup spot the same time as my 'taxi' arrived. I wasn't long before home sweet home and wondering where 2020 will take us for our train jaunt. A brilliant weekend in every way, so much friendship and great memories we managed to squeeze into our four days away.
I'll make an endeavour to write up something about South Coast Rail in the next blog update.