If you’re fascinated by the great Steam Age, when “iron horses” travelled the length and breadth of continents and paddleboat steamers carried passengers and goods along the world’s great rivers, then you’ll love travelling by steam in Australia. For that matter, even if you’ve never thought much about steam travel before, hop about a steam train or paddle steamer in Australia and you’ll be hooked. These are some of the places where you can find them:
Murray River Paddle Steamers
The “Mighty Murray” is one of Australia’s great rivers and in the early days of European settlement was one of South Australia’s most important transportation links from the agricultural and pastoral lands of inland South Australia to the coast. The first paddle steamer on the Murray was built by the Randell Brothers in 1852 and named after their mother, Mary Ann. After their initial success, steamers became one of the most important modes of shipping and travel on the Murray until the Steam Age came to a close. Today, paddle steamers still travel the waters of the Murray-Darling basin, but they are used primarily for enjoyment. The P.S. Marion is a historic craft built in 1897 while the most luxurious paddle steamer on the Murray River is the newer Murray Princess. These are just two of the paddle steamers plying the waters of the Mighty Murray, home to the world’s largest fleet of still operating steamers in the world.
Pichi Pichi Railway
Also in South Australia, the Pichi Pichi Railway is one of Australia’s most iconic 19th century steam trains. Travelling aboard the Pichi Pichi is like being in a moving museum as you traverse the original rail track from Port Augusta to Quorn in the magnificent Flinders Ranges (or vice versa). The route you take is the oldest remaining track on the classic narrow gauge Ghan Railway line. While the Ghan is still operational, it is now a luxurious, modern train line and traverses the outback, the Pichi Pichi gives you the opportunity to step back in time and slowly wind your way through beautiful countryside before reaching your destination. The Pichi Pichi Explorer is run by volunteers and operates on weekends and public holidays only, so check out the schedule on the official website, http://www.prr.org.au/cms/home-mainmenu-1 and plan ahead.
The Zig Zag Railway
One of the most pleasurable ways to see the beautiful Blue Mountains of New South Wales is aboard the Zig Zag Railway. Built in the 1860s, this narrow gauge railway line was built to transport people and goods across the mountains that separated the plains of Lithgow from Sydney. There are still Australians who remember taking this train to and from school when they were children and you may even meet one of them as they take a nostalgic ride aboard the Zig Zag Railway. Aptly named, this train literally “zig zags” its way through the mountains, offering passengers breathtaking views along the way. It was finally replaced by a tunnel train and today is operated as a “not for profit” train by volunteers. The Zig Zag Railway operates every day of the year except Christmas Day.
Along with the Zig Zag Railway, Puffing Billy is one of Australia’s best known and most popular steam trains. Originally built in order to provide transport between the beautiful Dandenong Ranges and the city of Melbourne, today, Puffing Billy is a major Melbourne tourist attraction and is enjoyed by locals and overseas visitors alike. While “Puffing Billy” sounds like a small train designed for children, it is actually a full sized narrow gauge railway line that both children and adults enjoy. Aside from the regular runs between Belgrave on the outskirts of Melbourne and Gembrook, in the heart of the Dandenongs, daily excursions also include a 3 hour “Steam and Cuisine” tour that you will remember as one of the most delicious and unique luncheons you’ve ever had.
West Coast Wilderness Railway
The west coast of Tasmania is renowned as having some of the world’s greatest extant wilderness areas. The only problem is that much of that wilderness is almost impossible to explore. The West Coast Wilderness Railway was built by convict laborers in the 19th century and traverses some of Tasmania’s most rugged and beautiful wilderness areas. Originally built as a link between the mining town of Queenstown and the port town of Stahan, today, the same steam engine that operated then carries you in comfort and style, stopping along the way at historic towns and villages. Take the Premier carriage and enjoy local cuisine as you cross bridges high above the rushing rivers below, viewing them from the comfort of your carriage. The round-trip journey takes about 5 hours and operates every day except Christmas.
Rob enjoys travelling around Australia and writing about interesting things to see and do. To take a trip back in time to the Steam Age book some Blue Mountains accommodation and enjoy a ride on the steam powered Zig Zag Railway.