Sunday, May 3, 2009

OZ Day 3: Chasing the Outback Aurora


A vision from the past, at Georges Plains. .

Monday, April 13:We were up before sunup—but really, who could tell when that was with the heavy overcast and light rain falling?—so we’d be ready for the departure of the 14-car Outback Aurora, a leisurely four-day circle trip operated by the Rail Transportation Museum in Thirlmere from Sydney, up the North Coast to Coffs Harbour, back down and across the Liverpool Range, thence across the line through Binnaway and Dubbo out to Cobar before reversing directions and heading back to Sydney via the Main West.


Pensioners await the departure at Orange. . .

The train was mostly a stainless-steel train set constructed for the 1962 Southern Aurora, which inaugurated Sydney-Melbourne passenger traffic when a through standard-gauge line was opened between Australia’s two largest cities.

That we saw this train at all on our trip was a happy accident well after we’d booked our travel, when I stumbled across the RTM website with details of the trip. Immediately, its lure of vintage NSWGR diesels across the Southern Highlands put it at the top of our “must do” vacation list, the anchor from which we’d plan the rest of our journeys.

 IMG_3057 The builder’s plate was a fake, but everything else was the real deal. . .

Right on time, right around 0700, DL600B 4490 led Clyde-GM 4916 and Goninan Alco-GE 4306 to a halt at the Orange depot, where the passengers—mostly nearing retirement age and probably veterans of previous RTM trips—got out to stretch their legs. Lance and I donned our spiffy high-visibility orange vests and walked toward the head-end, blending in with RTM staff also wearing their orange vests. We looked like we belonged “within the corridor,” and usually, that’s what mattered. Charlie, being a “3/4 full-sunlit” kinda guy, left his cameras in the car. In fact, they didn’t come out the whole day.

Lance and I drooled over the vintage diesels:


DL500B 4490, the last 44 Class to operate when withdrawn in late 1994;


4916, a “Aussie GP9” branchline unit built in 1964 wearing the early 1980’s State Rail Authority “Candy” scheme


4306, truly exotic, the only survivor of six 43 Class, built in 1957 complete with already-passe’ Alco 244 prime mover and the unusual GE Erie nose used on the GE 750 test-bed locomotives built in the U.S. in 1954.

IMG_3044Lance was in heaven. . . 

We set up on the Franklin Road overpass, just east of the Orange North Fork signal box, and photographed the train’s departure—AMAZING! Smoky, as you’d want from Alcos; bone-jarring as well, two flavors of Alcos and a roots-blown EMD definitely blowing out the carbon, both in their manifolds and our memories of what it used to sound like in the U.S. thirty years ago. It was the ghost of the Central Highlands Express!

IMG_3089 Roaring out of Orange. . .

We spent the rest of the morning ably guided by Charlie chasing the train back to Lithgow, photographing it in more than a half-dozen nice locations as it climbed over the highlands up Tumulla bank, down to Bathurst, and then into the Blue Mountain foothills through Brewongle, Tarana and Sodwalls. Lance did an excellent job driving. And, no, Emily—if you’re wondering, there was no “shit driving.” Lance kept to the speed limit the entire day. ;-)

IMG_3106 Topping the first climb out of Blayney at Newbridge. . .

IMG_3164 winding through an s-curve at Brewongle. . .


passing the preserved station and water tank at Tarana. . . 

IMG_3191 IMG_3195 and coming and going through the horseshoe curves at Sodwalls. . .

We left the train behind at Lithgow, caught a sandwich at “Red Chook”, then got caught up in the Easter weekend traffic jam en route to getting back over the mountains to pick up Paul Reid, the last member of our traveling group, from his home in Emu Plains. The skies opened up as well, pissing rain, further clogging our progress. Charlie opted for another back-road re-route, taking an alternate route to Richmond, where Paul’s wife had driven him to meet us. We loaded up, and drove the highly-scenic, narrow, twisty, rainy and remote “Putty Road”—highway 69--between Richmond and Singleton, where we back-tracked on the New England highway to Maitland, where we had a reservation for two nights at the Belmore Hotel, a two-story Art Deco pub on High Street in Maitland’s downtown. We arrived in time to claim our upstairs rooms—typical of country pubs, guests shared separate male and female bathrooms—for a paltry $50 a room/night—around $20US for each of us. We dined on a wonderful plate of chips, veal schnitzel and salad for $10.50AU in the downstairs dining room while Paul and Charlie provided narration of the National Rugby League and Australia-South Africa cricket matches competing on the big flat screens. Great meal, great company, and a great way to further absorb Australian culture.

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