Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Huffing & Puffing into the Dandenong Ranges

I still remember my first steam train ride in 2006 or 2007. My friends and I were in Borneo, heading towards Padas River for a white water rafting expedition.  I am not sure if the location was only accessible by railway but as tourists, we had to sign up for this experience. Despite the technical issues faced that day and a considerably long wait time, the ride itself left a positive imprint in me and for this reason, I was all excited when I heard of Puffing Billy.

Puffing Billy is Australia's favourite steam train. The railway line began operations in 1900s. Throughout the years, several factors contributed to the closure of the line - a landslide, low decline in train usage and operating losses. Before the final closure, a farewell ride was held. 30,000 people turned up on this day and 2,500 of them had rides. Due to the good response received, the farewell was extended for another day. This led to many more special farewells which got some people thinking Puffing Billy should be retained and preserved for future generations. Today, the railway line is managed by a group of dedicated volunteers and runs daily.

We kicked-off our journey from Federation Square by bus. Since we had pre-purchased tickets, we just had to show up at the stated pick-up point* on time. The drive to Dandenong Ranges took about 1 hour. I fell asleep 15 minutes into the drive and woke up only at Grant's Reserve. Hahaha. According to Mr H, I missed all the interesting commentary provided by the tour guide (who also happens to be our bus driver).

Hungry Cuckatoos
At Grant's Reserve, we were treated to a traditional Devonshire tea. If you are interested to hand feed the bird life, here is the place to do it too. You could purchase a bowl of food, make your way inside the ring and wait for the Crimson Rosella or cuckatoos to feed out of your bowl. It could get competitive (among the birds, not the bird feeders), so be alert at all times.

Once the birds were fed, we made our way to the train station to board Puffing Billy. Arriving about 20 minutes before departure, we had a bit of time for a quick look the souvenir shop and take pictures of the locomotive. Rushing for the best seats were not necessary as each tour company were allocated a coach. Sometimes a coach is shared by two companies or more depending on the number of guests.

Ride Highlight: Dangling legs by the window.
After the mandatory "choo choo", we were off. The ride to the next stop took about 30 minutes, taking us through the forest & across a bridge. A conductor was stationed in our coach through out the ride and kept on pointing out the interesting highlights of the sights. He was also happy to answer all the questions that were thrown to him. At one point of the ride, he encouraged all of us to sit by the window with our legs hanging out. Since he had assured us that the coach will not topple over even if everyone sat by the window, we joined the others (and made sure the weight was evenly distributed. Hahaha..) At the next station, we said our goodbyes and headed to explore the village of Sassafras.

This tiny village is home to some antiques and arts/crafts shops. It is also where the apparently famous Ms Marple's Tea Room. We never did find out why this tea room is well known as we were advised to give it a miss. It is known that the service here is very slow and most guests would not receive their order in time. However we did wander into TeaLeaves, a tea shop that houses 350 different types of tea blends from various parts of the world, some coffee and chocolate. It is also home to a variety of teapots in various shapes and sizes that are for sale too. We could not decide on a teapot design but walked out with several packs of Australian Eucalyptus blend (this came in handy when I was ill later). Next to Tea Leaves was a nice little outlet selling nougat. I forget the name but the nougat is one of the tastiest nougats I have ever tasted. All nougat lovers should try it. Once done with shopping (or time is up, whichever comes first), it was time to head back to the city. After one hour, we were back at Federation Square.

To experience Puffing Billy and Dandenong Ranges as we did, you could purchase a half day tour and would probably cost you $99 and above per person. I managed to get a 2 for price of 1 Groupon deal. Upon comparing the itinerary of the Groupon promo against the actual itinerary, there was no difference. Hence I am pleased with my discovery and savings.

There are a few variations of the Puffing Billy tour, so you can choose a tour depending on your interest. For more information on Puffing Billy, go to their official website at

* several tour companies operate from the same area. Make sure you board the right bus.

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