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The Great Race

11 July 2023

Words & Photos: Wolter Kuiper

As Ernie might say, why catch a train when you can get there faster on a bike? When the locomotive in question is Melbourne’s iconic Puffing Billy heritage steam engine that runs through the Dandenong Ranges towing tourists at a leisurely maximum of 10 mph (that’s 16 kmh for you guys), then you’ve got a pretty good chance of beating it.

Even foot sloggers can outrun it from Belgrave to Lakeside Station. Pre-COVID, Billy got trounced over that 13.5 km distance by 486 humans (20 per cent of the field), although they got to use closed roads for much of the distance in 2019. The narrow-gauge steam engine was even slower than usual, coming in 20 minutes after the first runner, with the finger being pointed at wet tracks.

Traditionally, the railway corridor was a popular route home for members of the party crowd who’d missed the last bus from Belgrave, and one section of well-worn singletrack through Selby remains. With the gradual reopening of the line since 1962 there’s been a slow formalising of this walking route, with another 800 m of singletrack disappearing under crushed granite near Clematis in recent months as part of the catchily named Eastern Dandenong Ranges Trail. Sadly, this shared path does not mimic the gentle inclines and graceful curves of the railway and from the suburban train station at Belgrave to Clematis, you must find your own way through the territory of a different shire council.

Needless to say, as with any endeavour of this nature, there were countless hours of planning, online mapping, gear prep and pre-running. Being the start of winter, I knew I could rely on a full suite of GE’s finest, topped with a Draft Dodger, customised with thumb loops to keep the sleeves inside my Chipolatas.

My cunning route was foiled by a road that was on the maps but totally overgrown, leaving a steep climb from the Selby Station singletrack if I didn’t want to play trail fairy. Much of the rest of the gap to Clematis was taken care of by a quiet road which the runners use, with stunning views of Cardinia Reservoir and beyond. Sadly, this road is also disappearing under tar.

Pre-running went pretty well, although I was still tweaking the route (not recommended) and even resorted to throwing my bike on the return train on one occasion for fun - not a cheap exercise. With the Gembrook service only running on weekends and public holidays at the moment, there were limited opportunities to take it on, especially if I wanted sunlight for pix. 

When the day finally arrived, there was a last-minute panic when I realised PBR was running two engines, including a recent restoration - a full-size British-built locomotive - on the short-haul service… luckily it wasn’t coming back to take me on. Finally, the mournful steam whistle of NA 8A echoed across the valley, and I took off up to Stoney Road, a sketchy gravel downhill that gets the adrenalin pumping. At the famous Monbulk Creek Trestle Bridge the crowd was still gathered for their shots of the train but I was over the tracks and into the forest.

At times the train seems close by but at others, you can see and hear nothing of it, only your own puffing and smoke coming from wood heaters. Taking level crossings with the train approaching is a definite buzz. Then there was silence again. I’ll be honest, I started to relax at Clematis, checking out the book exchange before even reaching the high point at Emerald (318 m). Knowing the train was going to stop at Lakeside, I got a bloke to take some pictures for me, chatted to walkers on the trail and cruised towards Wright Forest, figuring I’d check out the singletrack on the way back. It was a classic case of the tortoise and the hare.

With 3 km to go, Puffing Billy (there are actually six of them remaining), was on my tail and I threw in the towel to get a shot of the train passing me on the embankment. The train made it to Gembrook right on time at 1pm and I straggled in a few minutes later, having to face the feeding frenzy or head back straight away. That’ll teach me for stopping.