‘Steaming out of the Covid Gloom: The joy of riding the Mary Valley Rattler’

Sep 25, 2020
Drivers Tony and Chris with their pride and joy the Spirit of Mary Valley. Source: Di East

There is nothing quite so romantically engaging as riding a historic steam train, particularly if you are riding the first steam train since the Covid-19 lockdown and you are surrounded by superheroes! We were among the lucky 100 passengers to enjoy this thrill when the Mary Valley Rattler service recommenced at Gympie Station on July 10, 2020.

We started our day early with a scrumptious breakfast at Gympie Station’s Rusty Rails Café so we could savour the atmosphere as staff prepared for the excited travellers. To commemorate the day all passengers were invited to dress in their favourite superhero costume, as the train was to be driven by none other than the amazing Steam Man. It was an awesome sight to see the Spirit of Mary Valley hissing steam and belching smoke like a fearsome dragon as it edged into Gympie Station on a frosty morning. Some of the children were scared at first until they saw Steam Man’s rather large grin and gloved hand waving from the locomotive. What a memorable entrance!

train gympie
The Spirit of Mary Valley hissing steam and belching smoke like a fearsome dragon. Source: Di East

Gympie is about 160 kilometres north of the Queensland capital, Brisbane. The city, on the Mary River, is famous for its gold field and is known as ‘the town that saved Queensland’ for when James Nash discovered gold in 1867, the goldrush that ensued saved the fledgling Queensland Government from bankruptcy. Gympie contains several historic buildings registered on the Queensland Heritage Register, including Gympie Station, and is well worth visiting.

Like so many other fun things that we previously took for granted the Mary Valley Rattler Steam Train Experience has been severely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. It totally closed in March 2020 as the pandemic took hold and that made the return of steam train even more delightful. The enthusiasm, friendliness and professionalism of the staff and volunteers was infectious, and you could not help but relax and have a great time. The staff were very conscious of their Covid Safe plan and policies, but rather than detract from the day, this in effect just meant that the carriages were less crowded, as we all had plenty of social distancing space. Bravo team! The only drawback was that physical distancing requirements meant that tours of the locomotive cabin, fire box and controls can no longer happen for the time being.

We decided to travel VIP in the First Class Club Car to enjoy the mouth-watering tasting plate of delicious local Mary Valley produce accompanied by a choice of beverage from the bar. The tasting platter was generous, flavoursome and delicious, enticing our tastebuds to explore all the produce that the Mary Valley has to offer. My favourite was the ash brie cheese from Kenilworth. Oh, and the beverages were lovely and cold too! On board our Club Car we met Steve and Sue Woodrow from Petrie. They are seasoned travellers and would have been on a cruise ship about now if not for the Covid-19 pandemic. Like us they were thoroughly enjoying the ride proving that you don’t have to travel far from home to have a great trip.

tasting platter
The tasting platter was generous, flavoursome and delicious, enticing our tastebuds. Source: Di East

Our on-board guest experience volunteer, Jetsun, who at 17 is one of the younger volunteers, made us very welcome and enthusiastically explained that our train’s locomotive No. 967 had suffered the indignity of being sent to a playground in Caloundra in the 1960s, transported to Alice Springs and eventually returned to Gympie where it was fully restored over 26 months from early 2017 at CPM Engineering. The locomotive had originally been manufactured in Maryborough by Walkers in 1951 and served the Mary Valley for 19 years until it was retired. There are over 100 volunteers ranging in age from 16 to 80 with the oldest being one of the train drivers. Volunteers come from as far north as Rockhampton and south to the Gold Coast.

The Mary Valley Rattler had its origins in 1881 as the Maryborough Railway with its major purpose to supply goods to the gold fields and to transport the gold out via the Port of Maryborough. There was no railway connection between Brisbane and Gympie until 1891. By this time the broader Gympie Region and the Mary Valley continued to develop especially in agriculture, dairying, and timber. To provide transport, the Mary Valley line was built from Gympie to Brooloo. The Rattler served the Mary Valley for over 100 years until a new railway line was built to bypass Gympie in 1989. The last official service of the Rattler was in mid-1995.

gympie train view
The train winds through the beautiful Mary Valley farmland: Source: Di East

Nowadays, the Rattler Railway Company is a not for profit organisation of about 25 staff and over 100 volunteers run by a board of directors who bring a diverse combination of skills and experience in tourism, business and heritage rail. This dedicated team have successfully refocussed the Mary Valley Rattler from a heritage railway enthusiast venture to a regional tourism attraction run as a business to generate ongoing economic benefits for the region. Surprisingly during the Covid lockdown, the number of volunteers increased, and the organisation is still looking for more volunteers for its museum and on-board ambassadors. The Mary Valley Rattler is the third largest heritage railway in Australia and provides a very scenic journey complete with guided commentary for the 46 kms round trip from Gympie to Amamoor in South East Queensland.

The trip starts at the beautifully restored Gympie Station and after crossing over the Mary River, winds its way around curves, across bridges and numerous gentle hills. The locals always come out to greet the train and wave as it passes through Dagun, home to a beautiful heritage station, before continuing to the quaint community of Amamoor nestled in the centre of the Mary Valley. Our trip was no doubt a great reassurance to locals that things were at last returning to some form of normal as the Spirit of Mary Valley’s whistle echoed loudly through the countryside. At Amamoor, not only did we enjoy and savour the local produce at the market, but we also marvelled at the restored turntable and the process required to turn the locomotive around for its return to Gympie.

gympie train
Marvel at the restored turntable required to turn the locomotive around. Source: Di East

Make sure you leave plenty of time to explore the restored Gympie Station which houses a historic display, a gift shop and a cafe offering dine-in and takeaway options. Constructed in 1913, Gympie’s Station is apparently the largest timber railway building owned by Queensland Railways during the twentieth century. It is unquestionably one of the most stylish and elaborate examples of timber railway architecture in Queensland, so don’t miss it.

The Mary Valley Rattler is more than a train ride. It’s a half-day adventure into history. The train runs four days per week in all weather and there are a variety of rides available as well as special events. We thoroughly enjoyed our trip with “Steam Man” and the superheroes aboard the Classic Rattler Run and would recommend it to all who wish to blow away the Covid cobwebs and experience a bygone traveller’s journey.

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