Preamble, posted 25 January 2012
I’ve been halfway through writing up our trip on the Zig Zag Railway for some time. Finding out about the following derailed me:
And then I got ahead of myself.
In 1901 a train coming down the Zig Zag lost control of its brakes, crashed through the wooden bufferstop, and stopped half suspended over the cliff edge. The driver and fireman were uninjured, as, when they realised that the train could not stop, they jumped out. The day after the accident the train was pulled back on the track, and allowed to continue on its way, remaining in service until the mid 1950s. The driver and fireman booked onto work the next morning, with a small fine, no stress counselling, just straight back to work!
– Zig Zag Railway website page Lineside
Fancy fining them! See comments below for the newspaper article about the accident. And here’s the story of our trip.
A weekend away
On Friday 18 November Dac and I set out – having consulted those seasoned travellers, my swimming mates, and the odd map – to visit my sister Fiona and her family in Katoomba. They have a house there which, just for 2011, they’ve been using as a weekender. During the year, Fiona has worked hard to have it done up. It will be let again in 2012, so this was my last chance to see it.
I hadn’t driven to the Blue Mountains since the early 80s, and there was considerable doubt whether I’d be able to drive there on this occasion. My back had been spasming away for several weeks. A few days before the trip, it settled down just enough for me to think I could make use of the accommodation we’d rashly booked months before. We were going to stay at the 3 Explorers Motel – curiously, the very motel Helen and I stayed at in 1984 or so.
I’ve been known to make it to Sydney (now an “easy” 3-hour drive from here) more or less unscathed by stopping every hour, and staying at least two nights before driving back. The Blue Mountains, however, prove to be another two hours on top of that. 😦 Looking at a map doesn’t really convey the complexities of the drive. The alleged Great Western Highway is a nightmare of single lanes, roadworks, and trucks in all shapes and sizes. All speeds, too – although the fast ones tended, as I drive at the speed limit, to be located behind me. On my bumper bar, in fact.
Finding somewhere to stop and stretch (and change tailgaters) on such a narrow and busy road was a challenge. In desperation, we veered off into the grounds of a private school. That was a very short break, as I kept expecting to be arrested for trespassing on hallowed ground and encroaching on precious scions.
Having left home at 10am, we arrived at our motel at 3.30. I was gibbering, I have to admit, so it was very helpful that we’d been given a lovely room. I’d asked for the ground floor because of my mobility problems, and it seemed they’d given us the best room in the place. Tucked into a corner with the laundry on one side of us, we only had one neighbour and plenty of space. Reasonable mattresses, too.
My sister was coming down alone – the others would arrive in the morning – and we all hit Katoomba at around the same time. First thing we did was drive to Leura for afternoon tea at a shop that served scones cooked in little flowerpots. 🙂 (The Wayzgoose Cafe, home of the Flowerpot Scone, in a building that was once home of the Federal Printing Works.)
We then combed the main street of Katoomba for a suitable place to dine and decided on the Avalon, a restaurant “in the upstairs dress-circle of the once famous Savoy Picture Theatre”. There were views of the Jamison Valley, but only for those who’d booked. A rather uneven meal, but I was glad we’d gone there, for the interesting decor and a step up from takeaway.
On Saturday morning I insisted on going to the Zig Zag Railway. My decision was controversial: it involved me in more driving, and it meant we wouldn’t be around to greet Ricky and the children. That meant Fiona couldn’t come with us, which was a pity, but we managed to have breakfast together first, at the Hatters Cafe.
We decided to set off early and catch the first Zig Zag train of the day. Clarence Station was deserted when we arrived – an hour early. The drive hadn’t turned out to be nearly as winding and congested as we’d expected.
It was a lovely day to be out (30° in Sydney and Canberra, but a pleasant 25° in the mountains) and I didn’t mind waiting an hour, with an art nouveau leaflet to read, a gift shop to examine, and old station furniture to admire.
They were having trouble with the steam engine, so we were going down the zigzag by diesel. I particularly enjoyed:
- the vintage wooden carriages
- the long tunnel at the start of the trip, where I got into trouble for playing with the flash and taking photos of Dac in the dark
- the wonderful views
From the Zig Zag Railway website
The Lithgow Zig Zag was the earliest ever built … In the 19th century there was only one brake on the train and one on the engine, so trains travelled very slowly and it took 3 hours to cross the Zig Zag. …
When the railway reached Clarence, the highest railway station on the mountains at 3658 feet above sea level, a way of descending 209m (687 feet) down the Lithgow Valley had to be found. There was a choice of cutting a 2 mile long tunnel, using about 10 million bricks, or to build a Zig Zag. The Zig Zag was the easiest and most economical method with the materials and technology then available.
The Zig Zag is a giant “Z” carved in the side of the mountain. Trains travel down each part of the “Z” at a gradient of 1 in 42 which can safely be negotiated by a loaded train.
The railway was mostly hand built, all of Middle Road, and most of Top Road consisted of ledges hand carved from the mountain side. The workers used hand augers for drilling, which were filled with gunpowder for blasting. It took 3 men to drill each hole, 2 to hold the auger and turn it, while another hit it with a hammer. After each blast if the material thrown out was not where required, workers hand loaded the rock into wheelbarrows or carts and took it where it was needed as fill.
When the line was surveyed, the surveyors were placed in large wicker baskets, and lowered over the cliff side …
The railway is a Co-operative is owned and run by its volunteer members …
The gauge of the Zig Zag railway was originally the New South Wales Railways standard gauge of 1435 mm (4’ 8 1/2″). When the Zig Zag Railway Co-op was formed, the NSW railways would not sell rollingstock because they were forming their own railway museum at Thirlmere. Zig Zag therefore looked elsewhere for rollingstock. It bought mostly from Queensland Railways, but some came from South Australia, Western Australia, and Tasmania. The track was therefore laid 1067mm (3’6″) gauge.
The viaducts were wonderful to see.
From the Tyrrell Photographic Collection, Powerhouse Museum
This photo was taken circa 1900 in Dargan, New South Wales
Under Creative Commons License: Attribution Non-Commercial
Here’s my version of almost the same spot:
We didn’t have much time to stop and stare when we reached Bottom Points, but the little shop down there was where I encountered the poster of the train hanging over the abyss.
At the approach to the station is Bottom Points Signal Box. This signal box was formerly beside the main line not far from the main line Zig Zag Platform. It was gradually leaning towards the main line because of vibration from heavy coal trains. NSW State Rail sold the signal box to Zig Zag Railway for a dollar in the early 1990s and it was moved to the present site.
– Zig Zag Railway website page Lineside
Lithgow was nowhere to be seen, but we looked down over the main line to Sydney, and saw a passenger train and a goods train go by. (See featured image at the top of the page for bits of the goods train.) Lithgow was one of the places my father lived as a child. I’d got it confused in my mind with Lismore (where he was born) and thought it was a place he’d liked. When I started taking an interest in family history and asked him about it, he quickly set me straight: “It’s a horrible cold place”. So, while I’d have been interested in being in a town where Dad had lived, I didn’t feel I’d missed that much!
On the way back up the hill, we had the steam engine. It’s been painted blue so they can have Thomas the Tank Engine trips. I was quite surprised to see the date 1951 on the engine. I freely admit I travelled to high school on a steam train, but it never occurred to me that they were still being built the year after I was born. They were gradually but steadily being replaced by diesel as far back as I can remember.
Two more Zig Zag sights:
When we arrived back at Clarence Station, it was thronging. We were very glad to have taken the early train!
We stopped in Mt Victoria (I think) for fish and chips on the way back to Katoomba, and joined my rels in the afternoon. Ricky and Daniel went for a swim; Dac had a rest; Fiona, Amy and I visited Leura again for the Bygone Beautys [sic] Treasured Teapot Museum and tearooms.
In the evening, we were treated to a barbecue followed by parlour games. It was fun.
On Sunday, Ricky played golf and the rest of us continued our pursuit of decadence at the Blue Mountains Chocolate Company, over the road from our motel. They serve DIY hot chocolate in a special cup heated by a candle, with a special spoon that is also a straw.
After golf, Ricky took Daniel back to Sydney to attend the school fete. The rest of us spent a desultory hour in Leura, looking at the candy [sic] and Christmas shops. The long drive had started weighing on my mind so we said goodbye to Fiona and Amy and hit the road, early enough for the traffic to be relatively mild. 🙂
Next day, my back returned to its routine 2011 state of agony and stayed like that for a month. I enjoyed the weekend away, but feel as if I can’t go anywhere ever again.