The Best Times of Our Lives

image 520 class loco
SAR 520 class “Sir Malcolm Barclay Harvey” at Adelaide Railway Station circa 1977

I found this post that I wrote a couple of years ago so I decided to rewrite it a bit and run it again for those who came in late as they say in the Phantom comics. Feel free to skip it if you have read it before.

Naomi and I went to the Hobart Model Railway Show. It is usually held at the Tasmanian Transport Museum in Glenorchy.  It is always a busy day for them and they fired up their M class steam locomotive on the Sunday.

Seeing a live steam engine made us nostalgic. We spent a lot of our teenage years traveling on steam excursions around South Australia. Naomi said that she thought that those were probably the best times we had in our lives. I tend to agree. We were so lucky that we were in the right place at the right time to do that.

It all started when I was about thirteen. We were in Adelaide with mum one day when I saw a big sign advertising a school holiday trip on a steam train. I asked mum if she would take us as my birthday treat. She agreed and we had such a good time we wanted to go again. The next year mum let us go by ourselves and soon we were regularly doing trips on Saturday or Sunday afternoons around the suburbs.

I remember how in 1972 we got a brochure in the mail with the latest trips being run and  one of them was a weekend trip to Victor Harbour, a seaside town about 50 miles away from Adelaide. I was fifteen and we didn’t really expect that we would be allowed to go away overnight without an adult but we asked anyway. Much to our surprise mum said we could go if we could get someone older to go with us. We produced a seventeen year old cousin and that was acceptable. We took sleeping bags and slept in the carriages in the station yard. Can you imagine the horror of parents today if three teenage girls did that? Naomi was only thirteen. Rail fans, then and now, were predominantly men a lot older than we were. However, in all the time we went on trips together we never felt unsafe or had any trouble with men. Most were just surprised that two girls would be interested in trains.

After that trip we went as often as we could afford. Once I turned sixteen we were allowed to go without a chaperone although our cousin sometimes came along too. At that time there were still many country towns that could be reached by rail and as we were too young to drive it was an ideal way to see the countryside in safety. We went to country shows and festivals like the Cornish Festival in the “copper triangle” of Moonta, Wallaroo and Kadina and the Orange Festival in the Riverland district visiting towns like Loxton and Berri. We went on evening trips where there were “listening stops” where everyone could get out of the train usually somewhere in the countryside. You stumbled into a dark paddock and waited while the train reversed back down the track a mile or so and then came forward working hard and whistling. Most people said that for recording the conditions were better at night. We enjoyed standing in the night air listening although we never became avid steam sound recorders. Sometimes we’d stay on the train and watch the people instead especially if it was raining.

Sometimes we went on dinner trips where we’d  be served a meal in a 1920s Pullman dining car and other times it would be a run round less used suburban lines to factories or to the docks. When we were a little older we visited wineries although we were always more interested in the trains than the wine. We went on other weekend trips too and even joined the Australian Railway Historical Society. Naomi reminded me how at the meeting where we were accepted as members we got a round of applause when our names were read out. We are not sure if that was because we were girls or because we actually turned up at the meeting as most new members never seemed to be there when their names were called.

We enjoyed the meetings which were held once a month on a week night We’d catch a bus, train or tram down to Goodwood where the meetings used to be held in a hall there. There were a lot of reports read out but the one we always looked forward to was the Tour Manager’s Report. This was the one where you would find out what trips were being planned for the future. We always wanted to go on all of them of course. After the business part of the evening there would be an interval when we’d buy a drink and browse in the book sales area. We could buy books and videos or souvenirs like postards, teaspoons, badges and T-shirts. The sales were one way that the society raised money for their restoration projects. After the break we’d have entertainment, usually a slide show or films, sometimes professionally made but more often than not made by members. Many were excellent, occasionally they were terrible but everyone was polite and always applauded anyway. We still laugh over the memory of the awful slides a member brought of his trip to England. There were numerous slides of clouds taken from the plane and a lot of his railway photos were out of focus. We had a really hard time not laughing.

Traditionally the evening ended at the Pie Cart in front of the Adelaide Station where those of us catching public transport home usually ended up buying a hot drink or snack. Occasionally once we got to know people we’d be offered rides back to the city. I have one hazy memory of several of us squashed in to a Volkswagon Beetle with our bags, a picture someone had bought and Naomi somehow squashed onto someone’s knee in the back because she was the smallest.

621 Adelaide Station
SAR Pacific 621 at Adelaide station

I can still remember the sheer excitement I felt on the morning of a trip. We’d get to the city early and would run up to the end of the platform to watch the locomotive arriving. We were not the only ones, there was usually a crowd of other rail fans with cameras and families with children doing the same thing. “Look, there’s the smoke.” someone would say. “There’s the whistle, here she comes.” and soon we’d see the engine and tender reversing into the station and backing onto the train.

We’d stand on the end platforms of the old wooden carriages or stick our heads out of the windows risking getting soot in our eyes. Many rail fans wore goggles but we never did. Sometimes we took a packed lunch and a thermos of tea which we frequently seemed to break. Other times we bought box lunches usually consisting of a bit of chicken, a bit of ham, piece of cheese, bread roll and a pickle followed by a slab of fruit cake. We still call that particular light fruit cake “railway cake” when we see it. If we were still hungry we could buy sweets, potato chips and drinks from the baggage car later.

Those were such great days, we met lots of friendly people, saw places, laughed a lot and learned new things. You really could not ask for more than that.

M Class steam locomotive and train. Tasmanian Transport Museum.
M Class steam locomotive and train. Tasmanian Transport Museum.