Rediscover the magic of a bygone era of rail travel on board the historic Mary Valley Rattler tourist steam train service from Gympie. The Mary Valley Rattler fleet is made up of heritage locomotives and carriages, each with its own unique story. Sit back and relax as you take a nostalgic journey through one of the most beautiful parts of Queensland. Duration: 3 hours
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You only have to switch on the box of an evening to appreciate that our love of rail travel is alive and well.
Myriad train-based docuseries chug across our screens, as pastel-panted ex-pollie Michael Portillo, Baldrick alter ego Sir Tony Robinson, and the delightfully plummy Ms Lumley ride the rails in a variety of exotic destinations. Even SBS’ first foray into ‘slow TV’ — three hours of unedited vision from a camera mounted on to the front of the Ghan — was enough to keep rail devotees glued to their screens kilometre after kilometre.
The recent opportunity to ride Gympie’s fabulous steam-powered Mary Valley Rattler had me sparing a thought for the rail traveller of yesteryear. Steam train technology dates back to the early 1800s and it was a gritty business. The smell of the burning coal assaults the nostrils (although it’s surprising how quickly you get used to it) and one must remove the odd bit of grit from one’s eye sockets as the journey progresses. And they don’t call the Rattler ‘the Rattler’ for nothing. But wow, what an engaging way to travel, and what an absolute community triumph this historic attraction is.
For those that don’t know, Gympie is a modestly sized Queensland town, located just on two hours’ drive north of Brisbane. It sits by the Mary River, just above the northern end of the Sunshine Coast (an hour’s drive from Maroochydore Airport). The town has a gold mining and sawmilling history and is perhaps best known for the annual Gympie Music Muster — a homage to blues and country music, which will celebrate its 40th year in 2021. There’s a wealth of heritage architecture to take in and a smattering of historic attractions that tell the town’s backstory, including the Gold Mining and Historical Museum, the Woodworks Museum, and of course, the revitalised Mary Valley Rattler.
The Rattler’s history is rooted in that of the Maryborough Railway, which was established in the second half of the 1800s to link the communities of the Mary Valley with Gympie and carry resources and produce to the river port of Maryborough further north. Falling demand and escalating costs saw the cessation of commercial services in the early 1990s. A tourist service was launched in 1998. It ran until 2012, when regulators put the brakes on indefinitely after two serious derailments and a dearth of sustainable funding.
The embattled Rattler’s run looked to be all but over, but the Gympie community wasn’t done with their beloved train just yet. A lot of lobbying and $14.5 million dollars of state and local government funding later, services finally recommenced in October 2018 and the Rattler hasn’t looked back.
You really have to take your hat off to that community and the not-for-profit operating committee behind this venture. From the beautifully maintained pagoda-style architecture of heritage listed Gympie Railway Station (even the toilets are something else!), to the presentation at the station’s Platform No.1 Café (complete with a live pianist tinkling the ivories), the shine on jaunty black and red Locomotive 967, and the functional but beautifully maintained heritage railway carriages themselves (upgrade to the Club Car for a bit of extra ‘joosh’), every detail of this experience is well thought out and finely executed.
On the Classic Rattler Run (Wednesdays and Saturdays), the train travels through the Mary Valley rural idyll between Gympie and Amamoor (around an hour’s trip each way), with an hour’s break in between. There’s a café, a small market and some interpretive boards at the Amamoor end, and you get to watch a true piece of Victorian ingenuity in action as the restored turntable effortlessly swings the 80-tonne locomotive around for the homeward run. If I had to make one criticism, it would be that the Rattler’s rattling well and truly drowns out the sound of much of the onboard commentary. If you want to hear the finer details, sit close to the single speaker in each carriage.
As the kilometres of fertile valley drift by, the rocking of the train has you meandering down memory lanes seldom navigated. And as always on a train, there’s that sense of ‘progressing’; of getting somewhere. It appeals to the nomad in us all.
Perhaps not everyone in the community is on board with the Rattler’s return (one local approached us in the car park to enquire whether we had enjoyed our ride at the local taxpayers’ expense), but my sense is they’d be few and far between. That’s if the endless waves and cheers as the train passes almost through people’s backyards are anything to go by.
All in all, a ride on the Rattler is a richly layered and highly enjoyable experience. And it’s probably only a matter of time before Portillo’s pastel strides take a seat.
For more ideas for things to do in Gympie, visit www.visitgympieregion.com.au.
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.