Ten Tunnel Train Trip

Recently I caught the train from the upper Blue Mountains to Lithgow. In recent years the only time I have taken this journey was when I was on the Indian Pacific. We had crossed the mountains on dusk, which was beautiful, but by the time we began the descent from Mount Victoria to Lithgow, it was dark.

So off I set on a gorgeous winter’s day. It was warm and mild for a change. The train was on time and before long I was settled in a carriage, watching the scenery as the track ran alongside the highway before detouring through patches of the country that you can only see from a train. The views opened up on the approach to Blackheath, with the Megalong Valley spread out on a clear day. Mount Victoria was a major station, and the end of the line for a while until the Lithgow Zig Zag railway was completed.

View over Kanimbla Valley

View over Kanimbla Valley

From Mt Victoria, the train passes through the sidings at Bell and Zig Zag, and a guard needs to be notified if a stop is required at either of these locations. Near the Zig Zag station, there are blackened stumps and trees; a legacy of the 2013 fires.

The descent from Mount Victoria to Lithgow initially comprised of a series of switchbacks to manage the steep grade, and it included three viaducts which can still be glimpsed today. The Zig Zag was replaced in 1910, and the track travels through ten tunnels cut through sandstone. These tunnels vary from 70 metres to 825 metres in length. In addition to making the journey safer, the ten tunnel deviation saved up to thirty minutes on journey times. The gradient was reduced, enabling increased loads on trains. The tunnels are considered to be an engineering achievement and included the deepest cutting on the NSW rail system.

Zig Zag Viaduct

Zig Zag Viaduct

At the entrance of each tunnel, the driver gave a soft toot on the horn. On the return trip, I noticed that each tunnel is numbered in descending order from the Sydney end with a firm directive of ‘WHISTLE’ emblazoned at each entrance. There is something about tunnels; the compression of air, the sudden darkness. I only spotted the occasional blur of white light in a couple of them.

As the train sweeps along from Mount Victoria, there are views over the Hartley Valley. There was some low cloud at one point but it cleared quickly to reveal views of the valley. Bright bursts of wattle livened up the passing scenery, which was a mixture of trees, heath and ferns for most of the trip. Travelling between the ten tunnels there were large sandstone outcrops.

Lithgow Station

Lithgow Station

I had a quick wander around Lithgow before catching the return train back, enjoying the views as the train moved smoothly along the tracks. There is the whisper of metal on steel, interlaced with station announcements.

It was great to be able to enjoy the trip and to be a passenger for a change. It was good to travel to a familiar place but on a different mode of transport.

When was the last time you travelled to a familiar location a different way?

[Photo: Mt Victoria Station]

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Mitchell’s Ridge Monument, Mount Victoria

Perched atop the escarpment just before the steep descent of Victoria Pass sits a monument. The monument is an obelisk with classical motifs including an acanthus leaf to support the lamp. It is barely visible through the trees but of a night an orange beacon draws the eye, visible through rolling mountain mists.

The engineering accomplishment of Surveyor General Major Thomas Mitchell and his role in the improved crossing of the Blue Mountains is recorded on the monument. The initial dangers of ascending the mountains near Lapstone and the steep descent from Mount Victoria to the Hartley Valley were lessened by Mitchell’s surveying work. Early records recall the dangers of crossing the mountains, with logs tied to wagons and carriages to act as rudimentary brakes.

Mitchell's Ridge Monument

Mitchell’s Ridge Monument

Victoria Pass was opened in 1832, and a century later this monument was unveiled to commemorate at a local level the work of Mitchell, recognised as a great though flawed public engineer. The road was a significant improvement to transport options and early settlement of the western districts.

Mitchell's Ridge Monument

Mitchell’s Ridge Monument

Mitchell arrived in New South Wales as an Assistant Surveyor-General in 1827. Upon the death of John Oxley in 1828, Mitchell become the Surveyor-General. A period of general survey was required to correct and record landholdings and titles. This included the use of tent poles to measure a baseline and hilltops, with all trees bar one removed, used as trigonometric points. I wonder if this was why Mount Victoria was once known as One Tree Hill?

Mitchell remained in the role of Surveyor-General until his death in 1855. Over his decades of service, Mitchell was well-known for his insubordination and regularly clashed with Governors including Darling and Bourke. He led several expeditions in search of inland rivers and seas. South-west explorations revealed ‘Australia Felix’, now known as Victoria. He was known as a glory hunter, seeking fame in a time when explorations leading to new discoveries resulted in recognition. Mitchell is acknowledged as a competent and painstaking surveyor, and he wrote up his travels during periods of extended leave. He invented the boomerang  propellor which was tested by the Royal Navy during one of his periods of leave. Mitchell is also credited with taking part in one of the last public duels in Australia, challenging Sir Stuart Donaldson after Donaldson publicly criticised excessive spending by the Surveyor-General’s Department.

Sunset from Mitchell's Ridge Monument lookout

Sunset from Mitchell’s Ridge Monument lookout

A browse through the entry on Major Mitchell in The Australian National Dictionary shows another side. To Major Mitchell was to pursue a zig-zag course, originally as a method of exploration, to meander, to become lost. It became a verb: to have Major-Mitchelled was a reference to becoming lost on a regular basis. Doing a bit of Major-Mitchelling was a term that become current in the 1870s amongst stockmen to express being lost in the bush, and to indulging in aimless wandering. It was something that the gallant Major Mitchell himself was supposed to have done a good deal.

According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Mitchell remained popular with public until his death: ‘This was no doubt due in part to his well-known and repeated conflicts with governors; in part to his appreciation and fostering of those things peculiarly Australian, from an enlightened preference for convicts in his exploring parties to the retention of Aboriginal place names.’

I’ll do my best to remember Mitchell when I make one of my frequent trips along Victoria Pass.

[Photo: view from Mitchell’s Ridge over Victoria Pass with Hartley Valley in the background]