Thursday, 19 May 2016

Newcastle: The historic beach city

Most Australians have probably never really considered Newcastle as a holiday destination. Perhaps because it has just always been there. After all, we're talking about Australia's second oldest city, established way back in 1804 as a settlement for unruly convicts to dig for... you guessed it, coal. Today, Newcastle may be the largest coal exporting port in the world, but for the average Aussie tourist such as myself, there is a lot to like about a city whose heritage skyline is pressed hard up against the sea. For any visitor to Newcastle, the best place to begin exploring the city is from where I am pictured standing above, at Newcastle's Nobbys Beach.

Fort Scratchley overlooks the mouth of the Hunter River, and admission is free. Photo 2016.

Perched high on the hill above Nobbys Beach, Fort Scratchley is a wartime fort that can lay claim to defending our country back in World War II. Fort Scratchley returned fire on an invading Japanese submarine on the evening of 8th June, 1942 after the submarine had unleashed 34 shells on the city.

The guns were last used in WWII against an invading Japanese submarine. Photo 2016.

Today, city volunteers take paid visitors on a guided tour through the tunnels and secret bunkers built beneath the large mound that overlooks the narrow entrance to the Hunter River. Admission to the Fort Scratchley site however is free.

The view from Fort Scratchley over The Foreshore is one of the best of any Australian city.

Fort Scratchley also provides one of the best views of any city in Australia. Looking down on The Foreshore area that skirts the Hunter River, it is easy to forget that such a lovely view is pressed up against the backdrop of a heavily industrialized port.

I shot this photo of the Newcastle Ocean Baths on a sunny day in May 2016.

View-able immediately to the south of Fort Scratchley is the historic facade of the Newcastle City Council Ocean Baths that date back to 1922. The giant saltwater pool still remains one of Newcastle's most popular attractions year-round.

Newcastle has some of the best beaches in the country. This is Newcastle Beach, photographed in 2016.

Immediately south of the Ocean Baths you'll find Newcastle Beach. It's hard to believe that the surf lifesaving club is situated only a block or so from downtown Newcastle, and the beach makes for an ideal meeting place of old and new. Visitors to Australia, and especially Sydney-siders, may rave about Bondi Beach, but I think Newcastle's beaches are better.

Bar Beach is a little further south and offers some amazing scenery. Photo 2016.

If you're feeling adventurous, take a short drive to the other side of the sprawling King Edward Park and you'll find the picturesque Bar Beach. Apart from having some of the best surfing conditions in the city, the beach is also connected by a spectacular walkway and the pedestrian-only Anzac Bridge that skirt the cliffs that can be seen in the photo above.

Newcastle's Custom House stands opposite the old railway station. Photo taken 2016.

Following the road back to Watt Street will return you to Newcastle's city centre. The Customs House stands opposite the old Newcastle Railway Station and from a distance you can be forgiven for thinking that the historic clock tower is part of the railway station. It isn't. Newcastle's old train station stands dormant across the road from the 1877 Italianate Renaissance styled building. A project to convert the old railway line into a tram line linking downtown Newcastle with a new modern railway station to the west at Wickham is already well underway, and will only further revitalize Newcastle's historic precinct.

Coal is Newcastle's most famous export, and the giant ships pass close to the city foreshore.

There are many things I could call Newcastle, but perhaps the best title I could label this former steel city with would be The Historic Beach City. On one side you have the ocean, while on the other side you have the Hunter River. It is possible to watch surfers at Nobbys Beach at the same time you watch a coal ship sail out through the breakwater. The older industrialized fringe areas are slowly being transformed into cafes and art galleries. Perhaps that is why the city welcomes you with the large sign; Newcastle, See Change.

I couldn't find a better cafe than the one on Queens Wharf. What a great view! Photo 2016.

The Queens Wharf precinct makes for an ideal end to a morning or afternoon exploring Newcastle's beaches. Lunch or just a coffee or glass of local Hunter Valley wine is just the thing to accompany the view looking across to Stockton on the other side of the river. And while Newcastle may not trump itself as The Venice of The South or offer fancy gondola rides, there is the local ferry service that crosses the mouth of the harbour from Queens Wharf to Stockton for those who want to appreciate the city from the water.

My Score:  (no longer a well-kept secret).

What I liked: The amazing contrast between the older historic feel of the city and the beaches that are among some of the most beautiful in Australia.

What I didn't: The parking meters, particularly around the Hunter Street Mall area limit you to a maximum of 2 hours, which is hardly enough time to do lunch and some shopping.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Robina: Gold Coast by train

After almost two years of intensively riding trains along Australia's east coast for this blog, it only recently dawned on me that I'd never taken the train to the Gold Coast. So 20 years after the 'new' Gold Coast Line had opened to Helensvale, I thought it was about time I hit the rails in search of some adventure.

I photographed Robina's platforms which are beneath this modern station concourse on a visit in 2016.

Now I say 'new' simply because an original railway line to the Gold Coast existed between 1889 and 1964. The South Coast Line as it was known opened south of Beenleigh to the city of Southport in 1889, with a branch line to the New South Wales border town of Tweed Heads opening a little later in 1903. For some strange reason, the official Government buffoons of the time decided that this backwater region of the day would never truly amount to any area of importance, so decided to close the line beyond Beenleigh in 1964. Man would I have liked to have been a fly-on-the-wall in Parliament when less than 10 years later, the surfing boom of the Sixties and Seventies turned this 70 km stretch of coastline into some of the most popular surfing locations in the world. Today, the Gold Coast is Australia's 6th most populated region, and the City of Surfers Paradise is well-known throughout the world.

Robina Railway Station as photographed in April 2016.

The 'new' line to the Gold Coast today runs on a totally new alignment south of Beenleigh, as the route of the 'old' South Coast Line was swallowed up in the real estate boom of the Eighties. Today the entire stretch of coastline between Southport and Tweed Heads is occupied by multi-million dollar high-rise apartments all clamoring for a view of the sparkling Pacific Ocean. The 'new' line runs approximately 10 km inland from the coastline between Helensvale and Robina. It is a fast stretch of commuter railway that currently extends south to the suburb of Varsity Lakes, (about 75 minutes from Brisbane), with plans to extend the line to the Gold Coast Airport at Coolangatta in the near future.

Don't expect sandy beaches when you step off the train, that's the Gold Coast skyline in the distance.

Robina Railway Station opened in 1998. When I first moved to Queensland in 1991, there was nothing there. Today it is a master-planned residential community, and within walking distance of the station you will find Bond University, the Gold Coast Titans NRL stadium and the massive Robina Town Centre and adjoining Shopping Centre.

These signs on the footpath will guide you from the station to Robina shopping centre.

Instead of taking the long way to the shopping centre like I did with my poor 70 year-old mother in tow, look for the yellow painted signs on the footpath leading from the station. We only noticed them on the way back to the station. Had I have discovered them first, it would have saved the poor dear an extra 10 minute walk on a warm autumn day.

Robina has one of the Gold Coast's largest shopping malls only 970 metres from the train station.

Every good railway adventure has to have something waiting at the end of the line, and leaving the train at Robina enabled me to explore the spectacular Robina Town Centre. If shopping isn't your thing, then the dining precinct overlooking the lake in front of the shopping centre will provide you with everything from a hot latte, to an icy-cold beer before catching the train back to Brisbane.

I caught this electric service to Brisbane approaching Robina from the south in April 2016.

Gold Coast Line services run express through Brisbane's southern suburbs, arriving at Brisbane's Roma Street Station in around 70 minutes. The train then continues to Brisbane Airport, allowing a connection for domestic and international visitors. As such, Queensland Rail often assign the very latest in an increasingly modern fleet of electric trains to the Gold Coast Line.

Gold Coast services run through to Brisbane Airport and are usually assigned the very latest trains from Queensland Rail's City Train fleet.

Inside, the trains are cleaner and quieter than ever before, with designated Quiet Carriages and Wi-Fi enabled available for the army of commuters who crowd the trains in peak hour. However, if like me, you catch the train to Robina on a Sunday, then you're pretty much guaranteed a seat with a great view and a much cheaper off-peak fare. After all, everyone else is probably at the beach!

Robina was just one of the destinations I visited in south-east Queensland for my upcoming book Train Tripping Around Brisbane. From Roma Street to Robina and west to Rosewood, I'm searching for Brisbane's best train rides to compile my next budget-savvy 3 day railway adventure. Check back with this blog in the near future for updated details.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Gympie: Once A Valley Rattler

I recently paid a visit to Gympie Railway Station on a trip north of the Sunshine Coast, just to see how this elegant old Queensland railway station was holding up in its post-heritage railway life. It seems to be a sad but growing trend in Australia, that one-by-one our heritage railway operators are being forced to close their doors to the general public, and The Valley Rattler in Gympie is no exception. At one stage considered Australia's third biggest heritage railway, the car park today in Gympie is eerily deserted.

Gympie Station was painted cream when I last visited in April 2000.

Gympie's original railway station in Tozer Street, Gympie was first closed as a passenger station in 1989, when the 1988 North Coast line realignment bypassed Gympie in favour of a new line on a much more gentle alignment to the east. Gympie North Station opened on this alignment in February 1989. Gympie station was then relegated to a freight depot only up until 1995 before that too closed. Finally in November 1998, the connection between Gympie's old station and the North Coast line was closed to all traffic. By this time however, the Mary Valley Heritage Railway had already taken over operating tourist train services from Old Gympie Station. From May 1998 to late 2012, The Valley Rattler was operating regular steam hauled excursion trains along the 40 km long Mary Valley branch line to Imbil and return. The Queensland floods of early 2011, coupled with serious concerns over the safety of the track following two separate derailments, brought a halt to what was once a popular tourist attraction.

Gympie Station was still looking well maintained in February 2016.

Thanks to the efforts of the volunteer society, Old Gympie's Railway Station is still standing strong today, complete with a static display and some well-watered pot plats. However, with reports estimating the amount of government funding required to resume services on the Mary Valley line at $2 million dollars, it remains to be seen whether the Valley Rattler will ever run again.

The Railway Hotel stands at the southern end of Gympie platform, 2016.

The present station building complex at Gympie dates back to 1913, ahead of the opening of the Mary Valley line from Gympie towards Imbil in 1914. At one point in the 1930's, Gympie Railway Station was one of Queensland busiest railway precincts. When it first opened in 1881 however, the railway line came south from the northern port of Maryborough. It wasn't until 1889 that work began to connect Gympie to Brisbane, with the line opening in 1891. Today, thanks to an 8 km long eastern deviation via Gympie North in 1988, and the closure of The Valley Rattler services in 2012, all that railway history is once more on the verge of being forgotten. I can't help wonder how many grand stories the walls of the Railway Hotel could tell. After all, it saw its fair share of passing troop trains in no less than two World Wars.

Gympie Station in 2016 once more faces an uncertain future.

While debate will continue behind closed doors on the future of the Mary Valley Heritage Railway, experience says that regaining the lost momentum of the heady early 2000's tourist crowd will be difficult. Rising insurance costs together with increasing repair costs to the line with each year it lies dormant may have already spelt the end for yet another tourist railway. The indefinite closure of the Zig-Zag Railway, South Gippsland Railway and Cooma-Monaro Railway organisations all spring to mind. Perhaps there is still a chance that Gympie Railway Station may come alive to the sound of steam trains again, but logic says it would have to be over a shorter, more manageable and cost-effective section of track, say around 2.5 to 5 km long. But like any railway line, be it government owned or heritage operated, the track itself always seems to have a life expectancy on it. Otherwise there may not have been a need to close it in the first place. Hopefully Gympie Railway Station can be resurrected once more.

See also; Gympie North: The station near nowhere