Monday, 28 July 2014

Sawtell: The Railway Poster Town

Sawtell, as far as railway stations go, is nothing to look at. A bland, tiny strip of raised concrete platform with a small, modern waiting shed that could easily be mistaken for a bus stop, butted up against the North Coast Line, 600 km from Sydney. What Sawtell does have that makes this Mid-North Coast town a magnet for railway photographers, is nearby Boambee Creek.

Situated only 10 km south of Coffs Harbour, Sawtell is a seaside town that boasts sun and surf all year round. Sawtell is also regarded as one of New South Wales' most desirable locations to live. However, the real reason this town of a little over 3,000 is regarded as the 'poster town' by railway photographers, lies at the mouth of Boambee Creek. The railway bridge to the north of town has been the backdrop for many brochures, posters and video advertising since the days of the New South Wales Railways. It is one of the few places on the North Coast Line where passengers actually get to see the Pacific Ocean in all its glory from the comfort of their seat. In 2014, I made yet another visit to this location to shoot the photo above from the top of Boambee Head lookout. There is a well paved path that follows the headland and only a short distance from the car park you will find a large red star painted on the concrete. If you stand here you'll easily be able to take photographs of trains as they rumble over Boambee Creek.

My $2 photo, taken from Boambee Creek Reserve looking in the direction of the ocean. I shot this photo in April 2007.

Most photographs used by Countrylink for their brochures were taken at this location from the west side of the railway bridge looking back towards Boambee Head with the Pacific Ocean as its backdrop. However, there are three things to consider before heading to Boambee Creek with your camera. One, the frequency of trains on the North Coast Line during daylight hours can be few and far between. Two, unless you're good at climbing trees you won't be able to get the height necessary to match the photos used in past railway posters. They must have used a cherry-picker to shoot the ocean over the height of the train and railway bridge. And three, be aware that there is a $2 visitor charge for vehicles accessing Boambee Creek Reserve. Its a steep descent down the narrow road and there is nowhere to turn around once you reach the automated boom-gate half-way down. It was pure luck that one of my kids had a $2 coin on them or I would have been asking the car behind me to reverse all the way back up the hill. If you're a bit budget savvy like me, my suggestion is to take the free option and drive up to Boambee Head lookout.

Sawtell Railway Station, as photographed in April 2007.

But back to the railway station. It's not much to photograph, but after hours of trawling the net to compare this with the original railway station that opened in 1925, I couldn't find any old photos of Sawtell Railway Station. Perhaps it too, was an unnoticeable building tucked away in the back streets of town that nobody thought was worthy of photographing. So what if one day in the future, passenger trains stop calling at this seaside hamlet? I hardly think that Sawtell Railway Station, as it stands today, would be worthy of heritage listing. I suppose then it too would disappear from our railway landscape forever, and the only proof that we'd have that it was there to begin with, would be photographs like the one above.

It pays to keep one eye in the rear view mirror. I shot this freight only seconds after pulling out of the Sawtell Railway Station car park in April 2007. The raised concrete platform is visible beside the train.

I'd only just hopped back in the car and driven out of the parking lot, when I took one last look at the railway station in the rear view mirror, and saw a train approaching. Bringing the car to a skidding halt on the grass beside the road, I dived out with my camera and photographed a freight train as it roared north through Sawtell. Looking back, that photo too is now history. An orange an charcoal NR class locomotive still wearing the colours of National Rail, shortly before disappearing beneath a fresh coat of blue and yellow for new owners Pacific National. Someday our grandchildren may even refer to this as a vintage train. I suppose that's what railway history is all about. It's like any train, its coming, its coming, its here, its gone.

Sawtell and the New South Wales Mid North Coast are easily accessible by train, and the best way to fully appreciate your train journey is by downloading my Train Tripping Eastern Australia book onto your smartphone, tablet or iPad. My window seat guide to the train journey between Brisbane and Sydney on the XPT will provide some laughs and turn your train trip into a real railway adventure. Oh, and in case your wondering, yes, I did use the photo of the XPT crossing Boambee Creek Bridge at Sawtell for the cover of my book.

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See also; Raleigh: great wine, no trains! and Coffs Harbour: fish, chips and trains

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