Backpacking Pensioners travel blog

Clarance Station

What a zig-zag is

The zig-zag track

Top Points Turrn round

Information at Top Points

Bottom Points

The Witches and Wizards train

Thomas the Tank engine look a like

From inside the Grand Arch at Jenolan Caves

The Carlotta Arch from the road way

The Jenolan Hotel

The Carlotta Arch from behind

Scottish Friends

A view on the road to Canberra


What a day this one turned out to be. On our way past Clarence Station last night we called in at the Zig Zag Railway for a sneaky peek. Today we will ride on the Zig Zag Train which will take us from the mountain to the valley below, and was the only way to get the train down the hill at the time.

This Zig Zag is special. It was built between 1866 and 1869 without the benefit of machines and is one of the great railway constructions of the nineteenth century. It consists of 3 ramps forming the letter Z; the average gradient is 1 in 42. There are also 3 viaducts built in the Roman style and a tunnel. By 1875 they had built a special platform to cope with all the tourists who came out by train to view the Zig Zag. During its 41 years of operation it accelerated the development of New South Wales and achieved world renown as a major engineering work.

The train would pull the trucks into a siding at 'top points'. Then they moved the engine to the other end and took the trucks down the main part of the Z to 'bottom points', again driving into a siding before switching the train to the front to continue on the bottom track. Unfortunately this was time consuming and by 1907 the increase in freight caused bottle necks and over the next three years a new track was laid, reducing the gradient to 1 in 90 and necessitating 10 tunnels of lengths varying from 79 to 789 metres. This track opened in 1910 and the rails for the Zig Zag were removed.

The new track cut 30 minutes off the journey but the tunnels, dubbed 'The Rat Holes', was not popular. In the new tunnels the exhaust was deafening, the smoke thickened and the heat was overpowering. And to think I had wanted to be a steam train driver.

In 1936 people were again visiting the Zig Zag. This time it was in their cars and they would drive all the way down to 'bottom points'. In 1969 a Co-op was formed and by 1974 rails had been laid from Top Points to Bottom Point and old trains and carriages had been obtained from Queensland after New South Wales had refused to help these rail enthusiasts. On18.10.75, exactly 106 years after the Great Zig Zag was first opened, you could ride on the Zig Zag again. Following a grant in 1988 Clarence Station was renovated; still more lines are being laid to this day.

We drove to Clarence Station which is 3658 feet above sea level and embarked on the 11 am 90 minute return journey. At weekends and Wednesdays the journey is by steam train, but today is Tuesday.

At 'top points' we got out and walked to a viewing platform which was at the end of the original zig; this had been replaced by a longer zig to cope with longer trains. There is still a gouge in the rock at the old zig from the time when a train was hanging over the edge in 1901. We looked around the new replica signal box built in 1999 to replace the original which was destroyed in 1997 by bush fires, before descending to 'Bottom Points'. Here we were treated to a conducted tour around the big work sheds where the enthusiasts are busy renovating engines and carriages.

This railway is fully funded by the money raised from tourists and special event journeys. The bottom platform has the sign 'Hogsmeade'; at Clarence Station is a sign saying 'platform 9 ¾. A big steam train is painted red so that Harry Potter type journeys called 'Witches and Wizards' can occur. One train, when fitted with a face, is a ringer for Thomas the Tank Engine and more are in the stage of renovation. I take my hat off to the local enthusiasts who made it possible for us to enjoy this experience; and it is only 1pm.

After lunch we drove south to the Jenolan Caves, a distance of 45 miles. The last 6 miles were down a steep twisting hill side hugging road, with steep drops at the side Sylvia sits. At the top a sign stated, 'unsuitable for buses and caravans'. This is not strictly true. The road at the bottom was closed to through traffic from 11.45am to 1.15pm allowing busses from as far away as the coast to bring tourists, and descend unhindered by oncoming traffic. It is the only way they can get down. It seems that going up is not a problem; however, any traffic meeting a bus going up would be on the outside by the drop.

At the bottom of the road is a massive cave which the road runs through; concerts are held in this cave known as the Grand Arch which is said to have wonderful acoustics; the Christmas carols event is said to be very special.

Tourists have visited these caves for over a century and there are 10 different guided tours plus a free self guided tour if you have been on a paid one. If you feel adventurous you can put on the overalls and helmet and do the crawling tour, but we arrived too late. We were on the 3.30 Chifley Tour which was very impressive but left us no time to do the free one, however if we come back tomorrow, every other paid tour will be half price.

We drove out from the caves, up a hill for 6 miles which was even worse than the one we had descended, and stayed the night at Oberon. Next morning we were in two minds as to whether we should return to Jenolan; neither of us stating our fears of the journey down to the caves. (Sylvia did mention last night that the road was a bit crumbly where I passed by a downward travelling car; I can't please her, she got a great view down the edge of the cliff). Anyway, the half price tickets plus the free self guided tour won the day and we learned that it is indeed harder driving down than going up.

After 8 hairpin bends which necessitated us going part way round before reversing a little to complete the bend, we reached the caves car park. We wanted to do the 'River Caves' tour but it was full, however an extra tour of the Lucas Caves was available. The scheduled tour had 60 people booked; ours had 14. The guide told us his record was 181 at the one time on the Lucas tour. After 960 steps, we had experienced 6 caverns including the Cathedral Cavern where weddings take place. The acoustics of the cave was demonstrated by music whilst sections of the cave were lit in turn. Every pace we took along the long passage ways brought new wonders to see. The caves were named after a politician called Lucas who brought in laws to prevent people taking souvenirs or causing vandalism. His name was discovered written on the cave walls 23 times.

The hill was better going upwards than it had been going down, but definitely not for the faint hearted. No journey will seem so bad after this journey. On our way back to Oberon for our second night, I took photographs of some old friends who were enjoying themselves in a field. I told them we lived in Scotland but they were not impressed.

Our next stop is Canberra. The journey south to Goulburn of 80 miles was very mixed. The road followed the high ridges where possible and went up and down them when the ridges crossed our path. Consequently the scenery was very variable and we also contended with strong winds which the nights TV described as gale force. At one stage we were driving through road works on the foundation soft layer with mounds of hard core at our side ready to be laid. This was an unusual but enjoyable journey.

When we reached Goulburn we joined the Federal Highway which runs from Sydney to Canberra and soon completed the remaining 57 miles. It was still windy and it was cold. We had been warned the only hot air at Canberra was at Parliament House. During the journey our shower/toilet door opened and we were unable to stop it from re-opening; the high wind seemed to be the problem. At bed time, whilst washing, Sylvia remarked how cold it was. When it was my turn I found this to be true but nice to see the stars.

About half way through the night I woke up with troubled thoughts. We are not supposed to be able to see the stars from our toilet area. I checked; where is the cover that is supposed to be their? (And why is it draughty at my side of the bed)?

Jenolan Caves

Zig Zag Railway

If there are any railway enthusiasts who would like to see more pictures of the Zig Zag Railway and Train Shed, and photographs of the information boards, please let me know.

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