Holiday activities: Circus trains and science centres

It sometimes seems a bit incongruous to have visited museums in distant countries while neglecting their local counterparts. We’ve taken Alex to science centres in places as distant as Paris and Tokyo, but never looked around the ANSTO Discovery Centre fifteen minutes down the road.

To be fair he’s done vacation activities there before and B and I went on a tour of the old nuclear reactor before he was born. But this was the first time that Alex’s activities were actually held in the Discovery Centre, allowing us to have a look around.

It’s pretty small and there isn’t that much to see without going on a tour of the facilities. However, I was captivated by my all time favourite science demonstration, a cloud chamber showing the trails of particles as they pass through a liquid.

Meanwhile, Alex built Lego WeDo robots.

You can’t get much more local than your own suburb. Last term Alex studied some of the local history of Illawong, a suburb that has changed from farms served by a car punt across the Georges River to a leafy suburb of the Sutherland Shire.

Alex and I decided to go for a lunchtime walk to show him the “other” end of Illawong. It involved walking up some pretty steep hills past an interesting variety of house architectures, including historic Woronora House.

The peninsula of the suburb marks the division between the Georges and Woronora Rivers. At the end is Bill Wakefield Reserve, from where you can look out across the confluence and watch the trains crossing Como Bridge.

I’ve been wanting to visit the Trainworks railway museum at Thirlmere for a long time, but sadly there’s no actual train that takes you there. However, the promotion of circus themed activities over the holiday weekend was enough to convince B and Alex they we should drive out there as a family.

Thirlmere is located on the Picton Loop Line, the original alignment of the Great Southern Railway which now reaches all the way to Melbourne. When the railway was realigned in 1919 Thirlmere was bypassed and the section opened only for local traffic. Today it exists only for heritage trains.

After we turned off the M5 and on to Picton Road we passed heavy freight trains doing the run between Australia’s largest cities. At Picton there is a single lane bridge across Stonequarry Creek. When we looked down the steep gorge on the way home the trees were absolutely filled with nesting flying fox bats.

Trainworks has quite an extensive range of exhibits of the New South Wales railways, focused primarily on the rollingstock. In the main building there is an interesting contrast with the luxurious Governer General’s coach on one side, used for the transport of visiting royalty, while on the other side is a prison wagon.

Alex watched Mr Gorski’s juggling and plate spinning show twice and tried his own hand at some acts in the circus tent outside.

We hopped aboard the heritage steam train ride up to Buxton. The old wooden carriages featured compartment seating and open windows. The high backed leather seats were quite comfortable and as we slowly chugged up the hill past houses and bush I could imagine travelling on a long journey in the olden days, the scent of coal and oil wafting in through the window.

It wasn’t the most scenic steam train ride I’ve been on, but the atmosphere was nice.

At Buxton the locomotive reversed around the passing loop to take its place at the head of the train for the reverse journey. Then it was back the way we came to Thirlmere, where the process was repeated for the next journey.

The Great Train Hall outside features a huge collection of locomotives and rollingstock. Some of the highlights included the huge Beyer Peacock Garratt articulated steam locomotive, the longest and last steam engine ever ordered by NSW Railways, the slag dumping tank engine of the BHP Port Kembla steelworks, the cute little railway pay bus and the Silver City Comet, forerunner of the XPT services which are the passenger workhorse of NSW railways today.

As I inspected each passenger train I tried to imagine the experience of riding on them. The luxury of the old wooden sleepers, or better yet the state governer or premier back when they travelled by rail. Then the hard seats and utilitarean gunmetal grey decor of more modern services reminding me of some of the less pleasant rail journeys I’ve had.

Walking through the old red Sydney suburban carriages, the double deckers which were retired not so long ago, I realised that I’ve been around long enough to see the removal of first class suburban services and the end of smoking on trains (yay!). Makes me feel old.

Locomotives are restored and services in a modern roundhouse at the end of the museum. Seeing all the mechanical work being done was a sad reminder of the skills being lost in Australia. Once most trains were constructed here. Today Sydney’s fleet is being built in China, India and South Korea and the freight wagons are similarly imported.

The old railways were all about steel and coal. Mirroring the decline of the railways are the struggles of the local steel industry in Australia. One of the two remaining steel smelters in Australia is in Wollongong, fed from coal and coke mined in the surrounding mountains.

These days Wollongong fancies itself a university town and indeed both B and I studied there. One of the changes since we left is the university’s construction of a science centre and planetarium at their “Innovation Campus”. Alex was enthusiastic at the idea of visiting it.

The drive to Wollongong is one we’ve done so many times over the years. But I’m not sure we’ve ever stopped at the Southern Gateway Centre lookout at the top of Bulli Pass overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The view was spectacular, a big cumulonimbus cloud sitting on the horizon behind the ships waiting for their loads at Port Kembla.

The choc mint gelato at the Gelato Emporium was pretty good too!

Whilst the Wollongong Science Centre isn’t as larger as some of the other science centres we’ve visited around the world its exhibits are really good demonstrations of various scientific principles. Alex was immediately captivated by the air blowers and parachutes. There were mechanical dinosaurs, light pens, robot arms, a huge iron meteorite to touch, illusions and so much more.

We watched a bubble show and a presentation in the planetarium that incorporated some of the latest photos from planetary exploration probes.

Unfortunately, the cafe had run out of everything and we were starving when we finally exited. We thought we’d stop at one of the beaches along the coastal route and have fish and chips for lunch, but everywhere seemed packed out.

After the magnificent Sea Cliff bridge we ended up at Helensburgh eating fish and chips from a takeaway before heading home. We had planned to explore some of the Royal National Park, but that will have to be for another day.

And in a couple of days it will be back to the classroom for more learning. Bring on the next school holidays!