South Coast Line

Happy New Year and welcome to 2014! I’ve got another huge year of travel planned and already hold tickets to Melbourne, Japan and Malaysia but let’s ease into the new year with something a little smaller.

Sydney is blessed by a number of scenic railway lines leading out of the city, all of which can be traversed using the Sydney Trains network. To the west, the Blue Mountains is a well known attraction, while the Northern line to Newcastle has some very pretty stretches alongside the Hawkesbury River. The southwest Southern Highlands runs through some quaint little towns.

Today, with Alex and I having been stuck at home for the past couple of weeks, I chose to take the South Coast line down as far as it goes, to Bomaderry (Nowra).

Back when I was finishing a Masters at the University of Wollongong I lived in the same part of Sydney as I do now. I would often have to take the train down to North Wollongong station. In the evenings I would, if I was lucky, grab one of the memorable cheeseburger meals from the uni’s Duck Inn cafe, the catch the train back northwards, changing at Central for another train to St Leonards, where I did after hours phone tech support for an internet service provider.

I always enjoyed the scenery along the route, looking down across the ocean as we travelled along the edge of the escarpment. But I’d never gone the length of the route all the way down to Bomaderry. In fact, I’d never even got so far as Kiama, the terminus of the electrified section. Once, long ago, B and I caught the train to Dapto (the then terminus of the electrification), but trackwork meant a bus to Kiama.

After so much rail travel overseas it was time to do some locally.

Armed with MyMulti3 tickets, allowing unlimited travel anywhere across the Sydney Trains and NSW TrainLink networks, including buses and ferries, Alex and I followed B to Sutherland Station. She was headed north up to the city for work. We had to wait forty minutes for our Kiama train, which were scheduled about every two hours in the holiday timetable. There was time to grab some breakfast/emergency lunch from the bakery.

Eventually the OSCAR train pulled into platform 2 of Sutherland Station. It was a little disappointing, for memory’s and Alex’s sake, that the old V sets are no longer used on this line. The Oscars are too familiar from the daily commute and their seats are hard and uncomfortable.

We departed Sutherland under grey cloudy skies. The Cronulla Line branches off to the left, then we pass Loftus, which houses the Tram Museum. Must visit one day. The line parallels the Royal National Park to the east, with residential patches carved out at Engadine and Heathcote, before it enters the park at Waterfall.

The Royal National Park is the world’s second oldest national park after Yosemite and it is a wonderful place to explore with a variety of vegetation types and some great picnic and swimming spots.

As we roll south and wind our way along the ridges the vegetation changes from dry low eucalyptus bush to tall wet eucalypt forest and rainforest. Christmas bushes are flowering their seasonal red, while the tall central stalks of Gymea lillies poke out like some sort of alien plants.

Near Helensburgh bright green horse studs are carved out of the bush. At each little township houses old and new, rundown or architect designed, quirky, almost never ordinary for suburbia.

We cross the impressive Stanwell Creek viaduct and after Stanwell Park station, situated high above the beachside township, are treated to the first spectacular views of the coastline.

There is coal hidden away in the escarpment. At aptly named Coalcliff there are sidings leading off to a coking plant. Though no activity was evident today, I recalled little windows in the long brick coking tunnel where bright orange burning light escaped.

We hugged the coastline and it is almost like we are flying above the ocean. Indeed, I have often flown across here en route to Canberra. Historic buildings add character to the small towns hugging these cliffs.

Gradually we descend down to the coastal plain, our views of the sea disappearing, replaced by the outskirts of Wollongong.

As we continue south the view is of urban Wollongong, of industry and steelworks, the Nan Tien Buddhist temple glimpsed, car dealerships, hardware stores, bland housing estates.

They gradually open up to pretty green dairy farms while in the west the Illawarra Escarpment, the eastern edge of the Great Dividing Range, looms over the lands. Alex plays count the level crossings.

As we approach the Kiama terminus we hug the coast again, watch beach goers surfing, fishing or just splashing. It’s very scenic. A temporary fairground, not currently operational, is visible at the northern end of the bay, evoking images of that mystery that pervade such places.

The train terminates at Kiama, but when we disembark there is no diesel Endeavour railcar waiting to take us down to Bomaderry. Then I heard a rail attendant instruct people to catch a bus – a train had broken down and blocked the line. Foiled again, I rage.

With luck the service will reopen once the train is repaired, but the next train is scheduled two hours away. So Alex and I decide to wander beachside Kiama.

There is an ice creamery on the main street. I order a small rainbow ice cream for him and go retro with licorice and ginger for me. Then we walk down to the beach, where Alex has a climb on the playground before we walk up the hill to the lighthouse and the famous blowhole.

Alex is impressed with the whoosh and the fountain of spray as waves are funnelled up through a cave passage and out of a hole on the roof. He wants to climb up on the volcanic rock, but there are plenty of warnings.

The next stop is an exercise bike fitting in the park that he spotted earlier when other kids were using it. With time running out but lunch approaching we head down to the fish and chips shop, past pelicans snatching treats while two fishermen gut their catch.

Despite it being before midday Alex was getting tired and the train was scheduled to arrive soon, so we hurry back to the station. The Endeavour set is waiting. Hooray!

I have only caught their CountryLink cousins, the Xplorers before. The gunmetal grey is from an earlier age of railways and the interior looks well used. The hard Oscar seating of the Endeavour railcar is much less comfortable than the Xplorer and there is no reserved seating here, though once the connecting train arrives from Sydney it quickly fills up.

Alex soon falls asleep on my lap as we chug southwards with puffs of black diesel smoke. It is oh so pretty countryside though, bright grassy farmlands and grey rocky coastline, along which hikers are walking.

It would be nice to stop at historic Berry, but the trains are so infrequent that we do not dare. When we finally pull into the end of the line at Bomaderry I dare not leave the train once I see the crowd waiting, despite the attractive looking cafes and station building. Alex is still asleep so I quickly swap sides. He stirs, but does not wake.

And so the journey repeats itself in reverse, only this time under blue skies which make the landscape even more attractive. I noticed on this trip that the speed felt so much slower than even most rural services in Japan, although it picked up from Waterfall onwards.

I gave thought to jumping on to the Port Kembla branch line, a “suburban” service within Wollongong that serves the big steel mill, but Alex showed no enthusiasm for it.

Instead we caught the train all the way back up to Town Hall, where we changed for Circular Quay. I had promised to take Alex to Observatory Hill, where B and I were married and frequently glimpsed from our train back from the north.

There were two weddings going on, a man smoking a joint and the wonderful views of Sydney Harbour. Alex enjoyed the orreries on display in Sydney Observatory, but he unfortunately showed little enthusiasm for the astronomic side of things.

From the park it was a pleasant walk to B’s workplace and our third trip to Sutherland that day.

In keeping with a holiday travel theme it was wonderful to end the day with a swim in our resort like pool and wash away the stiffness from almost six hours of train travel.

I highly recommend the South Coast and Illawarra line for a scenic outing, whether you are a train lover or not.