Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Puffing Billy

Finally! Having driven by on numerous occasions and promising the kids a trip, we finally headed out for a ride on the Puffing Billy.

Puffing Billy, a major tourist attraction here in Melbourne, runs between Belgrave and Gembrook. The tracks wind through forests, luscious fern gullies, and farmlands in the Dandenongs, just east of Melbourne. This line was opened on 18 December 1900 operating just over 29 km between Upper Ferntree Gully and Gembrook until 1953. In 1953, a landslide between Selby and Menzies Creek blocked the track and, because of mounting operating losses, the line was closed the following year.

In late 1954, the local paper worked with the Victorian Railways to organize one last running of the trains before the track was to be torn up. On 11 December 1954, 30,000 people came to say farewell to the trains. The popularity of this special became the catalyst to Puffing Billy's survival.

Continued interest in operating the line eventually led to the formation of the Puffing Billy Preservation Society. The majority of the staff are volunteers, and they are all incredibly friendly.

Fire, cool...

We're off

During the trip, the train passes over this lovely wooden bridge, now classified by the National Trust of Victoria. It carries the train over Monbulk Creek and the main Gembrook Road. It is around 91 meters long and 13 meters high.

Approaching the Trestle Bridge

Whilst winding through the forest, the atmosphere on the train is positively 'stoked'. Everyone is buzzing and enjoying the trip, many of them sitting on the sides of the carriages, hanging their legs and arms out.

Winding through the forest

Tall Ash!

A depression in the early 1890s brought a halt to the rapid expansion of railways in Victoria. In its place, 2 feet 6 inch narrow gauge lines were promoted as a way to link remote communities, particularly in hilly country, without the expense of the 5 ft 3 in broad gauge railways. Railways officials opposed them, citing the inconvenience and expense of a break-of-gauge, but a parliamentary committee eventually recommended that four experimental lines be built. None of the lines constructed ever made a profit and the gradual decline in patronage due to the increasing use of cars brought the inevitable reduction in services and hastened the end of the narrow gauge railway.

More rolling stock

Water Stop

From Belgrave, there are a few destinations you can head to. We find that going up to Lakeside (Emerald State Park) and back is just right, for us, and the kids.

Lakeside is a great place to alight from the train for a picnic and a peaceful stroll around Emerald Lake Park. We had been here a couple times via car, but this was the first time by train. Trains usually pause here for the crew to fill the water tanks and this offers train fans a great chance to see the action up close.

Lakeside Choo-Choo

Puffing Billy offer many different packages, check their site for details. What looks interesting for us is the Day Out With Thomas (you're never too old to meet Sir Topham Hatt!), and the Great Train Race where you can race Puffing Billy over some varying (read: hilly) terrain.


Sunday, July 19, 2009

Star Wars - Scienceworks

In a galaxy far far away...

Well, actually it's just over the West Gate Bridge - the Scienceworks museum is hosting an exhibition showcasing more than 80 costumes, interactive displays, models, and props from all six Star Wars films.

Giant R2D2
Preep too peeep

The exhibition features authentic costumes and props from the entire Star Wars series, such as Luke Skywalker’s Landspeeder – used in Episode IV A New Hope.

Cut through M1 traffic hassles easily

The hero's journey has been a staple of tales throughout the generations (trying to recall my Joseph Campbell Humanities 101 here). Perhaps that's why the Star Wars saga has had such a long life. It's incredible to think that back in 1977, we were bundled into a theater like Rex or Cathay by our parents to watch A New Hope, and now in 2009, our two kids cannot get enough of Star Wars.

He's bigger in real life

The props were quite attractive in their intricate details. Running your eye over the Millennium Falcon, you could just image Han Solo and Chewie providing covering fire for Luke's final attack run on the first Death Star, or serving as Princess Leia's escape during the Battle of Hoth.

Millennium Falcon
Kessel Run here we come!

We currently have four lightsabers, and this display had the kids riveted. We literally had to drag them away. It would have been great to have a short documentary playing that showed how they made the lightsaber fight scenes in the movies.

Light Sabers
You can't just have one

There were countless display figures distributed around the exhibit. A friend told us that during the school holidays, they actually had actors dressed up in Star Wars costumes walking around, no doubt thrilling the kids to bits.

Feels like someone's watching me

Hosting a few hands on exhibits was certainly one positive thing. Kids of all ages had fun learning about how robot vision worked, experimenting with magnetic levitation, or learning the basics of robotics by putting together a miniature R2D2.

Mini R2D2
Hands on fun

Luke Skywalker spent his early years living on a moisture farm on Tatooine. Moisture farms harvest water vapor from the atmosphere, and used to grow crops in underground hydroponic labs.

Moisture Farm
Future for Victoria?

The kids very much enjoyed the animatronic C-3P0 display. This educational display helped explain the different roles robots currently play and the challenge scientists face trying to give them human traits such as mobility, perception, and cognition.

The Star Wars exhibit runs till the 3rd of November, 2009. Queues are incredibly horrendous, so we've been told, during the school holidays or weekends. We visited on a Friday and the crowds were not bad. The kids have already been asking when we'll be back! It's definitely worth a few more visits.

There's no denying the interest kids (and adults) have in Star Wars. You can download educational kits in preparation for your visit from the Sciencework's website. Click here for their operating hours and directions.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Melbourne - The Windy City

Chicago may be known as the Windy City, but I think Melbourne has got it beat. The wind does get to you an a damp winter morning, but during the summer, there's nothing more fun than flying a kite. As they say, when given lemons, it's time for some lemonade.

So there we were on another stunning (please rain!) Melbourne afternoon. Warm, low humidity, and a stiff breeze blowing. I pulled the kite out of the shed, put it together, and the boys and I ran over to the field.

Ready for takeoff
Ready for the launch

It took just a light launch from the three boys, and that big delta was pulling at the line. It was climbing faster that I could let the line out. Like a big V8, it was ready and willing, climbing up higher and higher. I could have run all of my line out, but the thought of having to reel it all back in put a stop to that. In the warm breeze, looking at the kite fly, I was instantly transported back in time to my high school in Penang, where we often try to fly our cheap rice-paper kites or catch a fish with the spark-plug lures!

The boys all had a turn and had a blast. A couple weeks earlier, we were flying our smaller delta, and the wind actually snapped one of the frames! It's still on my to-do to get a replacement dowel fitted out.

Way up high
Hang on tight fellas

We've bought all of our kites from an aptly named store in Boulder, Colorado - Into The Wind. They're located in the Pearl St tourist trap - I mean shopping area, where you can walk around an incredible number of unique shops (ever wonder if wearing a fleece vest is a prerequisite to entering the Pearl St area?) They do have a website. I have to look for a kite store here in Melbourne, as I'm thinking about getting a stunt kite.

So there we were, just some nylon and fiber glass, without a care in the world, flying our kite. Can't you almost imagine Mr Banks out there somewhere, singing out "Let's go fly a kite"?

Hang on tight
Send it Soaring!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Sand Sculpting Australia - Frankston Waterfront

Kids seem to have an incredible predilection for dinosaurs. One of the favorite destinations in Melbourne is the Melbourne Museum - care to guess why? They seem to also have an avid interest in playing with sand. Andrew would spend hours in the little sandpit we had on our deck back in Germantown.

So it was delightfully serendipitous that the yearly Frankston Sand Sculpting Exhibition for 2009 featured Dinosaurs!

Dinostory Entrance
Dinostory Entrance

Unlike the castles we build at the beach, the amazing sculptures here are built from brickie sand. Large squares of sand are compacted and built up and they are incredibly solid. The sculptors than work with the rough shapes to create these amazing results.


The display runs from boxing day till Anzac Day (26 April 2009). We were there a couple months ago - I've been slow in getting this report out.

I'm hungry
I'm hungry

The kids were thoroughly entertained with the dinosaurs. They also have workshops where the kids can learn a few tricks for their next trip to the beach. We can't wait for the next years show! The display is at the Frankston Waterfront where you can easily spend an hour or so after looking at the dinosaurs, just walking up and down enjoying the day.

Whatcha Looking at?
Whatcha Looking at?

Thursday, October 9, 2008

See's Candies Peanut Brittle YUM!

I was just a couple months away from total annihilation!

I'm not much of a sweets person, I usually pass on dessert. However, I just love peanut brittle. We had never heard of See's till my sister-in-law brought some in from the west coast.

My friends, run, don't walk to your nearest See's outlet and buy heaps. This peanut brittle is incredible. Incredibly crunchy yet melts in your mouth soft, lovely sweet peanuts...

See's never opened up an outlet near us in MD. I guess it was good for me in a way. I would have likely gained 450lbs, lost all my teeth to decay, and spiraled into a diabetic coma.

Heaven in a box

Please send me a box, alas we're See's-less in Melbourne.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

1000 Steps (MEL)

Welcome Gate

The 1000 Steps (Kokoda Track Memorial Walk) is a walk through dense cool temperature rainforest that's not to be missed. It was created to memorialize the original Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea which is most famous as the location of the World War II battle between Japanese and Australian forces in 1942.

Historical Overview

As if by design, the hike starts up on a gently rising trail allowing you time to get your hiking legs in gear.

Gentle warmup

Out of nowhere, you are then faced with the steps. They can be a little slippery when wet.

Here come the steps

When the say 1000 steps, they mean it (800+ I lose count after a while). There are a few benches to rest along the way, so keep going!

Are we there yet?

The numerous plaques along the way prove educational, and allow you to sneak in a breather whilst pretending to read cross-eyed and doubled-over.

Informational plaques

The 1000 steps is a great place to bird watch. Listening to the calls and trying to spot the birds help me forget my lungs are about to burst. The Superb Lyrebird is the most famous bird in the area - it figures that the one time I've managed to spot one just metres off the steps, is the one time that the batteries in the camera were flat. I apologize for the picture quality below, the camera needs a better photographer...

Great birdwatching

The giant playground at the start of the trail is a great place to let the kids run off a little more steam.

Giant playground

Currently closed for work, it should re-open sometime in August 2008. Visit Parks Victoria's page for more information. The park is very popular, even on weekdays be prepared to drive up to a full car park. After the walk, it's a short drive up to Olinda to reward yourself with some tea and scones.

Friday, July 4, 2008

K-mart Toy Sale

If you don't know about the K-mart toy sale, starting 03/07, which planet are you from? K-mart open its doors at 12:01am to all those crazy, bargain-hunting moms. As for me, I was not that insane to line up at 12:00am just to save a few dollars. However, I did drive to K-mart first thing in the morning with my 2 boys to pick up a few items. My son was looking at the online catalog the day before to pick out his toys, mainly Lego and Lego and more Lego.

When I arrived at the store, there was quite a few people with shopping carts. Phew...it wasn't as bad as I expected. We walked through the aisles lined with toys up to the ceiling. I was careful not to bump into any displays...it would have been an ugly sight with the boxes of toys falling on us. Of course Andrew wanted something exorbitant in price but we managed to do some compromising and came to an agreement as to which Lego to purchase. The boys were really good about what to buy considering the temptation of toys galore on the floor.

Just an hour in the store, I was ready to head home. The store was crowding up. There were moms with carts full of toys to the brim. Wherever we turned a corner, we came up to more moms, carts, and kids. I didn't know everything was free in the store! :) It was funny to hear a child exclaimed to his mom "Mom this is ONLY $80" and the Mom replied "Do you have $80?"

Big W is also having its Toy Sale this week. Target will be starting their toy sale soon. I must say I'm impressed with Melbourne's toy sale because one can really get some good bargains. This is my first time experiencing a big toy sale in Melbourne and it won't be my last!

To check out K-mart's online catalog, go to Kmart's website.