Good Country: Steam trains and emus in Peterborough

Throughout his travels in regional South Australia, Michael X Savvas finds plenty of good country. In Peterborough he discovers a town of history and nature; of steam trains and emus.

Folk in South Australia’s Mid North have been known to refer to Jamestown as Snobtown and Peterborough as Dregtown. Far from being Dregtown, Peterborough presents a pleasing blend of human ambition and nature’s survival instincts.

Its sun-bleached wheat fields and dust-encrusted sheep continue the farming traditions begun when children of German pioneers in the Barossa moved north to work the dry land.

Yet one of the most striking things about Peterborough is its railway history, dating from 1881. It echoes everywhere and gives a satisfying unity to the place. I like towns with themes. They feel like real-life theme parks. The RV-friendly (and people-friendly) Peterborough is still a vibrant traveller’s junction, welcoming travellers en route from Adelaide, Sydney, Perth, the Flinders Ranges and elsewhere.

It was once a major railway hub. In the early 20th century, Peterborough (or Petersburg, as it was known then) had one of the busiest single tracks in the world. And steam powered the activity. There was even a South Australian-designed-and-built locomotive in service: the T class, a popular loco that skated along the narrow-gauge tracks from 1903 until the last gasps of steam trains in the region in 1970.

You can learn more about the fascinating history of Peterborough trains at the enchanting tourist attraction, Steamtown Heritage Rail Centre. Old locos are displayed and an excellent documentary is screened as part of the light and sound show guests experience in a re-imagined rail carriage in the iconic roundhouse.

The excitement of the steam train era is still felt in the grandeur of Main Street: the old Capitol Theatre that has been converted into a quirky café (229 on Main), and the large pubs, including the Railway Hotel where you can read about the pub’s ghosts while eating tasty mains served with delicious bush damper.

But grandeur in Australia is often undercut by something charmingly down-to-earth. In this case, according to local resident Vanessa, it’s the odd kangaroo making its way down Main Street.

Particularly during a drought, roos and emus instinctively jump and sprint down from up north to feed on the crops in and around Peterborough. To townies unused to seeing emus outside of wildlife reserves, encounters with these prehistoric, enormous and surprisingly racy birds are thrilling.

Yet even a Peterborough local, mechanic Bruce Woods, is impressed by this authentic Jurassic Park. He recalls, “I once saw – must have been – 200 emus in a paddock at Rabbit Creek, 10 kays north west of town. The emus outnumbered the sheep! There were 10 emus at a time drinking off the farmer’s trough.” Bruce continues, “And I’ve had echidnas in the front yard. I had to relocate them with welding gloves. But because they’re territorial, one kept coming back.”

Most days, Bruce, Vanessa, their kids, horse and Shetland pony can be seen strolling around the town’s back streets. In a fitting symbol of Peterborough’s fusion of animal life and man-made transport, Bruce pushes his son in a stroller that’s hitched to the pony’s rein.

But Peterborough’s most famous animal is Bob the Railway Dog. Forget that busking British street cat. Bob the railway dog became legendary as a charismatic free spirit who loved travelling on trains in the region (and beyond) in the 1880s and 90s. Australia has produced only a few animal celebrities (Phar Lap, Black Caviar, Humphrey B. Bear), but Bob was probably the first. Even back in 1892, gift cards featuring Bob were distributed.

Remarkably, he’s become a larger-than-life Peterborough hero. Olwyn M. Parker’s book, The Railway Dog, tells Bob’s story from Bob’s perspective, and the town offers visitors Bob the Railway Dog passports to help them find places of interest, of which there are plenty in Peterborough. If you want to explore a steam and emu theme park, Peterborough’s the go. It’s good country.

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