All aboard as the Zig Zag steams ahead again
With soot on the palms of his hands, under his fingernails and dusted across his nose and cheeks, Lee Wiggins is at one with a 54-tonne steam locomotive.
Mr Wiggins, wearing a black felt train driver's hat, was at the helm of one of the first passenger trips on the grand Zig Zag Railway on Saturday morning, a decade after the NSW Blue Mountains tourist icon was forced to close.
"They're not like driving a car. You sit down and you feel what the engine is telling you and you respond to it," he said.
"It's the closest thing to a living piece of machinery there is."
Visitors will be able to experience a similar sense of awe when the railway re-opens to the public from May 27 after local volunteers worked for 10 years to return it to its former glory.
The railway closed in 2012 due to stricter rail regulations and rising operational costs, while the site was subsequently ravaged by bushfires, vandalism and storms.
The Gospers Mountain fire that tore through the region during Black Summer in 2019 turned thousands of sleepers to ash and damaged signalling equipment and buildings.
Despite the enormous challenges, volunteers persisted and the Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator this month granted the railway full accreditation to run.
About 100 locals from the neighbouring villages of Clarence and Dargan sat in the heritage carriages on Saturday, among the first visitors to see the bright green World War II-era locomotive back in action.
The engine, affectionately known as The Yank for its US origins, filled the air with the rich aroma of coal steam as the train slowly rattled along cliffs and arching sandstone viaducts.
Passengers took in dramatic views of the canyons in the Gardens of Stone National Park, as well as the skeletons of thousands of eucalypts still scarred by fire.
Dargan local David Gerdes, who lost his house in the 2019 fires, said he had been longing for the Zig Zag to re-open.
"I've really missed the sound of the steam whistles," he said.
"It's more than just a steam railway, it's a piece of history."
The Zig Zag Railway opened in October 1869, lauded as an early technological triumph as trains moved people and produce to and from Sydney over steep rocky cliffs and sandstone viaducts.
A national newspaper article from 1947 described the early days of the railway as being "the eighth wonder of the world" for people in the 1870s.
Having volunteered on the railway during the 2013 fires, Mr Gerdes hopes the re-opening marks a new era for the region.
"It's been an awful thing for us all to go through, but we've been through it together and it's really strengthened community bonds."
The reinvigorated Zig Zag will run three, 90-minute trips on Saturdays and Sundays every fortnight.