There are plenty more than 5 great reasons to stop by Gembrook Village, but these five will get you hooked on driving or catching a steam train through the Dandenong ranges on a sunny weekend!
The Dandenong Ranges
You don’t need 5 great reasons to stop by Gembrook village – the trip here on a sunny afternoon is reason itself! For over 120 years Melburnians have been coming here in the hottest parts of summer to picnic and walk among forests, shady parks, streams, and waterfalls.
Deep in the Dandenong Ranges, among the towering eucalyptus forests and giant ferns, are small glades and valleys. When the landscape opens up for just a moment, you can suddenly see brambles and daffodils by the side of the road, ponies, and lambs in the fields, green hillsides, and the sun glinting off streams and dams.
Gembrook was named after the low-quality precious stones found in the creek by the Gembrook Mining Company. In the 1850s gold prospectors, including many Chinese prospectors, came to Gembrook. The first store and post office in 1880. When you see the size of these colossal eucalyptus trees you’ll understand why saw-milling quickly became the main industry. More than 20 timber mills operated in the area until bush-fires in 1926 and 1936 destroyed many of the mills. The Ash Wednesday bushfires of 1983 sealed the fate of the saw-milling industry and tourism and agriculture became the village mainstays. Today the Gembrook population is 2350.
When the landscape opens up there are steep hills of dark red basalt and volcanic soils plowed and ready for crops of potatoes, grapes, chestnuts, and flowers are just some of what is grown in this fertile area. Due to an odd quirk in Gembrook’s history, there are lots of things grown and living in Gembrook that shouldn’t be here.
A weird period in this sleepy village’s history started in the 1870s when a distinguished group of gentlemen known as the Victorian Acclimatisation Society got hold of 600 acres of land in Gembrook. The Society used the large Gembrook property to breed animals and grow plants that they imported from overseas. They did this with the intention of releasing the animals into the wild and seeding the plants around the countryside in order to provide lots of food for rural Australians.
Their experiment, like many others that sought to recreate Europe in the southern hemisphere, was a complete disaster (especially introducing rabbits to Australia). Gembrook was used as a breeding ground, and some of the original Acclimatisation Society lands survive today as Gembrook Park. Pheasants, California Quail, sparrows, blackbirds, deer, rabbits, carp, and blackberries were grown or released here. You will drive past masses of blackberry brambles on your way into the village, such as at Strawberry Corner.
Driving here in a convertible is a heavenly experience (not so much in winter…) But one of the other 5 great reasons to stop by Gembrook village is the equally wonderful way of getting to this little village less than two hours from central Melbourne….
Ride the Puffing Billy Steam Train
Another great reason to stop by Gembrook village is its location as the terminus of The Puffing Billy steam train. Dressed up as Thomas the Tank Engine a couple of times each year (for the Puffing Billy Day Out with Thomas), originally the little steam train was used for the first half of the last century to carry wood and other products from Gembrook to Melbourne. Tourists began coming to Gembrook in the open-carriages of the steam train in the early 1900s. A brass band welcomed them as they disembarked at the station. But then the narrow gauge line from Belgrave to Gembrook was closed after a landslide in 1953. Puffing Billy didn’t return to Gembrook until 1998.
Puffing Billy sounds its horn through the hills and mountains regularly throughout the day and tourists ride the line between Belgrave, Emerald, and Gembrook. Stopping by Gembrook village for 1 hour and 25 minutes is enough time for the kids to play in the park, to eat at the local cafes, and the great Gembrook restaurants (such as the Independent Gembrook) right next door. You also have time to explore the local markets, Gembrook shops and to see the architecture of this quaint village.
You can view the timetable and more information including prices and stations in the Links and Further Information section below. If you’re really lucky on the day you visit, you’ll be able to tour the Motorist Vintage Motoring Museum.
Visit The Motorist Vintage Motoring Museum
I know I said there are 5 great reasons to stop by Gembrook village but this is the only reason you really need to visit the village!
Call David on 0411 465 098 to confirm if the museum will be open during your stay. Vintage and classic cars, as well as motoring and cultural items from the classic car period, are on display. They are in various stages of restoration. It is a treasure trove that can’t help but make you smile.
The museum boasts the only 1925 Studebaker limousine in the world with a polished brass body.
The Motorist takes cash only but only charges $5 for adults, $10 dollars for family (2 adults, 2 children).
Parks and Gembrook Station
There are several parks and walking and cycling trails in Gembrook. These include Gembrook Park (the Gembrook Flora and Fauna Reserve) as well as the J.A.C. Russell Park and Gembrook Railway station.
Gembrook Park is one of the smaller but most interesting of the Dandenong parks. It incorporates some of the areas once owned by the Acclimatisation Society and so it is home to exotic species of trees and plants as well as eucalyptus trees, ferns, koalas, and wombats. The park is only 350 meters (0.2 miles) from the Puffing Billy railway station. The walking trail through the two sections of the park will take you approximately one hour and is 2.7 km (1.7 miles) in length.
The trail is graded as ‘moderate’ because of a few steep sections. It is best not to do this walk after a rainy week as it can become muddy and slippery. See the Links and Further Information below for a downloadable map of the trails and further Gembrook directions.
The park on the main street of Gembrook is right beside the Puffing Billy station and impossible to miss. The J.A.C. Russell Park is small but lovely with graveled paths, a playground, a rotunda, and a history board explaining the beginning of Gembrook village.
Gembrook station has been styled to evoke the glamorous early days of steam train travel. On weekends several props including vintage suitcases, crates, and sacks of produce and freight loading and haulage equipment are arranged on the platform of the station fronting the J.A.C. Russell Park.
The interior of the station is similarly styled to evoke an old-fashioned sense of rail travel and includes a gift shop and cafe.
Village Life: Cafes, Markets, Churches, and Sculpture
If you came to Gembrook by steam train in the 1920s you could visit the Gembrook “coffee palace.” These days you can visit a number of cafes!
Cafes with outdoor seating line the main street through the village. Classic cars, cyclists and motorbikes can be seen along the strip. Families with children and dogs run around the outdoor gardens of the cafes during breakfast, brunch, and lunchtime. Local honey, jams, cakes, and crafts can be purchased at the cafes.
The local markets are open one Sunday each month and fruit, vegetables, plants, and local produce such as jams can be found there.
The main street also includes several small and picturesque churches that add to the charm of this small village.
I am amazed at my ability to stumble upon sculptures! This wonderful little sculpture at the end of the main street and across from the monthly markets is called Camaraderie. The sculptor is Victor Kalinowski who trained in Poland and lives on the outskirts of Melbourne. He has created several large granite public sculptures.
The sculpture creates a warm sense of friendship for a welcoming village. It represents “people gathering together in friendship and trust. In Camaraderie, the figures are individuals but stand together forming a community that is connected to the land and resilient against the elements.” I like the composition in granite, it gives a sense of weathering time, the elements, and bush fires together as a community over time.
How To Get To Gembrook Village
Drive: Take the M1 freeway from Melbourne. The drive takes just over an hour on weekends. Turn off the M1 freeway onto Wellington Road and then take the C412 to Gembrook. Gembrook is close to the better known larger towns of Balaclava, Dalmore, Monbulk, and Lysterfield.
Free parking is available at the Puffing Billy Station on Main Road, Gembrook.
Steam Train: Puffing Billy train operates each day of the year except December 25. Catch a train from central Melbourne on the Belgrave line to Belgrave station. This is the most convenient spot to get on the steam train as the Belgrave station and the Puffing Billy station are just a minute’s walk from each other. Alternatively, the Puffing Billy train also stops in Emerald Lake Park. See below for the latest timetable.
Public Transport: Train and Bus. Buses stop at the Puffing Billy station in Gembrook. The simplest way to get here by public transport is to take a train on the Belgrave railway line to Belgrave from central Melbourne and then a bus to Gembrook. The Belgrave line timetable can be found below.
Train timetable Belgrave: https://www.ptv.vic.gov.au/route/2/belgrave/
Catch the 695 bus to Gembrook from Belgrave station. This takes about 40 minutes. Download the 695 bus timetable here.
Links and Further Information
View the most recent Puffing Billy Gembrook events and the Puffing Billy Timetable here.
The Motorist: 77 Main Street, Gembrook, Victoria, 3783
Phone: (David) 0411 465 098
Download a map of walking trails in Gembrook Park Flora and Fauna Reserve here.
For a related post on great walks and hikes in this part of the world, see my post on Melbourne day-trips here.
For comprehensive planning guides, itineraries, accommodation options and the best tours from Melbourne for your Great Ocean Road holiday see Great Ocean Road Holiday – A Comprehensive Planning Guide, Great Ocean Road Itinerary, and my Ultimate Guide to Great Ocean Road Accommodation.
There are many incredible locations to visit close to Melbourne and the Dandenongs and Yarra Ranges. The Mornington Peninsula boasts wineries, wild southern coastlines, heritage and history. For all Australian posts including the Mornington Peninsula, see my Australia posts here.
More detailed information on how to book transport, airfares, Gembrook accommodation, and travel insurance is available on my Travel Resources page.
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