Maitland Steamfest is always an event greater than the sum of its parts. Often regarded by enthusiasts as passé and overdone, it is not until one appreciates all aspects of the event that it’s true worth becomes apparent. At a first glance, if one was just looking to take high-quality scenic photos of steam locomotives hauling heritage passenger trains, ones attention might be better focused on a daytrip out of Sydney – the locomotive is always going to be leading the train engine first, there will be a greater variety of locations to use, and while there might be people following the train, you won’t have to deal with the crowds that descend on Maitland every year. Of course, if you are looking for purely a standard three-quarter photo of a steam locomotive thundering up a grade, over a bridge, or through a hackspot (and let’s be honest, that is really what most people want when chasing a steam hauled tour, and there is nothing wrong with that), then that may be the way to go. On the other hand, if you’re looking to catch up with friends over a quiet beer (or seven) at a pub alongside the busiest railway lines in the state, or perhaps to get some less ordinary photos of an often over photographed subject, or perhaps just take in the sights and smells of the operating steam locomotives (and traction engines) while browsing a market, without the pressure to jump in the car and make chase, or get “that shot”, then perhaps Steamfest is for you.
I know the driving force behind the reason a close friend of mine travelled up to Steamfest 2009 was for mateship, and a good reason at that. On its own, this hobby is just that, a hobby, and one will get out as much enjoyment as one puts in. I have found that considerably more enjoyment can be had when sharing this hobby with friends – a bad photo can be easily put into perspective by a good natured jibe from a mate, or day without any luck or results can be laughed about over a beer at the pub the evening after. Especially when dealing with unproductive weather, it helps to laugh about getting drenched for “that shot”, even if it doesn’t turn out as well as you hoped (this comment having nothing to do with my brave run to the footbridge at Maitland Station in pouring rain for a less-than exciting shot of CLF1 leading 7MB7 north while everyone else sought shelter on the platforms…).
No matter what the reasoning for sharing the hobby with your mates, Steamfest proved to be an excellent time to catch up with a few friends from around NSW (and indeed Victoria), because the lure of so many steam locomotives in one place at one time is often enough to bring everyone together, if only for a weekend.
Another appeal of Steamfest is that it goes beyond just the mainline steam locomotives, although this is often forgotten by many who simply go to Maitland to chase around the mainline steamers with reckless abandon. There is a bewildering assortment of traction engines, from the small to the gigantic, as well as model railways, miniature railways, market stalls and railmotors. Even Richmond Vale Railway at Kurri Kurri gets into the spirit, with SMR30 in full steam for the first time in nearly six months, and a free shuttle bus from Maitland Station to RVR at Kurri Kurri to assist those who are without cars.
Finally, the main driving force behind my visit to Maitland Steamfest was a chance to practice some more creative photography. Without the need to chase the train to get photographs at various locations, and with little variety in scenery and limited places to get photographs, it forces one to be far more creative with composition and style, especially when you consider how much fierce competition you will have for, not only the photospot, but to get a unique angle and shot of your own! Often there will be ten or more cameras at any one spot all focused on the same train, everyone vying for the best angle or shot – and everyone gets the same result more often than not!
Maitland Steamfest has something to offer even the most veteran of railway photographer, even if it is just to come up to photograph the new 92 class, or the recently transferred G Class to Northern Coal. Perhaps you’re just here for a shot of an elusive El Zorro grain train, and the steam trains are just an added bonus? Some people come up for a quiet (or perhaps not) beer with a couple of mates while content to watch the trains go by. Others come up for a chance to test their photographic skills, or to browse the markets and savour the strong smell of coal smoke in the air.
Whatever your reason, don’t put it off. There are plenty of reasons to go, and few reasons not to.