I'VE got the hottest seat in town. Literally. Less than a metre away a furnace roars at somewhere between 600 and 900 degrees, while the air temperature already nudges 28C. I perch off to one side and try to stay out of Timothy's way as he deftly shovels coal through an open hatch.
The hungry belly belongs to the Mary Valley Rattler, a meticulously restored steam train that travels an hour each way through scenic countryside between Gympie and Amamoor. It was relaunched in 2018 but carriages date back as far as 1909, offering a delightful mix of styles.
I've been lucky enough to score the sole position up front with the driver and fireman - a "footplate friend" - and it's a front-row seat to the hard sweat and delicate art that is driving a steam train. Fire is stoked, water topped up, breaks and gears run in clanky co-operation. It's a dance that has been taught to driver Peter and fireman Timothy directly from the old guys who used to run the locomotive in its working days.
There is a diesel locomotive too but Timothy prefers working on steam: "It's more of a challenge," he says. It takes a while for the fire to crank up and produce the boost of power needed to climb the gentle undulations of the Mary Valley. "I'm always thinking about two kilometres up the track."
While they work away I'm free to gaze out an open window at the rolling green countryside. Top speed for the Rattler is about 30 km/h but the average is more like 23 km/h, and there is plenty of time to soak up the passing farms, blooming jacaranda trees and grazing cows.
The engine chugs, brakes hiss. At every intersection of track and bridge or road, Peter gives a hearty pull on the horn. It's a hot, noisy, dirty business up the front end but for a train nerd it's a rare and exciting opportunity.
And back again...
In the village of Amamoor our journey pauses for 30 minutes while the locomotive is turned 180 degrees on a giant turntable in readiness for its return, and passengers are free to enjoy a coffee and wander around a few market stalls.
Slow travel and good food have gone hand in hand in the great train travel revival seen in recent years, and the Rattler is no exception. When we climb back on board I relinquish my footplate position for a bucket chair in the club car instead and it's a far more luxurious option. Heat and soot is traded for a glass of sauvignon blanc and a tasting platter of cheese, salami, macadamias, relishes and homemade parmesan biscuits - all sourced locally. It's the perfect accompaniment to the views.
A trestle bridge carries us over Deep Creek, where people occasionally prospect for gold, a reminder of the basis on which this region was founded. In 1867 James Nash found a hefty six ounces over six days and Gympie was almost named in his honour. As we draw towards Gympie, a disused sign announces our arrival into Nashville.
Those heady gold rush days have long since ended but now the Mary Valley Rattler is the treasure around these parts.
IF YOU GO
Mary Valley Rattler's steam train departs Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday ($62 per adult). A diesel Tasting Train operates a Thursdays, including onboard platter and lunch afterwards at Gympie station ($99). The Footplate Friend experience costs $495. Bookings are required.