Before Uber came to the hills if you wanted to be picked up from Upper Ferntree Gully Railway station, 41 kilometres from the centre of Melbourne, the taxi driver would confirm the pick up address as ‘Upper Gully Rail’. Often there would be a long wait and I would have to relocate to the pub, affectionately known to the locals as the upper. Upper Ferntree Gully and Ferntree Gully has three pubs. The Upper, the Middle, and the Bottom. Each of them filled with gaming machines for the poor and addicted souls desperate for a win.
Originally built in 1889 when it was connected to the Puffing Billy line, the station was electrified in 1925 and upgraded in 1996 to be a premium station. It’s not clear what that means, but it appears to have something to do with staff, lighting, and toilets. The design has all the charm of a Soviet block apartment building on a cloudy day and the main feature is a passenger subway virulent with male urine and cigarette butts that leads to a steep ramp up to the platforms.
The houses behind the station sit on a hill next to the station with names like Railway Avenue and Hilltop Avenue. One Christmas I drove these streets on a mission to get our children a cute handmade indoor teepee. The pictures looked sublime, Etsy quality. Navigating the streets I walked up to a broken down house leaning into the hill. The front was littered with car wrecks and bourbon mixer cans and most of the windows were shuttered with ply, having been broken a long time ago. I thought it looked like a meth lab gone wrong and a strange place to buy some childhood whimsy. I was right, the place I was looking for was a neat looking brick veneer house owned by an earnest couple in their late twenties.
When we first moved to the hills, Upper Ferntree Gully seemed like a place to drive through quickly. Nothing likeable about the place except that it lead to the mountain and the forest. Ugly badlands we pompously called it as we gazed ahead, eyes forward. One surprising feature is the Maxi Supermarket that despite its cheap low-fi branding stocks a superb array of continental foods. Need a complex ingredient for a recipe? Maxi will have it. Now when we go to Maxi we joke that we are shopping like the millionaires; Maxi is expensive.
A couple I know do all their shopping at the Maxi. They drive from their renovated multi-story weatherboard in Belgrave to shop in Upper Gully. I saw them there once walking the aisles being very particular in their choices, heads held high. Shopping like the millionaires. I was probably hungover, ashamed.
Our children were both born in Upper Ferntree Gully. It says so on their birth certificates. When they go overseas it will sound exotic and strange. Fern trees! Hills! Gully’s! Cold, draughty brick veneer houses! On the way to the hospital for my daughters birth I got the directions to the hospital wrong and my wife who had been labouring for three days yelled out in deep frustration. You were meant to know which turn, Jon!
Most of my time in Upper Gully is spent at Upper Gully Rail stamping my feet in the misty cold at 7.05am or scurrying down the ramp at 6.34pm after a day in the city and 54 minutes on the train. The morning crew are a sturdy bunch and pre-Covid it was always the same people. You got to know their faces, their mannerisms, their children. We never spoke. It was an unwritten law that not communication was to be had between the capitalist functionaries on their way to the city. Shame really.