Driving Creek Railway, Coromandel
One thing you can't fail to notice here and there are embankments made of empty bottles. The rumour around is that Barry drank most of them and the paintwork reading "Barry's" emblazoned across a couple of hundred bottles embedded in one probably reflects that .
The railway employs around a dozen people these days. It zig-zags up the slopes at seemingly random angles but there was always a purpose, the purpose of dreamers to continually move on to greener fields. Thus it is that the railway today finishes at Eyefull Tower, a wooden platform area with expansive views over Coromandel and beyond, but en route it encompasses overbridges (where you go over the top of where you just came from), zig-zags (where you come to a stop, change the points and then reverse ever higher) and tunnels with bas reliefs, the funniest one being a light, naturally enough placed at the end of one of the tunnels which allows the driver to point "the light at the end of the tunnel".
Another quirk is the toilet at the top partly built with bottles (pic 3).
Somehow, the fact that it cost $20 a head is lost in the delight of riding on someone's dream, a rare pleasure in these days of occupational health and safety.
If you think there might be landslides, there are; but so keen are those who are a part of the scheme that they are repaired in relatively quick time.
The whole journey takes around an hour and, in busy times, you MUST book ahead or risk disappointment. Believe me, this place is popular.
As a tourist, I tend to look for the odd. This time it came to me, via recommendations. "You must go on the railway", we were told, though the directions on how to get there were a little vague.
That it was near Coromandel, the town, was one thing we knew so we headed off.
Finding it was tricky, all because of a signpost at the T-junction in Coromandel (pic 5). Unfortunately, it's got everything listed on it and I missed the train image but headed in the right direction anyway.
Eventually we found it. From subsequent chats I've managed to piece together the story of Barry Bickell, the eccentric potter who once was a schoolteacher.
The way Barry tells it, he left schoolteaching after two terms to pursue his dream of being a potter. The way the rumour has it he was about to be shoved anyway. Whatever, his time had come and he bought what was then a 60 acre block of land, much of it on fairly steep slopes.
At the base he established a pottery workshop but he was also a keen railway enthusiast and he envisioned that a narrow-gauge railway up the sides of his thickly forested plot that would give him access to clay and also pine-wood kiln fuel.
Track laying began in 1975.
Yellow plastic clay derived from the weathering of the old volcanic rocks. The scattered pine trees are self-sown from original pines planted by the early Californian gold diggers of last century. New Zealand's first official gold discovery was made in this district in 1852. Most of the raw materials for the making of terracotta pottery garden wares, tiles and sculpture thus comes from the hills above.
27 years ago, an Auckland teacher named Barry Brickell decided he had had enough of city life, and bought himself a patch of native bush just outside of Coromandel town. He set up a potters co-operative, and also set about building, bit by bit over the years, a narrow guage railway. The trains trundle through tunnels lined with bricks that are made in kilns on site, past banks shored up with empty bottles pushed into the earth, zig-zagging up the hill to a viewing station - The Eyefull Tower!! - that gives views over the surrounding bush, the town, and the water beyond.
The trains (which are also built on site, Driving Creek Railway is pretty much self sufficient) leave perioddically throughout the day, the round trip takes about an hour. During busy holiday times, it may be advisable to book, especially as a ferry service from Auckland now incorporates a trip to Driving Creek Railway as part of a daytrip to the Coromandel, and at such times the trains can get quite full. We visited on a much quieter day, and had to wait for there to be 6 adults for the train to run. That was fine, we were happy browsing until the numbers were made up!
Back at the ticket office, you can buy pottery made by local artisits and see the kilns used to fire the works and the bricks that are used.
This is a great place, both for families and for those grown ups who are children at heart - miniature railways are always good fun!
Our train driver old us that Barry, in his 70's now, still makes the trip up to the to the tower on foot most days, armed with some red wine and cheese to enjoy the sunset. Which seems like a great way to end the day.