Train in the Rain

Two weekends ago it was M’s birthday so we naturally decided to go on a weekend outing, something which we hadn’t really done since Rotorua. In addition, Godzilla had proven himself on short day trips but we wanted to test it on a more extended trip. Luckily, M had both Friday and Saturday evenings off work, so I made plans to bail on work early on Friday (with the boss’s blessing, of course) so that we could have two nights away. The only remaining decision was where to go. The Coromandel Peninsula is within two to three hours drive, has plenty of beaches and walks to do, and got the endorsement of my coworker, who said it’s one of her favorite places, so this choice was not hard to make. We (over)packed our bags, filled Godzilla with gas, and hit the road.

Things did not start smoothly. Since it was a Friday afternoon, everyone else had the same idea as us, and New Zealand has very few major roads. In fact, the 1 is basically the only road south out of Auckland and so we sat in traffic for the first hour of our trip. Once we got onto the 2 (a two-lane undivided highway) the traffic eased up a bit and we cruised around the Firth of Thames. At Thames we turned onto the road up the Coromandel Peninsula, aiming for the town of Coromandel which is about two-thirds of the way up. This road is narrow and winds along the coast, literally feet from the water, and as it started to get dark, it also started to pour with rain. At one point M even had to pull over because he couldn’t see the next curve up ahead. We crawled along compared to the locals, who impatiently hurtled past us at the ridiculously high speed limit of 100 km/hr. It was a nerve-wracking drive and the pouring rain continued into the night, but we were rewarded in Coromandel with a cozy hostel with a wood-burning fire.

One of the better hostels we've visited.
One of the better hostels we’ve visited.

After a delicious dinner at the hotel/local pub that was only a minute’s walk away, we relaxed in front of the fire and fell asleep in the warm bed. We woke up to grey skies that promised to rain again, and so decided to do a semi-weatherproof activity: the Driving Creek Railway.

More rain, of course.
More rain, of course.

This very peculiar railroad has an interesting history that the conductor related to us as he drove the train up the mountain. It is the result of one man’s 30 years of labor and was never intended to be the popular attraction that it is today. The man, Barry Brickell, was (and still is) a well-known and respected potter who bought a failing farm on which to build his studio. The farm was failing not only due to the steep hill it’s located on, but because this hill is full of clay that’s perfect for pottery. Barry obviously wanted to use this clay in his work, and what better way to access it than by a narrow-gauge railway? He acquired some rails for cheap from an old mine and started plotting a route up the hill, never mind that he had no formal training in either engineering or surveying. The railway was a solo project (though he had assistance from visiting artists over the years) and so led to him inventing several structures, like this double bridge:

It's perfectly safe...
It’s perfectly safe…

The train drives across the bottom track of the bridge across to a switchback, where the driver stops the train, gets out and walks to the other end, and drives up and over the top track of the bridge. The switchback method allows the train to change direction when the track can’t turn tightly enough, and Barry used it effectively to gain elevation. Another innovation was his use of bottles as retaining walls, which were even better at holding back the mountainside than the conventional bricks. It is telling that, as a potter, he had more bottles than clay at hand …

That's a lot of wine!
That’s a lot of wine!

Of course, Barry was an artist first and engineer second, and so the three-kilometer track is decorated at every stage with pottery from him and visiting artists.

Some fancy posts.
Some fancy posts.
The nicest of several tunnels.
The nicest of several tunnels.

For a long time, Barry built the railway as a passion project (it grew far beyond what was necessary for simply hauling clay) and though he tried to fund it entirely from his pottery, at some point he had to take out a bank loan to complete it. The bank eventually wanted its money back and so Barry reluctantly opened it up to the public, charging $5 a ride. The railway proved so popular that the bank easily got its money and Barry kept the railway open permanently, using the profits to hire staff and begin conservation work in the area. A small bird nesting sanctuary has been predator-proofed and when Barry dies, his land will be released to the public.

Don't know what will happen to the railway when it's public land.
Don’t know what will happen to the railway when it’s public land.

Despite this wonderful story, our ride on the train was not as nice as it could have been, as the rain returned with a vengeance. The train was covered but the rain was blown in sideways. At the end of the track is an observation platform, cleverly called the “Eyefull Tower,” but due to the clouds we could hardly see anything.

Auckland is somewhere out there.
Auckland is somewhere out there.
Back along the track to a switchback.
Back along the track to a switchback.

Though the views weren’t great, the railway is really about the journey rather than the destination, plus it kept us somewhat out of the rain for a bit. Definitely a recommended experience. Afterwards, we got back in Godzilla and drove to Whitianga on the other side of the Coromandel Peninsula, hoping that the mountain range would block some of the rain. You can find out how successful this strategy was in the next post!

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