Long ago in an earlier life, Barry Brickell was a teacher in Auckland. In 1961, at age 26, he gave it all up and moved to Coromandel. Barry Brickell was not a teacher, he was an artist, a potter, and he wanted somewhere to live out that truth. In 1973 he bought a small remote property hidden away out of town. He established a pottery workshop, and eventually started a pottery co-op. The land he chose had rich resources of clay for his pots, and self-seeded pine trees that had been introduced during the gold rush of 1852 that would be perfect fuel for his kilns.
The clay and the pine trees were way up a hill. The whole property was hilly, practically mountainous, and Barry needed a way to get that heavy clay and pinewood down the mountain to his workshop. The solution was inevitable really. Barry was a railway enthusiast, and something of an engineer, so he built himself a railway. By hand.
He began small, laying only six hundred metres of narrow gauge track, cutting his way through rough bush and steep inclines, using home made surveying equipment, and excavating using barrows and shovels. The rails were second-hand, some a little corroded.
And then he built himself a ‘train’ to run on those rails. Old wheels and axles came from a brickworks in Wellington. The train looked something like an old tractor with a couple of flatbeds attached. You can see it during the first couple of minutes of this seven minute video. The rest of the video is of Barry working in his pottery workshop. He didn’t make teacups. His pots are hand-turned and huge.
His love of trains, since childhood, led him to decide he “must build the most beautiful mountain narrow gauge railway in the world.” When he wasn’t building kilns, and making pots, terracotta artifacts and sculptures, Barry Brickell poured much of his money, time and energy into developing the railway. He called it Driving Creek Railway after the creek in the area. The name Driving Creek comes from the Kauri timber milling days when logs were transported down the creek to the sea after being released from driving dams in the hills.
He had bulldozers in for digging deep cuttings. Some places required civil engineering works due to the steep and difficult terrain. He created an engineering workshop and built passenger trains right there on the property. In 1975 he bought more land. At one point his bank manager told him that he had to start taking paying passengers to bring down the huge overdraft he had amassed to build his “toy train”. He made $1500 that first year in 1990. And used it to buy more track.
Driving Creek Railway slowly expanded and is now three kilometres long. Its construction took Barry about thirty years. The track has horseshoe spirals and switchbacks, and changes direction five times as it zigzags up the hill. There are ten bridges, three tunnels,
and a double-deck viaduct.
Three open-sided diesel-powered carriages for passengers were custom-built in the engineering workshop.
The line terminates at the Eyefull Tower, a hexagonal building and viewing platform 165 metres above sea level with panoramic views of Hauraki Gulf.
After buying our tickets at the ticket office and looking around the store,
we boarded the train.
“Keep your arms and heads inside the train, the tunnels are very narrow” our driver shouted,
and up the mountainside we went. At times the driver stopped to switch the points. At times, after coming to a dead stop, he walked to the other end of the train to take it up the zigzag in the opposite direction. It was clear he loved his job.
At every turn there was art – small terracotta figurines in the forest beside the track, retaining walls with pottery relief sculptures, retaining walls built from bottles, and fence posts with terracotta pinacles.
The tunnels weren’t the only reason to keep arms and head inside. At some places the forest closes right in on the train. Apart from pottery, and building railways, Barry’s other passion was returning the forest to its natural state. Over the years as Barry and his cohorts brought pinewood down the mountain they carried up and planted twenty thousand native trees, including nine thousand kauri trees.
At the top, apart from the beautiful view, there was finally a chance to get a photograph of the ubiquitous New Zealand Fantail,
and back down at the bottom, two more of New Zealand’s native birds, a wattled Tui,
and a Keruru, or New Zealand Wood Pigeon.
It’s possible that if he knew what he was getting himself into he would not have started, but from what I gleaned about Barry Brickell he would have gone ahead anyway. His huge gamble has paid off. Thirty thousand people ride the Driving Creek Railway every year, and you need to book in advance. A large proportion of the proceeds go to fund conservation works. You can see a little more about him and his railway in this video starting at about 10.56.
Next post: Sacred Long Dance of the soul.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.