The Driving Creek Railway, on the Coromandel Peninsula in New Zealand, is more than just a scenic ride up a tall mountain. It manages to combine trains, landscape, and art with a heavy dose of eccentricity. Four of my favourite things!
Barry Brickell and the Driving Creek Railway
The story of the construction of the Driving Creek Railway is almost as fantastical as the railway itself. It all started when Barry Brickell, who was to become New Zealand’s most famous potter, moved to Driving Creek, a few miles north of Coromandel Town. In 1973 he purchased a tall mountainside to ensure a source of clay for his work. Two years later he started building a railway line to move clay and other raw materials down the hill.
Barry Brickell built the railway himself, using reclaimed materials including narrow gauge track from abandoned coal mines and bits of his own pottery. The line reached the clay after a few hundred metres. However he had some track left over so he just carried on going until he got to the top, 35 years later. The result was no mean feat of engineering: the railway includes three tunnels, ten bridges (including a double viaduct) and several steep inclines.
Visiting the Driving Creek Railway
The story doesn’t stop there. In 1990, when the construction was still not complete, Barry Brickell’s bank manager gently reminded him that he had not repaid the original loan for the purchase of the mountainside. His proposed solution was that the railway should start to generate income as a tourist attraction.
Today visitors can ride on custom-built trains right up to the quirkily-named Eyefull Tower, with its spectacular views across the water towards Auckland. The train climbs up through a spectacular natural environment. The hill is covered with native vegetation, including tea trees and newly planted kauris. And the loud chatter of cicadas follows you up the hill.
It isn’t just a railway: it is a work of art in itself. Barry Brickell made extensive use of recycled materials for decoration and reinforcement, especially broken pots and green glass bottles. There are sculptures and specially designed structures, too. These include the trackside figures who greet you as you pass and tunnels with grinning faces.
A Pottery Community
Barry Brickell himself had unfortunately died just a couple of weeks before we visited (his body travelled by train to its last resting place on the mountain). However he had manaaged to establish a thriving pottery community at Driving Creek, and this is still very much in evidence. Our train driver, Paul, was himself a potter. We spotted one of his pieces beside the Eyefull Tower, and several more in the gift shop.
You will see more pottery as you wander around the sculpture park and the bush walk at the bottom of the hill. It is a bit like a pottery graveyard: nothing, however imperfect, is allowed to go to waste. There is even a collection of disused kilns, one of them bearing a sign which says, “Old retired kilns become shrines… we never demolish our old kilns”. It seems to sum up the philosophy of the place.