Upon the suggestion of my dear friend and director of EcoQuest, Kim and I decided to take the long way back from Whatianga. Instead of coming back the way we came, we looped around the peninsula to the town of its namesake, Coromandel.
Driving Creek Railway is a bit north of the town of Coromandel, but well worth the drive. DCR is not only a scenic railway, but also an art gallery and creativity garden. Barry Brickell, DCR’s founder, originally purchased the land for its reserves of yellow plastic clay. Once he got his workshop and kiln up and running, Barry began to draw sculptors from all over the country to come to his co-op - being that it was the only pottery workshop in New Zealand. Soon, Barry was hosting artists from all over the world to come be a part of his homegrown pottery haven.
While Barry was first and foremost an artist, he quickly became an engineer and builder when the next available clay reserves were moving up and up the mountain. Again, being an artist, Barry didn’t have much money to dedicate to building a railway. So, he reused old tracks and carts from abandoned gold mines (reduce, reuse, recycle)!
As if Barry’s bohemian heaven wasn’t already amazing, it turns out that he was also a naturalist and conservationist. Before his ownership, most of the land was poor quality farmland and cleared pastures. So instead, Barry used this opportunity to revegetate his land with native bush species such as Kauri, Totara, and Rimu trees. He even built a fenced in, predator proof sanctuary on the grounds for native wildlife.
Art? Trees? Conservation? This place is the most wholesome endeavor you will find anywhere, ever. Barry Brickell didn’t even set out to build a tourist attraction - it only opened recently to the public. Now, it’s protected under a Queen Elizabeth II National Trust covenant - all 23ha.
I sat on the creaky rail car as it carried us all the way up the mountain, through 5 switchbacks, 3 tunnels, and 2 bridges. I was overwhelmed with admiration for the craftsmanship of this railway. Each tunnel was lined with beautifully crafted bricks and glass accents. Little clay creatures hid amongst the ferns. Expressive faces peacefully waited for you around every turn. The entire track was adorned with sculptures, making it one big creative, engineering masterpiece.
At the very top awaits the Eyeful Tower (ha ha, very nice Barry). If not for the sculptures along the way, the railway is worth the ride even just for the view at the top. We climbed up the pagoda-esque structure and out onto its balcony for an awe-inspiring view of the Coromandel Peninsula and the Hauraki Gulf. Again, we were blessed with another blue sky day.
On the way back down, the ride is both comforting and inspiring. Being surrounded by so many pieces of creative beauty right alongside such expansive natural beauty is really quite magical. Driving Creek Railway is, through and through, the definition of a hidden gem.