The beginnings of Driving Creek
Unlike any other tourism company, Driving Creek originally began as an authentic grass-roots pottery. Barry Brickell, who had recently been a young school teacher, purchased the land in 1973 for its rich terracotta clay to support the shared studio styled, craft co-operative pottery. People soon came to learn and develop their craft in a truly creative environment under the almost guru-like tutelage of Barry Brickell, who was New Zealand’s first full-time handcraft potter, as well as other influential potters.
Barry Brickell traded pottery and beers with his neighbour to carve out a flat area with his bulldozer, leaving a cutting to provide protection from more ‘sensible’ locals and bureaucrats who had already caused problems for other potteries. Thus, the ground was prepared for what would be a thriving pottery, railway and tourism operation.
Building of the pottery began
Barry Brickell’s vision of a communal pottery, where young apprentices could be trained working alongside experienced potters was supported by the Arts Advisory Council with a very modest grant to build the two-storey studio, kitchen and bunk room. The grant ended up only covering the design, engineering and some materials, so it was necessary for Barry Brickell to use second-hand materials from anywhere they could be found, and lean against the local bank which became a 30 year relationship.
Word of the pottery spread among the hippie trail, but Barry Brickell was very adverse to Driving Creek being labelled a ‘hippie commune’ and only potters and others were accepted if they worked for the privilege to stay, which lead to a kitchen, bunk room, two-storey poled studio and engineering workshop being built.
Driving Creek Railway is the second railway Barry Brickell built, with the first being located down the road. After Barry Brickell’s kiln smoked out his neighbours, which resulted in a number of sculptures being given in repayment, he moved the kiln up the hillside and built a 250 metre railway, with bridge and tunnel to transport wood and sculptures. All of the materials from the first railway were reused in the current railway.
Barry Brickell constructed the narrow-gauge railway as an all-weather, environmentally-benign, aesthetically-pleasing and economically-sound way to transport large quantities of clay 50 metres from the original clay pit to the pugmill in the pottery.
The railway was originally financed by sculpture and domestic pottery sales as Barry Brickell “preferred to steer clear of any form of shareholdership and retain full control of my project.” Being on a dubious budget, Barry Brickell resourcefully and fortunately purchased old mining rails from the recently closed State Coal Huntly. Barry Brickell also exchanged his pottery with a local landowner for old rotten rock to use as ballast, and pine logs felled on the property were supplied to the local sawmill to be cut and treated for sleepers.
New Zealand’s first wood-fired stoneware kiln was built
Barry Brickell built New Zealand’s first wood-fired stoneware kiln, which could reach 1300°C, with bricks from the local demolished Star and Garter Hotel’s chimney. Barry Brickell used wood off-cuts from the local sawmill as well as non-native trees from the property to fuel the kiln. Potters who used oil, gas and electric kilns visited Driving Creek to learn the gentle art of wood firing.
Driving Creek’s first income stream
Terracotta sculptures and domestic pottery could now be fired onsite in the new stoneware kiln. Locally dug terracotta clay and river sand pugged (mixed and softened) in a steam-powered pugmill was used to supply large quantities of clay. The sculptures and pottery were sold to craft shops across the country and Barry Brickell would load his boat, Ngaru, with the pieces and transport them to Auckland’s galleries.
Restoring the land to native forest
The property Barry Brickell had purchased was mainly farmland, with scattered scrub and wild pines, following over 100 years of kauri logging, gold mining and later farming. Barry Brickell wanted to restore the devastated land to pre-colonial times which led to over 27,000 native trees, such as kauri rimu, totara, matai, miro and kowhai being planted over a 30 year period. A nursery was built to grow the thousands of native seedlings, which were hauled up the hill on the railway and planted by Barry Brickell and visiting potters.
First motorised train ‘Diesel Mouse’ was built
Diesel Mouse is a 4 wheel chain driven train, with the gearbox coming from a train that helped build the Harbour Bridge in Auckland. Diesel Mouse was used to tow wagons full of clay, wood and pottery, and was eventually towed the first passenger carriages before being replaced by other trains.
In order to access more clay deposits and trees, used to fuel the kilns, that were located up the hill, it was necessary to build No.1 bridge to span 43.5m across two diverging streams before the railway could climb the hillside.
The steep hills and deep gullies of the land would test Barry Brickell's ability to not only survey but build the railway to the utmost. Barry Brickell surveyed the railway route using a home-made gradimeter and stadia rod he invented which was light and portable for the rough scrubby land. Surveying and engineering challenges continued as the land’s gullies and steep faces required unique solutions such as five zig-zag switch backs, three tunnels and ten bridges, including the remarkable double-deck viaduct.
Building the diesel locomotive ‘Elephant’
Elephant was built as a workhorse using salvaged and reconditioned parts including a $150 60hp diesel engine and radiator and gearbox from an old Bedford truck, drive shafts and universal joints from a scrap yard, and a marine reversing box with manual lever.
Elephant was also used to push a wagon and tow a carriage during the early years of train tours, but as the carriage didn’t have brakes the Driver would have to yell to the passengers in the ‘first class seats’ to pull the short manual brake lever when the carriage started sliding.
The rise of corporate mural commissions
Large commercial enterprises started seeking high-priced commission artwork to decorate their new stylish city office blocks, which greatly benefited Barry Brickell and Driving Creek as money, or the lack of it, was a constant problem. The rise in popularity of commissioned pottery murals led to Barry Birckell creating sculptural pieces for the Devonport Borough City Council, Auckland Savings Bank (ASB), the opening of the Beehive in 1981 and other various companies and public offices.
However, the number of large corporate commissions slowed following the 1987 stock market crash, but commissions from private patron commissions and those for Galleries continued to provide a steady income stream.
The first switchback ‘Ravington’ was reached and train tours began
After 5 years of precise surveying, track laying and building of another 3 bridges by hand, the railway reached its first end point named Ravington. Ravington became the scene of many parties at the end of a good day's work. As word spread about the railway, visitors came asking for a train ride which originally went to Ravington and back for a small donation.
Building a passenger wagon to be towed by Elephant
The railway continued to attract tourists, leading to an open-sided passenger wagon being built in 1982 to be towed by the home-made diesel locomotive ‘Elephant’. The wagon seated up to 18 donation paying passengers with another 5 seats on the rear of Elephant.
Barry Brickell began advertising the railway as a tourist attraction but as with any commercial operation, a licence was required to charge fares. However, there were no laws against requesting donations for a trip to the building site of the double-deck viaduct. However, despite a prominently placed donation box there was little return for the 40-minute rail trip, which made obtaining a passenger carrying licence a priority.
The long paper tunnel to officially become a tourism operation
The encouragingly loose requirements for private railways allowed Barry Brickell to avoid “the long paper tunnel” of bureaucracy up until he applied for a passenger carrying licence in 1990. The requirement for an inspection of the railway by a ‘proper person’ led to Barry Brickell approaching his cousin, a civil engineer, to certify the engineering structures. The difficulties of navigating bureaucracy to become an official tourism operation was reciprocated quickly, as the railway soon began funding itself through $6 tickets and no longer relied heavily on pottery sales and commissions.
Completion of the unique double-deck viaduct
After 3 years of difficult surveying, massive hand-dug earth works, the double-deck viaduct was completed, including overlapping cuttings and a spiral. The double-deck viaduct is unique to the railway world and was the most challenging surveying and engineering challenge on the railway, with the top level being the highest and longest span of 45.9 metres. The top level of the viaduct carried passengers to Hoki-Mai which was one of the main terminuses.
Establishing the Driving Creek Brickworks
Although New Zealand made bricks had almost disappeared due to cheap imports and the rise in popularity of concrete, Barry Brickell decided to establish his own handmade brickworks as an income stream for Driving Creek. A brick kiln that could fire 3,000 bricks was soon built, and large scale machinery from abandoned brickworks in Stratford and Auckland were restored to mix raw clay dug from the property.
Although there were challenges in achieving efficient heating and spreading it evenly, which resulted in numerous alterations to the kiln, thousands of bricks were sold for houses, gardens and fireplaces, the bricks were also used at Driving Creek for retaining walls and buildings.
Designing the first 34 seated articulated railcar ‘Snake’
The old train (Elephant and carriage) could no longer cope with the number of visitors, with many being turned away during summer. A new ‘train’, or articulated railcar to be more precise, was designed with the aim to carry 34 visitors and handle the tight curves and steep gradients of the railway. Snake started carrying passengers in the summer of 1992/1993, although a number of teething problems were addressed over the following years, including conversion to hydraulics and other minor design changes.
Driving Creek becomes QEII covenanted
Barry Brickell established a QEII covenant
on the Driving Creek property to ensure the thriving native forest is protected in perpetuity, as it became a thriving habitat for a diverse range of native pants, trees and wildlife. The Driving Creek QEII covenant is unique as it is the only covenant which is protected and enhanced by a tourism organisation.
Converting the carriage to a new railcar ‘Possum’
Following adhesion problems with Elephant and the carriage in wet weather, the carriage was converted to a new 16 seat railcar, using the carriage as a frame and installing a 25hp Kohler diesel engine and a hydraulic system so each wheel is driven and braked.
Passing through Cascade and reaching the viewpoint at Horopito
The railway continued to climb higher up the hillside from Hoki-Mai with reversing points setting milestones, first the deep gully named Cascade, due to the Copeland Stream flowing below the track, was reached in 1994. Shortly followed by Horopito in 1995, located on a ridge out-crop that overlooks the Coromandel Town and Harbour. A trestle was built to provide a level place for the trains to park, and a small shack was built as a remote pottery studio from which Barry Brickell would demonstrate his pottery craft and talk with passengers.
Paving the way to the fifth reversing point ‘Rima’ and onwards to EyeFull Tower
Horopito was thought to be the last terminus which lasted until 1997, when Barry Brickell became increasingly dissatisfied with the cramped space and although a fine view, it was not panoramic. A flat ridge 250 metres above Horopito was picked as “a magnificent site for a real terminus in the sky.”
However, the steep gradient, old slips and rugged land proved to be the most difficult to survey, with the need of a third 20 metre tunnel, a long and high bridge spanning 40 metres across an old slip and another switch back on a trestle. The first passenger train reached the fifth reversing point, and temporary terminus, in December 2001.
Reaching the end of the railway and building EyeFull Tower
The railway was then continued further up the hillside to the site of the final terminus, which at the time had a small 5 metre tower accessed by a ladder that could hold 4 people, and called EyeFull Tower due to the spectacular panoramic view. The spindly tower was upgraded to the impressive EyeFull Tower that rises high above the trees, providing magnificent views over Coromandel and the Hauraki Gulf. The new EyeFull Tower was officially opened in October 2003 and is the final end point of the railway.
Barry taking a step back and establishing a Board of Directors
Having reached the end of the railway, Barry Brickell decided to take a step back from managing the railway business in 2003 by establishing the Driving Creek Railway Ltd company and charging a Board of Directors with the responsibility of managing the assets and operations of Driving Creek.
Designing and building the perfect railcar
Barry Brickell designed a second 34 passenger train in 2002 to replace Elephant and Possum and increase the total number of visitors on each tour. The new train would use the same proven idea of an articulated railcar but address aspects that required frequent maintenance on Snake. New engineering designs included self-steering bogies to allow the wheels to steer with the continuous sharp curves that quickly wore wheel flanges, as well as all 16 wheels having independent suspension and an individual hydraulic motor to remove drive chains, which required regular replacement and provide a more comfortable ride on the uneven track caused by different second-hand rails.
After two years of design, construction and testing, the new train named ‘Linx’ due to the unique linkages used in the self-steering bogies was used in railway tours at the end of 2004.
Completion of the predator proof fenced sanctuary
The Driving Creek Wildlife Trust established in 1997 funded the development of a predator proof fenced sanctuary, the first on the Coromandel Peninsula, on an old farm paddock that has been replanted. The 1.4ha sanctuary provides a safe habitat for New Zealand’s native birds, frogs, lizards and insects, with pathways’ weaved through and interpretation panels about New Zealand’s native wildlife to allow visitors to experience and learn in a place thriving with wildlife.
Barry Brickell’s passing and his vision for Driving Creek
Barry Brickell sadly passed away in January 2016 after living an extraordinary and influential 80 years, and is buried at his favourite spot on the Driving Creek property with a kowhai, his favourite tree, planted on top.
Barry had planned for his eventual passing and established the Driving Creek Railway, Arts and Conservation Trust, previously named Driving Creek Wildlife Trust, as the sole shareholder of the Driving Creek Railway company. The trust was charged with overseeing the delivery of his vision as stated in the trust charter.
The revitalisation of the residency programme
The residency programme was first created by renown potter Helen Mason in the 1990s, and was revitalised in 2019 to provide a unique opportunity for artists to work in Barry Brickell’s historic home and workplace. Holding true to Barry’s vision, Driving Creek continues to be a place thriving with inspiration, innovation and old world values. Artist residents are provided with a place for artistic freedom, collaboration and shared learning, where emerging and professional artists develop relationships within the artistic community.
The building and establishment of the zipline canopy tour
After two and half years of designing, building, and testing, the 8-zipline canopy tour first opened to the public on Labour Weekend. The zipline provides a low impact and environmentally friendly way for visitors to be immersed in the native forest, learn about the history of the land and engage with conservation issues and positive initiatives. Continuing the legacy of surveying and engineering challenges from the railway, the zipline also faced a number of surveying and engineering challenges, by crossing large gullies six times, building two platforms in trees up to 25 metres high and two platforms on poles, all while returning the village area.
Establishing the official conservation department
Driving Creek’s pest animal control programme was ramped up significantly with help from local conservation volunteers, which eventually led to the Driving Creek Conservation department being established to protect, maintain and enhance our natural environment, be a community leader and centre for understanding and contribution to conservation initiatives, and continue improving the health and wellbeing of our local community and visitors.
Paid conservation staff perform environmental research, operate pest animal and plant control programmes, run free conservation events and workshops, and connect people with New Zealand’s natural qualities through enriching, educative and unique experiences.
Introduction of wheel throwing pottery classes
The bottom floor of the original two-storey pottery building was converted to a purpose built public studio, to offer wheel throwing pottery classes to visitors of all abilities. The pottery classes and subsequent workshops continue the tradition of Driving Creek being a place where visitors can learn and develop their craft from professional potters in a truly creative environment.