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Whitianga Coromandel

29th February 2012

A Fascinating Train Journey Built By a Potter and Meal With An Artist in a Remarkable Balanced House

Waiau Falls
    After a wet night, I set off for town to get a haircut in a rather fresh wind. Losing my golden locks somehow rejuvenated me.
    Leaving Whitianga behind me, I made for the 309 Road which snaked over the peninsula for 33km, 14km of which being just a gravel surface. The winding road climbed up to the 306m saddle. I had been warned that the road twisted and turned, and that there would be idiots driving too fast along its course. And of course there were clowns hurtling around corners towards me and somehow they managed to gain control of their vehicles and avoid a collision; touching the brakes at speed on the gravel surface would have been deadly.
    On my way down from the saddle, the 10m high Waiau Falls cascaded right by the road, crashing down over a tiered rock face into a cool inviting pool. A sign at the start of the track warned it was an hour's walk there and back. I scratched my head thinking perhaps the falls next to the road might not be the Waiau Falls, and the real falls were a 30 minute walk away. A young couple appeared out of the bush. "Excuse me, are the falls really that far away?" I asked. "No, they are only 2 minute's walk. The walk times around here are always crazy," replied the lad in a foreign accent I couldn't place. It took me 40 seconds to reach the falls; yes the walk times are always out by a wide margin.
    I carried on my journey and took a turn off to Castle Rock, a large ancient volcanic plug visible from miles away, that was reputed to offer splendid views. I drove 2km up a bumpy forest road that perhaps the car rental people would not have approved of, and arrived at a saddle near the rock, and parked up. I searched for a track up to the summit, but was confronted by bush and lots of signs telling me I was on private land and there was a lot of poison about. The skies looked ominous, so I decided not to persevere with my search, but by walking a couple of hundred metres I could see both coasts: the Firth of Thames, with Goat Island and Waiheke Island to the west, and the Whangapoua Peninsula and the Mercury Islands to the east.
A Panoramic View Looking West From Castle Rock to the Firth of Thames with Waiheke Island in the Distance      (please use scroll bar)

A Panoramic View Looking East From Castle Rock to the Mercury Islands      (please use scroll bar)

    I descended down into Coromandel, named after HMS Coromandel which called into the harbour in 1820 for Kauri spars. The ship brought the town, and the Peninsula, its name from the Madras coast of India. In 1852 the first discovery of gold in New Zealand, made by Charles Ring at Driving Creek, brought a boom to Coromandel town. A lot of history dating from that time is still evident in the town today with the old buildings, artefacts and atmosphere. The regenerating native forest on the hills is also a reminder of the environmental damage brought by this pioneering period.
Section of the Spiral Rail Track
    I soon picked up a campsite, and then, continuing out of town, I made my way to the marvellous Driving Creek Railway and Potteries. This is the brain-child of an eccentric local potter, conservationist, engineer and rail enthusiast, Barry Brickell. Barry arrived in Coromandel from Auckland in 1961 to take up a teaching post. Within 2 terms he had had enough, and formed a local Arts Cooperative, and followed his passion for pottery, and became New Zealand's first Kiwi-born fulltime handcraft potter.
    He acquired his 60 acre block of hilly scrub-covered land in 1973, and set up a studio in an old cow shed, and invited other artists from around the world to join him. There was a plentiful supply of clay on the hill, but it was a chore bringing it down. He always had a passion for steam trains, and marvelled at trains that climbed high up into the Andes, and so with no engineering qualifications at all, apart from what he gleaned from old photographs, he set about building, mostly by hand, the country's only 15" narrow-gauge railway to bring his clay down the hill. Building the track from scratch required the daunting task of surveying the route through very rough country. Trial surveys with slasher and a home-made instrument had to be repeated until a suitably graded route could be found. Local contractors were used to do the major earthworks.
    Most of the original track came from old coal mines in the Waikato district, but of course it all cost a lot of money and Barry's bank manager was keen to point out that none of his large outstanding loan was being paid off. Something had to be done quickly, and a moment of inspiration came like a flash, why not take tourists up the track. In the first year they transported 1500 tourists at $5 apiece. One thing led to another, and Barry had always been keen to extend the track, and he did just that. The Driving Creek Railway had now carried more than a million passengers, and the train was the major money spinner for the business rather than the pottery.
Terracotta Tunnel
    Today, I became yet another tourist to travel along this journey. The quirky miniature train slowly wound its way up steep gradients for around 3km gaining an altitude of 120m. On its way it crossed four trestle bridges, two spirals, three tunnels and a double switch-back. The mountain-top terminus was "Eyefull Tower", a wooden lodge that afforded stunning views across the Firth of Thames. It was a really pleasurable way to travel through bush. On route up the hill, walls were passed made of bricks made at the pottery, and other walls made of glass bottles. Many sculptures lined the track, and some tunnels had terracotta sculptures built into their structures. Indeed the whole track was a mixture of art and engineering; a feature that really appealed to me and I found inspiring.
    Our driver gave a running commentary along the ride, and pointed out another on-going major project; native forest restoration on the land. The train passed close to kauri and other labelled native trees that had been planted, literally thousands of trees. Our driver gave a short talk when we reached the "Eyefull Tower", and he asked us to look at the mountains around us. Before the Europeans arrived here, they were covered in kauri. As elsewhere in this country, they were soon stripped bare, and then a slash and burn procedure followed to turn the area into pasture land for cattle and sheep. Farming continued until the great depression, when it became no longer viable, and then the land returned to bush.
    The driver seemed to have a strong hint of a UK accent, so when he was free from the barrage of questions, I asked him if he had lived in the UK at one time. "Yes, I come from Stoke," he told me. "Ah, the potteries, I can see the connection. I visited the Gladstone Pottery there many years ago," I said and we both had a joke. He had moved out 6 years ago, and by chance his wife came from Workington, a few miles north of my birthplace. He was as surprised as I was that he ended up driving trains up this marvellous track, and I expressed my envy. He still followed Stoke City football team; expatriates always seem to keep a tenuous link open along some line or other.
A Panoramic View Looking West From The Eyefull Tower      (please use scroll bar)

    We returned back to the working pottery below, now housing studios for resident and visiting potters, and we all melted away in our metallic transporters.
Once Kauri Forest, then Farmland, Now Bush
    I drove through Coromandel and followed the coast for a while, and spotted a sign pointing to a studio. I quickly took the turning, thinking the studio was by the side of the road, but a drive seemed to climb up a hill. I followed it, then I noticed turn offs, which set me wondering am I supposed to turn off here. Thankfully I spotted a small sign saying "Studio", and I drove into the darkened drive of somebody's property. The property was dark, and I thought no one was around, then a light came on; I was in luck.
    A glass door opened, and I was warmly greeted by a chap, Ernie Le Heron, who invited me to step directly into the gallery. A lady appeared around the corner, with a broad smile on her face, announced herself as Barbara von Seida, and shook hands with me. Most of the work on display was Barbara's, but there were a few watercolours present painted by Patrick Greene.
    Barbara just bubbled with enthusiasm as she explained her works hanging on the walls, and her approach to her art. She was certainly no method artist, and relentlessly pursued originality. She studied art in Germany, and spent many years using watercolour as her medium. She moved onto acrylics, found them difficult to start with, but now uses them with gusto. The medium in its raw state without the use of retarders suits her style, an immediate, almost aggressive approach, forcing the paint onto boards using large brushes and the occasional finger or palm. Barbara had a passion for converting the subject matter in front of her, usually images from the Coromandel Peninsula, into powerful statements of colour, and it was the use of colour to convey expression and mood that drove her. She took pains to explain this to me, and I could see exactly what she was driving at. I wonder what my Californian artist friend, Marcia, would have made of this style. I imagine the two of them would get on well together.
Barry Bricknell Pottery Kiln
    Barbara was very talented and original, and had won many awards from prestigious societies, and was also much sought after. Indeed she told me a funny story of an artist who had done a Chinese copy of one of her paintings, a compliment indeed, but had not acknowledged Barbara's original. The said artist exhibited the painting, which Barbara subsequently discovered. Barbara then called the lady in question, chatted about the lady's recent change in style, who said that she had received tuition from a fictitious teacher, and then suddenly realised that she was actually talking to Barbara herself, and offered profuse apologies. Barbara could see the funny side, but infringement of copyright can be a messy business. Then there was the time when one of her collectors had two of her paintings stolen; a real claim to fame. How she laughed when she told me that story.
    Barbara took time to explain her works to me, but didn't try to ram in down my throat or go for the pushy sale, thank God, that would really turn me off. The pair left me to browse around the gallery on my own. I hovered around the collection, but was drawn to a smaller painting which contrasted with the other predominantly red pictures. This one had cool blues and greens, with a dash of red in one corner echoed by touches of red elsewhere in the painting. To me, this small picture had unity contained in diversity. However, being a humble pensioner, I can't spend money on travel and on paintings. Besides, I wouldn't even contemplate trying to carry a painting to the opposite side of the planet. But I enjoyed the gallery.
    I had just finished writing my comments in the guest book when the couple reappeared. We chatted a little more, and I asked if they also publish the work on a website. "We have a website, but we had a problem with our computer some time back, and the chap who fixed it managed to delete the icon that links to the software package that we use, so we have been unable to update it," said Barbara. "As long as you still have the software on your computer, it should be easy to create a link to it," I said. She gave me a quizzical look, as if I was speaking Chinese, but I detected a glimmer of hope in her eyes. "Would you like me to have a look at your computer?" I asked. There was a polite hesitance, the hesitance you get when somebody doesn't want to impose on someone, but I stood up and said, "Let's have a look at your computer."
Ernie and Barbara's Cantilevered Front End of Their House
None of What You See Here is Resting on the Ground
    Ernie and Barbara led me to their work room, and I sat down next to Ernie as he booted up their machine. It was a slow machine showing the typical signs of Windows silting up over time, but once up, I searched for the software package on their machine. Ah, it had been deleted. Barbara knew we could download a free version, which we duly did, and in a short space of time we had it loaded and I put a shortcut icon onto their desktop. We then got into the package and found the route to editing Barbara's website, hey presto. It didn't take long, but they were over the moon. It was a fairly simple task for me, but for them it meant the ability to communicate their website with the world again.
    They were so delighted that they asked me to stay for a meal with them, and I was equally delighted to be asked. While Barbara prepared the meal, Ernie poured me an excellent plum juice drink that the couple had prepared as a by-product of their fruit bottling hobby, and then showed me around the unusual property they lived in. It was fairly large, 28m long in fact, with a fair depth to it. However, the ground footprint was not at all large, being confined by the small strip of land that could be built upon safely. This did not deter the couple. To increase the width, they decided to use a cantilevered approach to extend their property at the front, and as he showed me around, I could see a vast amount of the building appeared to be sitting in free space, 45m above the sea below. Ernie explained that to balance this extension, around 250 tons of counterweight sat at the inland side of the house. An engineer had been drafted in to carry out all the calculations to ensure a safe structure was provided, and an architect was employed to design the double pyramid roof structure that they had. I was most impressed with this building. Like Barbara's work, it was highly original, I had never seen a construction like this before.
    At the back of the house, a north facing courtyard had been created, with the bush hacked back, and a wall and steps tastefully built up. A lot of effort had gone into this building. And to cap it all, the front gave a most stunning view across the Hauraki Gulf, serving as inspiration for Barbara's work.
    As we ate our meal, I learned that Barbara had worked in Cork for 6 years before moving to New Zealand. Sadly Barbara's mother had passed away recently in Cork, which had understandably had an impact upon their lives, and now their artist friend Patrick Greene was ill in hospital too. They were really going through it.
    Our conversation turned to travel; the couple loved to travel and they recounted the pleasures to be had in visiting Bali. Indeed they had been there several times and seemed to adore the place.
    But sensing the couple had things to do, in fact Ernie's concreting in the courtyard was rapidly going off and need some attention. I thanked the couple for a lovely meal and our time together, wished them well, and let them carry on with their lives. They had been splendid, hospitable and friendly company; typical of Kiwis.
    It took me two attempts to find my way back down to the road, and I returned to camp to catch up on my blog. It had been an enjoyable day all round.

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Whitianga Coromandel

Uploaded from Driving Creek Cafe, Coromandel on 1st March at 14:05

Last updated 7.3.2012