Kawakawa: The engine Gabriel

By Danielle Wright

Danielle Wright takes her family on a vintage steam train along the main street of a tiny town with a big reputation

Gabriel steams over Bridge No. 5, which has finally been signed off by safety officials after months of delay. Photo / Bay Report
Gabriel steams over Bridge No. 5, which has finally been signed off by safety officials after months of delay. Photo / Bay Report

Most people passing through Kawakawa know it for its famous toilets, but it's also known as "train town" because of the Bay of Islands vintage railway track running right down the middle of the main street.

We head to the station after a visit to relatives in Paihia. It's just up the road from the late Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser's colourful toilets and his old boat sits behind the station building, which all the kids are climbing over, pretending to be sailors. We're later told Hundertwasser somehow managed to do much of his artwork in the tiny cabin on the boat, which he used as his studio.

No wonder he was against straight lines.

Next to the unassuming vessel is the gleaming green and black engine, named Gabriel after Mt Gabriel in Southwest Ireland and a nod to the region's Irish heritage.

When our kids spot the steam train they instinctively search for Hogwart's platform 9, from the Harry Potter books, indelibly linking steam trains with a certain boy wizard for at least one generation.

We finally convince them it's not here and hop inside a train carriage, named Pukeko, where there's a little store selling 1870 rail spikes, wooden train whistles, teaspoons and books.

We are waved on by tourists as we trundle down the main street.

We make it past the gaudy urban art and out into open fields, which are being filled with the black somke and steam from our train. We pass twisted tree roots, old English oak trees and a flood plain where blue herons forage for food.

There's also a "lava tree", a pole covered in painted toilet bowls - one is painted with the All Blacks, another with a cow and one, in yellow, depicts the Queen's stamp.

The train itself is beautifully restored by an English boat builder, and the volunteers of the Gabriel Club - set up to get the train back on the tracks and to keep it there - are extremely earnest in their dedication.

Listening to their anecdotes, we reach the end of the line at Taumarere Station.

Here, there's a children's playground, picnic tables under the shade of oak trees and the original station building (once bought by a farmer for storing stock food) which is now back at its original spot; its walls covered in historical images.

It turns out that Taumarere town used to be the largest in the Bay of Islands. Now only a few houses - and the Church of St Andrew - remain of a settlement that had about 2000 people at its peak.

Interestingly, the building of the railway to Taumarere is credited with leading to the growth of the town and extending it to Opua with its gradual decline. Let's hope the same doesn't happen when the vintage railway journey is extended to Opua in the near future.

The train's guard takes us over to a very old, long, wooden bridge. It wasn't built with today's safety standards and has a dangerous drop off the side and not much in the way of rails. After a shaky walk up and down the bridge, we all head back to engine Gabriel.

"Hands up if you're not here," says Howard Lunn, the guard. "And make sure you've got the kids you want to take home with you."

"Don't leave any behind for us," says his wife, Anne, who has been manning the shop.

On the way back, we're stopped by a truck parked across the rail tracks, which happens often apparently because the drivers don't realise it's a working track.

"Sometimes we have to get off and run around town trying to find the driver," explains Anne as we pull back into the station, a wedding group now positioned in an off-duty ruby red carriage.

The Bay of Islands Vintage Railway has had its ups and downs. It was closed between 2000 and 2006, yet there's always a local group, whether it's schoolgirls from Springbank School or the people in The Gabriel Club, to come to its rescue.

There's a real sense of community spirit around the train, and Kawakawa, which has far more to it than a famous toilet block.


Puff 'n' pull

• The annual Puff 'N' Pull event is happening on Sunday, May 26. It involves local community groups and schools pulling the famous steam engine through the centre of town. There are trophies up for grabs, dance and music performances, bouncy castles and food stalls.

• For more information and timetables for journeys throughout the year see: bayofislandsvintagerailway.org.nz. Fares are $45 for a family ticket, $18 seniors, $20 adults, $5 junior (over 5) and free for under 5s.

• Stop off at The Kid Cave on the main street for an indoors run-around if the weather turns bad.

• Refresh at the Platform Diner next to the station, which has old-fashioned cafe-style food and great service.

- NZ Herald

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