Cass: Colourful character right on track

By Jim Eagles

Barrie Drummond is the only ganger at the alpine station. Photo / NZ Herald
Barrie Drummond is the only ganger at the alpine station. Photo / NZ Herald

Sixty-three years ago when Rita Angus did her famous picture of Cass Railway Station - voted a few years ago as New Zealand's greatest painting - she depicted a small figure sitting on the platform, dwarfed by the surrounding mountains, smoking a pipe and presumably waiting for a train to arrive.

These days, if you stopped at the station in the TranzAlpine train and saw a figure sitting there, it could only be one person: Barrie Drummond.

Barrie, who for the past 23 years has been the ganger responsible for the highest section of the track linking Christchurch to Greymouth, is now the only resident of Cass.

At the town's height in 1910 there were 300 residents but over the years numbers have dwindled and today there is only his old railway house - "the only railway house, the only one they still own, in the country", he claims proudly - and a couple of places used as holiday homes.

So no surprise then, when we left the TranzAlpine at Cass, it was Barrie who was waiting beside the little red station shed to grab our bags from the luggage van, toss them into the back of his station wagon and extend a meaty paw of welcome.

Thanks to the Angus painting this is, for all its tiny size, arguably the most famous railway station in New Zealand.

"It's got to be the most photographed building in the country," says Barrie. "Cars are always coming down here off the main highway and people jump out with their cameras."

As well as maintaining the track, shunting freight trains and carrying out emergency repairs on rolling stock he also keeps the celebrated station spic and span, mowing the surrounds, touching up the paintwork and removing rubbish from the platform area.

But today the craggy figure of Barrie is equally woven into the story of Cass, attracting film crews, publicity and fan mail on his own behalf.

For some time he's had a starring role in the train commentary. As we approached Cass the train manager told us the station was run by "a real mountain man, who lives here all alone through the icy winter when snow lies deep on the ground. People say he can bend train tracks with his bare teeth and they call him Rambo."

This cold and lonely picture touched the heart of one TranzAlpine passenger, Barbara Wallace, from sunny Motueka, who took time out from knitting woollen blankets for orphans in Moldova to make a blanket and a pair of socks for Barrie to keep him warm during the winter.

A TranzRail press release about Barbara's kindness attracted the interest of television's Close Up, which did a story about Barrie, and suddenly he was famous.

The resultant fan mail included a declaration of love from a woman in Nelson and a wad of poems sent by 27 pupils from Kauri Room at Tiritea School near Palmerston North. "Look at these," he said, turning the pages, many with pictures of him. "Some of them are quite good."

A couple of samples:

The population is one
His feet are probably numb
When there's a call-out
He won't muck about
He's Barrie from Cass
He lives in the Alps
When the train stops he helps
His name is Barrie
He has no one to marry
A lady knitted him a blanket
To keep his toes from turning
blue

But Barrie is also a focal point for the small community in the mountains. The day we arrived he was busy working on a pitch and putt course he is developing on the land alongside the tracks. "It'll give people something else to to do when they come here," he says. "I think it'll be quite good."

Every November for the past 13 years he has organised the Cass Bash, a party for about 250 people, the focal point of which is a cricket match between teams loosely representing locals and KiwiRail staff. "We get people here from all over. It's a lot of fun."

In addition, the weekend after the Bash 160 children from the Lindwood Railway Social Club, and their parents, come up to Cass for their Christmas Party. "They have a great time."

To make these events possible Barrie has gradually transformed one of the old railway sheds into a hall, complete with a stage for the band, a bar and a display of the T-shirts he produces for each Bash.

This year's shirt has a wonderful picture of last year's Bash showing the hall, with a marquee attached, banners flying ... and a car parked on the roof. Eh?

The explanation for this remains a little obscure to me but it clearly involves a long-running local practical joke.

The car in question was evidently once the courtesy car for the Bealey Hotel. It appears for some reason the previous owner of the hotel told locals the car had been stolen but, in fact, hid it in a patch of bush.

Unfortunately for him it was discovered and has since done the rounds of the district, being kidnapped by local groups, each of which then demonstrates its triumph by putting the car on display somewhere prominent ... like one of the railway buildings.

At the time I was there the car had just been lifted by helicopter up to the top of an extremely steep ridge above nearby Grasmere Lodge. Lodge owner Tom Butler, who seems to have been responsible for this, gleefully points out a small gleam of white high above and hands over some binoculars so I can confirm it is indeed a car.

So what happens next? "Who knows. It's up to someone else to move it if they want to. In the meantime it's just nice to look out the window and see it up there."

Barrie, meanwhile, is affecting mild disapproval that his Bash has to go ahead minus the car. Still, he has run off extra T-shirts, which do show the car on his roof, to send to the children of Kauri Room to thank them for their poems.

And he also gave a couple to my wife and me. "There you go," he says gruffly. "You're the first people to get these this year. And probably the first from Auckland to get Cass Bash T-shirts at all."

We were honoured. And I think Rita Angus might be rather pleased it's a bloke like Barrie who's taking such good care of the station she made famous.

Saddle up for a ride on the mild side

Controlling a horse without a bridle and bit is a 360-degree turn on all my past riding, but here I am, riding a large Clydesdale-cross with just a halter and central rein for guidance, and thoroughly enjoying the experience.

Clyde, my aptly named mount, follows behind quietly spoken Heather Harrington astride Flockers, who tells me about the day she attended a Pat Parelli riding course and how it changed her whole outlook on how to train horses.

Naturally you have to train the riders as well, but as we rode across the beautiful hillsides of Grasmere Lodge, where Heather runs some of her 14 horses, it didn't take too long to adjust to the new style.

However the wise rider listens to all the instructions; it's a long way to fall, even if it is softened by the drizzly rain.

We ride past Mounts Misery, Baldy and Horrible, just some of the beautiful backdrop scenery to the lodge while Pippa, Heather's frantic Jack Russell terrier, scurries about in search of rabbits. The horses aren't fazed, they know her antics too well.

The sudden appearance of a tame deer does spook them but Heather's calm voice brings order and we wend our way slowly back to the barn.

It has been a relaxing two hours and my only error was to forget how tall Clyde was. When I climbed off I suddenly found myself on my back eyeballing the horse, but there was no panic in his eyes, only surprise.

- Chris Eagles

Mix of past and present to be found at Lodge

We took the golf cart down to the main house for dinner.

We had planned to walk but spent too long sitting in the lounge of The Cottage, hypnotised by the stunning view below: the Cass River chattering across the valley floor, its banks lined with yellow-flowering broom, and behind it the green hills rising steeply up to the snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps.

Besides, up here at 700m it can be a little chilly in the evening, and the accommodation at Grasmere Lodge is spread out over quite a wide area. The nearest place to us, The Chalet, would have been several hundred metres away and the main house was quite a distance beyond that.

Dusk was falling as we puttered down the roadway, but fortunately the golf cart had lights, and lights were also sparkling in the windows of the old Grasmere Station homestead.

This has been a high country farm since one Joseph Dawson arrived from Australia in 1858, built a two room cob-and-slab hut and began running sheep.

These days as well as being a working sheep and deer farm the station is one of the country's most luxurious lodges but, charmingly, those original two rooms are still there.

When executive chef Derek served our roasted pumpkin and apple soup he drew attention to the creaky floor boards. "This room is 150 years old," he said, "and there are no piles. The floorboards were just laid on tree trunks. So it's no wonder there's a bit of movement."

Later, when he brought the porcini rubbed rack of lamb with caramelised onions and rosemary red wine jus, Derek added that there was a biography of Dawson in the lodge library. "There's a lot of books on the history of this place and it's a great story," he said. "It's well worth reading about."

It's that mix of past and present which makes the lodge special. There is now a heated swimming pool, huge wine cellar, tennis courts, beauty spa and gymnasium ... not to mention electric golf carts to move between the buildings scattered round the property. But the landscape is still every bit as spectacular as when Joseph Dawson first settled here so long ago.

CHECKLIST

Further information: You can find out about the Scenic Rail Pass, the cheapest way to see the country by rail, at tranzscenic.co.nz.

* For background information on the painting of Cass by Rita Angus see christchurchartgallery.org.nz.

* Grasmere Lodge, near Cass, is on the web at grasmere.co.nz.

* For information about visiting Christchurch and the wider Canterbury region see christchurchnz.com.

Jim Eagles travelled New Zealand by rail with help from KiwiRail, Air New Zealand and the regional tourism organisations along the way.

- NZ Herald

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