Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Taieri Gorge Railway and Railroad to Gold

A Taylor family vacation wouldn't be complete without at least one train ride. Seeing as neither the TranzCostal or TranzAlpine are running until at least March 4th (to keep the railway free for shipping of supplies and goods to and from Christchurch), I'm glad we were able to experience the Taieri Gorge railway.

I booked my parents and I on what is called the "Railroad to Gold" tour: unlike the Taieri Gorge Railway excursion, which runs every day, the Railroad to Gold runs on Tuesdays and Saturdays only, and incorporates a train trip from Dunedin to Palmerston, a gold mine tour, and then another train trip back from Pukerangi to Dunedin. The trip from Dunedin to Palmerston is called "The Seasider", and was a considerably smaller train than the Taieri Gorge train: four passenger cars as opposed to eight or nine. The seating was assigned, and my mom and dad were across the aisle from me at a two-person booth, and I was seated at a four-person booth with a middle-aged man and his (very) old parents, all from Australia, and all off a ginormous cruise ship that had docked in Dunedin last evening.

The Seasider train is a 66km journey from Dunedin to Palmerston on the Main Trunk Line of the South Island. The trip takes about two hours, cruising at a nice easy speed of 40 km/hr or so. The track from Dunedin to Palmerson was completed in 1879, but it wasn't until 1945(!) that the Main Trunk Line was completed to allow rail transportation all the way from Picton to Bluff (top to bottom). We started at sea level and reached a maximum altitude of 120 metres, with a maximum gradient of 1:50 (2%), which for early steam engines would have been hard work, but for the (relatively) modern diesel pulling us was a piece of cake.

Thankfully, the awful rainy, windy weather that was supposed to materialise did not, and we had instead a lightly cloudy (if slightly muggy) morning, which provided beautiful views out and over the Otago Harbour and up the coastline. We passed through what is called the "lifestyle block" in the outskirts of Dunedin (what we would call "hobby farms" in Canada), and through four tunnels, including the Mihiwaka, which at 1323m is the tenth-longest tunnel in New Zealand. The guard provided commentary on the PA along the way, pointing out places such as Blueskin Bay (named by the Europeans in the 1830s in reference to the Maori chief Te Hikutu, whose tattoo covered his face and made his skin blue), and Seacliff, once home of the Seacliff Mental Asylum, largest sanatorium in New Zealand (amazingly, no jokes were made that I should have been sent there).

Once arriving in Palmerston (which wasn't much of anything special; a farming community and highway town), a small tour van from Oceana Gold Tours picked up my parents and I and four other people participating in the Railroad to Gold tour. The tour guide's name was Graham, and he introduced himself as being from the public relations department of OceanaGold. Combined with the fact that he was carting around a psychology textbook, I found myself having a hard time trusting what came out of his mouth (although to his credit, he seems like a very kind, level-headed, down-to-earth person).

Our first stop was Dunback, where we enjoyed a roast beef lunch with kumara and roast potatoes, and chocolate mud cake with berries and whipped cream for dessert (yummy). Then it was back in the tour van, and on to the town of Macraes, where after the DVD player in the welcome centre crapped out we moved across the street to Graham's office, and I saved him from further embarrassment by getting the DVD to run on his office mate's 24" iMac. Suitably indoctrinated with Oecana Gold's corporate welcome video, which included and overview of the mine and extraction process, it was back on the bus and on to the Macraes Flat Mine itself, which is the largest gold mine in New Zealand. It's primarily an open-cast mine, with a network of 28km of underground tunnels as well. The size of the mine is almost awe-inspiring; looking north, all the hills we could see were actually piles of waste rock from the mine, trucked over and now re-shaped and planted with grass to look like rest of the surrounding hills. The land around the mine is leased as farms, and sheep and cows could be seen munching away on what was essentially a man-made mountain.

The equipment used to extract the gold is also impressive: a collection of hauling trucks, backhoes (with buckets large enough to fit a small family car), and blasting equipment, it really does look like they are trying to dig a massive hole to China. What is even more incredible (or appalling) is for every payload carted by one 789C haul truck, which have a carrying capacity of 191 tonnes, consume 372L of diesel fuel per hour, have a 1900hp engine, and giant pneumatic tyres that cost $35 000 NZ each, only 2 teaspoons of gold will be contained in and recovered from the mined ore. And that's not even taking into account all the tonnes and tonnes of waste rock (non gold-bearing ore) that have to be carted out of the way first!

The immense size of the operation seemed even more ridiculous when we learned that all this land, ginormous equipment, and high-tech extraction technology produces just one bar of gold a day from all the mined low-grade ore. Amazingly, all this is still profitable, as gold is worth $1430 an ounce, and the bars are 400 oz, or about $570 000 US each! It just seems so incredible that we humans put so much time and effort to recovering gold, even when it is present in such tiny quantities. However, I know gold has important roles to play in medicine and technology because it doesn't oxidise; it's not just all for banks and jewellery.

At the end of the tour Graham took us to see the Golden Point reserve, in the river valley where the original gold rush gold mines were situated; the site still contains several of the sod houses (the area has very little timber) the miners lived in, as well as a working turn-of-the-century quartz stamper and a gold mineshaft we were able to walk into. Unfortunately, the area is still contaminated with high levels of mercury and other chemicals the miners used to separate the gold from the quartz; in the present day, Oceana Gold is legally bound to follow strict environmental laws set down by the New Zealand government, and must render inert the cyanide and arsenic used in the chemical extraction processes before they can bury them in the ground.

Back on the bus, it was an hour's ride to Pukerangi, a tiny train station quite literally in the middle of nowhere, where the Taieri Gorge Railway train came and picked us up at 4:30pm. I watched as the diesel uncoupled and then recoupled to the front of the train for the return journey; I was tempted to go up and try and weevil my way into a cab ride, but figured there were so many tourists (and extremely pushy old men!) I would have little chance of succeeding. Oh, well, it was just a diesel... for a steam train you can bet I would have been more bold.

The trip back along the Taieri Gorge definitely earned its moniker as "one of the world's great train trips": we were hugging the side of the gorge, a "rugged canyon of sheer schist rock cliffs and overhangs, dark peaty pools, wild whitewater and many tributary streams". Constructed from 1879 to 1891, the Taieri Gorge Railway's route was chosen because of the seven proposed routes considered in 1877, it offered the fewest engineering difficulties and was the most direct route to Dunedin. With the gold rush in the Otago area slowly abating, the railway was seen as an excellent way to improve access to crown land (and therefore, expand farming), as the roads were notoriously poor. The railway was integral to the development of Central Otago, shipping goods, produce, building supplies, and providing passenger service to and from Dunedin. 

I wish I had been able to get better shots of the gorge than I did; unfortunately, I felt like I would have needed a police riot baton to secure myself a place on the viewing platform at the back of the carriage, as it was stuffed with fat, grumpy, retired men with huge cameras. As it was I settled for simply admiring the scenery from inside the carriage, including the incredible Wingatui Viaduct, which at 197m long and 50 metres tall, is the Southern hemisphere's largest wrought iron structure. Sadly, because we were only doing the return trip down the gorge, and the commentary was only spoken on the first half of the journey, we were left to read our pamphlets and wonder where things were. One that was obvious was the brief photo stop we made at a bluff called "Arthur's Knob", which as I'm sure you can imagine had us all snickering. We took a photo for my brother.

After waiting for a track warrant to rejoin the main line, we arrived back in Dunedin at 6:30pm, and went for a short walk to a Vietnamese restaurant for dinner at my mother's suggestion (which I thought was very adventurous of her; good for you, mom!), so now I am well and truly stuffed with the deliciousness of ginger chicken, beef soup, and jasmine tea. Off to bed for me... goodnight!


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