Daniel Hicks has had a life-long love affair with steam engines and the steamboats that once cruised and continue to cruise the Mahurangi River – one of which he owns. He spoke to James Addis about his passion for steam and keeping Warkworth’s steam heritage alive …
What sparked my fascination with steam? That’s an unknown quantity, it’s been with me all my life. My father always kept and restored vintage cars so I grew up in an environment of old stuff and old interesting equipment. Then, when I was about 12 years old, my parents left our home in Warkworth to do a one-year teaching exchange south of London. One of the fantastic things about it was the house we lived in was right next to a steam railway. The trains literally ran past the end of our garden. It turned out to be one of the earliest and largest preserved railways in England, known as the Bluebell Line. When the locomotives pulled into a station, the drivers would let you climb up into the cab and a look round.
Back then, they were laying more track and restoring a bridge that had been blown up when the railway closed in the sixties. Although only a child, I was a keen volunteer working on the extension. Sadly, I had to leave four months before the work was completed, but I’m still a member of the Bluebell Railway Preservation Society and keep updated on what’s happening through their magazine.
Our family arrived back in Warkworth in 1994. There was no steam railway, of course, but there were steam boats. Alan Brimblecombe had been running steam boats along the Mahurangi River since the eighties. Initially, he operated the SS Puke, which is now part of the Maritime Museum collection in Auckland. Later, he had another steamboat called Zeltic. It was built in 1903 and had originally serviced the mills around the Whangaroa Harbour.
Mum and Dad had known Alan for years and we went for a ride on Zeltic one day. Alan could not drag me away from the engine. I was stuck to it. He said to me, “I’m getting a bit older, and I need a bit more help running this thing. Are you interested in being involved?” Naturally, I said “yes”.
The steam bug, once you get it, is very hard to get rid of. When you are dealing with a steam plant it is alive. Each has a personality of its own, their own little foibles. Two identical plants might be very different to operate. And operating is always a challenge. It’s a juggling act. You juggle the amount of steam you are able to use versus the amount you want to use. You juggle the water level in the boiler and the state of your fire. And you have got to learn to anticipate because anything you do now is not going to have an effect for five to ten minutes. If you handle a boiler badly, it’s potentially deadly. If you add water when the boiler is red hot it can flash into steam instantly and the metal designed to contain it will be pushed beyond its abilities. A boiler is a potential bomb and has to be treated with a great deal of respect.
Strangely, my interest in steam did not seem to carry over into my studies at school. I concentrated on English, history and classics at Mahurangi College. I went on to study history and ancient history at Auckland University. Political history really interested me and still does to this day. While at university, I became heavily involved in the Maritime Museum and became one of the engineers looking after SS Puke – the boat I’d first sailed on when I was just six. To this day, when little kids come on to the boat, I tell them I first came on to the boat when I was their age and, I’ll say, “Look at me, now, I’m the engineer!” Fortunately for me, I got involved in steam when a lot of older engineers were on their last legs and were very happy to pass on their knowledge and experience to me. The vast majority of those older guys have now passed on. Alan is still with us, but he is one of the few.
I left university and came back to Warkworth, not quite knowing what to do with myself and my history degree. I got a job working in dispatch for Southern Paprika – sending capsicums out the door by the tonne. Then I moved in to maintenance, taking care of the pumping systems and irrigation systems. Having a technical background in steam certainly helped – the water theme continued. It seems I can’t get away from getting wet. By this stage, Zeltic had been put in dry storage but Peter Thompson was restoring the Kapanui, named after one of the original steamships that had cruised up and down the Mahurangi River in the 1900s. I helped get the steam plant on the boat up and running, and did a lot of the early sea trials.
About 10 years ago, I moved to Splash Water Specialists in Woodcocks Road – a business which supplies and services water-related equipment. Around the same time, I went to visit Alan who had moved to Wanganui. He had taken Zeltic with him, but it was still sitting in storage. He said, “I’m never going to get Zeltic back in action. Would you be interested in taking it on?” So, I acquired the boat and brought it back to Warkworth on a trailer. I did some minor work just to get it up and running. Later, a good friend rebuilt the engine. Sadly, it’s out of action again – suffering some serious hull issues. But once those are taken care of, it will go back on the wharf, next to the Kapanui and Jane Gifford.
When Zeltic is running, I’ll steam down the coast to gatherings of fellow enthusiasts at places such as the Maritime Museum in Auckland. It takes about seven hours on a good run and quite often I do it at night when it’s generally calmer. It’s fun to see the sparks flying from the chimney. Sounds romantic?
Well, I am still single. Finding a woman who would want to get covered in coal dust, oil and soot is slightly difficult. And they tend to run away when you hand them a coal shovel. I’m interested in finding a partner, but she would have to be okay with steam engines. My property is littered with engines and parts in various states of disrepair.
Right now, my passion is to get the Mahurangi River back to where it needs to be. I’m a huge supporter of having it dredged and restored, and opening it up for more boating activities. It would be a huge economic and tourist benefit for Warkworth, and could be a potential transport link, which makes sense given our clogged roads. A fast ferry could take you to Auckland in about an hour and 20 minutes. You could easily spend more time than that in a traffic jam. But if we do nothing, the river will turn into a muddy puddle.
Up until the thirties everyone came to this town by river. It’s part of our heritage, and it’s important we don’t lose sight of our heritage. I love this town. It’s got a great history and one worth protecting.