MEANDERING through a beautiful patch of land along the Whakatane River, River Edge Miniature Railway has been offering a fun and unique way for families to spend their Sundays since the track first opened in 2002.
With views of Whale Island in the distance – and nestled comfortably between the Rose Gardens and skate park – it is not difficult to see why this family-friendly activity shows no signs of slowing down.
Keith Wicks, who celebrated his 90th birthday in December, doesn’t seem to be slowing down either.
“I joined the Model Engineers Club in 2004,” Keith says. “I used to be in a service club before that, but the membership got so low that we cancelled it.”
“And then the railway thing came up, so I came out to it one day and was invited to come along to a committee meeting. That’s when it all started.”
After that meeting, Keith decided to join the club, purchasing an engine from the club president at the time, Dave Fitton.
Becoming part of the close-knit group of volunteers, engineers, and trains enthusiasts seemed like a natural fit for Keith who had always had a fascination for railways.
“I was interested in railway photography,” Keith explains. “And, like most people my age, I travelled by steam engine in the UK. So when I joined the River Edge Railway, and bought an engine, it was sort of the icing on the cake, really.”
Over the years, Keith learned how to drive the engine — with support from other club members like Dave – and began taking on his own passengers.
“I really enjoy driving that engine on a Sunday and you have all these people from overseas,” Keith says. “And you get talking to them, particularly when you’re setting up or when you’re finished, and you have your engine up on the steaming bay. I just love the whole scene.”
Keith recounts meeting people from all over the world – from Sweden to Texas – and those special moments when they bonded over their shared love for trains.
Of course, those unique bonds aren’t limited to only visitors. For the past 10 years, Keith has been working with Matariki Turuwhenua, who will one day become a driver and custodian for Keith’s engine when Keith hangs up his driver’s cap.
The 14-year-old from Kawerau says he has always enjoyed trains and was delighted when he first visited the track as a small child with his family.
“It was 2009 when we first went there and Keith’s train was the first one I went for a ride on,” Matariki says. “And we kept going back there every first Sunday of the month and every holiday.”
The following year he joined the club and has been actively involved ever since.
“I’ve always loved going to the railway. They’re like a family to me,” says Matariki. “Keith is like a grandfather to me. He’s taught me lots of things, lots about the steamies, and lots of old stories about back in the UK on the trains.”
When Matariki turns 15 in May, he’ll be old enough to go for his driving test. Each driver must be licensed in order to take passengers from the public out for rides. Matariki is eagerly awaiting that day.
Something else both Keith and Matariki are looking forward to is the ongoing railway track extension.
“It’s going ahead, it’s progressing,” Keith says. “At the moment it goes around twice, around the same circuit. Once it’s finished, it’ll be a figure-of-eight circuit and we’ll go around once.”
“I just hope to still be here when the track is finished,” he adds, laughing.
All of this has been possible because of the interest and ongoing support from the public over the years.
“The public, especially here, are very supportive,” says Keith. “We’ve gotten better and better, as far as ticket sales go, and we haven’t really raised the $2 price.”
For those wanting to learn more, the River Edge Miniature Railway has both a website and Facebook page. It even has a “Drivers Day” when members of the public can try their hand at taking an engine around the track.
“Every so often we have a drivers day for anyone who’s interested in becoming a member or learning how to drive the trains,” says Matariki. “We’ll have someone sit behind them and take them for a few laps. This is usually between August and December.”
As Keith passes his knowledge on to the younger generation, he knows he’s leaving it in good hands.
“It’s been good teaching Matariki,” he says. “He’s a fast learner.”