Thursday, June 3, 2010

Steepest street in the world

The steepest street in the world has taken everyone by surprise.


It climbs an awesome slope to history in suburban Dunedin, New Zealand - not hilly San Francisco, craggy Cumbria or alpine Switzerland.

Baldwin Street runs off a main road just minutes from the centre of the city. The little street lifts gently then rears up dramatically only to stop dead on the hillside after 34 houses.

A walk up it is a heady experience and shouldn't be missed. Choose the 270 steps past just seven houses or test your calf muscles on the path opposite - the wooden railing helps.

Turn at the top for a conqueror's view of distant hills and traffic far below and, in the serenity above the morning mist, consider why Baldwin Street residents, young and old, remain faithful to their hillside homes.

   On the right day, if the mail is still peeping from the boxes, one of the often reserved inhabitants might come out and explain why the huge macrocarpa hedge has a big, brown scar, why sightseers musn't drive up Baldwin Street, what happened when two new houses were built, or even how one man nearly lost his life.
   Although in a city that dates back to the middle of last century - and was settled by hardy, pioneering Scots who named their hilly, harbour settlement 'Dunedin - Edinburgh of the South' - Baldwin Street didn't yield its secret until 1985. The late discovery may be due to the imperturbable nature of Dunedin citizens. Thirty-three of their streets have gradients of more than 1 in 6, several higher than 1 in 4.

To matter-of-fact residents, Baldwin Street is just another of the city's casually-labelled "steep seven". Dalmeny Street is two streets away and View Street is an important traffic link in the centre of town. Only a modest sign warning motorists to park with their fuel tanks on the upper side acknowledges its grand swoop into Moray Place.

Before the Guinness Book of Records listing, Baldwin Street residents didn't consider steep streets to be a visitor attraction. More likely choices close to home were the Botanic Garden with its rhodedendrons and azaleas, the edge of city walking tracks further along North East Valley or the magnificently architectured Otago University - new Zealand's first. But in 34 houses as individual as New Zealanders themselves, residents stirred uneasily as a new dam broke on Baldwin Street.

Screams from tortured engines, human cries of anguish and sounds of crumpling metal and splitting wood became common as thrill-seekers allowed their vehicles to tell them what their eyes didn't. Cars stall when drivers try to change gear on the hill. As braking power is less rolling backwards than moving forward vehicles often career out of control. That's why the hedge is scarred and wooden street railings have new sections. A low gear whine can be heard as residents move along the gentle slope and up the hill. They know how to approach the climb and can say which vehicles shouldn't tackle the gradient.

A truck driver leaving one of the newest properties clung to the brake pedal and the cab after his lorry flipped forward at the steepest point. Locals held his huge vehicle together with rope until he reached the bottom. Later a resident said: "He is a very lucky man".

Baldwin Street IS steep - maximum gradient 1 in 2.9 angle over 38 degrees.
Afterwards, adventurous victims glance defensively at the concreted section and say: "It doesn't look that STEEP".
Wistfully, old timers remember: It used to be such a quiet street.

Like anyone newly famous, Baldwin Street is trying to come to terms with its status. The Dunedin Visitor Centre doesn't offer promotional literature on the marvel. "The residents wouldn't like it". But ask how to find Baldwin Street and you'll be given directions. Take the Normanby bus to North Road and it's the tenth street past the Gardens corner.

Some wish the street sign 'World's Steepest' didn't exist. They say only a total ban on unauthorised driving will suffice. The annual Gut Buster event in which contestants of all ages race up the monster, is gradually being accepted.
To conclude from this that sightseers aren't welcome on Baldwin Street is understandable. 

But it would be wrong; an underestimation of the helpful nature of friendly Kiwis when they encounter genuine tourists. The 

Japanese who admired an impressive camellia bush was presented with blooms by its owner, residents posed for the camera of a Canadian, and the resident who related the latest needless accident close to his home, didn't hesitate when asked if considerate visitors were welcome .

1 comment:

  1. Medellin Colombia, and Manizales Colombia are full of streets like this one. but they are not as touristic as N.Z