As inhabitants of the silicon age we're used to instant access to almost anything our hearts desire – or wallets can afford. International travel can be booked with a few keystrokes. Accommodation and almost anything else for a holiday, ditto.

Although bookings on Queenstown's iconic steam-powered vessel the TSS Earnslaw are often done the same way by holiday-makers from all over the world, the technology that powers this lovingly kept vessel is a throwback to another age. The age of steam.

The world's most famous steam-powered vessel, The Titanic, was launched in 1911, the same year as its lesser known counterpart, The Earnslaw. No doubt the nod to an era long past is part of the attraction that sees up to 1000 passengers a day boarding the almost century-old grand dame of Lake Wakatipu.

But however quaint steaming across a scenic lake may sound, steam requires coal, and generating energy from coal requires combustion in a furnace. That means someone has to manually shovel the coal.

I'm a big fan of the silicon age, but being the inquisitive type I wondered what it would be like to step back in time and be one of the people who powered the engine-room. Not content with wondering, I decided to volunteer as a coal shoveller to get a taste of the action.

Stepping up to the coal-face (pun unavoidable) on a 27-degree day, I am greeted by the extremely firm handshake of Dan Hamilton, a coal-stoker who has just completed a year's service. He tells me I am a bit nuts, but agrees it's a good idea to throw a bit of light on the job he admits is hard-yakka but one he didn't take long to fall in love with.

The heat of the engine room is a shock – but not unexpected, and is lessened if you stand beneath vents that pump in cool air. We're surrounded by engine wheels, huge pistons, beautiful hand-wrought gauges and other slickly oiled, strictly maintained, now arcane technology.

"There's a real sense of history here," Dan says. "You wouldn't believe the amount of oil we go through, but it's all about preventative maintenance. Everything here is irreplaceable – so if you screwed something up, you'd probably jump in the lake and hope you sank, because it'd be pretty hard to live with the consequences."

The chance for a screw-up is not slim. In explaining to me how the coal needs to be spread evenly across the furnace grate and how quickly pressure can be lost, I realise a finely balanced process is in constant effect.
I'm worried about slipping on loose coal and that my shovel will end up getting caught in a piston.
Dan's a big, strong guy – and I decide if that happens I'd rather risk it in the lake, so will go for the nearest exit.

He hasn't even mentioned the furnace yet but you can't escape its muted roar and the waves of heat it emanates – so as I'm nodding and trying to take in his crash-course explanation of how steam drives the ship, my eyes are constantly drawn to the bank of four doors behind him.

"It's not about chucking it in as fast as you can," he tells me when we get down to the nitty-gritty. "I'll open up and you can see."

He opens a furnace door. Searing heat belches out and you can see why visions of hell figure so prominently as a deterrent in Western religion. If Dante's inferno was as hot as this you wouldn't want to spend a split-second there – let alone an eternity.

Back in the real world Dan directs me on where to aim my shovel loads. "Three across the back and two in front." He's talking about aiming what I estimated to be a 15kg shovel load of coal through a 60cm circular hole across leaping flames and heat haze to land in an evenly spread layer across what would be an area about 2.5 metres square. We'll take two doors each. Even from a few steps back the heat is face-meltingly fierce.

"Don't even get your hands close."

I just nod. By this time bells are ringing, whistles are hooting and it's time to go. He stokes five shovel-loads through each of the four furnace doors to show me how it's done and the steam head quickly rises. "That'll get us a little way across."

I nod again, eager for my chance among the flames and din. I want to know a bit more than just the mechanics of stoking, so it's time for some questions. The work is physically hard and carried out in tight confines. Does everyone get on?

"They have to. You have to toe the line. There's a lot of stuff like clearing out the tubes and getting rid of clinker and emptying ash that if you don't do it right it makes the next guy's shift hell. Plus we like to have a good time, so you want to be able to have a laugh as well."I get the distinct feeling anyone who didn't fit in wouldn't last long.

Depending on the quality of the coal, 600 to 800kg of ash is produced every day. Dan rues the fact the Ohai coal mine closed down last year. The high quality coal meant less was required and it yielded far less ash than any other coal.

As we're working, tourists – mostly men over 55 who'd rather see the engine room at work than the breathtaking views from the deck – manoeuvre for photos. Do they ever feel like performing monkeys?
"Yeah, but it's part of the job. We're a tourist operation – so you can't let it bother you."

As if on cue, a large, bearded Scandinavian man calls down to us, asking in broken English if he can get a photo. We mug away then get down to business. I over-reach with my first shovel load. Its edge clangs just below the door and the coal lurches in to clumsily cover a front section of the grate. I was aiming for the back. My face is already red from the heat – so I don't think Dan notices my rookie embarrassment.

I carry on. New coal spills from the gravity-fed hopper as you scoop each shovel load out. The black lumps scatter across the floor, increasing my paranoia about slipping and throwing the shovel into the piston.
After four stokes we're across and we go up on deck for some fresh air while passengers disembark and board.

What I think is an Australian approaches us. With a distinct twang he asks us if it's hard work. Dan says it's not too bad. I think otherwise but hold my tongue. The Australian turns out to be a Kiwi who's father was a coal stoker on the Auckland to San Francisco route. He shakes our hands, saying we must be only a handful of people in the world to still be doing it fulltime. I blow my cover and tell him I'm a reporter seeing what it's like. He laughs and tells me more journos should get their hands dirty.

Back in the engine room for the return trip, and I'm all about technique. A flat to the floor scoop into the hopper followed with a balanced pull back means you're set up for a nice swing. Slitting your eyes against the heat and cutting the momentum of the swing before the shovel blade reaches the door means your coal fans out evenly and exactly where you want it.

I get lost in the rhythm and concentration.

In the lull I watch the lake's water-line. Chilled and crisp and chopped by small waves, it glides by at eye-level through a port hole.

I keep an eye on the valves and watch the massive pistons stroke. It's all pretty mesmerising, and before I know it we're back in Queenstown. I'm almost disappointed, but as I'm thrown a rag, pointed to a hose and start scrubbing my coal-blackened hands, I realise I've done exactly what the Kiwi/Australian ordered, and am happy with my day's work.


Original Article by: Grant Bryant, Southland Times 


Other royalty to travel on board have been the King and Queen of Belgium, the Prince of Thailand, the Emperor and Empress of Japan.

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