Taking the puff puff train to Arthurs Pass

When we arrived at the railway station there was nowhere to park so I drove the car up on the grass and hoped it would be there on my return.

A crowd had gathered at the front of the steam train for which we had purchased a return ticket to Arthurs Pass for the day, leaving at 10am and returning at 6pm.

We moseyed on up to the front to examine the physiognomy of the K9 puff puff train and I am happy to report that it had a lovely face, and that the driver looked the part, old and crusty and on a permanent lean out the window as cameras blazed away.

Smoke dutifully streaked the sky in artful plumes, the engine choked as if it had a furball stuck in its throat, and water gushed on to the railway line like the steamy urination of livestock on a cold winter's morning.

K9 was like a living thing as it took its loud and proud locomotive breaths, anxious to put itself through its paces in front of its admirers.

We made our way to our carriage and, as luck would have it, got seats that were facing the right way. It looked as if there would be no fellow travellers filling the vacant seats opposite, but just before the appointed time of leaving, I spotted a brace of blokes bustling along the platform.

"Hello, hello, it looks like we've got company," I said to the offsider.

Lucky for us the brothers Jim and John, were nice codgers, full of chat, as affable as all get-out and fully equipped with thermoses, the Sunday paper, and a packed lunch. I'd left the home-made filled rolls on the kitchen bench in my haste and so had to resort to the buffet car, and was looking forward to a decent lunch in Arthurs Pass.

We were under the delusion that we would have a couple of hours at our destination to drift round the township at our leisure, but more on that later.

Jim was a teacher and showed me a schoolboy joke relating to the order of train stations as he listed Sockburn, Hornby, Islington and Templeton with their capitals all lined up. Tee hee. Another list was presented to me. I was asked to spot the coincidence as I stared and stared, but being a bear of very little brain remained clueless.

The hint was dropped that it had something to do with American presidents, of which I could only find one - Clinton - failing to see his running mate Gore. Cor, am I slow and dumb. Apparently this coincidence was pointed out to President Clinton when he was last here, and we agreed that surely it must still remain a highlight of his time spent in our shores.

When the Seekers sang ''train whistle blowing, makes a sleepy noise'', they forgot to add what an incredibly mournful noise it is too, a sound that goes straight to the heart of the matter. We gave graffiti-lined walls and dreary small towns the slip before finding ourselves deep into picture postcard country, duly humbled by snowy mountains and rivers so blue and deep songs could do them no justice.

The train's passengers were a mixture of train-spotters, enthusiasts and those who just wanted a good day out and a decent eyeful. To appease the die-hard heritage train people, the trip hiccupped with stops, where we were invited to alight from the vehicle under safety instruction and threat of consequence of any wrong-doing, as the train backed up, then with mounting pace full-steamed ahead down the track, all caught on cameras.

To my amazement - for during the entire journey cars had stopped at strategic junctures to take snaps -  a light aircraft dipped and dived cheekily at us, and a chopper hovered and lunged, obviously filming the occasion. Nothing for it but to give royal waves as we left them in a wake of whistle-blowing and smoke, both white and grey as if there was a conference of popes on board and the next one had been picked.

When we pulled into Arthur's Pass we were under strict instruction to be back in half an hour's time. We panicked and rushed, as much as one could along the icy subway, into the township to scoff  a pie, and take in the little stunner of a chapel with its altar window looking out on to a waterfall.

Rushing back into our carriage in the nick of time we sat and waited. And waited and waited, ignorant of the fate of the engine, which had encountered the greatest difficulty turning around on the loop of a frosty track. Shovels had to be found, a powerful car with a rope made a botched attempt at budging the steam engine, and all number of clever Trevors came up with bright ideas.

As the feet turned to ice blocks we wondered how much a taxi would cost from Arthurs Pass to Christchurch, but just as the sun made its exit, the engine turned and we were in business, eventually making it back an hour late, precisely at the announcer's predicted time of 6.57pm.

I came home, slapped the steam train magnet on the fridge and went straight to bed.

The Press