One of my first memories was of a trip on Puffing Billy. Mom took us all on a trip to Cockatoo and back. We had a picnic in the park at Cockatoo. This was the one and only picnic in the hills that mom had anything to do with.
It was a wonderful day. The picnic a delight. The trip on Puffing Billy I most certainly will remember all my life. The smell of the smoke, the very beautiful trestle bridges over ravines and creeks that seemed to be a mile deep. I sat with my feet out the window holding onto the bars for grim death and mom with a good grip on the back of my jumper. What an exciting day for one so small (I was about three years old). The whistle was a musical instrument that not only echoed around the hills but it ticked every vertebra in my back. As I grew up the sound of that whistle would stop me in my tracks for a second and I always had that special tingle down my back. I was not the only one to be affected like that; for I saw a few of the oldies hesitate a little when that beautiful, haunting music wafted by and a little smile tugged the corners of their mouths too.
But now I am grown up and walking up the street one day with my brother Tony. Halfway there someone had dropped a heap of really big metal rubbish on the side of the road. Tony reckoned it must have been dropped off a truck. We stopped to check it all just in case there was something good. A huge flat coil spring about eight feet in diameter intrigued me. It looked a dead ringer of the spring in Reg's windup toy train; only massively bigger of course. Tony looked at the huge spring too, then made an authorative and intelligent observation.
'All this stuff is spare parts for Puffing Billy.' He says.
Now I know that Tony is pretty smart but he does have his moments and can be sneaky at time. But I am a man of the world. He couldn't trick me.
'What is this spring for then?' I asked.
'To make it go, you goof.' he said.
I thought that one over for a minute.
'Why have they got a fire going in the engine then?' I asked.
'There are no windows in the engine, so the fire keeps the driver warm in winter.' Tony was just getting warmed up to. 'And to keep the steam whistle working,' He added.
'Reg's spring is nearly as big as his train, why isn't this spring as big as Puffing Billy then?' I asked.
'Well, Reg's train can go around the track about ten times before it needs winding up but Puffing Billy only has to go to the next station.'
'Oh' I said.
I really didn't believe this, but I thought I might just go to the station next Saturday morning and have a look at Puffing Billy. It's been a while since I did that.
The next Saturday morning, I was at the station when Puffing Billy came in, puffing smoke and steam over all. Mr. Gates (the stationmaster) and the engine driver started talking. I didn't see anything of a big key and looked at the side of Puffing Billy but couldn't see any key hole. I could have missed it so I thought I would come back tomorrow but still nothing. So I bit the bullet and decided to ask Mr. Gates. It went like this.
'Good morning Mr. Gates.'
'Good morning, young Oliver.'
'Mr. Gates, where do they wind her up?' I indicated the engine.
'Huh' said Mr. Gates blankly.
The engine driver leaned out to hear the conversation.
'The engine.' I said again, 'Where do they wind her up?'
A light came into Mr. Gates eyes and a big smile to his face.
'Young Robert, you are the only one being wound up here.'
Then the driver nearly collapsed with laughter. I though a quick withdrawal was the way to go then (and a bit red in the face). I didn't really believe all that rubbish Tony told me. I only went to the station to see that Puffing Billy was going OK.
The next Sunday morning I was on my way to the station again. This time to check out under the station for coins. On the way, I met John Stone going to the station as well. We came to an agreement to split 50/50. After half an hour in the dust, our total was nine pence. Then a little debate and we decided on a large bottle of lemonade and four pence of lollies. Sitting at the window table of the Magpie cafe, opposite the station, sipping lemonade and eating lollies, we pretended to be hero's from the movies, looking out at the peasants. What a way to kill an hour. It was great.
Tony and Bill would swing onto the step of one of Puffing Billy's carriages when she slowed at the top of Kia-ora Ave. they would ride on the step to Belgrave. Then they would walk home. I was itching to be able to do this but I was never game. But one day at Upwey station, I climbed onto one of the buffers behind the guards van. I had a terrible trip to Tecoma station with nothing to hold onto. Never again that sort of trip for me. I reckon in the future I would stick to riding inside.