Nestled in the belly of a pine forest at the end of a long, gravel road, the isolated settlement of Ngahape is a pocket of New Zealand’s North Island most Kiwis have never heard of. When dusk falls, the peaks of the Ngahape Hills are rendered jagged silhouettes against the night sky. Possums forage. And if you listen carefully you may hear the rattling of a train, even though there’s no public transport for miles.
Ngahape (pronounced nyar-happy) consists of a handful of houses, one of which belongs to Ken Evans. Twelve years ago he converted a 1960s schoolhouse into living quarters – or, more aptly, into a shrine for all things that chug. An old signal box (now converted into a letterbox) outside his house is just a small indication of the 75-year-old’s train mania. The centrepiece is a 482-metre ride-on train track that loops around the periphery of his one-and-a-half-hectare property. Ken has spent the last six years single-handedly building and extending the track, which he often rides after sunset.
Ken may live a fairly solitary existence but he isn’t averse to guests. He opens the door to me wearing a whistle and a red cravat around his neck. Badges of trains are pinned to his blue-and-white striped cap.
We walk through the old school cloakroom, now a toolshed. Saws, spanners, screwdrivers – Ken collects his tools in multiples of 20.
Ken immigrated to New Zealand from England in 1974, living in Wellington for nine years where he worked as a machine setter, before taking voluntary redundancy and moving to Martinborough. When the wine-loving town filled up with yuppies and farmers began firing gas guns at 2am to scare birds off their grapes, Ken decided it was time to find somewhere more peaceful to live.
He leads me into the main area of the house, a kitchen- cum-living-room. Structurally the room is exactly the same as when the school closed in 1967. The only changes Ken has made are to the old storage area, which is now a bathroom. He’s also knocked out a small window and replaced it with French doors to get a better view of the Ngahape Hills. At the far end of the room is a blackboard with chalk drawings of a cat’s face and a farm on it, illustrated many years ago by the last children to live here. Ken touches up the drawings with chalk whenever they fade. In front of the blackboard is a model railway complete with polystyrene hill and blue- sky background. Posters of locomotives cover the walls and his living room table is cluttered with half-built model trains
Ken picks one up and hands it to me.
‘You can buy finished models in the shops for around three-and-a-half grand, but where’s the fun in that?’ he asks, his West Midlands drawl still thick. ‘I get satisfaction from making something for nothing. I make me models for 90 bucks and give them away to friends.’
Ken sources the parts for his model trains from metal- cutting factories, wandering around looking for damaged and watermarked off-cuts to recycle. He peels off one train’s roof and shows me inside. The layout is meticulous. Compartment walls are made from cornflake boxes and velvet is stapled to polystyrene cubes to make seats. There’s even a tiny action figure where the driver should be, although it’s an American traffic cop because Ken couldn’t find a train driver.
This traffic cop typifies Ken’s spirit: it matters not if he doesn’t have exactly the right tools for the job, he’ll find a way of finishing whatever he starts. With a non- existent budget to construct the track in his back garden, Ken acquired free supplies from steel factories, farmers’ fields and the local lime works. In one particularly fruitful mission to the rubbish dump, the savvy scavenger found a heap of fence battens that he converted into sleepers.
While foraging for materials, Ken worked hard to prepare his back garden so the track could be laid. He did around 40 per cent of the work with a pick and shovel, and then flattened several embankments with a digger that he borrowed from the Mainline Steam Preservation Group (just north of Wellington) where he volunteers occasionally.
The foreman noticed him eyeing the digger one day and before Ken knew it they’d loaded it onto a truck and driven it to Ngahape with a full tank of diesel and a spare 44-gallon drum. Mainline Steam refused to take any money for the loan.
‘I only had it for a month, but I dug like bloody crazy,’ Ken says, making digging motions with his hands. ‘When I first saw this property I thought I could forget about putting a railway here because there were great big dips and gullies, see. But with the digger I managed to get most of the hard yakka out of the way.’
After the bulldozer blitz, all of the major obstacles were gone and Ken started laying the track. First, he mowed the grass until it was extremely short. He then sprayed it with weed killer, spread lime and laid down plastic sheets. All this was flattened with a homemade steamroller that Ken constructed by filling a plastic drum with concrete and attaching it to a metal handle. Next, stones were placed on top of the plastic sheets and the fence battens were sawn into small blocks. For the track, Ken took steel from a truck-driver friend who noticed that a big pile had been sitting in a warehouse for seven years – an order someone had neglected to pick up. Ken paid $200 for the lot and cut the steel into pieces before slotting them into grooves he’d cut into the fence battens. The only screws on the circuit are where the track crosses over itself.
After hearing all about the track, I’m keen to take a ride.
Ken squeezes into Wellington boots and leads me into the back garden. We walk past the old school toilets and over to a large shed. The doors creak as Ken hauls them open. Timber planks and rusted steel strips are strewn around a treasure trove of junk. There’s a rusty minivan, a pokie machine, two spare carriages and a dirt bike on which Ken sometimes hoons around the forest.
Ken wheels a four-metre-long train out of the shed, refusing any help from me. The train is black and made from corrugated steel. It gleams, decorated with a green band and gold trim. On the front is the number 147 after the model type; these digits glow in the dark. The train also has a horn, a bell and a front light, and pulls a slightly smaller carriage, which is more like a padded bench. He instructs me to straddle the carriage and climbs into a small compartment at the front of the train. With a whistle blow we’re away, chugging at six kilometres an hour.
We ride in an anticlockwise direction with the house behind us, sliding underneath an overhanging tree, which momentarily encapsulates us in its drooping branches. We approach a pond filled with frogs and fringed by reeds and aloe vera plants. I can’t see Ken’s face, but I know he’s beaming. Riding his train makes him ecstatic; his joy from being able to share it with somebody else is palpable.
We veer left and ride amongst tufts of wild grass. The Ngahape Hills jag to our right as we come to the first of three bridges beautifully finished with criss-crossed wooden struts. Ahead, more trees drape over the track and it feels like we’re entering a jungle – or an Enid Blyton novel. I keep my eyes open for fairies and goblins, for hidden doorways to mysterious, faraway realms.
The trees clear out for a breath or two and then we cross a second bridge, entering a forest of young pines. Ken flicks a junction switch at the side of the track just as we’re about to exit the forest. This detours us away from the shed where we started. We now arc left over another bridge and into a tunnel, a traffic light turning from red to green as we pass. Above the entrance a plaque says: Abandon hope all ye who enter. This, Ken tells me, is what was written on the entrance to nineteenth-century workhouses.
Darkness smothers us and above the chug of the engine I swear I can hear Ken chuckling. This tunnel is where I’ll discover that Ken’s railway is actually a portal to another dimension, I think to myself. And in some ways it is. Even though we emerge after a few moments of darkness on the other side of the pond to an audience of frogs, not gnomes or giants, every time Ken rides his railway it transports him to another place. Sitting at the helm, tooting away, Ken has the aura of a boy surrounded by presents under a Christmas tree.
After repeating about two thirds of the track, our five- minute journey ends and we’re back at the shed. I’m struck by not only how hard Ken must have worked to build such a fine track (as well as his age when he built it), but also by the level of maintenance it must require. Not surprisingly, he’s got it covered.
‘I’ve invented this thing called a silly cleaning wagon,’ he tells me, wheeling the train back into the shed as it begins to drizzle. ‘It’s designed to go around the track and clear it of any leaves, twigs and gravel. Otherwise the train could get derailed, see. Before I had it, I had to clean the tracks with a bucket and brush.’
He slams the shed doors shut and gestures for me to follow him around the side. The way he scampers belies his senior years as he heads to a white tarpaulin covering something large and oddly shaped. Every year he hosts a large barbecue for the model railway club and next year he has a surprise for the kids, a new installation for his tunnel.
He lifts off the tarpaulin to reveal a gigantic papier mâché dinosaur head that looks like a prop from a 1950s Godzilla movie. It’s made from sand and cement and is held together with netting. The green Tyrannosaurus Rex-like creation has a large red tongue, flared nostrils and thin white teeth. There’s a light bulb at the back of its throat and the inside of its mouth is covered with tin foil to reflect the glow. The light will also make the dinosaur’s Perspex eyes shine. Ken has wired the mouth with an electric device so it will open and close. He recently attended a dinosaur exhibition at Wellington’s Te Papa museum to record roaring dinosaur sounds. The idea is that when the train crosses a certain section of track (just before the tunnel entrance), a circuit connected to the traffic lights will be triggered, switching on the light bulb in the dinosaur’s mouth and the tape recorder.
Just before we go back inside, Ken shows me his latest project – a six-metre-long shed, which contains a bustling network of miniature railway tracks. The walls are decorated with landscape art. Ken jokes that he’ll be dead before he finishes it.
Back in the house we eat microwaved pizza. I’ve been here for over five hours and by the way Ken’s talking it seems as though he hasn’t had a visitor in months. He’s never been married, although you could argue that he’s married to his trains. I sense that he enjoys his bachelor lifestyle too much to have room for a partner. His only companions are a cat and a dog, Daisy, who follows closely at his heels. Daisy is a nervous wreck, shuddering and diminished inside a frail body.
‘The guy who owned Daisy before me was a demented bugger called Blair,’ says Ken. ‘He used to mutilate himself, so you can imagine the state she was in when I got her.’ He pauses to look at Daisy. ‘They never forget.’
Light streams through the window and catches a cataract in Daisy’s left eye. Ken hands me a brew and I take a sip.
‘This idiot Blair chopped his willy off with a pair of cutters,’ says Ken out of nowhere. I nearly spit out my tea.
‘He then cut off his hand on a circular saw because his mummy went to Australia without him. Threw it over a hedge so they couldn’t sew it back on. Blair didn’t want a prosthetic hand. He wanted a Captain Hook-style claw so he could go around Martinborough threatening everyone. He tried it with me the first day I moved there. I thought: Christ, I’ve only been here two bloody hours. I was walking up the road to fetch groceries and there’s Blair coming towards me with his two cronies either side of him. I thought: What am I going to do, let him threaten me or what? So I stood up tall, ignoring his mates, see, and I said, “Son, you threaten me with that hook and I’ll shove it up yer jacksy.”’
Ken bursts out laughing. His throaty guffaw is contagious.
‘Blair wasn’t happy with just chopping off his hand so he cut his feet off under a train.’ Ken claps his hands together. ‘The commuters were screaming their bloody heads off.’
Blair survived but eventually hung himself in 2006.
I’m keen to steer the conversation elsewhere to find out why Ken prefers locomotives to lovers, but he reads my question as an invitation to explain his fascination. Railways were the kingpin of the industrial revolution, he believes, and without them it wouldn’t have happened for another 200 years. But there is a more poignant reason for Ken’s love affair.
‘I remember seeing trains when I was seven years old, smoke coming up and choking you to death on the bridges. The railway ran down the bottom of our garden. It used to blacken Mother’s washing.’ He pauses, looking out of the window at his track. ‘I guess I’m trying to recapture me youth. Unfortunately, it don’t work.’
Silence floods the room, a tangible sadness as heavy as the rain falling outside.
It’s time to leave. Ken helps me reverse out of the driveway by blowing his whistle and directing me with his hands. And then as quickly as his house appeared it is gone, lost in the isolation of the Ngahape forest where Ken is free to pursue his childhood fantasy.