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A view of the track ahead from the driver's cabin. Picture: Jim Gill

In Sardinia it is called "Il Trenino Verde" (The Little Green Train) and for 125 years it has been chugging across the hinterland of the Mediterranean's second-largest island. In the early days it ferried farmers, shepherds and villagers but now it is used almost exclusively by tourists and day trippers.

It is a charming name for an utterly delightful train that apparently knows no rules. Schedules exist but anyone relying on them for an important rendezvous or appointment would be well advised to think again. Although both trains I catch departed on time (give or take 10 minutes) they are hopelessly late reaching their destination.

Fortunately I couldn't care less. This train is all about the journey, the idiosyncratic ways of the drivers and conductors who run it, and some fantastic scenery travellers would otherwise not get to see on this enigmatic island.

My first point of departure is the small town of Mandas, 55km north of the capital Cagliari. It's not an easy place to reach by public transport, especially if you are given bad information. When my connecting train from the capital fails to show up (there isn't one, despite my hotel concierge's insistence) my only option is a €70 ($108) taxi ride. But one glimpse of the Little Green Train at Mandas station and I know it was money well spent.

Little more than a bus on rails, the diesel-powered train can accommodate about 50 passengers and the other advice I received was to arrive early to beat the rush. I needn't have worried. On board are two drivers, a conductor plus just another six passengers, four of whom turn out to be the family of one of the drivers.

This extraordinary narrow- gauge railway covers 600km over four different routes on the island.

The first line was opened in 1888 and this one, the longest, in 1894. During World War II it was used to evacuate families from the larger and more vulnerable coastal towns to the safer inland villages but those days, mercifully, are long gone.

With a loud whistle from the stationmaster, and an even more impressive response from our conductor, we set off on our cross-country journey to the east coast town of Arbatax.

The next five hours rival any train ride I have ever taken. I feel as if I am on some intimate family outing (which effectively I am), with the timetable very much an afterthought. We are soon in wild dusty country, which just as soon gives way to thick forests of oak and chestnut trees, then vast vineyards and glorious river valleys.

We pass through numerous old stations, most of them one building affairs, others long-since derelict. We cross iron bridges and handsome viaducts and trundle through damp, dank tunnels blasted out of the mountains more than a century ago.

In 1921, D. H. Lawrence travelled on the train with his wife, recording, rather more eloquently: "Soon we begin to climb to the hills. And soon the cultivation begins to be intermittent. Extraordinary how the healthy, moor-like hills come near the sea: extraordinary how scrubby and uninhabited the great spaces of Sardinia are.

"This is very different from Italian landscape. Italy is almost always dramatic, and perhaps invariably romantic . . . Sardinia is another thing. Much wider. Much more ordinary, not up-and-down at all, but running away into the distance. This gives a sense of space, which is so lacking in Italy. Lovely space about one, and travelling distances - nothing finished, nothing final. It is like liberty itself."

Almost a century later, it feels as if little might have changed - although, fortunately for them, the Lawrences would have made their journey under steam. Apart from the occasional "special event" the old locos are sadly a thing of the past because of their unfortunate propensity to spark forest fires.

Throughout the journey, our frighteningly young driver never stops grinning, clearly loving his job - and why wouldn't he? At one point, he invites me into his cabin for a bird's-eye view of the track ahead. Later, without warning, we screech to a halt on a bridge and he suggests I take a photograph of the landscape. On another occasion he stops and jumps off the train, running back along the track as if we have hit something - most likely an animal, I guess. But he returns soon after, jubilantly clutching three huge mushrooms. "Funghi! Deliciosi!" he shouts. Then, at the entrance to a tunnel, we stop again outside an old brick building and are ushered off the train. Retrieving a key from behind a rock, the driver opens an old wooden door. In the gloomy interior we can make out a large colony of bats.

At a tiny remote station we cross the tracks to where a local restaurateur has set up a stall, giving away hunks of delicious fresh bread smeared with homemade goats' cheese - apparently a promotion for his establishment down the road. Who he thinks he might attract from the sprinkling of travellers passing by on the train is anyone's guess. But I tell him I won't hesitate to pop in for a meal if ever I am in the vicinity again.

We stop at a petrol station and, almost surreally, a burly Sardinian lady "fills us up" before we are shaking, rattling and rolling into the highlands at the breakneck speed of about 30km/h.

As the mountains give way to coastal plains, we arrive at Arbatax, a port town of some 5000 inhabitants which also serves as a ferry terminal for passengers from Rome and Genoa. We are late, of course, which means there is just time for a beer and a sandwich in the station cafe before we are off again, back the way we came, to Mandas. This time, with a change of crew, the journey is even more intimate with just three passengers, including myself. Hardly a great money-spinner but, for the lucky few, a day trip like none other.

As the sun drops and we chug back into Mandas, I am hardly surprised to discover I have missed the last bus back to Cagliari. Lawrence might have suffered the same problem as he records spending a night in the small station. For me, though, it means another expensive taxi ride - this time $130 - which still seems a pittance for a wonderful day on the Little Green Train of Sardinia.

A few days later, on a Friday, I find myself in north-west Sardinia in the historic town of Sassari, suffering withdrawal symptoms from my beautiful train ride. But the God of Railways is smiling down on me. Once a week, on a Friday, another train departs Sassari and crosses the island to the port of Palau. I am on it in a flash. And it is just as blissful.