Friday, November 6, 2020

Following on from the popularity of his Kimberley Crusaders piece (New Zealand Trucking magazine, June 2020), we’re going to run into Christmas with an epic three-parter from Paul O’Callaghan’s outback adventures driving cattle trains. If you think we have detours in New Zealand, read on…

Australia is well known as a land of extremes. Whether it’s floods, droughts, or bushfires, the continent’s climate is always making headlines.

Setting the scene
The story I’m about to tell involves two weeks of Aussie outback trucking caused, and affected by, extreme weather. We’ll cover thousands of on and off-road kilometres in remote areas of the Northern Territory and Queensland. We’ll get stuck in mud, have to abandon the truck for days, break down, take massive detours, all the while taking photographs to share with New Zealand Trucking magazine readers. After two weeks of housesitting in Broome, Western Australia during the oppressively humid wet season of 2019, I was keen to get back behind the wheel and ‘cart some cows’. All across the Top End (North Australia), cattle producers were getting nervous as they stared down the barrel of a second failed wet season. That meant slim pickings and similarly slim cattle. I made a call to Alec ‘Large’ McInnes, chief planner for Road Trains of Australia (RTA) in Darwin. “Get yourself on a plane,” he said. “We’re flat out de-stocking the Barkly.

I’ll have a truck ready when you get here.” Alec and I have a good working relationship and I’d been coming and going from Darwin for the past seven years. Arriving at the yard, he handed me the keys to fleet number 96, a 2017 Western Star 6900 Constellation FXC that would do just fine. The Western Stars, although not regarded by the die-hards as a true ‘bush truck’, have a big sleeper and the best air-conditioning of all the big-bonneted trucks, a highly desirable feature at this time of year. Power cames from a Cummins ISXe5 433-448kW (580-600hp), backed up by Eaton Roadranger’s 18-speed manual gearbox. “You’re loading at Helen Springs number six yards at daylight. There will be six other trucks there too.”

Photo: Waiting in Winton.

Helen Springs Station is about 700km south of Darwin, just off the Stuart Highway, a road I have travelled many times hauling export cattle back to Darwin from Queensland. Departing midmorning, I stopped off at the RTA depot in Katherine to top up the 2500-litre tanks on the big Star as well as the three 400-litre tanks on the trailers. Late in the evening, I swung off the Stuart Highway onto the Barkly Stock Route, a 500km stretch of dirt running due east, and I began to see the effects of the bone-dry conditions. The temperature was up in the high thirties, but a substantial breeze blowing across the dusty plains took the oppressiveness out of the humidity. Opening and closing a few sets of gates on the way, I arrived to see RTA trucks already there; Kenworths and Macks that had returned from a previous de-stocking job somewhere else on the vast, and now arid, Barkly Tablelands.

The Barkly Tablelands is a huge, virtually uninhabited area that stretches from the eastern end of the Northern Territory into North West Queensland, and features vast swathes of land perfectly suited for breeding cattle. The animals are mustered the day before, rested in the yards overnight on hay and water, ready for trucking the following day. Beginning at daylight and working as a team, we had all of the road trains – three trailers each, referred to as six-decks – loaded by midday, a total of 1008 cows, 144 per unit. The dry, dusty dirt tracks back through the station homestead were badly corrugated, and despite the slow speed, the interior of the Western Star shook alarmingly. Frantic rattles emanating from the heavy upright fridge and flimsy wooden drawers made me really look forward to the bitumen ahead. It’s a long, boring slog across the Barkly Highway, uneventful until you hit Mount Isa and brace yourself for the last 120km to Cloncurry. That leg is a winding ribbon of road requiring full concentration. Having covered more than 900km, the cows are unloaded and rested at the Cloncurry cattle yards overnight.

Photo: From left: Ben, Charlie, and Paul at Winton.

The humidity is so high that a decent night’s sleep is only possible if you have a secondary air-conditioning system independent of the main engine, generically called an Icepack, after the dominant brand, the brand fitted to the Western Star. Pulling back the curtains in the morning, the sight of rain was not something we had been expecting. Although, you can legally travel for up to 30 hours with cattle, discretion is used and animals in poor condition are rested more often and for longer periods. As such a relaxing day is spent in Cloncurry and I appreciate the Star’s big sleeper to lounge around in.

An eventful start to the day: Ben, driving one of the Mack Titans, drove off the gravel and onto the dirt in an effort to leave more space for trucks to park behind him. Normally, this is not a problem, but the rain had made the ground soft and he became trapped in the mud. As a loader arrived to pull him free, a Scarcella Transport double B-double fridge outfit missed the road closed sign on the bypass, and needed to turn around – in his defence, we had moved the sign to access the cattle yards. He had to unhook his trailers and get them each facing the other way. It was going to be an eventful day. Throughout the reloading process the rain continued to bucket down, and we were apprehensive leaving Cloncurry, heading east toward the next staging point at Longreach. Turning right off the Flinders Highway onto the Landsborough Highway, the illuminated signs said the road was ‘open with caution’. Approaching the tiny settlement of Kynuna, there was water over the road in many places, requiring me to slow down. As I reached a particularly deep stretch, I noticed a police car on the other side with lights flashing. The officer called me on channel 40 and instructed me to proceed, but to stop for a chat once I reach her.

The flooded road is no real problem for the big truck, although getting water into the wheel bearings is best avoided. “How deep is it mate?” she enquired, and informed me that legally, she had to close the road once water gets over 400mm in depth. The problem is, if people get stranded in the middle of nowhere they run out of food and water. Big fines are imposed, even on trucks, if you dare go through a road that has been closed, although sometimes you need to make big decisions when it comes to cattle welfare versus technical road rules! More on this later in the trip. By the time I reached the town of Winton, and with no let-up in the rain, the RTA Longreach office was on the phone telling me I need to stop, that the road had been closed. By now, it was really lashing, with rivers of water running along the side of the road. At a remote parking bay, a handful of other trucks chatted on the CB about the conditions ahead. The decision was made to press on and face the consequences later. There wasn’t much use stopping in the middle of nowhere with cattle on, so we were best to take our chances. Luckily, the road was passable and by evening, I made it to Longreach and unloaded.

Photo: A Queensland pub in Winton.

The plan was to head back west to the town of Winton where there were export cattle destined for the Darwin live export market. Given the road was closed after we scraped through by the skin of our teeth the day before, it was going to be interesting. Two-hundred kilometres back to Winton, we parked on the bypass street around the town, among other road trains also held up by road closures. A visit to a traditional Queensland bar was a must in these situations. They are like something from bygone days, with their horseshoe shaped bar and high ceilings. We struck up a conversation with two uniformed lads who informed us they were dropping off a boat for the town, in the likely event the rain keeps coming. Charlie (a semi-retired farmer from Victoria driving a Kenworth T909 for RTA) and I could do no more than look dumbfoundedly at each other. “Doesn’t look like we’ll be loading for Darwin tomorrow,” he quipped, and suggested we had ample time for another schooner of Great Northern.

Photo: Break time at the famous Threeways Roadhouse.

There was no panic getting up early, as we certainly weren’t going anywhere. The humidity was high so the Icepack was a must for comfortable sleeping and idle days. There were public toilets just around the corner, and we were allowed to use the pub’s showers, so we had no complaints. A walk around town revealed the Winton Truck Museum. A donation box entry, we killed a few hours looking at the old gear, most donated by private collectors. Interestingly, there was just about every make present; old Macks, Atkinsons, a MAN, and an Autocar to name a few, but no Kenworths. There was indeed an era when Kenworth was not ‘King of the bush’.

With no sign of the rain abating, and the cattle yards at Winton running low on feed, we decided to load the animals and bring them back to Longreach, the direction from which they’d initially come. The ship was already docked in Darwin, so the exporters would be getting nervous, as their profit margins were rapidly diminishing due to extra expenses now being incurred. Charlie, Ben and I each loaded 180 Brahman steers and heifers, all of similar weight, destined for feedlots in Indonesia. So, there we were, backtracking across the flat, featureless, plains to Longreach, battling a side wind that had the Western Star and six-decks struggling at 70kph in places. Once there we offloaded and joined the growing number of company trucks at the RTA yard. As more rain fell, we trudged across the muddy yard toward the recreational area. All we could do was wait.

Photo: Loading in the heat at Helen Springs.

See October 2020 for part 2