It’s been an absolute classic in terms of adventure and drama. What began as a rescue mission for stock from searing heat in the Northern Territory has so far turned into a rescue mission for farmers’ wallets, clearing cattle stranded in expensive central Queensland holding yards on account of relentless rain. But what happens in this last part takes the word ‘adventure’ to a whole new level…
My phone only seemed to ring once I’d left the yard! “Yeah, where are ya? Got a load back to Darwin for ya, get here as quick as you can.” Now I didn’t question this burst of commands, although as I drove the old Cruiser out of the town, the illuminated warning signs still said ‘Closed’ beside the Landsborough Highway, the main route towards Cloncurry. “The exporters want the cattle in Darwin, one way or another, so we’re sending you and Brownie around via Birdsville.” I’d never been down quite as far as Birdsville before, but I knew it was going to be a long detour, heading southwest from Longreach to Stonehenge, Windorah, Birdsville, then north to Bedourie, Boulia and Mount Isa, a total distance of 1380km instead of the normal 650km directly northwest through Winton. [Imagine a detour equivalent to Auckland to Wanaka! Ed.] As the Western Star still languished in the muddy soil at Warbreccan, I was allocated a Mack Titan hooked up to three trailers that was being rolled over the pit for servicing by the mechanics. By mid-afternoon, both Brownie (who was now in a Western Star) and I were loaded and on our way. As soon as I pull away from the loading ramp, the truck begins to overheat. “Switch it on and off again, that usually solves it,” comes the reply from the office. Not feeling confident that this is the required remedy, I give it a try, only to be faced with the same problem as I leave Longreach.
In a matter of minutes, another Titan was whisked out to me and I was swapping my gear into yet another truck. The sun was getting low in the sky as I once again passed Stonehenge, and I noticed green shoots of grass already appearing in the table drains on each side of the road. The roads were narrow but straight, making for an uneventful drive until I reached the jump-up [a small sharp rise] at Jundah. Despite being experienced in Volvo, Scania, and Eaton autos, which require a certain amount of knowledge in steep hills, I was a novice at the Mack mDRIVE. “Just leave it in auto and you’ll be right,” advised Brownie on the two-way radio. Bracing myself for the short steep hill I had never driven up before, I began the ascent. The revs dropped precariously low as my heartbeat went in the opposite direction – it changes down, but the change was not low enough to match the incline and I was convinced the truck would stall as the revs dropped to a barely audible note yet again. Suddenly, just as I was almost stationary, I breathed a sigh of relief as she grabbed the lowest gear possible and the revs began to climb. No sooner does this happen when it changed up again, and the revs drop, even though I tried to feather the throttle. I’m a big fan of the autos but always say that they are only as good as the man behind the wheel. If I were driving an mDRIVE full time, I’d make it my business to find out exactly how to drive one in these conditions.
Photo: Easing through the flooded Diamantina River.
That said, I’ve also always said that autos still need a lever or a stalk, not just buttons on the dash, to give the driver more control in situations such as the one described here. It’s fully dark as we drove through the remote town of Windorah, now heading west into the black night towards Birdsville. Not far out of town, the truck jolted as we departed the tarseal and dropped onto the gravel road, which lasted for the next 350km to Birdsville. We were in South West Queensland now, running along the northern boundary of South Australia, a desolate landscape where the wind blows strong across the treeless landscape. I backed off the accelerator to leave a bigger gap so I wasn’t driving in the long plumes of dust Brownie was leaving in his wake. The gravel road was in acceptable condition, although the wind was so strong I could not top 70kph, even if I’d wanted to. At midnight we called it a day on a small gravel parking bay at the crest of a desolate rise in the landscape.
Photo: Dawn after the overnight camp en route between Windorah and Birdsville.
To help sleep at night, I always wind down the landing legs, unhitch, drive forward just enough so that the trailer pin has cleared the jaws, then drop the airbags (or wind even further if the prime mover is on springs as in this case). It means I can get five hours of decent sleep rather than being woken regularly by the cattle moving and clattering over the skid plate. Birdsville is described as being situated ‘deep within a wild isolated country’, with a hot, arid climate. A population of just 140 belies the town’s reputation for hosting the world-renowned Birdsville Races every September, when between 7000 and 9000 visitors throng the place. Time for sightseeing and photographs was not a priority once we discovered by phone the road between Bedourie and Boulia had been officially shut due to flooding. There are no cattle yards and no feed out here, so we can only press on. Just before we drop down into the tiny settlement of Bedourie, I help Brownie change a wheel on his trailers. “We’ll do it here so we don’t draw attention to ourselves in town,” he adds wisely. “Unless the police stop you, just keep going,” is the directive from the office. Trying to be as inconspicuous as possible in a double deck, 3-trailer cattle road train, we held our breath as we drove though the town. Passing three or four parked freight trucks that were taking the same detour, I shook my head in dismay as one of the drivers broadcasts over channel 40: ‘Copy in the RTA trucks, you know that road ahead of you to Boulia is officially closed’.
Photo: Paul rates the Titan’s accommodation as among the best in the business.
The stupidity of people never ceases to amaze, broadcasting over the airwaves that we are flouting the restriction. ‘Yes we are aware, but what do you suggest we do with our loads of cattle in this deadend town’ I think to myself, but refrain from answering. I cracked a grin to myself as Brownie also ignores him. Onwards we pressed with bated breath as we wondered how deep the water would be in the Diamantina River on the south side of Boulia. We crossed the first part of the river, which posed no problem. As we approached the main branch it looked a lot deeper, but the metre sticks showed it at 0.4m and we crossed without any problems. We both breathed collective sighs of relief from the confines of our cabs. After refuelling at Boulia (get diesel wherever it’s available when roads are being closed is the rule), it was only another 300km to Mount Isa, although the single-lane tarmac road was in a bad state, and constant attention was required to keep everything upright. The snaking road train ducked and weaved on the uneven contours of the sunken tarmac, forcing you to look straight ahead, keep the power down, avoid any sudden movement of the wheel. Also avoid driving on to the soft shoulders at any cost. The rocky outcrops and tree-lined scenery between Dajarra and the Isa was a welcome change from the barren wilderness we had traversed over the past few days. We unloaded the cattle at the spelling yards on the edge of town and head to the RTA yard.
The Mack sleeper is one of my favourites. It has none of those pointless windows that let in light, while the bed is set at the perfect height. Sliding into the driver’s seat from a restful night in La Maison Titan, I turned my head to see fleet number 96 parked alongside: the Western Star I abandoned in a muddy quagmire just days beforehand. The rescue mission obviously didn’t take as long as expected, the road was reopened, and I question to myself the point of the detour. Still, you can only make decisions based on the information you have at the time. The cattle will be very expensive indeed by the time they reach Darwin. “We’ve a new driver in Mount Isa who we’ll start in Darwin. Can you give him a lift to Katherine today please, he’ll get out there and stay at the yard. He has a truck licence and has driven a station truck, he can do a bit of the driving,” was the instruction issued. The plan for the day was for both Brownie and I to get back into our original trucks, reload the cattle that had been fed, watered, and rested over the preceding 12 hours, and then head for Darwin.
Photo: Storm clouds at Renner Springs.
Katherine, which is 1300km away, is a reasonable target for one day’s drive. Out on the Barkly, I gave the new guy a shot behind the wheel. As boring as it can be from the driver’s seat, it’s even worse from the passenger seat, so I headed for the bunk, not for sleep, but just to stretch out. I had my head behind the passenger seat so I could keep an eye on the driving progress. When I saw him holding his phone, I let it pass as I’ve allowed him to play his own music on the Bluetooth. But I keep my eye on him. Suddenly, I see him looking down at his phone, then looking up and tugging at the steering wheel to straighten his trajectory. “HEY!!!” I roared at the top of my voice as I leapt from the bunk and gave him an earful. I explained to him that this is exactly how guys turn over road trains, or roll trailers, simply not concentrating on the job. At the iconic Threeways Roadhouse, I took back control as the 600km run from here to Katherine along the Stuart Highway has a few unexpected bends. We rolled into the RTA depot in the dead of night where I deposit my passenger and press on towards Darwin.
Photo: Sign distances you’ll never see in Aotearoa.
The scenery grows ever more green as you head further and further north towards Darwin’s tropical climate. The road twists and turns as it makes its way through the rivers, rolling hills, and rocky outcrops. Having unloaded the cattle, I cleared my gear out of the truck once more in preparation to fly back to Ireland where my mother’s battle with terminal cancer was finally drawing to a close. She loved reading about my trucking adventures and often asked how the writing was going. It would be a year later before I had the opportunity to write about this trip while in mandatory quarantine in a Sydney hotel due to Covid- 19. I hope you all enjoyed reading it as much as she would have.
Photo: Roadhouse at Dunmarra.