Delivering mail on the Birdsville Track

Tom Kruse, the eponymous Mailman of the Birdsville Track, in the biography by Kristin Weidenbach, was raised as one of twelve children to a working class family in South Australia during the years of the Great Depression. In 1932, he began his career as a truck driver on a mail run. At first, he was driving for Harry Ding, who gained a contract to make one trip per fortnight between Marree in South Australia and Birdsville in Queensland. The mail run followed the infamous Birdsville Track, which had been established as a stock route to move cattle from south east Queensland to the rail head at Marree so they could be moved to Adelaide for sale. A distance of 500 kilometres, the track had just begun to be used by motor vehicles, having previously been the domain of drovers and freight operators using camels.

Tom had never seen the Birdsville Track before he started work on the mail run. At the age of 21, he commenced work on 1 January 1936 with a brand new tandem drive Leyland Cub, and a wage of 35 shillings a week. He was presented with fresh obstacles to overcome on a regular basis, and was renowned for his ability to effect mechanical repairs along the way. He took on the contract when Harry Ding decided to get out of the business, and branched into dam construction in 1952. He also managed to find time to play himself in the movie ‘The Back of Beyond’, which chronicled life lived in outback during the middle of last century.

The book is full of accounts of incidents that became part of the Kruse legend. On one occasion, the truck hit a rut in the track, bending the front axle bent out of position. The mail truck was reversed for 6 km back to a spot where there was a big old gum tree which was used to winch the axle out. Luckily, there were a couple of passengers on board to help out with gathering fire wood, heating the axle and bending it back into shape with a crowbar and a length of pipe.

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Another famous bush repair undertaken on the track (which did not involve Tom, but was often attributed to him) occurred when a clutch plate burnt out after getting bogged in a Leyland. The group fashioned a replacement clutch plate out of a double thickness of a petrol drum, using a chisel, hammer and old file; and utilising the railing around the back of the truck as an anvil. The bush repair got the vehicle running again, and rumour has it that the makeshift clutch plate was taken to England where it is on display in the Leyland museum.

Some of the stories involve antics which took place in the Birdsville hotel. Apparently Tom liked to get down on his hands and knees and take bets that he could dislodge riders off his back by bucking them off.  The story goes that he could dislodge them on a regular basis, and used this as a means to raise money for the Flying Doctors. Another young fellow who frequented the pub at that time was able to somersault off the bar with a glass of beer, and drink the beer before landing on the floor.

The author has done a magnificent job of capturing the life and times of this era. She tells the story of self-sufficient people who were adaptable and able to improvise to get the job done, and relates the important role of Tom Kruse in the lives of outback dwellers. It was a great read. Thanks to Hachette Australia for my advanced reading copy.

Mailman of the Birdsville Track: the Story of Tom Kruse, by Kristin Weidenbach, published by Hachette Australia, is available for sale at Dymocks.

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