I’ve flown over the Bungle Bungles in Kimberley region of Western Australia a half a dozen times, but each time I see them I am lost for words — and anyone who knows me well knows that doesn’t happen very often. When I was driving road trains in the Kimberley, the Northern Territory and across the Nullarbor I got to know those beehive shaped domes really well at ground level.
The first time I drove through the Kimberley region I was blown away by the endless ranges, rivers and vegetation. Travelling to stations and isolated areas to load up cattle and bulls, I got to see places the average traveller wouldn’t have even known existed. After rain, vast areas turn into flood plains. The waterfalls are endless and there are river and creek crossings around almost every corner. Some river crossings are so scenic you could sit and look at them for hours. On one occasion I climbed up on top of my double-deck cattle crate, and all I could see was cane grass in every direction. It’s one of the many reasons I’m grateful to Noel Buntine from Road Trains Australia for giving me a start in 1984.
A road train is used for transporting livestock, fuel and general freight. Think of it as a normal truck and trailer with a few extra trailers in tow. One of my regular gigs was transporting young ewes from WA across the Nullarbor to various properties in South Australia. I loved these trips and had my itinerary down pat. Leave Ceduna, SA at 7pm, pull up at the BP Border Village for fuel, arrive at Norseman in the south of WA in time for breakfast. The trip was 1,200km. I’d arrive in Perth later that afternoon, camp for a day, load up and head off again. As you can imagine, I racked up the miles pretty quickly — on one occasion I estimated I’d done 50,000km in 48 days.
If I were to list 100 things every Aussie should do before they die, driving across the Nullarbor would be right up the top. People who haven’t been there often think of it as a large, lifeless expanse of desert, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s constantly changing and teeming with life and colour. Nullarbor means ‘no trees’ and although the actual plain is treeless, there’s plenty of vegetation — saltbush and bluebush as far as the eye can see. There’s also plenty of animal life, with kangaroos, emus, camels, wombats and majestic eagles soaring overhead. When you come to the coastal road it’s a complete contrast, with its steep, jagged cliffs overlooking the southern ocean — such a brilliant blue in the sun it hurts your eyes to look at it. There is one section of road where, if you’re not paying attention, you could actually drive off the road and straight into the sea. There are a number of viewing platforms along the way to stop and take it all in though.
I’ve seen some of the most stunning sunsets in my life in the Nullarbor as I sat at my campfire. One of my most memorable times was cooking a slab of fresh beef that one of the station managers had given me on a roadside campfire at dusk. Afterwards I’d settle down in a swag on the side of the road until the snakes got too active, then I’d move on to the top of the cab. I spent the rest of the night swaying in my sleep as the cattle moved around in the stock crates below me. Just as well I’m not prone to motion sickness.
It was a rough and ready life and you had to be a jack of all trades. Pushing cattle on and off trailers, changing flat tyres and repairing them on the side of the road in all types of
weather, and doing makeshift repairs on the truck or trailers. I remember taking a couple of loads down near Victoria River Downs in the Northern Territory. I was driving a truck with a couple of trailers when I smelled something hot. I pulled up and saw smoke pouring out from near the front of the truck. The front driver’s side rear steering bearing was as hot as hell and then it
burst into flames. I doused the fire and had no option but to take the wheel off, chain the hub up, get on my way to finish the job and back to the depot.
Another thing about living and working on the road is that you learn to work with what you’ve got, which leads to many new inventions. I designed and made a four-way tyre inflator complete with four taps and a built-in pressure gauge. I used this in the desert to reduce the pressure in the drive tyres so I could get over the soft sand. It was particularly useful when I came to re-inflate the tyres as I could pump all four at once. When I carted cattle out of the desert I needed to load up at first light and get going while the sand was still cool from the night air. It was more compact then, becoming looser and harder to drive on as the day warmed up.
Of course, my ground-breaking new method of outback cuisine was not as successful. After I’d picked up a load of cattle from a station in WA to go to the markets, the manager sent one of the station hands along to help me. I demonstrated my idea by placing a can of baked beans in a neat little slot right next to the manifold of the truck. It fitted perfectly, as if the slot was made for it. After 10 minutes of driving, the baked beans would be heated to perfection. We drove off, got talking and completely forgot about them until I heard an almighty ‘Bang!’ We stopped immediately and got out to find the engine dripping in baked beans. Even after we cleaned it all off, the smell lingered. Hardly surprising it didn’t catch on.