Aussie Angels – The Dog Run

16 MinutesBy NZ Trucking magazineAugust 8, 2017

Changing wheels and being held up by raging bush fires are all part of daily life for an Irish trucker in Western Australia.

The plan was hatched spontaneously over the phone one Friday evening.

“Where are you heading for? I might go for a spin,” I enquired casually.

“A handy run up the coast to Carnarvon, bringing up the dog trailer, about 10 hours each way, we‘ll be back tomorrow night,” replied Ontraq Haulage driver Paul McGuinness.

“Sound,” I replied, “pick me up at the train station.” I had just arrived in Perth from home, and was anxious to see what trucking was like on this vast continent.

Paul met me at the railway station in his Ford Falcon, and we drove to the Ontraq Haulage yard, which was by now very quiet. While Paul fired up the Western Star prime mover, I had a quick look at the trucks in the yard. MANs for local work and Western Stars for the long runs. The term ‘dog trailer‘ is used to describe the rear trailer of a road train.

From Carnarvon south, only two trailers are permitted, so we were bringing up the third for another truck heading to Darwin in the Northern Territory…a ‘dog run‘. As we pulled out onto the road, I take time to look around the cab and am instantly struck by just how far behind the Yanks/Canadians are when it comes to ergonomics.

We roll out along the grapevines of the fertile Swan Valley, where I imagine I am in Bordeaux, except that the split windscreen, stone guard, bug deflector, and distinctive rumble from the CAT C15 engine leave me in no doubt that we won‘t have to worry about the Gendarmerie any time soon.

The Great Northern Highway may suggest a mighty four-lane motorway, but it is in fact a single carriageway road. As the sun dips lower in the sky I stare out of the window, hugely impressed with the sunsets and dramatic skies on this side of the world. The kilometres click by as we swing left at the lights at Muchea.

“Next time we‘ll see traffic lights, we‘ll be back here,” says Paul drily. As the lights of Perth disappear, I am struck by how quiet the road is. The two Lightforce spotlights up front are on permanent duty, only being quenched when we occasionally meet a southbound road train with its marker lights twinkling along the sides of the trailers.

When I question Paul on whether he prefers driving in Australia or in Europe, he doesn‘t hesitate: “Australia for sure. It‘s a lot easier going out here. When I started driving on the continent it was still good fun. We‘d often head up the road out of Spain after a few beers or a brandy coffee, and still be home for the weekend.

“Once you get out of Perth, you don‘t have to deal with traffic, I like that. Oh and the money is a lot better too!” he quips.

It certainly is a lot different from driving in Europe and I can‘t help wondering how drivers cope with the boredom of endless miles with nothing to see, only bush.

“You get used to after a while. A lot of guys listen to audio books. They can be expensive but I joined my local library and can rent them for free. You‘d be surprised how the time passes listening to them,” said Paul.

After a couple of hours, he grabs the CB mike and mutters something like “Ok to pull into Cataby from the south”? A reply comes back, “yeah no worries mate, I‘m just pulling out”. As the roadhouse is located close to a bend, drivers call up on the CB as they pull out.

The CB is an essential piece of kit down under.

The roadhouses are basic affairs with a shop, a hot counter, toilets, and that‘s about it. Nevertheless they are a welcome sight on the lonely roads of outback Australia. I feel hard done by with my meagre cup of instant coffee for $4. Taking the briefest pause for a picture, Paul is soon shifting effortlessly up through the 18 gears of the Roadranger.

By the time we reach Northampton, I am relieved to see Paul‘s hands reaching for the Jake brake and indicator simultaneously. With the engine left idling, we make for the dunnies and then into the shop. I spy a travel mug on the shelf – a kangaroo riding a Harley while being chased by a triple cattle road train – sold!!

Back up in the cab, I am not really surprised that there is only one cup holder. As if the seat wasn‘t bad enough! There is a lot to be said for European trucks.

We press onwards along the North West Coastal Highway, and the road straightens to long, lonely stretches where men sit and steer, all alone with their thoughts, their huge rigs cutting the desert-like terrain in two. Out here, 100 km/h doesn‘t seem as fast as it did before.

By the time we reach Carnarvon before dawn, both of us have heavy eyelids. Given the cab space it‘s surprising a second bunk has not been not fitted. Despite Paul‘s generous offer of sleeping opposite directions in the bunk, I opt for the floor, and place my sleeping bag lengthways behind the seats. I drift off to sleep, the big CAT left running to keep the air con working.

I sleep surprisingly well and rise at 9am, immediately struck by the intense heat as I climb down from the cab to attend nature‘s call. As the other driver is still an hour away, we bobtail down to the Caltex service station for a much needed shower.

Then it‘s back up to the road train assembly area where I have time to take pictures. The Ontraq truck we are meeting has just arrived, and it looks impressive with its Stratosphere cab and custom paint job. Paul explains that this truck was bought secondhand and was wisely left in its original colours.

A Mitchell‘s Volvo FH16 running with a BA-double, bottom dump unit carting nitrate. Since the photo was taken, Mitchell‘s has been taken over by Toll. When the dog trailer is first, it‘s an AB-double.

We swap trailers and load up with four new trailer wheels and tyres – for reasons that will be explained later. With tyres and lights checked, we are ready for the road once again. Except we cannot go anywhere: the CB buzzes with talk of a road closure further south due to a raging bush fire. The previous year two truckies perished in a similar bush fire, so it is understandable the authorities are being cautious.

AS WE SIT parked on the roadside, I ponder the serious nature of outback trucking. It is clear we are stranded with no alternative route.

All we can do is sit tight and wait for updates, although my heart sinks when I hear of past road closures lasting for days. After a few hours chatting on the roadside with fellow motorists from all walks of life, we decide to drop the trailer and dolly and look for a motel.

We book a room at the Gascoyne Hotel and I am more than happy to shell out $65. After a few obligatory glasses of amber nectar and a delicious plate of calamari fresh from the nearby Indian Ocean, it‘s time to get our heads down. By mid-morning the following day we are relieved to hear that the road has reopened, so we bounce back to the assembly area and quickly hook up to the curtainsider in case they decide to close the road again.

Well rested, and with our travel mugs full of hot coffee, we are in high spirits as we begin the trek south. I have the camera at the ready and am keen to see the road, which was cloaked in darkness when we last travelled it two nights ago. There is an unusually steady flow of trucks heading north, obviously due to a backlog caused by the road closure. The road is dead straight with the surrounding soil light and sandy, giving the scene a desert-like feel.

After a few hours, we pull into a parking area where our second trailer is sitting. The trailer has seen better days and Paul explains that it was probably parked at a mine for a long time while the generators on the back were used to supply power. Tyre maintenance over this period was non-existent and, unsurprisingly, the driver who initially collected the trailer suffered so many blow outs, he ran out of spares and had to abandon the trailer. The wheel studs are an unusually small size and our wheel brace will not fit them. Paul gives a call on
the CB and the very next truck that passes pulls in to offer assistance.

The truck is a Peterbilt – rare down under – as they are only built in left-hand drive form and need to be converted afterwards. As ‘Sludge‘ the driver tries his wheel brace for size, I take a look inside the Pete, and am impressed with its plush interior. His wheel brace is also the wrong size, and it takes two more visits from helpful truckies before we finally get something to fit.

What strikes me here is the camaraderie, and the way in which drivers look out for each other. Any of the truckies who pulled up but were unable to help, at least put a call out on the CB to other truckies to inform them of our situation. It was nice to see this spirit alive and well, and made me wonder what it was like for Irish and English trucks doing long distance runs to the continent in the early days.

Eventually, we have success when Phil, at the wheel of a cabover Kenworth K104 tanker outfit, appeared with the correct size brace. After changing the wheels, the obliging Perth-based truckie even drove behind us for 50 km so we could pull in and tighten the studs once more. No worries!

Tanker driver Phil came to the rescue with a wheel brace that fitted.

Darkness descends once again and I finally get my first experience at driving a road train. With the road now narrow, my palms are sweating on the wooden steering wheel, and I hold my breath as we meet oncoming road trains with what feels likes only inches separating us. Headlights on full and the cruise set on 100kmh, I start to relax as the ks roll by.

Before I know it, we are approaching the outskirts of Perth, and Paul takes over. As the Ontraq yard is off-limits for road trains, we drop the second trailer in an industrial estate and head in with the lead trailer, before returning for our battered flat bed. Unlocking and locking the gates, filling with diesel and uncoupling the trailer gets tedious when you are keen to get home. By 4am I am home, just as my housemates stagger in from the pub.

EVEN THOUGH this was a short run by Australian standards, it gave me a taste of what life is like for a trucker down under. Long hours, floods, bushfires and vast lonely expanses prompt me to ask the question; is this the final frontier of the trucking life so many of us dream about?