Outback and loving it

In Aussie Angles13 MinutesBy Paul O’CallaghanSeptember 21, 2023

They say that once you’ve hauled livestock, the buzz never really leaves you. Despite your best efforts to pretend you don’t miss it, you’ll inevitably get drawn back. As Michael Corleone says in The Godfather Part III, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”

Michael probably wouldn’t have known much about outback Australia but, in my mind at least, Northern Australia is the holy grail for livestock transport; three double-deck trailers pulled by a big conventional truck in remote areas – it really doesn’t get much better.

After completing several cattle seasons in ‘The Top End’, I was relatively content back in Ireland, combining casual truck driving with freelance journalism, the perfect way to sate your addiction to trucks. Trips to countries such as Spain and Italy from Ireland are exciting. But, as it is with Europe generally, over-the-top regulation and excessive compliance (a word I have grown to detest) have tainted the experience. That goes especially for livestock transport. Rules are often drawn up by those with little or no understanding of the real world, and to compound matters, you are constantly attempting to achieve the impossible, adhering to two sets of regulations: drivers’ hours and animal journey logs.

No.50 in 2019.

This has turned a once enjoyable job into a rather tense experience, where you are constantly looking over your shoulder. As I handed over some Euros to a decidedly unlikable Italian polizia officer at 3am, the vision of a road train came charging from the back of my mind, metaphorically running over the top of him and his stylish Italian uniform complete with riding boots – take that – oh mama mia! That was the moment I decided, enough with this stifling nonsense. It was time to get back to basics.

Fast forward some months later, and I’m in Australia, turning the key on a Kenworth C509, getting to grips with that timeless view from the driver’s seat, which is as impressive as it is appalling from a visibility aspect. Split screen, stoneguard, air intakes and a bug deflector – lovely! No.20 is one of a trio which arrived in Broome in 2021 and has that quintessential bush spec, designed more for durability than on-highway smoothness; slipper front end, six-rod rear suspension and a Roadranger transmission.

It differs from the last C509, which I drove in 2014, with a newly designed bonnet, curved windscreen, new dash and a slightly longer day cab that allows the seat to slide back further. All are vast improvements, but perhaps the greatest difference is the presence of central tyre inflation, which is a godsend for off-road conditions. Drive tyre pressures can be adjusted while on the move and I cannot stress enough how much of an asset it is. Not so uncommon in New Zealand, perhaps, but certainly rare in Ireland.

My previous two Kenworths after the aforementioned original C509 were both T909s with slightly shorter chassis and completely different specification to the C509, as both had originally been bought for the fuel transport division but somehow ended up in the livestock fleet. Sometimes, it’s important to have trucks that can multitask in a large fleet, and the T909s featured integrated 50in sleepers instead of the non-integrated 60in bunks on the C509s. Both cab designs have pros and cons; there’s a wider bed in the 60in model, but the 50in integrated has more standing space, and there’s no ducking down to get into the bunk.

The Eaton Roadranger Ultrashift gearbox raised some eyebrows as it entered the traditional world of cattle transport in the Kimberleys. “It’ll be no good for the bush”, “Dust will get in there”, “You’ll get stuck on jump-ups” were just a selection of the comments I’d been subjected to and were just the ammunition I needed to prove that modern-day autos can serve all applications. Both of those ‘highway’ trucks got no quarter from a planning aspect and were subjected to the most arduous conditions the Kimberleys could throw at them.

To their credit, the transmissions never failed on jump-ups, and in fact, on one occasion, I had to come to the rescue of a manual transmission truck after its driver missed a gear. I dropped two trailers at the summit and returned with my lead trailer for traction, attaching a stiff bar and towing my colleague safely to the top. The argument of manual versus automatic had well and truly been proven at that stage.

Having said all of that, there was the constant need to defend the case for automatics, and at times, I really did feel sorry for these sexy-looking highway spec trucks which were not getting such an easy life on rough tracks and corrugations such as the Muranji in the Northern Territory – that was when I really needed the CTI air system. In the long term, the C509 is the truck best suited to the conditions we operate in, although if doing mostly highway work, I’d choose a T909 for refinement. Regarding transmissions, I’m happy with either the Roadranger manual or the Ultrashift automatic. But given the lack of opportunity to drive manuals nowadays, especially as they are now officially unavailable from all European manufacturers, I’d choose the Roadranger, purely to cling to the past and not have to defend an argument many don’t want to hear the truth about anyway.

It was ironic that the first three weeks of this cattle season were spent entirely on the highway hauling cattle from near Broome to a spelling yard in the Kalgoorlie region. But as the weeks progressed, the amount of off-road work increased, and as I rattled through bulldust concealing harsh bumps, there was no other truck I’d have rather been in than a C509.

The Kimberley region had record levels of rainfall dumped on it in the most recent wet season, which lasted quite a while and meant there wasn’t a wheel turned until May. Usually, we begin in April, sometimes even March or before, weather dependent. Even more prohibitive than the wet conditions off-road was the fact that main roads had been severely damaged, and one bridge had been affected beyond repair. The section of roadway between Minnie Bridge and Willare Roadhouse had been washed away, even though it had recently been repaired, a fact which did not deter the unprecedented level of water that tore it to shreds.

More serious was the destruction of the single-lane bridge at Fitzroy Crossing, which made national headlines. The old bridge, constructed in the 1970s, proved no match for the torrent of water that cascaded down the Margaret River, causing it to crumple. The result was the Great Northern Highway linking Perth to Darwin being closed for months, resulting in a detour of an extra 1500km across the Nullarbor to Port Augusta and north on the Stuart Highway through Alice Springs.

Road crews quickly got to work making a temporary track at the Willare section, while the old low-level single-lane crossing at Fitzroy Crossing was opened as soon as the water level dropped enough. Initially, it opened to cars, then to single trailers and finally to road trains, which needed to be escorted through as it’s quite narrow at the western end. But all of this was only a stop-gap until the new two-lane low-level crossing was opened just downstream from the old bridge – which has now been dismantled as the new bridge is constructed, with a one-year timeline.

One benefit to arise from all of this is that we can now pass through Fitzroy Crossing without being pelted with rocks by youths. This activity has become such a problem in recent years that trucks have taken to avoiding the perilous drive through the town in the dark. It’s crazy to think that miscreant youths can effectively close a main arterial route. I’m guessing that with the extra construction traffic working on the bridge, a word was had with the elders of the Aboriginal community, who may be the only ones the youths will listen to.

After a few weeks of constantly wiping dust from the dashboard, a relatively easy highway run down to Perth can be a welcome change and an opportunity to see some different trucks. The most notable change I’ve witnessed since I last plied the route three years ago, is that the iron-ore quads in Port Hedland have gotten much bigger. The standard combination now appears to be four equal-sized quad-axle trailers, linked by three tri-axle dollies with goosenecks linked to Ringfeders grossing 210 tonnes – an increase of 20 tonnes and 6.5m in length on the previous industry standard.

In Port Hedland, Kenworth still seems to rule the roost, although I notice that Volvo has now overtaken them for total sales Australia-wide. Another big change I’ve come across is the increasing number of Scanias on the road in Western Australia, due in part I’m told by a salesman who came across from the main Volvo dealer in Perth. A pal has a new R620 on a weekly run around the Pilbara and occasionally as far as Darwin. I almost regretted taking it for a spin around the roadtrain assembly area, as it rode so much smoother than my Kenworth. But, hey, it’s horses for courses. At some point in the future, I’ll again look forward to the variety of continental European driving, but I certainly won’t be able to drive big-bonneted Kenworths over there.