The winds of change

19 MinutesBy NZ Trucking magazineDecember 12, 2018

New Zealand Trucking contributor John Heron was driving trucks in Darwin when tropical Cyclone Tracy struck on Christmas Eve 1974. He told Faye Lougher what it was like to be living directly in its path, and the role the cyclone played in shaping his life‘s journey.

Photo: The Diamond Reo with 250 Cummins and 13-speed Roadranger at the Northern Territory/South Australia border. Start of the dirt. Only 700 miles of it to go.

John had lived in Australia since the late 1960s working as a jack-of-all-trades for Simon Transport of Toowoomba, based in Darwin. “It was wet season and Christmas, and the buffalo hunters can‘t shoot because the plains are too wet,” John says. “I quit Simon‘s in the wet season and I was helping the buffalo company shift things into town.” John says it had been blowing most of the day, but the full force really hit about 6pm.
“We were watching The Untouchables on a black and white TV. The lounge we were in had big windows and out past that was the flight path for the airport. Just before the power went out, we could hear this noise and we looked at each other and said ‘shit‘. A BOAC VC10 crossed just outside the window – we could see the people in the plane. The wheels were up and the pilot was giving it full noise and trying to get off the ground. He was so far off course it was not funny. This was just outside the window and I will never forget it.” Later that night John went to bed in his caravan, but after its roof caved in he thought it was time to get out and he went to check how everyone else was.

Photo: John‘s first road train with a load of wool on. A B61 Mack with 250C motor and 16-speed quad box.

“It was pretty scary, things were banging and crashing and you couldn‘t see anything. I climbed the outside stairs to the front door of the house and got it open but couldn‘t understand why it was still piddling down with rain. I shone my torch up into the blackness and found there was no roof.” John searched the house but initially couldn‘t find anyone. “I went back downstairs and they were all hiding in the downstairs toilet and shower. Nine of us and a dog spent the night there, listening to the storm raging on, with timber and iron from houses crashing against the wall. The house was wrecked upstairs – it even pulled the wallpaper off the walls.” The eye of the cyclone went through during the night and in the morning when the wind dropped they ventured outside to assess the damage.
“I had never seen such devastation; there was not a house left standing,” says John. “My nice new, custom-built caravan was now upside down on top of two cars that had been in the neighbour‘s garage. Everywhere you looked there was rubbish and the roads were impassable.” Anyone who has been to Darwin, even recently, knows just how remote Australia‘s northern-most city is when it comes to access by land. Even in today‘s world the relief effort required following such an event would be a mammoth undertaking. John says the first week they were on their own as help was more than 2000 miles [3200kms] away, but being a truck driver in the outback with a bunch of buffalo hunters meant they could take care of themselves. “Water was the main problem, but a neighbour‘s swimming pool was cleaned up for fresh water.” John says everyone pulled together to start with; they had no other choice.

“Civil Defence was non-existent, everyone was looking after themselves. We didn‘t know what was going on, we only realised something was happening when the army and navy started arriving.” A total of 66 people were killed and many more were injured, and 70% of the homes were destroyed. John says the biggest air evacuation in Australian history began, with more than 40,000 people evacuated from Darwin. “The RNZAF was there for about a fortnight, but they could only land in daylight. Communications were limited as the incoming planes and ground staff only had hand-held radios. When the planes were on final approach to Darwin Airport they would call up on the hand-held and get people who were clearing the airport to move so the planes could land. There were no other communications with the ground as all radar and radio was destroyed. There were civilian aircraft as well as military Starlifters, and the civilian airlines broke a record for carrying passengers.” There was also the largest concentration of Australian naval ships since the Second World War anchored in Darwin Harbour.

John stayed and helped with the clean up, then was offered a truck to take a load of damaged copper solar panels and fittings, with three cars on top, to Adelaide, about 2200 miles [3540kms] south of Darwin. “The truck was a Diamond Reo 6×4 with a 250hp Cummins diesel and a 13-speed Roadranger gearbox, pulling two 38-foot [11.5m] trailers. It was hard yakka as the truck had suffered some damage in the cyclone, with a cracked windscreen, broken mirror, a whack in the passenger‘s door and the batteries were cracked. The Cummins had a decompression lever so I put a wire on it so I could work it from inside the cab.” The US Army built the road from Darwin to just south of Alice Springs during the Second World War, and while it was bitumen, John says it was only 12 feet [3.6m] wide with big drop-offs.

Photo: John‘s first interstater, an International R 190 with petrol motor and Eaton diff. The truck is loaded with a full load of Victa lawn mowers.

“Darwin to Katherine is just over 200 miles [320kms], but the road is slow and winding, up and down as it goes through tropical rain forests. After Katherine the road is a lot flatter and faster as you start to cross the great outback plains. The road was very busy as the Government had every road train it could get to shift emergency supplies to Darwin.” John says it took him two full days to get just north of Alice Springs and by then it was late at night so he camped in the truck on the side of the road. The following morning he headed into Alice for breakfast and to check the truck over before heading for the South Australian border. “It was not long before I hit the dirt road and had just over 700 miles [1126kms] of dirt to go. The corrugations in the dirt were bad with the extra traffic, and the two graders working the 700 miles couldn‘t keep up. I had to keep the Diamond above 40mph [64kph] so it could ride across the top of the corrugations.”

Another few hours sleep on the side of the road and then John was bound for Coober Pedy, where he says the only bit of bitumen was the main street. “I fuelled up and checked the truck and had a shower and a feed, but wonder why I bothered as half an hour down the road it was so hot, about 100°F-plus [37°C] and some of the dust came in the cab and stuck to my sweaty skin and turned to mud, and I was as dirty as I was before I showered.” Next stop was Pimba, and then Port Augusta. “I made good time so my first drop was the Holden panel van that was on top. They lifted the van with a spreader frame, and as they swung it off my truck, bugger me, it slipped in the frame and hit the deck from 15 feet [about 4.5m] nose first and it rolled onto its roof. It was a write-off as the chassis was bent. This panel van had gone through Cyclone Tracy without getting a mark on it, and I carried it for more than 2200 miles [3540kms] over one of the roughest roads in Australia without putting a mark on it, and they dropped it. If that wasn‘t bad enough, it was COD and I had to collect the freight on the van.”

Photo: An R Model John drove during his time at RFL.

After unloading the rest of his freight the following day, John made the slow return trip. He stayed on in Darwin for about a year and says the rebuild, like Christchurch, was slow. “I‘d been home to New Zealand for a trip and when I got back to Darwin I started getting depressed. Basically I didn‘t have a lot; I‘d lost my caravan and everything in it.” John decided to move back to New Zealand and went straight back to truck driving. “RFL had an ad in the paper and I was one of 108 who applied for the job. I enjoyed the life, you were your own boss.” He started off in RFL‘s Johnsonville yard doing local work, and then when a line haul driver left he applied for that job. The new role took him as far north as Auckland and as far south as Dunedin. “We were pretty lucky guys in those days, we did a lot of work for Watties. Anything that was under temperature control, such as frozen foods, meat and ice cream.” John stayed with RFL for 11 years before heading in an entirely different direction, buying a garden and pet centre in Paraparaumu with his partner, Pat. “It was the oldest garden centre on the coast. I had a little truck to do my own work and I also did casual work for others.”

Photo: John Heron with the 1980 Kenworth W924 he is restoring.

In his youth John had attended Flock House, an agricultural and farm training school in Bulls, so after leaving the garden centre he and Pat went farming. “At the time we were leasing 100 acres of motorway land while we decided what we were doing. We were there five years and then bought a farm out the back of Feilding. We initially had about 130 acres but grew it by taking on leases, and had about 600 at our peak.” After driving for so many years, John says farming was a challenge. “I don‘t think I enjoyed it as much when I was younger, but I do now. I was the one who did all the building and work on fences and the digger and so on, and Pat looked after the genetics and the animals. We had to help each other at times.” The farm had the largest herd of purebred Texan Longhorns in New Zealand, but after the devastating Manawatu floods in 2004 John says they were virtually bankrupted. “I got a job with John Mills of Halcombe and I drove for him. The road was blocked so they had to come and pick me up and drop me off at night. Pat was working two jobs, and I had odd jobs driving bits and pieces.” John says while he enjoyed farming, for a long time he did miss driving for a living. “Not now – I‘m 71 and have bad arthritis. I‘m okay once I am in the seat but it‘s the getting in and out. The arthritis came from an accident at RFL where I was run off the road. I was in an A-train and it did a somersault and I spent two and a half hours pinned by my knees.” Now semi-retired, John and his son Cameron are restoring a 1980 Kenworth W924 first owned by Colin Hunter of Hunter Brothers Rotorua.

Photo: Going home empty with Simon Transport. Two road trains into one. The one on the ground is a V12 Detroit with a 13-speed Roadranger. The one on top has a 335 Cummins and a 13-speed Roadranger.

A nasty piece of work
Christmas time is a special time, especially in Darwin, the capital of Australia‘s Northern Territory. In Darwin it‘s not only the festive time it is for most of us, but also a time of remembrance. Forty-four years ago this Christmas Eve Tropical Cyclone Tracy tore the city apart, destroying 70% of the houses, killing 66, and leaving 25,000 of the 47,000 inhabitants homeless, with nothing but the clothes they stood in. In the wake of her overnight rampage was AUS$837 million worth of damage (AUS$6.4 billion in today‘s dollars). Tracy is the second-most compact Tropical Cyclone recorded, with gale force winds extending only 48km (30 miles) from her centre. But she lacked nothing when it came to punch, with winds in the 205km/h range sustained for up to a minute, and 175km/h winds lasting 10 minutes at times.

Photo: Where John‘s new caravan ended up. Note the piece of wood sticking out of the station wagon roof. It‘s two pieces of 4X2 nailed together and went through the roof, the back seat, and the floor pan, stopping at the concrete floor.