Where Land and Sky Meet

In Cover Feature, Tests, December 2021 / January 202224 MinutesBy Dave McCoidFebruary 2, 2022


Our first sighting of it was when approaching Elco Direct Wool Buyers on Bell Road, Taumarunui. Once seen, it’s not difficult to understand why Lilburn Transport’s new Kenworth K200 has created the fuss it has around industry traps of resent. The gleaming stainless, polished wheels, twin intakes, underbody and top lights, and the livery – when it appears in view, truck-heads of all ages are akin to possums in the headlights.

Pulling in and parking, we introduce ourselves to storeman Matt McKenzie. He is expecting our arrival and inducts us onsite. Then it’s a handshake and ‘G’day’ with driver Adrian Takiwa. He fits the Lilburn staff mould to a tee, welcoming and friendly. He hasn’t long started loading 181 wool bales for two drops in Napier the following morning.

It’s the first reminder that driving a drop-sider requires a broad skillset. Adrian’s driving Elco’s fork hoist fitted with a set of ‘cat claws’, an attachment with claws that pierce the wool bales from the top, picking them up in groups of three, and able to rotate them through 360°.

‘Cat-claws certainly make loading wool easy.

“Beats loading them by hand,” he chuckles. A job that generally makes even the best of them shudder.

There’s a specific way wool is loaded, and the Lilburn team are masters of the trade with the old sheep’s coat featuring throughout the company’s history. Three rows, middle facing and cap to cap, and then the top tow is turned, three across and running longitudinally.

The Lilburn trucks are regulars here, and Adrian, Matt, and storeman Ringo Makiakama are a flashback to a time when business and communities everywhere were one and the same. Ringo keeps an eye on Adrian’s progress, and when the bales are on and the work really starts, he’s right there to help.

The second row gets a lineal strap (front to back), and every row is strapped over the top with two on the ends. Then out comes the wool covers, even heartier than 16 packet timber covers.

“I had a bit to do with the design and placement of the reefers on these. They’re bloody good, actually,” says Adrian. The fit allows for the left-hand sides on the truck and trailer being in place, but reaching to the combing rail on the right. The day is hot and humid, and by the time they’re draped and sitting true, Adrian’s already got a good bead of perspiration on his brow.

A full load of wool strapped, and covered, we were gone two hoursforty minutes after arriving.

“It’s not much, really,” he says. “You never know what the weather on the Annie will be like, so peace of mind and all that.”

He tilts the cab slightly to ease access to the front of the truck. It’s an electric tilt, so it saves way more time than it takes. Obviously, ‘Adge’, (Age) as he is affectionately known in the Lilburn family, is a master coverer, and 40 minutes later, we have a dead level set of wool covers over an impressive load. Woah to go? Two hours forty minutes. The fact there was no running and or double-tracking up and down the truck proves the old adage that speed comes with smoothness, not haste. He’s an impressive act. His shades never even slipped down his nose once.

Cab down, boots and bib-overalls off, Adrian bids the lads farewell and thanks them for their help. He climbs into the cab, and the big red Kenworth carrying the personalised plate ARNEZ, rolls carefully out the gate.

The only way is up!

You would think locating your trucking company in Raetihi might be challenging in terms of weather, but the logical pay-off is that every destination is down. Looking at an elevation map may well confirm that, but Lilburn trucks appear to climb everywhere. Their most benign routes would be to the Mount via Taupo and Rotorua or Wellington via Waiouru. Everywhere else has hills (big ones) and windy roads (lots of them). The Spiral, Piriaka Saddle, Hiwis, Waterfall, Te Kuiti to the north, Napier-Taupo or Gentle Annie to the east, and the Paraparas out west.

Delightful. “Yeah, that’s true,” laughs Robbie. “That’s why we’re always looking over them. It’s a tough life here. Our reality is you never really get much more than 700,000 or 800,000 from an engine – doesn’t matter what it is really. We’d normally be rebuilding about then.

“Some people won’t use the Annie anymore, and yeah, it’s a tough track. But based here, it’s still the quickest route to the Bay and, if we’re doing timber over to the Bay and fert out, it’s the only option really. We’re permitted to run through at 54 [tonne] now, too, so that’s good.”

As big as it is, the Kenworth seems lost in the big country on the Gentle Annie.

The Annie!

Yes, The Gentle Annie. We pulled out of the wool store and headed in her direction. Out of town, over the Piriaka Saddle and up the Spiral, we swing left at Tohunga Junction and exit SH49 in Waiouru, where we have a quick catch-up and a cuppa at the ‘Z’ station with Bobby Lilburn in the MAN. He’s heading to Taupo but will see us again in the morning as he’s on the same second-round job as us.

We roll on south, and Adrian swings ARNEZ left at the top of the Taihape Divi. That only means one thing for a Lilburn truck – Gentle Annie – a road that this big red jigger will get to know intimately throughout its life.

It’s one of New Zealand’s most famous and fabled trucking routes, the regional highway that dissects the North Island’s spine, linking Taihape in Manawatu to Fernhill in Hawke’s Bay. Like a ribbon dropped from a height onto several piles of wool fadges, the Gentle Annie cuts through some of the North Island’s biggest country. Although it saves travelling down to the Saddle Road, east of Palmerston North, or up to the Napier-Taupo, for anyone not at peace with their machine or driving skillset, accepting her enticing invitation may not be the ideal motoring decision. But if your thing is big hills, big country, steep and winding narrow roads, then Annie might just be your gal. For a seasoned rural carrier used to airstrips in the middle of ‘Middle Earth’, you’d wonder why anyone would shy away.

Hard into the Gentle Annie. You can see the road in the background.

“It’s my favourite road,” says Adrian. “No question. I love it in there. Always have.”

As we pushed deeper into the road, the rewards come thick and fast, not just in the form of trucking Nirvana with the Cummins X-15 and Jakes both in full voice as Adrian conducts the symphony from the Roadranger’s baton, but the views also, like the one from the top of Bonney Mary down the row of crisscrossing sedimentary valleys. It’s a view enhanced immeasurably by a bright red K200 Kenworth, loaded with covered wool, picking its way through a vast landscape.

Everything gets a workout on this road. It’s the perfect stage, the perfect moment in time to assess just how well we’ve done over 80-odd years of heavy truck R&D. The singing of the brakes as Adge does that wee tap to rub the last 5kph off on the tightest bends, the air suspensions working, and the sweet sound of gears being picked off, like ripe plums off a tree.

We wait at the famous swing bridge at the bottom of Springvale. The swinger is no longer used, replaced years ago by the bridge adjacent. We see Adrian and ARNEZ round the top headland and wind their way to us, the Jakes in full song, down, across and into the big climb on the other side of the valley, up to the peak and the halfway point at Mangoahane turnoff. A further 25km, and we cross a small creek that marks the start of the section from which the road takes its name.

Crossing the Ngaruroro River.

The route is now steeper, narrower, and windier, than anything previous. Gentle Annie was gravel until about a decade ago, but it is now narrow bitumen, void of fog or centrelines. Calls on the CB regularly help prevent untimely meetings on climbing or descending hairpin bends.

“Yeah, you try and avoid it, but it has happened,” says Adrian. “That’s why we’re usually through in the early mornings when it’s dark. You can see their lights even if they’re not listening or have the radio up.”

At 54 tonnes, it’s all bottombox stuff for reasons of cornering speeds as well as grade. On the afternoon we went through, the weather wasn’t playing ball at all, the day had turned to crap. Adrian held proceedings in third direct, allowing wriggle room on the throttle in the event he needed it. Even at the best of times, it is a road where tyre life and R&M become the key determiner over truck performance. The power show is best left for the Titiokura, Kiwis, and the like.

After another lock-to-lock, Jake-blazing descent, the bridge over the Ngaruroro River marks the end of The Annie, and things begin to mellow out considerably as we roll off the foothills into Fern Hill. Adrian’s dad Tracy lives there and he’s going to stay with him for the night. We sign-off a great afternoon with a rendezvous time at the Wakatu Industrial Park Wool Stores between Napier and Hastings at about 7am.

The K200 flat-roof sleeper is a cosy place to spend a couple of nights a week. The dash a classic and easy to use workplace.


The wool came off in two drops – one at the stores and the other at Hawke’s Bay Wool Scours. Side’s on/sides off is a daily fact of life at Lilburn, and the MD Engineering gear has been set up to make this as easy as possible. Like all good operators, Adrian follows a routine, aided immeasurably by the planning and thought three truckers and a trucker-turned-engineer put into the build. Like the wool load, it’s a smooth glide around the unit, and he rarely covers ground already covered. There’s a place for everything, with a canny flip-up headboard cover rack providing easy access to the right-side posts. The spring locks save pins, and it all saves time.

We meet Bobby again at Webster’s Hydrated Lime in Havelock North, both trucks loading for the Bay of Plenty. Matt Webster shows us around and in no time, we’re heading east.

We’re in-cab with Adrian and we have to say, as odd as it seems, the Napier-Taupo looks like a motorway after The Annie.

The inside of this machine is faultless; you’d happily apply a five-minute rule to any food you dropped on the floor. In all reality it would likely be way cleaner than the hands that dropped it. Yes, it only has 42,000km on the clock, but that’s a lifetime in terms of keeping a drop-sider’s cab pristine.

Unloading wool in Napier.

“I offered Bobby a drive a few months back,” laughs Adge. “He opened the door and said, ‘Oh no. Bugger that. Not if I have to take my boots off’.”

“That’s Adrian,” says Niketa Lilburn later. “Doesn’t matter what he drives; it’s always immaculate.”

ARNEZ is a pretty standard, proven, bullet-proof mechanical fare in 21st-century Kenworth trucking. Cummins X-15 in Euro-5 trim, banging out 448kW (600hp) at 1800rpm and 2779Nm (2050lb/ft) at 1200rpm. Behind that is an Eaton Roadanger RTLO209018B 18-speed manual, with twin Meritor MFS66-122 axles on parabolic springs up front and a Meritor MT21-165GP drive set with dual diff locks at 4.3:1. Holding up the afterguard is PACCARS venerable AG-460 8-bag air suspension, with drum brakes, ABS, and EBS.

It wasn’t long ago that 448kW (600hp) was the top dog in terms of power. Nowadays, there are plenty of burners sporting loftier digits than big-red. Horses for courses-wise, this is an ideal spec, considering task, country and wear and tear – still over 10hp/tonne at 54 tonnes, delivering good trip times, and not leaving too much steer and drive tyre rubber on rural roads.

The big K’dub motored up the Titiokura in fourth overdrive at 1650rpm and 35kph and the Kiwis half a gear up and about the same speed. Off the steepest part of Turangakumu, the Jacobs held the unit in fourth direct at 2100rpm.

Loading posts at Perma Pine.

The roll out beyond Taupo through Reporoa and Waiotapu was like a magic carpet. Great trucking and great company. It makes me so sad to think of the fantastic life adventures that mindless bureaucrats have denied so many of our kids, fathers, and mothers.

The load tipped off in rural Rotorua, Bobby and Adrian de-side their rides, ready for the last mission of the day. You know watching them that if one Lilburn driver motored off and left another to deal with his sides alone, it would be a clear sign the planet had moved on its axis. There’d be more chance of dinosaurs returning, or Greta T buying a top fuel dragster for commuting.

Our next adventure was also a regular Lilburn gig … the postal service.

One thing we noticed in our wonderings was the welcoming reception we got at all our pick-up points. That had to be a direct reflection of the colour of the trucks arriving and proving the old point that whether it’s cops or customers, your demeanour accounts for at least half the success of all interactions.

We meet Steve Hawkings at Perma Pine in Reporoa, and he caps the day off just nicely. Standing in the safe zone, we have a good old natter while Adrian loads posts for down the island. The Volvo loaders have a hectic daily schedule with a steady stream of trucks. The load-out pads are concrete, always a bonus, and it’s a scene where everyone is well versed in the ‘what, where, and how’.

And again, the set-up of the unit shone with chain hooks right there every time Adrian bent over and reached underneath. Before long, we were rolling, heading for an overnight at home, on-carting tomorrow.

Loading at Websters Hydrated Lime in the Hawkes Bay.

First past the post

The K200 flat cab’s a lot more snug than the stand-up pavilion that is Aerodyne. That said, it’s an uber cool place, and the absence of an engine tunnel means there’s room aplenty, including ample storage. There’s lockers above the bed, under cab on both sides, under the passenger seat, as well as the usual pullout locker and fridge under the bunk. Adrian has a tele to watch on nights away. It’s an easy place to live in for a couple or three nights a week.

The K200 cockpit is incredibly driver-friendly and always has been. They’re an easy, comfortable truck to drive.

A quick cuppa in Taupo at the Mobil on the bypass and it’s home to Raetihi (uphill, of course) via SH47 through an appalling windstorm whipping across the basin, and then left onto SH3 at National Park.

Adrian pulled the yellow brake valve about 7.30pm, and with a hiss of air, there she sat.

A powerful lot of work had been done in 24 hours, with some real driving to boot. That’s life at this wee company.

What goes in must come out. Tipping off in rural Rotorua.

As a tool of trade, the truck itself is all about choice. You buy a philosophy when you buy a truck, regardless of brand. In Kenworth’s case, it doesn’t matter how many glitzy advertising pics you see of blinged-up gigs, Kenworth’s reputation was built on tough trucks that last in shitty conditions. That’s going to be tested as much with this machine in Raetihi as anywhere else. If you’re a newly assembled truck and you emerge from the factory with a red cab and blue chassis, with a Raetihi sticker on the windscreen, then brace yourself – shit’s about to get real.

Body and trailer gear, though, that’s a different story. That’s about finding someone who will listen, certainly contribute, but in the end, build exactly what you ask for, because you know what it is you do, and what it is you need. For Robbie and Niketa, Michael Jelly and MD Engineering fitted that mould perfectly.

While the embellishments, the chrome, the stainless, the lights make ARNEZ look so damn good, it’s the practicality and usability that really impress. Put in the right hands, this is a winning truck, and Adrian Takiwa is certainly the right hands. There may be a lot of truck, but he’s a lot of operator. And, hey, we know by the number plate, he’s not alone in this!


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