AUSTRALIA : Road Trains 

Road Train

Text and photography Eric Pasquier

 

A terrible rumbling shakes the ground and a minute later it crashes into view: a Mack CLR, the largest truck in the world. With 525 horsepower, 16-litre-cylinders, 72 wheels and 20 gears, this baby is made for hauling 500 tons of freight across the vast expanses of Australia. Dragging several trailers, it takes at least a kilometre to stop. Bayden Mils is the owner of one such Mack truck. So attached is he to his source of income that he has proudly nicknamed his vehicle the ‘Moo-mover’.

 

The vast outback of Australia. Roads and trails stretch for over 7000 kilometres. To transport merchandise across the continent, the Australians use so-called road trains: powerful trucks that tow immense trailers in their wake, driven by one man alone. These mechanical monsters have a braking distance of at least a kilometre. Days spent on the road are counted in the number of ‘tinnies’ a driver drinks.

A terrible rumbling seems to come out of the earth. The combustion of compressed air shakes the carcass of the Mack truck, the master of the Australian desert.

The engine lets out a roar that makes your hair stand on end, a clap of thunder that leaves your ears ringing.

A thick cloud of ochre dust engulfs the cabin of the Mack CLR.

 

With his cowboy hat cocked on his head, Bayden Mils, imperturbable, shifts the gear into first and ‘Moo-mover’ comes to life. Feet on the pedals and his large hands glued to the wheel. He smiles, his eyes shining with pride.

 

He is king, the ruler of the desert aboard the largest truck in the world: a Mack CLR, or Conventional Long Reinforced. The ‘conventional’ cabin is situated behind the motor, the long hood shelters a Diesel V8 with 525 horsepower and 16-litre-cylinders with 20 gears.

 

The frame is reinforced but remains extremely light and is able to travel almost all surfaces. The whole construction, from the rims to the four 500-litre tanks, is made of aluminium and can haul up to 500 tonnes of freight.

Three trailers, 52 metres in length, can carry a hundred bellowing heads of cattle on two floors and still go 100 kilometres per hour. Moo-mover, supported by 72 tyres, is a veritable train on wheels.

 

In case of emergency braking, it takes this Mack a kilometre to stop. The trailers might just start swerving from one side of the road to the other, jack-knifing, which makes sudden braking an unpopular business.

 

The Mack’s metal bars which encircle the motor and the grill of the cabin should prevent unfortunate kangaroos from smashing the windscreen or damaging this prized profession too much.

 

The huge trucks sometimes cross each other’s paths. The truckers will honk their horns when they pass each other while their respective wheels eat dirt, engulfing the monsters in a cloud of blinding dust.

Today, most of the trucks that tow the giant trailers are French - the Mack factories having been bought up by Renault. The Mack owes its name to the company’s founders, the brothers John and Augustus Mack, who – around the turn of the previous century - were the first ones to build such a vehicle. The first Mack forged with the bulldog emblem carried 4-litre cylinders. Many were used during WWI and in 1924 they became the most sought-after engine in Australia. The first diesels appeared in 1938 and starters using compressed air became increasingly popular since they were more powerful and less fragile than the electric piston kind.

 

Road train nr. 29, belonging to Bayden Mils, is travelling 7000 kilometres from Victoria River Downs to Perth – the equivalent of Paris-Moscow – in less than five days. Bit it could have been taking plaster to Oodnatta or cattle to Alice Springs, regions that are otherwise hard to reach because roads and rail tracks are concentrated in the south and east, in the Brisbane-Sydney-Adelaide triangle, the most inhabited regions of Australia

 

All train drivers live in their king-sized cabin 24 hours a day. The cabin is kitted out with a video player, a radio, a cellular phone and a cooler for the drink. Truckers don’t count the hours, though. They measure time in terms of ‘tinnies’ (or cans of Coca Cola). The rules on drinking and driving are very strict, so an eight-can journey refers to the number of cokes drunk over seven to nine hundred kilometres, depending on how thirsty the driver gets. There’s no need to be very precise – one or two hundred kilometres more or less means nothing.

 

On days that the solitude becomes unbearable, the truckers communicate with their family via satellite telephone, a small luxury that has become indispensable. The only people Mils is likely to come across when traversing the heart of the Victoria River Downs for instance is a couple of ‘jackaroos’, the bush pilot cowboys who herd cattle from their helicopters and mechanics who, stuck in the middle of nowhere, are responsible for tending the fleet of Macks that cross the region. They are based in stations consisting of a workshop and a huge gasoline reservoir. A BP road train tank comes by occasionally to refill the reservoir.

 

The cattle station at Victoria River Downs is the property of Janet Holmes, a wealthy widow who owns a total of 17 stations in the whole country, although stations appear to be few and far between when you are on the road.  Macks can take 2000 litres of gasoline in their tanks and consume a litre per kilometre. From VRD to Alice Springs and back takes 42 hours. There’s little to see along those 2500 kilometres: miles of sand as far as the eye can see, a few crocodile-infested rivers, fatigue, boredom and the roar of the motor in your ears.

 

But Wils doesn’t mind. “I like solitude,” he says, “and I was born on a station, so I’m used to

it.” He is certain to earn $3000 a month, but has to endure a string of monotonous journeys, away from family life: “The thing to worry about is bursting a tyre or falling asleep at the wheel. The two occur very frequently and if you burst a tyre at the back, you don’t even notice.”

 

To fight the fatigue of these long monotonous journeys, most drivers take stimulants, even cocaine. “We obey only one rule: to sleep as little as possible.” The only stops are made in the few places that have something that resembles a restaurant. A quarter of an hour later, they’re back at the wheel, towing three trailers (the maximum allowed on public roads), speeding down the tracks, exhausting the desert bit by bit, and crossing rivers in huge sprays of water. Nothing seems able to stop a road train.

Copyright © Eric Pasquier 

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