Riding the Down Under Express!

The language of the average truck driver in Australia’s “outback,” the country’s vast, nearly empty interior, may be a little strange to Americans. But so is his work. Imagine this: you hook up a big trailer, then another, then another and another, then head out on a dirt road on a haul that could be hundreds of miles long.

The Australian outback “road train” is a grand thing, the biggest and heaviest road freight vehicles in the world. A 650-horsepower tractor with 175 feet and 198 tons of trailers, roaring through hundreds of square miles of virtually uninhabited land, is common. Bigger ones, some with six trailers, are not uncommon, especially hauling from mines. The most popular transmission is a 14-speed. It can take a driver more than half a mile to bring his train to a stop from cruising speed

Most of a driver’s time is on blacktop, but a big chunk of driving time is still on rough dirt roads. Imagine getting two miles to the gallon. Imagine riding for hundreds of miles without a bend. Without seeing another vehicle. Without passing through a town or even a village or a store.

“The blokes (men) who drive road trains are good,” says company owner/driver Michael Swart. “I mean really, really good. They’re a bit different. It’s a one-of-a-kind kind of thing.”

There are no speed limits on the wildest of the outback roads where drivers roar past cattle ranches (called stations) bigger than some small countries. A big chunk of Australia’s road train fleet operates in the country’s Northern Territory, big American-made trucks, with Mack the most popular choice. ‘The Territory’ is almost twice the size of Texas, 1,000 miles north to south and 600 miles east to west. If a driver runs from Darwin, at the far north of the Territory and almost in the center of Australia’s northern coast, to Adelaide, in the state of South Australia near the center point of the country’s southern coast, he’ll drive 1,900 miles.

Or, you could get your kicks on Route 66. That’s the battered road that runs from Australia’s northeastern tropical coast into what the Aussie’s call “the Red Center.” On the way you can stop at the Walkabout Creek Hotel, the outback watering hole made famous in the movie Crocodile Dundee. Of course you never know when you might run into an anthill, big enough and hard enough to tip you over even at 60 miles an hour.

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The climate is always extremely hot, and either dry or wet (your only choices). Outback Australia offers some of the toughest conditions you’d ever want to drive. Some parts of the Territory can get 100 inches or rain in “the wet,” which runs from November to April, and dirt roads turn to mud and some completely disappear. Even sealed roads can be torn apart with flooding. Searing heat and humidity are occupational hazards too. Field Testing Coordinator for Shell, Peter van Benthuysen, said the company tested oil extensively on road trains “because there’s no tougher test on the planet.”

Michael Swart, 40, is co-owner, with his brother Jeffrey, of Wildman River Stock Contractors in Darwin, an outfit with three big Macks that work mostly in the Northern Territory but “will go anywhere in Australia.” (The Swart boys are identical twins, and, yes, they say, out on the road they’ve pulled all the old look-alike stunts that twins like to pull.)

“We got started with road trains back in the early ’90s,” says Michael. “We were catching wild water buffalo for export. They’d never seen a human. We had to go where they were. We hauled in portable fencing, herd the buffalo in with a little helicopter help, and then use a grader we’d hauled in to build a road to haul a full load of buffalo out of the bush. Sometime the new road would be short, six, 10, 20 miles long, although once we built one about 85 miles.”

When the market for exotic buffalo and buffalo meat faded, the Swarts decided to expand their trucking business.

“These days we run about 50/50 sealed roads and dirt roads,” says Michael. “You’ll run into a roadhouse every 200 or 250 miles on the major highways, but on the dirt roads out in the bush you can run all day without seeing anyone. We usually try and run two trucks together out in the bush so they can help each other if one breaks down. And we always take a few spare parts, for example we always have a spare universal joint with us, and we can do most of the repairs we need out there.

“It’s not unusual to put in a 14 hours day on some of those dirt roads,” he says. “You can run for hours at no more than 25 miles an hour, shifting gear all the time. It’s hard work, mate. But it’s a lot less boring than driving down the highway, it’s horrible looking at nothing but a white line for hours on end. We don’t really use maps, although we carry them. It’s too hard to keep looking down and finding where you were and where you’re going. We write down directions. Something like ‘