The Road To Darwin
More at home on four wheels, rather than twenty two, Rod Eime jumped aboard The Convoy To Darwin for an insight into life on the road as a Race Team Truckie.
I was floating on three layers of hydraulic and pneumatic insulation, blissfully removed from the turbo-charged fury beneath me. It had been a long time since I had been in a big rig of any sort, let alone this state-of-the-art IVECO.
We were hauling millions of dollars worth of Holden race cars up the bitumen to Darwin for their first ever V8 Supercar race. HRT's Bruce Matthews, part truckie, part metal fabricator, was doing all the haulin', I was just along for the ride.
Behind and in front of us were thirty-five other rigs of various makes and sizes, all barreling along conscientiously at a sensible "dollar five". Bruce, however, liked to demonstrate his superior grunt every so often by overtaking the rig ahead. He usually starts last and finishes first. A kind of handicap event he enjoys with his mates.
We close on Timmy Hickford in Larry Perkins' Castrol Freightliner. He, like us, has a secret new Commodore VT on board. There won't be any of this playful banter once the cargo is unloaded at Hidden Valley. The guys know only too well how deadly serious things get at the track, so they tend to over-compensate out on the road.
"You can take the handbrake off now Timmy!" jibes Bruce as he lines up a run around the outside.
"You're just lucky I don't flick Larry's afterburner on," he retaliates. "... go on then ya impatient bastard!"
You can bet there won't be any of that sort of politeness and consideration on the circuit.
Bruce drops down a few cogs and the twin hairdryers come to life big time. Timmy doesn't have to back off one bit as the mighty 18 litre, 500 horse IVEY begins to accelerate and we're past in a jiff. I ignore the speedo but admire the practiced teamwork that goes into leapfrogging more than forty tonnes of truck.
"In ya come," calls
Timmy, and we're off after the next rig.
The only other time the guys would get together for a bit of an outing like this is the annual transcontinental haul over to Perth's Wanneroo. This time it would be different. New roads, new track, new trucks and more than a few new blokes. If fact, by the time they hit Darwin, the usual dozen or so would be almost treble! It was really something special.
Choppers with TV crews chased them down the highway. Press cameras stalked them from pursuing cars and 4WDs. They made the front page of the NT daily and Bruce and Shell's Dave "Dyno" Johnson even became radio stars in Katherine. Hundreds of locals in that same town postponed their Show Week routines, to come and check out the rigs up close as the guys enjoyed a bush BBQ thrown on by the local Country Club.
As a motorsport writer and photographer, the shift to eighteen wheels was a challenge and a thrill for me.
We'd made our own way to Alice Springs in one of Holden's whopping new Suburbans, picking up the Southern teams on the Sunday prior to race day. They'd set out from Kulgera at daybreak and were zeroing in on breakfast when we caught them.
It wasn't the back-slapping "gidday" we'd imagined as we mingled with our new travelling mates around steaming mugs of coffee at the Shell Roadhouse. The brisk Alice morning air produced more steam from a cup than should have been possible and it seemed to linger around the drivers' ears a little too long, making an eerie scene.
One bloke stood out in particular. Bleached short-back-and-sides, earrings, tatts galore, ample moustache and a look that said he was in no mood for chit-chat. Rosco, as I later found out, was more than just a character. But right now, the message was "you're not worthy".
Sure, there are more than a few rites and rituals to this strange sect. The road is their turf. Away from the track, the cranky race drivers and grumpy bosses, the truckies make their own rules. Fiercely individual, yet very protective, with a respect for each other's cargo that is never even mentioned. If it's a tool you need, you got it. No one is ever left on their own in a breakdown.
On the road, the blokes have plenty of time to catch up on old times. As the coffee kicks in and Panadols take effect, the radios come alive with scurrilous chatter. These guys have long, vivid memories. Nothing is ever forgotten, much less forgiven. The tales grow bolder and bawdier, and the guffawing and hooting louder.
One particular story, about young Matt in another team, is now part of folklore. He'd got on his boss's nerves a bit the night before, so he sent the lad out to check the indicators during a stop and promptly drove off, leaving the tearful youngster on the roadside. It had got better over time and was now a legend.
When I heard bits of the yarn over the CB, I turned to Bruce to ask him to fill me in. He was bright red and laughing so hard he had to keep pushing his glasses back on. What a life!
On our way northward, another great tale evolved. During a break at Mataranka, the boys decided they'd take a dip in the famous springs. As they cavorted and frolicked in the cool waters, squadrons of screeching fruit bats filled the air above the palmed-lined pools. Refreshed and replenished, the fellas strolled off for a BBQ amongst the rigs. The next day's headlines read, "Tourists Flee Mataranka as Bats Invade." Faces fell and jaws froze. They'd been swimming in vast vats of bats' piss!
The final part of the journey was something we'll all remember. Twenty kays out, the convoy assembled at the old WWII Sattler Airstrip, picking up the last few stragglers. Then, en masse, they headed through the centre of Darwin under police escort with an entourage of mock-up race cars, pace cars and sundry promotional vehicles.
The locals, often cradling their stunned and bemused offspring, thronged the highway, waving and hollering as the cavalcade passed by. The big rigs obliged with the sort of generous horn-blowing even Horatio would have been proud of. Shane Stone, the NT's Minister for Making Things Happen, was there, flag in hand, to greet them personally along with more than a thousand gleeful Darwinians packing out the main street. Pretty impressive by any standard I'd say.
The northern capitol is no stranger to trucks and road-trains. The big rigs are their lifeblood, working the veins and arteries that are the highways, bringing them nourishment and contentment. Often overlooked, this time the forgotten men of the road were honoured with a very obvious expression of appreciation as they brought their cargo of excitement to a hungry city.
Later, back at the track, the limelight had shifted. The record crowds were cheering on their 300 kph heroes, while our men toiled backstage lugging engines, spinning wrenches and scrubbing wheels. Despite the dust and thirty-six degree heat, they had an unusual sense of purpose and satisfaction about them. Their cherished secret society had become very public, and the public liked them - a lot.
As published in Truckin' Life Magazine
Photos by John Grote and Rod Eime