Inside the Nullarbor Kid

A book about the truckies who pioneered the East-West route from Sydney to Perth in the 1950s shows us just how far trucking has come in the last 50 years.

The world of the truckie has changed dramatically in the last 50 years all over Australia, but nowhere more so than across the Nullarbor Plain. Back in the 1950s, as the trucking industry as we know it started to grow, the road to Perth from the Eastern States was a dirt track with little traffic and countless problems for the truck driver. One of those pioneers who drove semi-trailers back and forth across Australia from the early 50s has now published a new book on his adventures on the remotest road in Australia.

Ray Gilleland's new book is called 'The Nullarbor Kid – Stories from my trucking life' and details some of the adventures he and others experienced hauling freight from Sydney to Perth. The book, published by Allen and Unwin, is documenting a part of the history of the trucking industry which will soon pass from human memory. It is scattered with fuzzy black-and-white photos taken by the writer at the time and showing the old British prime movers being used by the industry to handle loads and conditions they were never designed to cope with.

Born in 1931, Gilleland grew up in Sydney through The Depression and World War II before taking to the highway behind the wheel of a truck and working his way up from local deliveries through running the Hume Highway to Melbourne before eventually tackling the treacherous Sydney to Perth run and becoming a regular on the Nullarbor for many years.

He is representative of a generation who became involved in the trucking industry in the years after WWII and had to fight every inch of the way against inadequate and underpowered equipment which was often overloaded at the same time as working in a regulatory environment which sought to punish road transport in favour of the railways. Anyone in a truck had to have a permit to take any load further than 50 miles. These truckers came through this difficult period before the commercial world opened up to trucking after a series of court cases saw the States' legal stranglehold on the trucking industry released.

This is the generation which started the road transport companies that went on to become the enterprises which brought the trucking industry from its humble origins to the powerful economic force it is today. Drivers who began work around this time saw our industry transform from a lawless and extremely self-reliant bunch of renegades on the road to the professional operations handling a massive freight task with some of the best equipment available in the world.

Reading Gilleland's memoirs reminds us just how far we have come and he spends quite a lot of the book running through some of the basics of running a truck. He gives as detailed accounts of how the job had to be done at that time and what the driver had to think about and be prepared for at all times. This was not simply a matter of jumping in the cabin and setting off down the highway, drivers needed to prepare for long trips and take along as much equipment to handle repairs as they could.

One of the chapters which illustrates how different their world was at the time is his account of how a driver would handle puncture problems on the long drive to Perth. He runs through the equipment required and the techniques that were used at the time, not only to get flat tyres off and new tyres on, but also, after the spare tyres ran out, how to repair the tubes. Dealing with a puncture was a long and arduous process for these truckies, and Gilleland explains that even the simplest of punctures would take two hours to fix.

“Repairing a tyre was just basic knowledge needed to venture out there in the desert,” says Gilleland. “If you are unable to do simple repairs, you didn't belong in the big boys’ playground.”

At the core of the book is one straightforward story of a single trip from Sydney to Perth with a trailer load of refrigerators that had to be at the retail outlet in Fremantle before Christmas. Setting out in November it took Gilleland a month to get his trailer loaded in Sydney, across the Nullarbor and unloaded in the West. This long tale gives him the opportunity to introduce a portrait of a truckie's life, bringing in all of the different issues and problems that he would come across and include them all in one trip.

Gilleland packs his truck in Sydney, bringing along his rifle and revolver which he uses for killing snakes and also come in useful in a number of difficult situations he meets along the way. He also had to bring along a few coils of fencing wire which could be used to repair splayed spring leaves in the suspension. The list of spare parts required is extensive, but if a component failed which he was unable to replace or repair, it could be weeks before he could get the truck back on the road again. Not only would it take a long time to get the message out that he needed a spare but also it could take many days to get the part delivered to the nearest town.

Preparation was everything, according to Gilleland, he would spend two days in Port Augusta just checking the truck over and ensuring he had everything for the coming journey across the Nullarbor. This stop was also useful if any truck arrived from Perth while he was there. They could give him a rundown on the conditions he could be expected to come across.

There were major issues caused by rain falling on the Nullarbor. The unsealed track could become a quagmire and drivers would have to sit for days waiting for the road to dry out when the rain finally stopped. Large sections of the highway could also remain flooded well after the rain was finished. Drivers would have to walk through the flooded sections and work out how they may get the truck through, surveying the surface of the road underwater for problems. Getting the trucks stuck on a flooded section could be a nightmare for the driver, it may be weeks before anybody could arrive to tow them out.

Of course, the load finally gets through, it does arrive before Christmas and the refrigerator shop customers are kept happy. It is difficult for those of us familiar with modern trucking to conceive of how difficult this single journey was and how these drivers put up with this constant barrage of problems and obstacles being put in their way on a day-to-day basis.

These guys were out there on their own and solely dependent upon their own abilities to get them and their truck out of any situation. Gilliland also talks about the loneliness of this lifestyle and how he would often get spooked, especially at night, when parked with his truck in the middle of the wilderness. The job took a special kind of person who could cope with the worst nature and the truck could throw at them. This is what makes this book such a fascinating read, realising there would be few in this modern world who would be willing to take on such a task for such a small reward and in such awful conditions.

As a document recording what life was like a highway in the 50s, this book will serve as a folk memory for the trucking industry as those involved at the time are getting older and will soon not be with us. The detailed descriptions of the practicalities of getting a truck, a trailer and its load from A to B gives us a real insight into this world of Albion's, AEC's etc. with single drive prime movers pulling tandem axle trailers at ridiculously high weights and with minimal power available to the driver.

After the first two thirds of the book is explicitly about driving across the Nullarbor Plain, the last third is a series of short stories written by Gilleland himself and a number of other truckies involved at the time. This is where the book starts to become uneven in quality. Some of the short stories work really well and give us a real insight into life on the highway in the 1950s, but other stories are not so well presented as the writers try to move away from a straight memoir style and lose something in the process.

Overall, this book proves to be an enjoyable read for people who are involved in the trucking industry and may remember some of the kinds of incidents recalled here. For others it is a historical document which not only sums up the atmosphere of times past but goes into the practicalities of how a transport operation had to work in those difficult times. This book can also be savoured simply as an enjoyable read, the majority of the stories are well written and the character of both the writer and the people he meets jump off the page.

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