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Dirt Road Truckers…

The Gulf region at the top of the Australian Continent is arguably one of the last truly rugged and remote trucking frontiers in the country, it is also an environment that tests the true grit of both men and machinery and where we sent Howard Shanks to check out some tough C508 Kenworths.

Not far past the Burke and Wills roadhouse, the only modern oasis that sells the essentials such as fuel, food and beer for almost 200 kilometers in any direction, the road deteriorates rapidly heading north. It’s aptly named the Burke Development Road and according to locals has been under development for the best part of the last century.  

After two and half hours in the searing heat on the bone jarring single lane bitumen strip, a glimpse of the historic “Gulflander” railway crossing in Normanton signaled the right hand turn to Hawkins Transport wasn’t far away.

Normanton started life as a port for the Gulf of Carpentaria's cattle industry and grew in importance with the discovery of gold at nearby Croydon in 1885. Over the next decade it became a significant port and, at the time there were even suggestions that it would become a port to rival Darwin as the main centre on the north coast of Australia. The Normanton-Croydon railway line, now dubbed the “Gulflander”, was opened by 1907 but by then the whole area was on the decline. Even the cattle, which had been the town’s mainstay, started heading south as the main railway line was extended further out towards Mount Isa.

Today, though, Normanton is a genuinely delightful little town with an excess of old world charm including a few interesting buildings such as the distinctive “Purple Pub”, with tourism and a lucrative cattle industry the mainstay of income in the area.

Bradley Hawkins and his wife Sue, owners of Hawkins Transport, have had a lifetime in the regions cattle industry having grown up on nearby cattle stations. Bradley is first to admit that the journey of his company hasn’t been easy with sacrifices often testing both personal and family stamina.

“I started out working the yard with a well known guy up here by the name of Charlie Hudson,” Bradley revealed. “He was very well respected in these parts and over the years taught me lot about not only about trucks but how to run the business side of the operation too. When I started with Charlie I was just a young kid and all I wanted to do was drive trucks, back then I never had any aspirations of running my own business.”

“By the mid nineties, Charlie decided to retire and sold a lot of his operation to Curley’s in Cloncurry,” Bradley continued. Sue and I were pretty well settled here in Normanton and we’d decided we’d like to branch out on our own. Actually I don’t think Sue was as enthusiastic as I was,” Bradley smiled. “Meantime the bank decided to lend us enough money to purchase two of Charlie’s old trucks, the twin steer cabover and our first C501. The cabover had a single deck and two double deck McGrath trailers while the C501 pulled the full six-decks.”

“The old cabover has been a great truck for us, it has earned us a lot of money and really been to some rugged places over the years,” Bradley enthused. “For a long time it was working out paddock carting, which is where it transfers carts cattle on the station and might not see a road for months. We’ve now put it in the long yard so to speak, having retired it from the arduous cattle haulage task and replaced the cattle crates with side tippers, now works for the council on road maintenance.”

A quick look in the cab of the cabover reveals it is real driver’s truck, and back in 1981 when it rolled off the Bayswater production line it would have been one of the biggest road going Kenworth’s in its day. For starters it had the massive 19-litre KT Cummins power plant, rated at 450 horsepower, coupled to a 15-speed roadranger, which was then coupled to a 4-speed Spicer-Joey box, (auxiliary transmission). The auxiliary transmission provided two under-drive ratios, a direct ratio and one over-drive ratio.

However we’ll have to leave the old cabover for another day as it was the rugged C508s that we’d come here to see and they were ready to head further north up a dirt track not marked on many maps.

For anyone remotely involved in the trucking industry the sound of four big bore Cummins Signature engines all combined with clank of the doors on the cattle crates as four triple roadtrains begin to roll certainly get the adrenaline pumping.

These are no ordinary C508s either, they optioned for extreme conditions, and it’s worth spending a few moments checking out the specifications. As you’d expect power wise under the hood is a Cummins Signature rated at 600 horsepower, coupled to a Fuller RTLO22918B transmission. The tailshaft is Spicer’s SPL250 that connects to Dana D52-190 axles with cross-locks in the rear, and a final drive ratio of 4.78:1 all riding on Kenworth’s KW6-60A21T steel spring suspension.

They have a full-length chassis insert, which is what the old truckies called a “double-rail-chassis” and wheelbase of 6500mm. That long wheelbase is to accommodate the six fuel tanks that give the C508 a fuel capacity of 2300 litres.

It’s also worth sticking your head under the bonnet and checking out the rugged front end which is something that you’ll only see on these more rugged specked C508s and that is the 9.1 tonne Kenworth slipper spring and which boasts Metror’s heavy MFS73LA front axle.

When the lead C508 hit the dirt track half an hour so out of town, that heavy-duty front ends really comes into its own. It makes the truck very sure footed and the beefed up cross brace keeps the whole front of truck rigid. Combine that with the two track rods, which fix the axle in position, give the truck very good road handling even on the roughest tracks.

“Because the front axle is fixed in position the steering angle never changes no matter what the front axle does,” Bradley explained. “For instance the left wheel might drop in a pot hole and the right wheel rise over a bump at the same time, with this slipper front end the steering wheel remains straight. Compare that to a conventional front suspension with shackle pins and in the same situation the axle can move up to two inches (50mm) forward or backward to compensate meaning the truck’s steering changes. Out here in this country the slipper front end is the only way to go.”

It is not only the dirt tracks where these front ends shine, remember that shocking one lane strip of bitumen that leads to Normanton, most of the roads up this way are like that, and they work equally as good if not more so on those roads as well.

While walking around the rig, it’s probably worth noting the hose coiled up at the front of the trailer and the large round tank behind the landing legs. That’s what’s referred to as a belly tank and used to carry an additional 1200 litres of diesel fuel.

“Out in some of this country you can be down to as little as 500 metres per litre of diesel fuel,” lead driver Scott Heritage explained. “The belly tank can be pressurized with air from the truck’s compressor which in turn feeds the fuel into the truck’s tanks as required.

These cattle being loaded here out of Normanton are bound for a live export ship over 2000 kilmotres away that’s leaving Darwin in four days time. The cattle are let off the truck for overnight stops along the way.

Incidentally overseas demand for healthy, quality Australian cattle in 2008 delivered record returns and surging volumes with a 20 percent increase in live cattle export numbers and a record-breaking A$644 million contribution to the Australian economy. Australia exported 869,545 cattle in 2008, an increase of 150,000 from the 719,482 head exported in 2007.

Compared to other regions in the country the cattle season up here in the Gulf is very short roughly on six to seven months, it doesn’t start until well into April and ends in early November if every thing goes well.

“The best thing about Kenworth trucks is there is nothing that you can’t buy for them,” Bradley concluded. Take our old cabover for instance, it was made in 1981 and we can still buy any part for it. There is a synergy between the older models and some of the parts on our latest C508s. It is that simplicity in maintenance and, Kenworth’s durability combined with their service life over 20 years and the driver acceptance that make Kenworth the best.”

Story and Photography by Howard Shanks. Australian Made Heavy Duty Trucks. 

March 28, 2018 | Posted in: Articles



Australian Trucking Quarterly