Back to the Track
A Lake Macquarie (NSW) couple has returned from an outback odyssey of more than 11,000 kilometres in a World War II-era truck, driving into the past and racing against time.
We’re indebted to the South Australian chapter of the Wartime Vehicle Conservation Group for permission to publish this unusual story.
In 2021, Jason Becker and Danielle Hart participated in an event called Back to the Track, as a convoy of historic vehicles travelled from Alice Springs to Darwin to commemorate the 76th Anniversary of the end of World War 2.
While their journey was recalling the war against Japanese forces from 1941 to 1945, they were also running from a present threat: Covid-19.
“It was almost like we had someone on our tail the whole time,” said Jason.
The great escape from Covid began before Jason and Danielle left their Lake Macquarie home. For more than two years they had been planning to join the Back to the Track convoy.
The 75th anniversary event in 2020 had been cancelled due to Covid and it seemed the pandemic was about to knock the wheels off the Lake couple’s participation in the rescheduled Back to the Track in 2021.
They were due to leave from western Lake Macquarie with three other local military vehicle enthusiasts on Saturday, July 24, with the plan for a leisurely drive to Alice Springs for the start of Back to the Track. Then, on the previous Thursday at 11am, Jason heard that Queensland was shutting the border with NSW at 1am the following day.
He phoned Danielle at work and told her: “We’re stuffed – the holiday is not happening.”
“Why can’t we leave now?” Danielle replied. “We’ve got time to get there and if we don’t even attempt it, will we always be wondering should we have tried?”
At 1.15pm, the Lake Macquarie contingent set off, heading for the Queensland border in three old military vehicles, with Jason and Danielle in their restored 1940 Chevrolet truck.
Usually, the Chevrolet trundles along at no more than 70km/h, but Jason had his beloved old truck going at 90km/h.
“I’ve never driven that truck at 90km/h,” he said. “Very loud! She was screaming all the way to the Queensland border.
“We had crossed fingers, hoping we could get there,” Danielle added. They did, crossing the border with 45 minutes to spare.
“The adrenaline was still pumping the next day,” Jason reckoned.
Some days later, the NT Government announced it was closing its border to Queensland. By luck, they crossed the border just four hours before it shut.
“Do we have to beat anything else?,” Danielle said.
What they couldn’t beat was the red dust as they pushed on towards Alice Springs. That dust provided a souvenir of sorts, because the new tarpaulin covering the Chevy’s back remains tattooed a dusty red.
From Alice Springs, the couple set off with 45 other World War II vehicles that had travelled from all over Australia for the 1600-kilometre drive north, along the Stuart Highway.
That strip of bitumen had been created during the War as a vital connection to Darwin, from the railhead at Alice Springs, for transporting people and supplies north and bringing the wounded south.
The 2021 khaki convoy rolled through history on Back to the Track, because the route is dotted with the ruins and reminders of wartime, when thousands of Allied servicemen and women were stationed in Australia’s heart.
Jason and Danielle were surprised by the amount of military infrastructure that had been established in the Northern Territory, including camps, hospitals, munitions stores and airstrips, from which US bombers took off and landed on long-range missions against Japanese targets.
“When I think of the War in the Pacific, I didn’t really think of Australia that much,” Jason said. “But now I realise how big the War effort here actually was.
“The airstrips really surprised me, built in the middle of nowhere,” said Danielle.
“One of them – Fenton Airfield – was more than a kilometre long.
“The history was incredible and I actually hadn’t realised there was so much between Alice Springs and Darwin.”
As for the ease of making an Outback road trip, a more comfortable vehicle than an 81-year-old truck may have been the go. After all, the Chevy had no air- conditioning, no power steering, no plush seats and no music player.
“Even if you had a CD player, you’d never hear it, because the truck is actually that loud,” said Danielle. “No mod-cons at all and I think that’s great.”
Each night, they camped in the back of the truck, where there was a concession to comfort in the form of a double bed – and a mirror, installed by Jason.
“So, she can look in the mirror and do her hair every morning,” he explained.
“That was very kind,” Danielle responded. “But I don’t think we used it.”
The couple’s Chevrolet and the other vehicles in the convoy, including a World War II ambulance that had been driven from Lake Macquarie, aroused interest in each community they passed through.
They stopped at schools and local landmarks, where the tourists became instant attractions.
“It is like you’re driving a mobile museum and everybody wants to come up and talk to you about it,” Jason said.
While they revelled in being part of the historic event and seeing extraordinary scenery and wildlife, the couple figured Covid restrictions would catch up with them somewhere along the way. And it happened, in Darwin.
They were in lockdown for three days, before it was lifted. However, Queensland had applied a block on those travelling from the NT, but just as they were planning for a long stay in the back of their truck, that restriction eased as well.
Covid restrictions were not the only drama on this historical journey. On the long drive home, in a remote part of the NT near the Gulf of Carpentaria, a member of the Lake contingent’s party fell ill and had to be airlifted to Darwin.
The two Lake Macquarie women on the trip then drove his 1942 Dodge truck 2000 kilometres to Winton in north-west Queensland.
“I’ve never driven one of these trucks before – ever,” said Danielle. “There was a bit of gear-grinding to start with.”
It was all part of an adventure that has Jason Becker and Danielle Hart already planning for the next Back to the Track in 2025 (the 80th Anniversary of the end of Word War II) in their reliable escape vehicle, the 1940 Chevy.
“Over the entire 11,200 kilometres, she did not miss a beat,” Jason said.
“It was amazing,” Danielle said of their six-week journey. “We both commented on the way back that we could have continued for weeks, if not months, longer.”
“We had the time of our lives,” they both agreed.