Gettin’ your kicks on Route 66
Jim Gibson takes us on a trip through time down the Old Hume Highway from Sydney to Melbourne in an AB182 International, during 1966. One thing the Old Hume wasn’t was boring!
Historic US Route 66, from Chicago to LA, is colloquially known as the ‘Mother Road’ or ‘Main Street USA’. In John Steinbeck’s book, The Grapes of Wrath he wrote: “66 – the long concrete path across the country, waving gently up and down on the map … over the red lands and the grey lands, twisting up into the mountains, crossing the Divide and down into the bright and terrible desert, and across the desert to the mountains again, and into the rich California valleys.”
The Hume Highway is fundamentally our ‘Main Street’. Being of historic significance and large slice of our road lore, it is the path that winds between our two largest capitals, carrying all manner of motor vehicles, and is the major Australian freight corridor.
Hamilton Hume and William Hovell led the first exploration party in 1824, overland from south of Sydney to Port Phillip in Victoria and much of the present route is along that path. This story describes how it was 50 years ago.
It was two in the morning, in the Sydney suburb of Kingsgrove, when the Perkins – the heart of the AB182 – awoke, breaking the early morning silence. The truck was hitched to a 34-foot, single axle, Freighter trailer, with 300 Victa lawnmowers and 150 grass catchers on board. It was a willing servant once more, ready to make its ever-so-familiar trip down the Hume Highway to Melbourne.
We’d spent the previous afternoon at Victa’s Sydney factory loading the freight, which required meticulously cross-roping the six-foot gates and spreading the cap-tarp, neatly enveloping it front and rear, and precisely tying every hitch at the same eye level along the trailer. (No driver worth his salt would have ‘staggered’ truckies’ knots on his tarp ropes.)
The loading finished with rigging the mandatory ‘Victa’ banners down both sides of the trailer, before catching some shut-eye in readiness for the journey ahead.
Next morning, this mobile billboard headed south along Canterbury Road, banners emblazoned on the green flax of the Freighter’s tarps proclaiming: ‘Another Load of Victas’. These banners were a problem, because no matter how tight you pulled them the wind would billow them enough to interfere with your vision in the mirrors.
In the cab I sat on a piles-inducing vinyl bench seat, protected by a Cooper’s Corner ex-Army rug, adorned with a carton of Rothmans, four small Coke bottles and a half- completed logbook.
Canterbury Road turned into Milperra Road as we snaked along. There were no dual lanes then and also a couple of right-angle bends, before crossing the bridge to Liverpool and then passing the Collingwood Hotel.
Outside the pub, loaded trucks were parked with their drivers asleep; getting ready for a day’s work unloading and reloading, just to do it all over again. Someone once said of truckies that they spend half their time worrying about getting loads on their trucks and the other half worrying about getting the damn things off.
We – the Inter and I – took the Camden route at ‘The Crossroads’ and soon crested the hill by the Narellan Hotel: a sight that on a rainy morn would be an ocean of flooding water in the lowlands as far as Camden. But not this morning, when the sky was crystal clear, as we clattered across the bridge into the main street. With the Post Office clock approaching three, there was a paper truck already busy, spreading the news.
We rounded the esses at the south end of the street and climbed past the hospital, where a sign outside read ‘Quiet Please’ – an impossible request for 120 horses dragging 11 tons of freight up an incline, in the still of the early hours.
With the streetlights of Camden in the mirrors, we headed for Razorback, the Perkins gulping the cold, dense night air in readiness for the climb ahead. With the ’box in second and the two-speed diff in low, we clambered up the north face with the window down – heat rising from the drivetrain and the exhaust barking faithfully as we worked our way skyward. It was time for a Rothmans and a swig of Coke.
‘While I live, I’ll grow’ – the Anthony Horderns’ Tree
With the hard uphill work done, we passed the original ‘While I Live, I’ll Grow’ Anthony Hordern Tree on our left at the crest, in readiness for the run down the south face towards Picton. (Anthony Horderns was a Sydney department store that eventually stopped growing and the tree subsequently died.)
With the correct gear selected for the descent it was then: on with the foot brake; off with the foot brake; on with the trailer brake hand piece; off with the trailer brakes; on with the foot brake and so on as each cooled until we reached Racecourse Creek Bridge at the base of the range. This was a place where many had misjudged the steepness of the descent and had gone for a swim, with their trucks, into the creek.
Overgrown old section of Highway on the northern approach down to the one-way bridge over the Bargo River
We snuck into Picton, passing the George IV Inn, then under the rail bridge arch – commonly termed ‘the hole in the wall’ – with the brickwork scarred by many a glancing blow from a high-loaded trailer as it rounded the tight left-hander under the arch.
Our next big challenge was to cross the one-way Bargo Bridge: a feat that required the skill of a psychic and the daring of Evil Knievel. The trick was to get safely across this narrow wooden structure, before a north-bounder rounded the corner on the approach at his side. With no chance of stopping until he’d hit you head-on, it was heart-in-the-mouth stuff, but all in a night’s work back then.
The one-way bridge beside the railway line at Bargo, with the new bridge being built above in the background – completed in 1967
Pulse rate at 10 on the Richter scale, but safely across, it was time for another Rothmans to calm the nerves. We then passed Rovers Return; a place to get a good feed and it was also said to be somewhere you could stock up on Yippy Beans.
Yes, pill-taking was the way for some then as it is today: the greedy prime contractor screws the subbie and he/she in turn pushes to make ends meet. Time waits for no one, let alone hardworking truck drivers, as they work against the clock carrying the nation’s needs.
Through Bargo, to the southern end for a quick stop at Bimbos, was the go, in order to stock up on small Cokes, ‘water the horse’ and, most importantly, to pull the ropes on the load and kick the tyres.
Yerrinbool Store on the old highway opposite the railway station – still in operation today
We travelled through Yanderra and negotiated the left and right angled turns over the bridge crossing the southern rail line, on through Yerrinbool, snaking under two railway arches below the rail line, then crested the climb up Catherine Hill at Alpine.
Snaking under two railway arches below the main southern rail line before climbing Catherine Hill
There were two more crossings of the southern rail line, before making Mittagong and taking the right-hand fork at the clock tower. Just to the right was Charlie’s Café: a popular place for drivers to stop for a feed.
At Mittagong, taking the right-hand fork at the clock tower
A flat section led to the left-hander that immediately introduced Cutaway Creek Hill; a dead climb. There was no point chasing gears down the ’box, just a skip-shift to first with the two-speed in low and let the truck do the work. After making the climb it was time to slide down the other side as fast as possible, in order to pick up enough momentum for the run up Bendooley Hill.
Past the clock was Charlie’s Café – a popular place for drivers to stop for a feed
The next section was through Berrima, past the jail and we hightailed it out of town. There was no skirting the ghostly forest of white gums, before the haunted restaurant at Three Legs of Man Creek.
A lone truck was camped outside and its paintwork shone in the moonlight as we crept by. I wondered where the driver was, because as the saga went, there had been a couple of very mysterious disappearances that had taken place around the restaurant and adjoining residence over the years.
A long drag on a Rothmans with a Coke chaser were in order as we ran down the hill and crossed the bridge over Paddys River and there were trucks pulling out of the café, heading north as we scampered by.
All that remains of the café to the right on the northern approach to Paddy’s River bridge
Soon we were approaching ‘Logbook Hill’ and I could see the amber and red marker lights decorating the crest like a Christmas tree: a sure sign of drivers busy adjusting their logbooks before heading down to the Marulan Department of Motor Transport (DMT) weighbridge at the bottom of the hill.
It was your last chance to juggle-the-books, so that you could go like hell for the next 450 miles to Melbourne on that DMT-stamped book entry. It was normal to use two logbooks back then – all manner of trickery was the order of the day – and what’s more, we got away with it … well mostly.
Decommissioned earlier Marulan checking station
After another tug on the ropes, a kick of the tyres and the logbook in order we rolled into the checking station. With weights right and logbook stamped, out of the stalls we bolted along that dreaded stretch of highway between Marulan and Goulburn, with more cops per mile than car sales yards on Sydney’s Parramatta Road.
The overnight jockeys headed towards us and passed by in the blink of an eye: Kwikasair Leylands clothed in a dark, uninteresting maroon and the bright yellow IPEC Commer ‘Knockers’ with their distinctive two-stroke bark and oxy-torch flame glowing from their side mounted exhausts – all heading towards an early morning rendezvous at their respective Sydney depots to unload their ‘airfreight’.
Sections of the old concrete Hume between Marulan and Goulburn
Safely down Governors Hill and through Goulburn, we headed for the Breadalbane Plains, with the false dawn’s early light playing tricks before truckies’ eyes.
After crossing the flatlands we climbed up into the Cullerin Range, across a railway bridge positioned in the middle of an S-bend, where someone had placed a TNT sticker on the road sign, with the outline of a truck leaning up on two wheels.
Poplars line the highway south of Breadalbane township
Then we traversed the ridge, passing the highest point above sea level between Sydney and Melbourne. We travelled down into sleepy Gunning and on to Yass, along its main street; oddly, with the morning sun on our right and it always fascinated me that you are actually heading north in the main street when travelling south to Melbourne.
We made a stop at the Esso’ station’s café on the outskirts of town, for the usual check of ropes and tyres, then inside for a quick butter-smothered toast and hot coffee. I got the deposit on the empty Coke bottles I had drained through the night and stocked up on full ones for the thirsty work ahead on the run to the border.
Next we passed through Bowning, then Bookham and on towards the aptly named ‘Steps and Stairs’ section of the Hume that went up and down several times in succession and required repetitious exercise of the gear lever.
The start of the climb at Jugiong by the pub on the right
We then ran down a long hill and across the bridge over the Jugiong River, along the beautiful valley floor and there it was: Jugiong Hill, smack in the middle of the town. The pub stood on the right, like a sentinel, at the start of the very steep climb. The Post Office was just past the start of the rise on the left and was the datum point to pull low in the box with the red button down.
If we had a passenger on board, he could have jumped out and posted a letter, then easily caught us up! The climb was bloody slow, with only 120 ponies between the Inter’s loins, but when we reached the section that was not steep enough for first but too much for second, there was an opportunity to look left and reflect on that magnificent valley once more.
The next town was Coolac and with that despatched, we then passed the ‘Dog on the Tuckerbox’ sign, telling us it was five miles to Gundagai.
The Prince Alfred Bridge across the Murrumbidgee River at Gundagai
The rickety iron and wooden structure called Prince Alfred Bridge across the Murrumbidgee River, built in the late 1800s is a half-mile (94-metre) long, 33-foot (10m) wide challenge that we had to traverse, before reaching Tumblong. On the then-highway this was the halfway point and Mayne Nickless used it as its changeover station in those days.
Nowhere to get off the road at Sylvias Gap
Another challenge looming was the infamous Sylvias Gap, one of the most dangerous sections, hosting many head-on collisions and truck-over-the-side-of-the-mountain accidents.
The road then ran downhill, crossing Hillas Creek via a concrete reinforced bowstring arch bridge, reminiscent of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in its appearance . This structure was obviously nicknamed the ‘Little Sydney Harbour Bridge’, but its narrow roadway, measuring 20 feet (6m) wide, had just enough room for a car and truck to pass. However, there was hardly enough width for two trucks with west-coast mirrors extended to some nine feet (2.75m) to pass, unless at a crawling pace.
‘Little Sydney Harbour Bridge’ over Hillas Creek
A climb up Wagga Hill was followed by a run down into historic Tarcutta – once a Cobb & Co changeover town – that is these days a truck changeover and meeting place. But 50 years ago you were hunted by an overzealous policeman named Tom Cabban and it was said of him that he’d book his own mother.
Out of Tarcutta and through the Little Billabong Creek it was endless road works, no better in parts than a dirt or mud (depending on the weather conditions) goat track.
We travelled over Aeroplane Hill, which got its name from the famous Aeroplane Jelly radio jingle. Vehicle radio reception was poor back then and drivers could pick up a signal from only one station that, by chance, seemed to be always playing the Aeroplane Jelly song when they crested the hill.
After travelling through Holbrook we passed by the whistle-stop villages of Woomargama, Mullengandra and Bowna, before reaching Table Top and then the border at Albury. Back then you had to stop for the Fruit Fly Inspectors on the weir, just prior to crossing the Murray River.
Over the border it was time for a stop in Wodonga, to clean the windscreen and do another check of the ropes and tyres.; have a feed and coffee, exchange empty Coke bottle for full ones and be on our way.
The flat run across Victoria was a breeze, with the exception of the countless railway level crossings and of course avoiding the three different Gestapo factions: the Country Roads Board (CRB), the Transport Regulation Board (TRB) and the Mexican constabulary.
We not only had a shambolic rail-gauge system around the nation, but you could leave NSW with legal axle weights, load and vehicle dimensions and alas be totally in breach of the law in Victoria. The same also applied to other states.
Drivers loaded with Kelloggs cereal worked it well for a while, turning the large cartons once they’d reached the six-feet gate height, in order to fit more cartons on, but this widened the load to nine feet (the law then was eight feet). The load looked like a big wedge coming down the road. However, the powers-that-be weren’t able to reach high enough to measure the width accurately. But the scam didn’t last too long before the authorities constructed an elaborate measuring device – it was game set and match.
The old highway crossed The Great Divide over Pretty Sally Hill before the run down into Melbourne
To get the adrenaline pumping it was a rollercoaster ride down Pretty Sally Hill atop The Great Divide at 1730f feet (527m) above sea level and then a flash by Mt Fraser, which added an exhilarating contrast to the previous flat Victorian countryside.
It wasn’t long before the city of Melbourne beckoned in the distance: almost time for a feed and a pot of VB, before camping outside Victa’s Melbourne warehouse at Reservoir, in order to be first in line to unload the following morning.
Those were the days
The Old Hume trip was somewhat tough at times and it was always an adventure. There were no CBs back then, just a logbook held out the driver’s window to warn oncoming truck drivers that the inspectors or cops were ahead of them; or a finger pointing down to the wheels, warning that they were weighing up ahead.
It was a fact that the 4×2 Kwikasair overnighters, grossing around 10 tons, had to make the torturous, winding Sydney to Melbourne journey in 11 hours, from inner city depot to inner city depot. Of course, these days, 600-700hp B-Doubles grossing 68 tonnes make the journey from Casula to Campbellfield, travelling on a dual-carriageway, concrete and hot-mix carpet, well inside logbook-limit time.
Another major difference between then and now is the camaraderie among the drivers. Back then, there were very few who wouldn’t stop, to offer to lend a helping hand, if you appeared to be broken down or were changing a tyre. That just doesn’t happen these days.
Times change and it’s probably down to the sterile and boring concrete sea that the Hume has morphed into. Cruise control and automated shifting, air conditioning and of course: just ring the tyre company to come out and change a wheel.
S’pose that’s progress for you … but hardly a challenge.