All day the helicopter has buzzed around, every now and then spotting a cow, homing down on it and, if necessary, nudging it in the backside with the undercarriage, which, for the poor cow, must be rather like being befriended by an enormous, garrulous fly. A jackaroo (or a jillaroo) on horseback will consign the cow to one of the trailers behind the truck. Then the whole party moves on.
Trucks like this can transport up to a hundred cows at once and are called "road trains" because they serve virtually the same purpose as a goods train would - transporting water, petrol, cement and supplies of every sort through the Australian outback.
Road trains, known as "Macks", are very, very large and, like so many very, very large things, they give rise to their own inventory of tedious, but nevertheless gobsmacking, statistics: a road train can have 72 wheels, a 20-speed gear box, and a 16-cylinder engine. It can carry 115 tonnes of freight and enough fuel to travel 1,200 miles without filling up. It may have three or four trailers, each between 52 and 70 metres long, which means the whole road train can stretch to 280 metres in length: more than ten times the length of an average swimming pool or two-and-a-half times a football pitch...
The road trains travel at all hours of the night and day, with the drivers living for months on end in cabins fitted out with televisions, video players and satellite telephones, as well as the inevitable decoration of crucifixes and cleavages. But it is a hard job. Road trains are unwieldly monsters to drive. If they are at cruising speed, it takes them more than half a mile to come to a halt. Often the vehicles sway horribly. The drivers work fantastically long hours, consuming prodigious quantities of Coca-Cola (distances are measured in cans consumed).
So, if you are driving in the Australian desert and you hear a roar that sounds like a stadium full of happy pneumatic drills and you see a huge, terrifying cloud of ochre dust, and in the midst of that dust there emerges a monstrous spectre of lights and wing mirrors and chrome and wire mesh, and you see there, perched many, many feet above, like the princess in The Princess and the Pea, one little human driver...then pull off the road. Sharp.
Photograph by Eric PasquierReuse content