Travel: Up front in a truck across the outback: Road trains more than 160ft long are the life-blood of the Northern Territory of Australia. Jeremy Hart took a ride on one

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The Independent Travel
Radio Australia's 7pm news came on as I pulled the hire car into the dusty BP petrol station at Adelaide River, 60 miles south of Darwin. Marie, the Macedonian emigre who runs the station, was holding a tray of hot pies. 'You here for John?' she asked, wiping her greasy hands. 'He likes my pies and our ice-cream, but he doesn't drink grog when he's on the road.'

Reassuring news, for as we spoke John Whyte was tucking into his dinner in Darwin, excited at the prospect of the maiden journey of his new truck, a gleaming Western Star 'road train'. I was its first passenger and Adelaide River was my pick-up point.

Road trains are the life-blood of Northern Territory: massive trucks 50 metres long (more than 160ft), ferrying fuel, food and everything else from the railhead at Alice Springs to the widely scattered population of Australia's wild frontier.

Fewer people live in Northern Territory, which is as big as France and Britain combined, than in Brighton or Carlisle; and half of them live in Darwin, where there is a McDonald's - and more up-to- date films than are showing in Leicester Square. The others are spread over thousands of miles, dependent on road trains, the successors to camel trains.

Half-a-dozen road trains whined and wheezed into the dark shadows of Adelaide River as I waited. Some smelt so bad they had to be carrying cattle. Others took so long to slow down they could only be hauling oil or diesel. Half-way through the BBC World Service news, clearer on my shortwave radio than Radio Australia, the biggest, heaviest road train so far slowed and stopped. It was white, with yellow and green flashes: a pounds 150,000 Western Star tractor unit and three trailers full to the brim with 130 tons of BP diesel.

John Whyte slid 10 feet to the ground from his bouncy driving seat and we shook hands. But there was little time for chat. He hauled himself back into the cab and I took the less comfortable passenger seat. An array of illuminated switches and dials stretched across the dashboard. The whole truck shook as the engine started and John thrust the 2ft lever in and out of the dozen or so gears. In the pitch black, patches of the surrounding hills west of Adelaide River were alight. Cattle-station owners were burning off the brush to cut down the risk of wild fires later in the dry season. Close to the road, flames 10 feet high licked the lower branches of paperbark and eucalyptus trees.

Hauling so much fuel through a wall of fire made me nervous, so we talked politics to distract ourselves. There was to be an election the following week. 'The big thing at the moment is the black vote,' John commented. Massive headlights, sunk into a wall of chrome on the truck's grille, lit up the thin asphalt road to Daly River. This would mark the half-way point on our 400-mile relief mission delivering fuel to Palumpa station, a remote Aboriginal settlement on the coast west of Darwin.

Bridges scarcely wider than the thundering road train did not slow John down. We crossed one at more than 50mph; the margin for error was zero, the drop into the river below certainly fatal.

John's eyes began to look heavy. 'I'm fine,' he insisted, as the clock showed 1.30am and bitumen gave way to dirt. Fairy lights hanging from the trailers filled clouds of dust with a red glow. 'Everyone has their lucky escapes,' the New Zealand-born driver said. 'Tipped three trailers over near Alice once. The road just broke away from under me. And everyone has woken up at the wheel. Some take pills to keep them awake. I don't'

He tried the radio, but could find only an Indonesian station. 'Time for some kip,' he announced. We drove up past the crocodile-infested Daly River in search of a good place to park.

Three hours' sleep in sweaty bunkbeds slotted into the sleeper compartment of the cab made little difference to me, but John is used to the life. 'I spend 240 nights a year on the road,' he yawned.

Peppimenarti, just after dawn, was our first stop. The community of 300 Aborigines wanted a trailer-load of diesel to keep their generator going. 'Welcome to Black Fella Land,' said the manager, Bill McLennan, himself a Black Fella.

The road to Peppimenarti and Palumpa, like most outback roads, is rough. The only work to keep them open is an annual scrape or 'grade', to smooth out bumps. The track wound through fields of rock-hard anthills, all facing the magnetic north. 'They can capsize a truck,' John said. From Peppimenarti the track becomes worse. As a precaution, John left the empty trailer with Bill. 'If the rivers are bad, then we might not get through,' he warned. But as luck would have it, the grader had been down the Palumpa track just hours before us. It was bowling-green smooth.

Close to Palumpa, a lone wallaby bounced through the burnt saltbushes and a dead snake lay on the hard-baked road. Then we saw two teenage Aborigines walking through the bush with rifles. 'They're going walkabout,' John said. 'They all use guns now for hunting. The young ones can't use the woomera (traditional Aboriginal slingshot).'

A roofless Toyota Jeep almost smacked into John's chrome 'roo bar on the last bend before Palumpa. 'Idiots,' he screamed. Wrecked cars had littered the roadside for the past three hours.

Palumpa was in even more desperate need of fuel than Peppimenarti. There was little more than a day's supply left and that only because flying foxes kept running into the power lines, causing the generators to shut down. Our trailers were loaded with enough diesel for five weeks of power at Palumpa. Emptying them with a portable pump took three hours in the midday heat, when temperatures were nudging 32C (over 90F).

Jarrett and Philip, kangaroo hunters, called me over to watch a game of Aussie Rules football on the community pitch. The State of Origin game - Australia's answer to the FA Cup - was on TV, but they were not interested. 'Where you from?' one asked. I lied and said Darwin. I was not meant to be on Aboriginal land without a permit. I said I was a friend of John's, which was almost right. Palumpa is as close to self-sufficient as the remote stations of the territory get. Cattle graze near the station and are killed for meat when necessary. Traditional food, such as kangaroo, goanna (lizard) and emu are treats. All are washed down with huge quantities of cold beer, chilled in the walk-in refrigerators that use much of the diesel.

Running empty back to Adelaide River took us only six hours, two less than the lumbering outward trip. Even 10 years ago, the journey would have taken twice as long. The trucks were not as fast and the pressure of cramming in as many deliveries as possible was less intense.

'Those were the days. Truckers used to pull over, light a fire, tell a few yarns, brew the billy. We were a bit of a brotherhood then,' John lamented. 'Now it's all rush. The younger guys are just burning themselves out. What used to be a lifetime career is getting shorter.'

His biggest pressure is getting home. Time with his family is precious, but he made a fleeting visit to Marie's at Adelaide River just before dusk, long enough to grab a pie and an ice-cream.

FACTFILE

Getting there

Qantas (reservations: 0345 747767) flies to Darwin, with one stop in Singapore, from Heathrow. Prices start at pounds 1,145. Specialist travel agents offer the same flights at a discount: prices from Trailfinders (071-938 3939) start at pounds 844.

Further information

The Australian Tourist Commission, 10 Putney Hill, London SW15 6AA (081 780 2227). The 'Top End' of Northern Territory is tropical: the best time of year to visit is during the dry season, May to October.

Permits are needed for visits to Aboriginal communities. Road trains do not normally take passengers, but it is worth asking at truck stops.

(Photograph omitted)

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