Wheel Tracks, WW Ammon

This is of course pure indulgence, but my recent adventures up dirt roads reminded my of this book of early Western Australian trucking which someone with a very neat hand gave me in 1985, my father, I guess. It has since led a hard life and not many of the pages are still attached to the spine.

Though Carnarvon, on the coast of Western Australia, has firmly established itself as the banana town of the west, it was not always so. Once wool was its only industry; and those who carried the wool from the out-lying stations were the truck drivers who are the theme of this book.

… trucks had come to stay, chiefly through the resourcefulness and initiative of that peculiar breed of person, the truck driver. What makes a young man love a motor so?

The trucks, little high-pressure-tyred vehicles always grossly overloaded, were pitted against those hundreds of miles of rutted wheel tracks, endless loose sandhills, washed-out river crossings, tropical deluges and a pitiless sun.

The map, though of course Ammon doesn’t say so, is all Yamaji country, bordering on Noongar at the bottom. Geraldton, which dates back to 1851, is not shown but it is more or less opposite the name ‘Indian Ocean’. The North West Coastal Hwy which is the road I use to go that way, now comes up from Perth between Three Springs and the coast, through Greenough to Geraldton, crosses the Murchison R at the Galena bridge and then follows the route labelled Sandalwood Track to Carnarvon, Minilya, Winning and northwards on to Karratha today, and back then, the 1920s, to Roebourne and Cossack (WA map).

Which reminds me, I am still unable to recognise sandalwood whose harvest was once an important WA industry, nor most of the other trees and shrubs the author casually mentions, “thickets of jam-trees … with cork-trees, mulga and beefwood, while a tangle of wild wattle, bluebush, quandongs, and a species of wild plum grew in abundance.”

And just for Melanie, “scorpions, six inches long with claws on them like the gilgies [fresh water crays] down south. And centipedes half as long as your arm, that can run like the very devil … Lizards won’t hurt you, but there are plenty of nasty little spinifex snakes about …”

On his first trip he learns to charge up sandhills, making multiple attempts and laying brush down to stop those hard, narrow tyres from digging in. Then someone invents trailers! First with one axle and only carrying a few more wool bales, then with two and carrying up to 18, or 3 tons. So now a hill they may have charged over, they are dragging this dead weight and are bogged all the time.

Of course these new-fangled trucks were fiercely resented by camel team drivers – a team of 23 camels, a wagon and all the gear might represent an investment of two to three thousand pounds. Nevertheless the camel teamsters lost contract after contract, hence the ferals I photographed the other day (maybe 400 km due east).

These days you see signs along the road about Charles Kingsford Smith, our most famous pioneer aviator. He made his start in this region delivering mail and the author for a while is driving a truck which once belonged to him.


Realizing the great potential for air transport in Australia, Kingsford Smith formed a partnership in 1924 with fellow pilot Keith Anderson. They raised the capital to buy two Bristol Tourers by operating a trucking business from Carnarvon, the Gascoyne Transport Co. ADB


I have to have a truck photo, so here’s a Graham truck manufactured in Evansville, Indiana, in the 1920s and the first truck Ammon drove.

Some things never change. Ammon was on trip rates, 3d a mile, no matter how long he spent loading/unloading or broken down repairing his truck on the road. Sixteen hours averaging 5mph would get you one pound/day. Today you might earn 44c/km, and average 90 kph for 14 hours, let’s say $500/day or 250 times as much. If that matches inflation then an average Perth house, $500K today would be the same as one thousand pounds then. I can’t find any figures to suggest whether or not that was the case. I suspect the 1925 house price might have been less.

And of course, other drivers “never passed another driver on the road without stopping for a yarn or boiling the billy with him. If he was in trouble they stayed …” I’m pleased to say drivers out here still stop, if you’re in trouble anyway.

There’s always a sad story in Australian bush yarns. Jimmy Stewart who taught Ammon the ropes, on his last trip before going home to Edinburgh to marry his sweetheart, was found dead on the track. He’d leaned out to look back at a dodgy tyre on his trailer, had lost his grip, fallen, hit his head, and the truck had carried on without him.

Carnarvon is at the mouth of the Gascoyne River, which is often dry for months at a time – “nothing but a sandy watercourse 500 miles long.” Carnarvon only has around 10 inches of rain/year so when the river floods it is generally from rain hundreds of kms inland. The streets of the town are quite low compared with the river and these days are protected by a long levee. Even so, one xmas 10 or 12 years ago I was held up there for a week, water all round so that they finally sent us dozen or so trucks an early xmas dinner by helicopter to keep us going. When the water went down the road south was so badly cut that we had to go home the long way (picture: the convoy setting out north along the river), 400 kms north, 400 kms inland, then 1400 kms south to accomplish what should have been a 900 km journey. Ammon describes getting across swimming, by boat and as the river went down, in trucks towed by camels.

As trucks got quicker, roads got worse, broken up by corrugations. Within a few years and before he was thirty, “Snow” Ammon was out of trucking for good, his back destroyed. Now, before I end I want to return to the Yamaji. How the West was won was pretty brutal – and the excerpt below is describing the situation, not so long ago, in my, and maybe your, grandparents’ time.

.

WW Ammon, Wheel Tracks: Trucking accross the great north-west, Angus & Robertson, 1966. 220pp.


Early on, the author gives a lift to “a pair of young aborigines returning to Bigemia Station”.

“One of these boys answered to the name of Charcoal, the other to Jumbo. These were the white man’s names for them and illustrated, I thought, the status they held in the white man’s world – a brand by which they answered the crack of the white man’s whip and did his bidding in return for a few shabby clothes and the scraps from his kitchen … a kerosene tin [into which went] all the left-overs, the slops and the scrapings from the dishes, the tea leaves … At the end of the day an old gin came from the native camp … and carried it away to be shared as the evening meal.

In the north I was often told that an aboriginal only understands what you bash into his head with a piece of wood. And while I have seen plenty of this kind of thing done, I never have believed, and never will believe, that the native appreciated it…” [!]

20 thoughts on “Wheel Tracks, WW Ammon

    • Thanks Pam. I don’t actually remember trucks this old. The earliest I drove were from the 1950s and the earliest I remember seeing (working) from the 1940s, though dad did get a 1932 Chev car after I was born (to replace his motorbike). I don’t think I’ve ever seen a motorbike tourist up a WA dirt road, though I suppose it happens, but the dust from passing vehicles would be horrendous.

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  1. Ah, now I remember, I got this far with your post the day you posted it:

    ‘Which reminds me, I am still unable to recognise sandalwood whose harvest was once an important WA industry, nor most of the other trees and shrubs the author casually mentions, “thickets of jam-trees … with cork-trees, mulga and beefwood, while a tangle of wild wattle, bluebush, quandongs, and a species of wild plum grew in abundance.”’

    And got distracted thinking about all the plants you mentioned … and then got distracted by life and didn’t funish reading your post. I love learning about plants when we travel but your western ones are less familiar to me though I have been to the Kimberleys and Pilbara a few times. I think John Kinsella lives in Jam-Tree gully (or some such). That name jam-tree was so new to me I thought at first it was just his own name for the place till I found out otherwise.

    Anyhow, enjoyed this post right down to your wonderful exclamation mark at the end of his valid comment!

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    • I’m glad you enjoyed it and I hope your own, latest, trip is going well. Reading, as I am now, KSP’s The Roaring Nineties she describes the understory in the woodlands around Kalgoorlie as mulga and so I realised she meant what I usually just pass off as acacia.

      Wiki says “Acacia aneura, commonly known as mulga or true mulga, is a shrub or small tree native to arid outback areas of Australia. It is the dominant tree in the habitat to which it gives its name (mulga) that occurs across much of inland Australia.”

      As for jam trees, beefwood and the rest, and sandalwood, I’ll remain in ignorance. (I still can’t tell a Jarrah from a Tuart though don’t tell anyone over here or I’ll be drummed out of the state).

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  2. I love old nursing and medical memoirs, and this seems to be in a similar vein. It’s always fascinating to read what has changed and what’s stayed the same!

    I’m not familiar with any of the plants you mention (except sandalwood as a scent, I guess) but I always enjoy reading about them.

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    • All that I know about hospitals comes from Come Hither Nurse, Jane Grant and Doctor in the House, Richard Gordon. Which now I think about it, were probably not even out of date when I read them. OK, I also used to watch House and Grey’s Anatomy.

      What is disgraceful is that I see these trees and plants every day and I still don’t know their names.

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  3. Sounds like a rather arduous and hazardous occupation – centipedes, scorpions would be enough to get me running in the opposite direction.

    Love the cover – is there any way you can get the book repaired since it has such sentimental value for you?

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    • Book repair – I don’t think so. I told my daughter I would have the hardback cover of a first edition Georgette Heyer repaired and it cost me something like $80 and looked worse than when we started.

      I haven’t seen those scorpions, centipedes myself – something to think about if I wander into the sandhills. The author also mentions a bungarra (a goanna or big lizard) as big as a small crocodile. I can only imagine they’ve died out.

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  4. Thank you for including the scary stuff for me! You know me too well. What an adventure-filled post. I thought it couldn’t get better after the bush story about the guy falling off the truck and the truck continuing to drive without him (yes, morbid, I know) and then next thing I know, you’re being served dinner from a helicopter. So fancy, Bill. Isn’t it wild that we can look around and see what we have done to our world through odd clues. For instance, the camels that are now feral. This sounds like a great book, and I can see why you enjoyed it as a lad. Perhaps I’ll revisit one of my Sweet Valley books and give it a review.

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    • Nice of you to say “when I enjoyed it as a lad”. In 1985 I was nearly as old as you are now.
      You used to often mention Sweet Valley High, eg ” I had been reading (way too much…okay, maybe all of) Sweet Valley Twins” (2015), they must have been very influential.
      I’m thinking my ‘project’ next year will be 12 books that influenced me in my teens and twenties. The Beau Geste books were probably nearly as innocent as Sweet Valley.

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      • Oh! I thought you had said that you read this book when you were a boy and your dad gave it to you. I misread that.

        I still have 6 Sweet Valley books, the ones I really wanted to keep over the years. They’re so banged up, and I’m positive they were originally purchased at a garage sale to begin with. That was the fun part of garage sale-ing in the 90s: there would always be a box of these things somewhere.

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      • SF was the same. There used to be shelves of 60s and 70s SF, I was spoiled for choice. I still have many of them – I wonder how many generations of dust mites they have supported.

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    • I’m certainly glad I don’t have to drive through loose sand. The dirt roads are all hard gravel now. The Christmas dinner was lots of fun. We were stuck on an asphalt island surrounded by a huge shallow lake, maybe 12 trucks, not particularly short of food. One truck was towing a mobile home so we had all the mod cons.

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