The boy from the bush
An outback trip in a semi-trailer with his father, the late Colin Fulwood, in 1968 at the age of 14, cemented Jeff Fulwood’s lifelong career as an outback truckie. For his tireless dedication to the industry, in 2017, Jeff was inducted into the Road Transport Hall of Fame at Alice Springs.
"We took a load of Gilbarco equipment on a Dodge semi from Adelaide to Gidgealpa, near Moomba in the far north-east corner of South Australia,” Jeff recalls.
“The Strzelecki Track was primarily just station roads then and I remember this trip like it was last week. I was occasionally allowed to steer, and vividly recall Dad’s stern warning: ‘Get your thumbs out of there, son. If we hit sand, the steering wheel will spin around and break your thumbs off.’”
This knowledge came in very handy for Jeff when years later he restored and then drove a 1943 Chev Blitz truck across the Simpson Desert.
“Dad also told me things like, ‘See that tree line over there, it means a creek crossing is coming up.’”
Jeff began driving trucks at age 17 for the family business carting general freight, including many loads of 67kg bagged flour which had to be lumped into bakeries.
In 1974, after the huge outback floods, he did a few trips back up the Strzelecki Track to Moomba from Adelaide. This was for Alan Crawford (AKA Tonto), a truckie for whom Jeff says he has the greatest admiration.
“I was driving a single drive Leyland Buffalo, but to continue this work Alan wanted us to have a bogie drive truck which Dad wouldn’t buy.”
During 1977 Jeff ventured out and bought a new Ford Louisville prime mover sporting a Cummins VT903 engine, 15-speed Roadranger box and 38,000 lb Rockwell diffs on Hendrickson suspension. However, after two trips to Perth doing the promised work, he knew this run wasn’t for him.
“For the next three years I did Adelaide to Darwin roadtrain general freight for Freight Brokers, TNT and others,” he says, “and some interstate and local work in between to give the truck a break from the rough South Road which, being mostly dirt from Port Augusta to the Northern Territory border, gave cause for lots of roadside repairs.”
Jeff will never forget a trip with John Doyle when he infamously tipped the trailer-sized computer off and then reloaded it with surprise help, as if by divine intervention, when a massive yellow loader turned up.
In 1980 TNT offered him work from Adelaide to Moomba for a Santos expansion project.
He was soon working on the ‘Strez’ again. By 1981 he purchased a new W-model Kenworth roadtrain from good friend Peter ‘the Greek’ Kolizos. It was assigned, in the main part, general freight from Adelaide to Moomba for Santos.
“During my first trip I met an industry icon, Neil Mansell, who wished me luck with the new job and said to see his boys if I wanted to do any rig shifts in between Adelaide runs.
Well, I passed the initiation of my first rig shift, but sadly my lead trailer didn’t. The massive load broke one main chassis rail,” Jeff recalls.
“Working for Neil felt like an honour. I admire his built-for-purpose equipment and his empathy towards mates and employees, past and present.”
In 1986, as the work dropped off, Jeff began the overnight Northern Territory Freight Services (NTFS) run from Adelaide to Alice Springs every Wednesday night and back then there were still some dirt sections of the Stuart Highway.
On the way back he hauled timber sleepers from the newly dismantled old Ghan railway line that had run beside the Oodnadatta Track.
Later that same year in the Alice, Jeff hooked up with two trailers of drummed cyanide pellets after the NTFS run.
These were to be taken to Tennant Creek. “Near Barrow Creek I collided with an abandoned 1200cc road bike after the drunken rider had hit a cow. My roadtrain rolled as a result, spreading deadly cyanide pellets everywhere. Huge drama followed with the clean up and recovery operations,” he says.
“I never recovered financially from this incident and everything was sold in the late 1980s. I then drove for others until 1997, doing as much bush work as I could.”
In 1997 Jeff purchased what he calls a ‘magnificent machine’ – a 1993 C500 Kenworth prime mover.
“This became my best-ever truck and the one I did most of my operating in for more than 18 years. The work that came with it introduced me to delivering fuel and carting crude oil all over the interior of Australia for a variety of companies up until 2014,” he recalls.
The operation involved servicing most stations and road camps up the Strzelecki, Oodnadatta and Birdsville tracks and many in between taking Jeff throughout the Cooper Basin and his favourite part of Australia – the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) aboriginal lands. As a result, he spent a few years going west past Uluru every fortnight, delivering fuel to aboriginal communities all the way along the Great Central Road through to Kalgoorlie.
He then reloaded and headed back again, finishing back at his base in Port Augusta.
On a muddy floodway, west of Tjukayirla Roadhouse, Jeff got a triple roadtrain bogged. It was on a precarious lean.
Trying to prevent a dangerous rollover, he managed to unhitch it and get the prime mover and lead tanker through to the roadhouse to unload.
The only way to get the bogged tanker free, according to Jeff, was to pump the fuel out – JetA1 for the Warburton Airport on which the Royal Flying Doctor Service was reliant – and into the empty tanker.
“Being either brave or stupid, I hung an airline around my neck and the other end up in a tree as I crammed in under the listing tanker to hook the hoses onto the just visible outlets,” he recalls. “Kneeling down with mud and water up to my waist, I thought if it rolled then maybe I could still get air through the airline. A bloke from Port Hedland pulled up, reckoned I was crazy, took a picture and headed off.
I eventually emptied the tanker and the next day a grader rocked up and we managed to get it all out and moving again.”
Many other opportunities arose for Jeff through the ensuing years as the business grew to 14 roadtrains, mainly Kenworths, of course, and nearly all working in later years for Toll Energy. With depots in Moomba, Quorn and Port Augusta, the business subsisted on excellent structure and good management from Garry Roeby and Jeff’s brother Ian. He even restored an old W-model, which is now on display at the Road Transport Hall of Fame in Alice Springs.
He loves the APY lands with its red sand dunes, desert oaks and ghost gums.
“The mountain ranges and rock formations are sights to behold,” Jeff says. “I admire and respect all those who live there.”
In recent years Jeff has worked for the Darwin-based Nighthawk Transport. His main job is a weekly triple roadtrain run of general freight to Nhulunbuy, on the Central Arnhem Road.
With 600 kilometres each way of relentless rough corrugated road, wash outs, bulldust, jump ups and the like, Jeff describes this as one of the most challenging tasks he has done, especially when in wet season.
Although he has mixed feelings about the heavily regulated industry, Jeff believes many of the changes he has seen are for the better.
For the first nine years he didn’t have a sleeper cab, having to sleep across the seats or use a swag. There was no air conditioner for those first 33 years. The introduction of tubeless tyres he deems a major milestone.
“Didn’t we have fun trying to seal them up after mending punctures on the South Road,” he says, and on load restraint, “Everything was restrained by ropes and chains until straps appeared. My new Kenworth has central tyre inflation so I can let the truck’s tyres down and pump them up again on the move for dirt road running.”
Today he maintains a passion for road transport, especially outback operators. Jeff admires the many truckies that came before him who he says did it much tougher.
“I say to drivers wanting to do bush work you need two qualities: patience and perseverance,” he says. “I don’t know if they can be taught or are just in the blood, but thanks a million Dad for planting those seeds a few billion corrugations ago.”