The Day The Chassis Broke- Canning Stock Route

Monday, May 10, 2021 at 16:38

Olsen's Tours and Training

There are days that you remember as both the worst and simultaneously the best days. These are usually the days that you overcome great adversity. One such day happened on our Tag-Along Tour on the Canning Stock Route. It started as it often did with planning at least a year or two earlier. Although I had travelled the Canning many times before, I had never done it in the vehicle I affectionately named Lizie. (due to the letters on her number plate).

She was an GU Patrol ute (ST), powered by a 4.2 litre inter-cooled turbo diesel, as reliable as any engine ever made. Lizie was a workhorse that had crossed the Simpson dozens of times and done the Cape probably as many, but as many know, the ST coil-cab comes with one well-known weakness. She came to me with a fibreglass canopy on an aluminium tray and she did a few tours of the Simpson with that setup. The aluminium tray however was a little too flexible and occasionally the locked doors would come open when at maximum suspension flex, so I changed it for an Obieco box which suited me much better.

Unfortunately like many tour vehicles this meant she was heavy. With 220 litres of diesel, 160 litres of water and all of my gear she was maxed out. I was reluctant to take her on the Canning or any of Len's roads until I could upgrade the chassis and replace the present shock absorbers with my favoured Koni 90s. But a chassis upgrade was going to cost six to eight grand and then springs and shocks and brakes on top meant, I'd have to put it off at least a year. But I had a number of clients who were keen as mustard and they'd done a bunch of trips with me before. They really wanted to do the Canning. So against my better judgement, I relented but I made one important decision, I closed the trip to only those who had travelled with me previously. If something went wrong, I wanted to manage harm to my brand.

I figured, since I always take things very carefully, I'd be fine. As a tour leader and tour business owner, you are constantly weighing up risk and working out how you manage those, while giving your clients the experiences they want. The Canning comes with a bag full of risks at the best of times. Managing one more seemed within my capabilities.

The tour went very well. we start in Erldundah and make our way along the Gun Barrel Highway to Carnegie and then Wiluna where we have a rest day, before taking on the Canning. Those of you who have done it, will know that the first few days are no problem at all, a little rocky and spectacularly beautiful but no dunes chopped up by those with tyres too hard. There are a few dunes a little later that present no real challenge, but the dunes beyond Durba are a different story. Too many people chop them up badly. I do wish they would drop their tyre pressures and travel more slowly.

Then of course there are the corrugations between well 32 and 35 that will break just about anything if you go too fast. Unfortunately with my load, my shockies were having a hard time. They hadn't failed but they were not coping well. Later on the big dunes, I could feel the rear springs binding- you NEVER want to feel that! How I wished I'd brought those tennis balls I normally carry. (Old bush trick- squeeze some tennis balls into the centre of your coil springs).

As a tour leader I had a dilemma, but one I'd dealt with in many ways before. No matter what is going wrong, it is important that everyone has a good time (except me). It is my role to take on the worries, the risks and manage them for everyone else. With this in mind I made a few adjustments to the schedule so that we could travel more slowly and justified it with the tour participants by some means that I don't recall. Everyone was happy to take their time, so it wasn't a difficult discussion. We travelled much slower than the average tour anyway and we typically would arrive with all of our shock absorbers intact, unlike some we came across. This time though my shockies were not faring too well- that was definitely a first for me.

We finally made it out of the big dunes and settled in to travelling through the stuff I, trying to amuse, refer to as Acacia scratchadoorus. We made it to the Breadan Hills and on our way out, as I was driving with my door open, chatting to the clients on the radio, I heard a noise that shook me to the bones. The kind of creak that only fatigued steel makes! I stopped immediately. I called on the radio to the one of the tour participants, a mechanic. Hey Gus, would you mind coming up to my vehicle for a second, there's something I'd like you to look at. I knew what we would be looking at and I was correct. The spring caps (where the top of the coil springs are held on the chassis) were separating from the chassis. There were three large tears and one small one. On the right hand side of the chassis there was a large tear aft and fore of the mount and on the left side, a large tear fore and a small tear aft. I was in trouble. Fortunately, the tour was almost over, just three wells to go in relatively easy country and a long drive to Halls Creek on the Tanami Track.

As a pilot, I was acutely aware of the concept of resource management, so I got the tour party to set up camp at a nearby well, while four of us worked the problem. I came up with a rough bush repair plan, well not a repair, more a means of continuing safely which I asked the guys to think over and suggest any modifications or better solutions, while I worked the other problem. How to give my clients the rest of the tour. I won;t go into the details of the tour, more the repair.

With a rough plan in mind we gathered our tools and resources. The resource we were lacking was a couple of solid bits of wood, so two men went off with a hand saw to cut some grevillea. They brought back two pieces of the correct width and length and began shaping them to fit between the chassis rail outboard of the springs and the bump stop plate on the axle- the rubber stops had been removed minutes earlier. On the right side of the chassis we placed a piece of two inch wide flat bar, carefully bent to the arch of the chassis on top of the wood. With those in place we proceeded to tie the wood pieces to the coil springs with cockies string (#8 fencing wire). We then cut my drag chain and fed lengths of it down through the centre of each coil spring and up around the outside again. With the chain joined by shackles, we tightened the chain using bolts threaded through it, so that there was no slack, compressing the coil spring and forcing the chassis onto the blocks of wood. We now had zero suspension movement but we had a rigid chassis. The tyres were then deflated to as low as I'd risk- that was now my suspension.

Not only did we have a great time, learn a few tricks but we finished the tour and I drove the vehicle home to Townsville, where the chassis repair and modification was completed by a suitably qualified engineering firm that built mining vehicles. That vehicle completed several more canning trips but with rear coil springs made from 27mm steel and my favourite shock absorbers fitted.


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