Sunday History Photo / NT

Submitted: Sunday, Oct 18, 2015 at 04:05
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Everyone has heard the stories and seen the pictures of the amazing ‘road trains’ that run across the dry, hot and barren Australian Outback, but few know how it all got started. Agnes Buntine, a famous female bullock driver in the late 1800sbrings us to her great-great-grandson Noel Buntine, one of the original road train pioneers of the mid-1900s, when the trucks replaced the bullock teams. This week, we focus on Noel Buntine and his accomplishments of taming the harsh Australian Outback in a truck.

Noel Buntine had quite a reputation in the Australian Outback. Yes, he was good at business, but he was respected more for his good-humored optimism and his astonishing acts of human decency in times of trouble. Originally from Queensland and born on December 10, 1927, Noel Lytton Buntine worked in shipping in the eastern port of Rockhampton, as a tally clerk in Papua New Guinea, and then working in 1950 for the Mines Department in Alice Springs in Australia’s Northern Territory .
No doubt having in mind that a bit of desert trail-blazing there in the geographical center of Australia would be nice, he began a transportation business with another public servant, John Ryan. Back then, they supplied and serviced mining equipment and were local agents for firms based in cities like Sydney. “In 1959, Buntine decided to move out of the Northern Territory and took a Commer Knocker called Baby Doll (a British truck) and one trailer, as part of his share of the business, and began running for Price’s Interstate Transport as a sub-contractor between Brisbane and Sydney. But, the way of life in the populated ‘eastern states’ wasn’t for him, and Noel was soon back in the Outback hauling cattle.

Later, after being pushed out by some competition, Noel bought a B-61 Mack and began hauling cattle into the Wyndham Meat Works on Western Australia’s far northern coast. His home was a tent and his office a briefcase behind the seat of his truck. This eventually improved to a house trailer to sleep in and a Holden ute for traveling to broken-down trucks. Ever down-to-earth, it was always a beaten up Ford F250 pickup rather than a shiny Merc he’d be seen in, even when wealth came along.
Road transporting of livestock was bound to replace traditional cattle droving on horseback, and Noel Buntine was part of this new order. During his first year, he moved 3,600 cattle and did odd jobs, like carrying 2,000 tons of fencing wire and posts to a five million-acre cattle station, on flatbed trailers. Sometimes, this fencing got so hot from the pounding sun, it was difficult to unload.
The outback roads were rough, and during ‘cattle shifts’ graders would come in. As for what could be called ‘main roads’ (which were graded annually), they “had bull dust so deep there was a problem with dusted motors and the life expectancy of a wheel bearing was only about two trips. The drivers carried sealed boxes full of grease-packed bearings and they’d sometimes spend hours in the heat and dust belting the collapsed one with a hammer and cold chisel.”
Starting with just the one Mack truck, Noel made a habit of buying at least one extra prime mover and two trailers every year. He and his drivers would bounce along the poorly-maintained dirt roads, as only two NT main roads were paved (the Stuart and Barkly highways). “They would not see home base for months and, on a couple of occasions, drivers would take delivery of a truck in Brisbane and, by the time Buntine saw the vehicle in person, it would already be on its second set of drive tires.”

Noel dealt with the vastness of the NT by establishing primitive ‘road train bases’ in the middle of nowhere to provide basic service and maintenance for the battered ‘B’ models, which pulled as many trailers as the clutch could handle. “Most of the work was carried out under the blistering sun in the summer and in below-zero temperatures in the colder months, as there were few structures to protect them from the elements.” Gradually, permanent depots were built in Alice Springs, Mount Isa, Wyndham, and Katherine. By 1981, Noel’s fleet had grown to 49 trucks and 150 trailers, making him the largest cattle-carrying operation in Australia.

Noel Buntine was as big as the country he traveled. If outback drivers ran short of money in the days when a cash point was as rare as a drop of rain, they booked up their food, beer and cigarettes to Noel. Astute as he was, everyone knew he was as straight as they come. Even when money came along, he was never too big for his boots. He’d invariably be found having a beer in the front bar of the Katherine Hotel or at the tire depot in one of the bays with his men who were of all colors and persuasions and were judged on their ability to make a mile and nurse a truck and cattle.” One of them was an aboriginal driver named Bruce ‘Pissy’ Pepperill. Men like Pepperill had to know how to handle cattle, repair a gearbox on the side of the road, sleep in a swag and fix their own meals, which was often a steak cooked on a shovel over the hot coals.
Noel not only led the charge, but he was brave with opportunities. He would say to his drivers, “If any of you see a business venture which has potential and all that is stopping you from going ahead is money, come and see me.The names of the men in the Northern Territory whose start was provided by a cash loan or bank guarantee from Buntine is virtually endless. One was Dick David, who began as Noel’s yard boy before becoming a road train driver and then his operations manager, who turned a loan from Buntine into a multi-million dollar truck and fuel company, eventually buying Noel out when he retired! In turn, many of the men who benefited from Noel’s generosity often helped their own men into self-employment, as well, which started a nice ripple-effect.

Noel himself felt the pinch in the early 1980s when he decided to sell his Buntine Roadways to a company in south-eastern Australia that became bankrupt within two seasons. Rumors spread across Australia that Noel Buntine had gone to the wall as those who were not in the know were unaware that Noel had sold the company. But Noel rolled on regardless.
Always pressing on, Noel continued on and bought 14 new Superliners from Mack Trucks, who’d kept faith in him during less profitable dry seasons. To seal the deal, Noel had to fly to Brisbane, but found the creeks flooded between his place and Katherine. Patty drove him as far as they could go, then they swam and waded the creek where an employee, Alan Hobbs, was waiting with another vehicle.” Noel “changed into his city clothes on the side of the road then asked if there was a handkerchief in his vehicle. Patty re-crossed the creek, but all she could come up with was a roll of toilet paper.” Noel saw the funny side. “When I get to Brisbane,” he said, “I will be Mr. Buntine, but here at home I still blow my nose on a bit of dunny paper.”
Over the years, Noel was not always best pals with the Western Australian RTA (Road Transport Association), and in a move some drivers must have thought amusing, he called his new company RTA (which stood for Road Trains of Australia). Eventually retiring – or so he thought – to his family in Katherine along with their assorted animals, which included race horses, camels, donkeys and other pets, this new life wasn’t quite busy enough for Noel, so he took on some advisory jobs for the NT government.

The transport industry never forgot Noel Buntine. When he died at the age of 66 in 1994, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Alice Springs, where the Buntine Pavilion was built to remember him. Even the road wants to remember Noel. The 354-mile Buntine Highway, named in his honor in 1996, runs from the Victoria Highway via Top Springs in the Northern Territory to Nicholson in Western Australia. As a reflection of how times change, Patty made the point that just as the nearby 244-mile Buchanan Highway was named after a traditional horseback drover, so the Buntine Highway was named after a ‘modern’ road train drover.
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Reply By: MUZBRY- Life member(Vic) - Sunday, Oct 18, 2015 at 08:25

Sunday, Oct 18, 2015 at 08:25
Thanks Doug
Its nice to read about people that we have brushed shoulders with back in the old days.
Great place to be Mt Blue Rag 27/12/2012

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Reply By: Member - Tony H (touring oz) - Sunday, Oct 18, 2015 at 09:20

Sunday, Oct 18, 2015 at 09:20
Great read .....thank you!
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Reply By: Ron N - Sunday, Oct 18, 2015 at 12:15

Sunday, Oct 18, 2015 at 12:15
Thanks Doug, for a story about a bloke who was just an important a pioneer as anyone else in the earlier days of Australia.
These blokes put up with road and working conditions that people today just wouldn't tolerate.
Few people today (apart from us old farts!) remember when "highways" were often just 2 wheel tracks through the bush, or across the endless plains. And this was up until the late 60's and early '70's, too.
The countryside that was shocking bulldust, full of hidden axle-busting holes - that then turned into bottomless mud when it rained.
The bogs where your entire rig sank "to the makers name"!
I've had trucks and trailers sink until the deck was level with the "road", and we just drove the dozer straight off the deck - whereupon the dozer promptly sank to the makers name as well!
Corrugations that shook your wooden-framed cab to bits!
120HP engines that were regarded as "Big Power!"
I've driven trucks that had to be unloaded, to get over steep hills!
The "good old days" weren't really all that good at all!! LOL
Here's a good video where Dennis Buntine is interviewed about the "good old days".Some good footage in there.

Dennis Buntine talks about the good old days of trucking

Cheers, Ron.
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Reply By: Slow one - Sunday, Oct 18, 2015 at 12:17

Sunday, Oct 18, 2015 at 12:17
that photo of the B61 rigid looks like the same truck that is in the Gatton transport museum. She is named the Power and the Glory.

I see Mills transport is closing down after 90 plus years of operation.

Thanks for the post.
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Follow Up By: Life Member-Doug T NSW - Sunday, Oct 18, 2015 at 12:45

Sunday, Oct 18, 2015 at 12:45
Yes that is the same B-61 that is in Gatton

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Follow Up By: Bob Y. - Qld - Monday, Oct 19, 2015 at 00:09

Monday, Oct 19, 2015 at 00:09
Buntine later had a V8 R model that he called "Power and the Glory"..

Think it used to be under some of the first double decker trailers that Noel had. Camped at the River near Longreach tonight, will have a look for some old slides that I have, when I get home tomorrow, of loading doubles @ Newry Station in '70 or '71.


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Follow Up By: Bob Y. - Qld - Sunday, Nov 01, 2015 at 16:11

Sunday, Nov 01, 2015 at 16:11
Pretty obvious I didn't get to the task as promised, Doug! Been over the Rig Road with Les-PK Ranger, last week.

Back about 1970, a mob from Dubbo, Finemores, started sending a few single trailer double deckers into the NT, and probably undercutting some of Buntine's work. But their success in the Territory cattle game was tempered somewhat by the rate of roll-overs they had. Seemed like every sharp bend had the remains of a red crate 'n trailer just outside the bend.

When Buntine got their first doubles, they were understandably concerned about stability when loaded, so a day or two before, we got the message to draft the steers into lines of "big 'n smalls". This was only the 2nd mob that Buntine had loaded onto "doubles" and it went off alright. The yard lended itself well to loading 2 lines, and the mob got to the Barkly Tablelands, probably Avon Downs, in good order.

The rest is history, as they say........these days they load 'em as they come, whether the cattle are 200kg weaners or 620kg 100-day feedlot bullocks.

Have a few more thoughts, Doug, but have to get a paper before they all go, :-)


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Follow Up By: Life Member-Doug T NSW - Sunday, Nov 01, 2015 at 21:45

Sunday, Nov 01, 2015 at 21:45
Hey Bob, these are wonderful photo's you posted, real treasures, thanks .

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Reply By: kevmac....(WA) - Sunday, Oct 18, 2015 at 13:04

Sunday, Oct 18, 2015 at 13:04
Always like reading your stories of places I have worked, and often of people I have crossed paths with.

Thanks yet again Doug
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Follow Up By: kevmac....(WA) - Sunday, Oct 18, 2015 at 13:06

Sunday, Oct 18, 2015 at 13:06
am sure is one of Buntines rigs i saw going between 2 stations in the NT with somewhere between 6 -8 trailers attached when i was working for Telstra in NT
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Reply By: Member - John Baas (WA) - Monday, Oct 19, 2015 at 04:31

Monday, Oct 19, 2015 at 04:31
Great story and research Doug.

We are a long way from the NT border but we slip across from time to time, so the extra knowledge gives us a context once there.

Thanks very much.
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Reply By: ian.g - Monday, Oct 19, 2015 at 13:45

Monday, Oct 19, 2015 at 13:45
Pretty sure most or all of these trucks were Buntine
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Follow Up By: Life Member-Doug T NSW - Monday, Oct 19, 2015 at 16:28

Monday, Oct 19, 2015 at 16:28
Yes it looks like the colors, I have those photo's , it was at Helen Springs , and thank you for your good contribution to this weeks SHP.

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Reply By: gidgea jack - Tuesday, Oct 27, 2015 at 08:50

Tuesday, Oct 27, 2015 at 08:50
I drove for Buntine in 1984 and 85...without a doubt the best man I ever worked for..went on and drove for Dick David when he bought RTA in 86 for another three years Dicky also was a good bloke to work for.
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