High Country Haulin'
IT'S 7am on a Monday and deep in the Victorian high country the crew from Pelz Haulage Orbost are working hard on the job.
Working out of a timber coupe next to the Omeo Highway, about halfway between Mitta Mitta and Omeo, the first load of logs for the week is being loaded onto Marcus Gilbert's Kenworth T909.
With engine idling, a Western Star is in the queue, soon to be joined by another Pelz truck, a Kenworth SAR with bogie B-double piggybacked on the prime mover.
The Pelz operation, with its headquarters in Orbost, has been working this patch of bush for a number of months, felling, loading and transporting mountain ash timber to locations in southern and northeastern Victoria.
Jake Flannagan is operating a Cat excavator with a grapple head, picking up logs and delicately placing them on the bogie-bogie Kennedy trailer set behind Marcus Gilbert's Kenworth.
Via a handheld unit, Marcus keeps tabs on the payload, with the truck's on-board scales soon showing the truck loaded close to its 57-tonne limit. Marcus jumps in and pulls the unit forward to secure the load while the Western Star backs onto the landing to unfold its trailer and repeat the process.
With chains and auto-tensioning straps keeping the load in place, Marcus pulls out onto the Omeo Highway with a six-hour haul to Morwell ahead of him.
Depending on the grade of the timber, the four Pelz trucks working on this contract will cart to mills at Heyfield, Morwell and Swifts Creek in Gippsland, and Corryong or Benalla in the northeast.
After a number of years operating machinery for BHP in the west and working closer to his home in Bairnsdale, Marcus has been with the Pelz operation since April last year and reckons the work suits him away from the rat-race.
"There's not too many hassles out here, you can get out and do your own thing," he says as he shifts a gear.
The road between Tallangatta and Omeo was the first in Victoria to be gazetted as a state highway in 1924 and was the last to be fully sealed along its length, with the work only completed in 2014.
However, the Pelz trucks do not use one of the most treacherous parts of the highway, rather taking a trip off-road over the mountain range down into the Omeo Valley via what is known as 'The Knocker'.
Carved out of the bush in the gold rush days of the 1800s, the route was so named as it 'knocked up' both man and beast as they crossed the steep mountain range.
As we leave the blacktop, the dust starts to swirl as Marcus works the steering wheel and the Roadranger commencing the climb up the range.
Communication on the mountain roads is vital and Marcus calls each landmark and kilometre peg on the UHF to keep any other trucks travelling the route aware of our location.
The trailer units today are set up as a 23m B-double and Marcus reckons it is a versatile bit of gear to have.
"It's set up as a slider, so it can run out to 23m or as a mini B-double, so access is usually pretty good, which is handy on the types of roads we drive on."
With the narrow road and a number of corners on the Knocker track, the truck is using all the road on the climb.
As we near the top of the range, the road tops out at about 1430m above sea level and the cloud has started to close in over the alps.
The 600 Cummins horses under the long bonnet are earning their keep pulling hard, with the dash readout indicating a litre of fuel for every 224m covered.
Marcus' Kenworth is three and a half years old and has clocked 350,000km, but more telling is the 7000 hours showing on the hour meter, which provides an indicator of the slow and laborious duty the truck has done over its working life.
Driving through this type of terrain requires a balanced approach and Marcus reckons the road has its challenges, with extreme conditions experienced through the seasons.
"I just put the diff locks in and the power divider helps with the wheel spin getting up off the road," he said.
"The weather changes so quickly from one side of the range to the other. Last week it was pretty greasy when I was coming over empty and I was patting the dash and talking to it, just pushing through the red mud," he continued with a smile.
"We were lucky this year, we managed to dodge the snow through here, and in summertime the dust is that bad on these roads when the corners get rutted out you can't see the B-trailer in the mirrors."
The UHF crackles into life as we hear of the location of a grader and roller working on the road and receive a friendly wave and some banter from the grader operator as we pass.
Marcus reckons the good relationship between the truck drivers and the roading crew from the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning makes for a better road, with ongoing maintenance and improvements.
"They are good to work with in getting things done," he said.
On the descent into the Omeo Valley, the rain is starting to close in as Marcus flicks on the wipers. The engine brake is making a racket doing its job keeping the truck steady as it negotiates a couple of tight hairpin bends as Marcus carefully guides the truck down the mountain.
"On some of these corners, you drop a wheel in the gutter you can end up over the bank pretty quickly," he said.
With such a severe working environment, maintenance is carried out regularly, with the trucks greased twice a week and the brakes and all other systems checked once a week.
"Out here it's so important to keep on top of it," Marcus reckoned.
The forest is opening out to the farming land of the Omeo Valley as the Kenworth makes its way back out onto the blacktop near the historic Hinnomunjie Bridge.
As the rain gets heavier, the temperature is hovering near seven degrees as Marcus does a lap around the truck and checks the load as we say our goodbyes.
He is still 280km and four and a half hours solid driving on winding roads from the mill at Morwell.
For all of that, Marcus reckons the job is a good one.
"You see some nice sunrises and sunsets out here and you see something different every day out in the bush."