THE HARD ROAD: David Bielenberg's Super-Liner II doing it hard on the road to Noonbah.
THE HARD ROAD: David Bielenberg's Super-Liner II doing it hard on the road to Noonbah.

Truckin' Memories: End of the sheep

OUT on the Thomson River on the northern end of the Channel Country, rich Mitchell grass plains were a goldmine for wool producers for the best part of a century.

That all changed in the 1990s and the crash of wool and sheep caused properties to get rid of sheep and invest in cattle, not an easy decision for some families who relied on the wool cheque for generations.

In 2000, I travelled to Noonbah Station about 160 kilometres out of Longreach. Angus and Karen Emmott had just taken over from outback identity and Angus' father Bruce Emmott.

I watched the generational change bring heartache in the older generation as Angus trucked off the sheep flock. It really was the end of an era.

David Bielenberg's Longreach Transport had the contract to shift the sheep, assisted by Ballard's trucks.

Bielenberg's Longreach Transport is a small two truck operation based in the Western Queensland town of Longreach. The business that has been in the Bielenberg family for three generations, started by David's grandfather who made a living handling the strings of Cobb & Co coaches.

"Well, we boomed right up to the 90s. Even in the late 80s with high interest rates we were doing all right. We bought a lot of gear then that we still benefit from today."

Inevitably, boom turns to bust and for Longreach Transport, everything crashed in 1992.

"There was a big wet season that stopped most livestock trucks from moving for five months... and the wool market collapsed."

In 1990, David bought out his uncle and cousin's shares in the business.

"I took over the debt and have just got my head above water now!"

These days, the Bielenberg operation runs two Super-Liners and depends on maintaining older gear well, relying on David's mechanical skills - rather than continually replacing trucks and trailers.

I asked him if he considered this a viable option in these times of continually increasing power and efficiency in trucks.

"We're only a small operation, and handle a lot of smaller jobs, particularly with sheep that bigger operators just can't afford to do," he said.

"A new truck with 600 horsepower and high repayments has to have long distances to run to be viable. If we went that way, I don't think we could afford to service many of our clients who have been with us for generations.

The collapse of wool prices and its effect on sheep operators is the biggest issue facing sheep transport in Western Queensland.

"Ten years ago there were 10 road trains working out of Longreach on sheep, now there's two!"

Deck by deck the trailers filled. The cool morninghas given way to a warm day. Dust is swirling in the yards. The sheep are running well, and the dogs dance through the dust yapping and pushing and herding the sheep.

 

David Bielenberg and Angus Emmott about to adjust the loading ramp to suit sheep.
David Bielenberg and Angus Emmott about to adjust the loading ramp to suit sheep.

A good percentage of the canine help doesn't have a clue what is going on and appears like magic in gateways just as a mob of sheep are being pushed through.

That gritty feeling of dust in your teeth, the ephemeral suntan of sheep and cattle yards that later washes off in a gurgle of red mud down the shower hole.

Big David Bielenberg picks heavy sheep up and places them in the right direction with the ease a lesser mortal might pick a puppy up by the scruff of the neck.

And all of a sudden it's over. No more yapping. No more bleating. It's all quiet.

A whine of an air starter as David's Super-Liner fires up to build up air.

On the Noonbah access road, washouts and ruts reduce the travelling to a crawl. David takes the lead, a reverse of normal procedure for the road boss, and forces the slow pace.

He has a good name for looking after livestock and he shows it as he eases the big truck through the washouts while the sheep, high on top decks, gaze at the passing landscape.

There's one bad creek crossing, over one of the Vergemont Channels. Dave drives the Super-Liner steadily up the bit of a rise before the creek and guns the engine... the Mack responds with a roar and a cloud of black smoke.

The truck drops into the creek, pushing a wave of brown, muddy water before it. The trailers are still coming into the creek as the Mack lifts out on the other side to pull them through.

Similarly, the Kenworth and Louisville make the crossing, and the trucks strike out across the flat horizon for their destination still some hours away.

And with them, sailing on that cloud of fine red dust goes the last of the sheep on whose back the station, and Australia, had ridden for so long.

As has happened on many properties throughout the country - and around the world - where collapsed wool prices are forcing producers out of one of the best natural fibres in the world. Australia has slipped from the sheep's back.

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