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This article by Jeremy Browne was originally published in the Spring 1981 edition of the Pichi Richi Patter.

Mount Rebecca conquered – head wind and all!

At 12.30 p.m. Central Standard Time on Tuesday 7 October 1980 a 'Kalamazoo’ 1 railway section car arrived at Alice Springs, proving conclusively that the early railway employees in the area may have migrated from the south in a like manner.

Dawn, Day Two. Wednesday 1 October. The day dawned gently. Pichi Richi stalwarts Peter 'Cigarette' Letheby and Max 'Wangianna' Munchenberg were busy photographing the dawn while the remainder of the party stirred from the previous night's hungover sleep; some in the small fettlers' rooms festooned with nude pin-ups, others from camp stretchers outside the ATCO huts which made up the camp at Curdimurka, 101 km by rail from Marree.

The Hand Ghan crew in full cry at Anna Creek

'I must be crazy', muttered Royce 'Motor Mouth' Jowett from the Bellarine Peninsula Railway in Victoria and guilty of mooting the original crazy idea. Royce was temporarily immobilised as one of the many camp dogs had stolen his shoes, another handing out the same rough justice to team leader Jerry 'Pump Harder' Browne.

Behind our party lay the rotting track from Marree. Callana – Wangianna – Wangianna Bank – WANGIANNA BANK!!! Here the vocal Marree locals had predicted the attempt would founder, and it nearly did. Alberrie Creek – Boopeechie – Lake Eyre. Head wind all the way and a good 40°C by lunchtime. Not enough pre-event training, too much playing up on the train from Port Augusta and too many eggs for breakfast had all contributed to a weary first day, the 101 km being covered at an average of a bare 12.8 km/hour. A superb five course meal by Graham 'Le Chef' Bowes including vintage claret had eased the pain somewhat but with a frighteningly long way to go the team was far from confident that first night.

Just why were these pioneers camped at Curdimurka? Had desert madness taken its deadly grip?

Our story begins in 1977 when Jerry Browne began making noises about running the last Ghan as a steam hauled special. Fortunes swayed to and fro and at one stage in 1979, the trip was beginning to look a distinct possibility, however logistic problems, an earlier than planned completion date and the visit of H.R.H. Princess Alexandra and Mr. Princess Alexandra combined to make ANR decide the trip was just too much to handle, in many ways much to the organiser's relief.

One of the locos considered was Bellarine's T class and it was during discussions with Royce Jowett that the very vague idea of the Kalamazoo trip was born. Despite the sheer idiocy of the idea, it grew and grew until, in early 1980 it was back to ANR to seek permission for a different trip! With the Chairman's 'approval in principle' it was a question of organising the detail. ANR Promotions Manager Neil Travers came to the rescue, and with the guiding hand of Chief Civil Engineer Des Smith, arrangements were made for the party to travel as a track inspection gang in the company of a Road Master carrying out a regular track inspection.

The publicity would provide a good build-up to the first train on the new line which would justify ANR's involvement.

A budget of $5000 was produced and sponsors approached, the S.A. Brewing Company assuming the role of major sponsor with B.H.P. 'The Big Australian', Yakka Clothing and the Northern Territory Tourist Board as the other main sponsors. The trip coincided with the release of the 'Ghan can' from the Southwark Brewery and, in fact, the first 40 dozen off the production line went on the trolley, being eagerly clutched as souvenirs all along the line.

Dispute arose during the trip as to whether the cans constituted legal 'fuel', but when one considers 42 degrees celsius heat, desert delirium and strenuous exertion, it could hardly be considered as anything else! The final consumption figure of 10 miles per gallon would seem to confirm this.

Meanwhile, the Victorian contingent, all from the Bellarine Peninsula Railway, had arranged to borrow a Kalamazoo from the Tasmanian Museum of Transport in Hobart where it was on loan from its owner, David Beck. It was shipped to Queenscliff and in July the S.A. party went over for a test run. Alas, years out in the open had taken their toll and there was a ton of work to be done if there was to be any chance of making our target. The trolley was brought to Adelaide and overhauled in the Largs Bay Trolley Workshops. Overhaul included straightening axles, new needle roller bearings, renewing all bearings and bushes, strip down and re-stain, relining brakes and finally new Tasmanian myrtle handles. The platform was extended by 15 inches, which was to be our secret weapon.

The transformation was startling and a test run to the Black Rock pub from Orroroo confirmed our optimism that 10 miles per hour was possible.

By October 1980 only eight camps along the line were manned and our schedule had to be worked around the Ghan and the first train on the new line, the target being to be in Alice Springs in time for the first train. By some fluke it all worked out well and we only had one night on the line without a roof and a couple of flagons of port rendered that unnecessary, although we could have done without the snakes.

1 Kalamazoo – from the early colonial word meaning inefficient means of travel.

We assembled in Adelaide on Sunday 28 September in time for ABC News including a film of our practice run made by Andrew Gramp, and after sampling the 'Ghan cans', set off for Quorn with the Kalamazoo on a trailer with enough food for two hundred men.

Monday morning saw the party travel through the Pass (by road) to load the Kalamazoo onto a flat car at the back of the Ghan. Very strange it looked too, right at the back of the train. The balance of the party had travelled from Adelaide on the train, while Max joined from Whyalla.

Marree was reached early at 9.30 p.m. and waiting on the platform was our guide and section car driver, Senior Roadmaster Kevin Stevens from Alice Springs. Kevin was to go through phases of doubt, disbelief, encouragement and, finally, excitement during the next eight days. We could not have hoped for a better companion.

Our rations were split up and loaded onto the 'chaser' for dropping off at William Creek, Oodnadatta and Finke. Graham Bowes and his wife Audrey had planned every meal down to the last detail, including the right wine!

Breakfast at the Great Northern Hotel was followed by the official on-railing ceremony in front of Channel 10, their News team having flown from Adelaide to witness the momentous occasion. They followed the team to Callana by road, then by air a little further along the line.

A routine was soon established. First crew away each morning was on the track by about 7.00 a.m., while the others packed up and set off in pursuit about an hour later. The first shift was thus usually the longest and with the cool of the day to pump in, quickly became the most popular. Once the Kalamazoo was caught, it stopped at the next milepost and the fresh team headed off at once. The well-worn team rested, gulped Staminade from one of the ten waterbags hanging on the motor trolley, then all set off in pursuit after about 30 minutes.

After the first shift, others were thus about 45 minutes, and this proved ideal unless conditions were really difficult, in which case 30 minutes was quite enough. By keeping the shifts short, no-one became really tired and pumpers were frequently jostling for their next turn on board. With ten pumpers, we were able to take a double break every second shift, with each pumper doing three or four turns a day. The individual daily record was 66 km.

Stops were made at each siding for photographs, though, in retrospect, we should have taken time out for more photo stops. It wasn't until quite late in the trip that we became confident of having time up our sleeve and by then we were too keen to get to the Alice early to stop for photos.

Lunch was taken on the move or while waiting for the Kalamazoo to get ahead. Staminade was taken at every opportunity and proved an excellent aid, while all grog was banned until we off-tracked in the evening; but watch out then!

Our arrival at Alice Springs was a day and a half early, making the 'Hand Ghan' the only Ghan in history to arrive early, as far as we can determine! As no-one expected us early, our arrival was a little low-key, however ABC TV was on hand to film our arrival, and on Thursday we had pride of place along the rostrum to welcome the first train, driven into the yard by HRH Princess Alexandra. Unfortunately, amidst the excitement of the day, we were not to get to meet her, though many of the VIP's on the train came over for a look at the Kalamazoo. One of these visitors, the Queensland Railways Commissioner, has since been able to assist in obtaining our own Kalamazoo, as used on the recent Peterborough – Quorn and Gladstone – Wilmington trips.

All along the way, ANR staff were fantastic, assisting us in every possible way and providing no end of encouragement. Our special thanks obviously go to Kevin Stevens, Des Smith and Neil Travers, but also to train control Port Augusta, who kept us in touch with the real world, and the crews along the line.

Would we go again? Obviously, few 'firsts' are as exciting the second time around. The trip was unique, one of those rare once-in-a-lifetime experiences, however, it was not the physical nightmare we had anticipated and many others had predicted. Anyway the line is no longer. Still we have enjoyed recent short trips and there is always the line through the Pass (how about an annual trophy for the fastest time to Summit?). Then there is the opening of the Crystal Brook standard gauge and the new line to Darwin!

Finally our thanks to ANR and our sponsors, without whom the trip would have been very difficult!

Highlights of the Hand Ghan journey

Wangianna Bank – look out! Later experience proved that a crew of four was better than five
Nearing William Creek – a brief downhill run
William Creek
Crossing the southbound Ghan at the Algebuckina Bridge
Bartons Gap – the long hard climb near the abandoned North Creek Siding
Bloods Creek Siding, 41°C at 10 a.m., waiting for the change
On the three rail track through Heavitree Gap
And you'd think Princess Alexandra did it! This smug bunch has just unveiled the plaque a day early at Alice Springs.

Extracts from the Log

Day 1: Tuesday 30 September 1980 Marree to Curdimurka
Breakfast at Great Northern Hotel. Depart Marree 9.25 a.m. after Channel 10 News interview. Hot with NW wind makes for hard going. Wangianna at 12.51 p.m. and 40°C. Motor section car breaks down near Lake Eyre and passing motorist won't help. Fixed with bit of wood which lasts till Alice Springs. Arrive Curdimurka 6.31p.m. to glorious sunset. Big dinner, stayed in fettlers' quarters. 101 km. Average speed 12.8 km/hour.

Day 2: Wednesday 1 October 1980 Curdimurka to 656 km near Anna Creek
First party away at 7.11 a.m. and covers 25 km past Margaret Siding. Gentle SE wind a great morale booster. Warms up to 38°. Found old Kalamazoo gear wheel at lrrapatanna—believed to be off trolley wrecked on Deadman's Hill in the 1880s. Passed their graves later. Arrive William Creek 2.30 p.m. Sunset run 20 km on to off-rail near Anna Creek. Dinner in the pub till late then slept(?) in passageway at the barracks while two NJ's shunted for hours.
120 km. Average 17.3 km/hour.

Day 3: Thursday 2 October 1980 656 km to Algebuckina
Overcast day with 32ºC maximum. Tail wind all day and we flew! Average 24 km/hour Duff Creek to Edwards Creek. Spirits high—just coasting. Algebuckina in time for photos on the bridge and then posing Kalamazoo in the foreground as the southbound Ghan crossed the bridge with two NJ's. Desperate party until late in the old fettlers' camp. Snake in Graham Bowes' sleeping bag!
120 km. Average 19.4 km/hour.

Day 4: Friday 3 October 1980 Algebuckina to Alberga
Sunny day 31º max. Perfect pumping weather. First team away at 6.42 a.m. covers 32 km. Arrive Oodnadatta at 9.48 a.m. well up on schedule. Whole school turns out to meet us. Showers, stamp first day covers at P.O. and wait for southbound goods. Inspect ruins at Wire Creek arriving Alberga 2.41 p.m. Great swimming pool. Camp in good condition with caretaker only. Main line sitting after dinner and sing-song until late.
96 km. Average 17.9 km/hour.

Day 5: Saturday 4 October 1980 Alberga to Ilbunga
Day clear and hot. 36° at midday with northerly wind building up. Very hard in Pedirka sandhills so we lay over at Pedirka for four hours. Good time for showers in camp. Arrive Ilbunga 5.50 p.m. Camp abandoned and partly wrecked but a roof over our heads; heavy shower of rain later. We ring train control for Grand Final results—Port wins!
97 km. 17.9 km/hour.

Day 6: Sunday 5 October 1980 Ilbunga to Finke
Hard Yakka! Very hot—42ºC by 11.00 a.m. with very strong northerly winds. Long delay at Bloods Creek to cross southbound goods then we lay over at Abminga praying for wind to ease (it was Sunday). Michael Menzies from Geelong joins party. Eventually we had to push on. Covered 6 km in first hour but wind slowly abates and we reach Finke in almost dark at 7.03 p.m. Cold beers in fridge!
105 km. Average 13.3 km/hour.

Day 7: Monday 6 October 1980 Finke to Deepwell
Cool change arrives—temperature drops to 12ºC in three hours and rain as we cross the Finke. Anticipated problems with sand do not arise. Motor trolley goes ahead to push down sand and we make good time arriving Bundooma 12.50 p.m., planned overnight stop. We decide to push on to Deepwell and reduce the trip by a complete day. Arrive Deepwell 5.28 p.m. Kevin Stevens' wife and son come down from Alice for barbecue. Nick Timbs sets individual day record with 66 km.
151 km. Average 18.8 km/hour.

Day 8: Tuesday 7 October 1980 Deepwell to Alice Springs
Nothing can stop us now!
Perfect pumping weather. 28°C and slight tail wind. Awoken at 5.00 a.m. by cock, unable to catch it. A shift each to Todd Junction averaging over 20 km/hour. Photo stops in Heavitree Gap arriving Alice Springs 12.20 p.m.
78 km. Average 19.6 km/hour.

Those taking part were: Jeremy Browne, Graham Bowes, Nick Timbs, Mike Ball and Peter Letheby from Adelaide, Max Munchenberg from Whyalla, Royce Jowett, Peter Nolte, Phil Riddett, Rob Riddett and Mike Menzies (Abminga to Alice Springs only) from Geelong.

Total distance covered 869 km

Total pumps 167,616

Overall average 16.8 km/hour

Fuel consumption 10 m.p.g. Southwark

Greatest individual distance pumped 376.5 km


All photographs by the author

A reunion of the Hand Ghan team was held in October 2010