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In the 1930s, the problem of providing outback communities with supplies occupied the minds of the Australian and British governments. While the cities and towns of the south were connected with train lines, the communities of the northern and central parts of the continent remained separated by great expanses of arid country. For decades, camels and cameleers imported from Afghanistan and Pakistan had serviced the few pioneering men and women who took a gamble farming or prospecting at distant outposts. But survival was tenuous, and in times of drought or famine, families had to walk off their properties or perish.
One solution—developed by a team of engineers in Britain—was to build a truck that behaved like a train, by attaching linked trailers to the back of a large vehicle. Although a simple idea, pulling this off required great mechanical ingenuity. Whereas train carriages were held in place by metal tracks, the truck’s trailers had to be able to follow one another around corners without any external guidance.
The technological breakthrough was to make the trailers self-tracking, a feat achieved by joining the front and rear axles of each trailer with a metal rod, so that when the wheels of the front axle turned in one direction, the rear axle pivoted in the opposite direction. Although somewhat counterintuitive, this mechanism allowed the wheels at the back of the trailer to delay their response to the movement at the front of the trailer, and pivot in exactly the same position on the road as the anterior wheels. This meant that any number of trailers could follow each other around bends without dragging or cutting corners, as if held in place by invisible tracks.
On its maiden Australian journey in 1934, the road train’s self-tracking trailers proved capable of navigating the 1,100 miles of red, rock-strewn flatlands and salt plains between Adelaide and Alice Springs. The morning the vehicle arrived in Alice Springs, the whole town turned out to greet it. Many were excited at the prospect of a stable supply chain. Others were wary of the British-made machine. A reporter for the Adelaide Advertiser wrote, “The Afghans and Aborigines, although interested in the big unit, viewed it with mixed feelings. One old Afghan said, ‘My people pioneered the transport in the outback, but the motor car has now come, and now they can run a train without building a line.’”
Indeed, for most cameleers, this imported machine signified the end of their time in Australia. They released their camels into the wild, and returned back from where they came. For many indigenous people, who had been living in the surrounding deserts for millennia, the road train was yet another foreign incursion into traditional homelands.
For the next decade, that one road train serviced remote outback communities, bringing supplies at regular intervals, while forging new tracks over sand dunes, alluvial flats, and stony plains. During the wet season, dry riverbeds would flood, and the driver would have to dismantle the truck, drive the lead vehicle across raging currents, and then tow the trailers over.