Taking outback driving to the extreme

Those who’ve watched Outback Truckers would recognise Steve Grahame, often covered in dust and dirt, as he delivers building supplies and all sorts of essentials to some of the most remote communities in Australia.

He travels the dusty red dirt highways in his beloved 1994 Kenworth C501, with Bella – a five-year-old German shepherd/kelpie cross – by his side. “She’s a great companion and loves coming in the truck.”

His truck may not have all of the modern bells and whistles of today’s newest trucks, but that’s the way he likes it. “I bought the truck off a mate of mine around the turn of the century, so I’ve had it for about 20 years. It’s been a good truck but it’s pretty much been rebuilt from front to back,” said Grahame.

“At the time of its make, it was probably the toughest model Kenworth made. It was made as a logging truck. It’s a heavier duty truck than what I require so it’s therefore tough enough to dish out whatever I give to it.”

His trusty C501 has 2.5 million kilometres on the clock and he’s certainly put the truck through its paces. He’s replaced the engine once, the radiator twice and the gearbox a couple of times too. “That’s why I like American trucks, you can just keep replacing bits, just like a Meccano set,” said Grahame.

“One of the main reasons I stick with an older truck is that everything is mechanical. If something goes wrong, I don’t require someone to fly in with a helicopter and a computer to diagnose the problem, I can fix it myself.

“I do fear for struggling owner drivers in the near future, as the squeeze is going to go onto these older trucks but I can’t see zero emission trucks in such remote areas. I think there will always be a requirement for hands-on skills. With some of the places we go to and the deliveries we make, you’ve gotta be as much a bush man as a truck driver.”

Aged 69, Grahame has a lifetime of experience and knowledge in outback trucking – and this has seen him become a fan favourite on the show, which he has appeared on across each of its nine seasons.

Grahame was also inducted into the Shell Rimula Wall of Fame in 2015, in recognition of his contribution to the industry.

He travels the dusty red dirt highways in his beloved 1994 Kenworth C501.

His work extends from the Pitjantjatjara land in northern South Australia, up through the Northern Territory and across the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

When we spoke with him, he had just hooked up his road train at Wangkatjungka, after delivering two fuel tanks to the remote Aboriginal community, about 130km south east of the Fitzroy Crossing, just off the Great Northern Highway.

He says the Gibb River, Kalumburu and Tanami Roads, along with any of the regional roads associated with the Great Central or Pitjantjatjara lands, are without a doubt some of the toughest he travels on. “The Great Central is 1100km of red dirt, but these roads are all tough when they want to be,” said Grahame.

“The miles I do are rougher and harder. When I was younger, I’d average 1000km a day at times, day in and day out. On bitumen you might be able to clock up 1000 kilometres in a day but out in the bush on the rough stuff, some days you’re struggling to do a couple of hundred kilometres.”

Grahame grew up in East Fremantle on the outskirts of Perth. His family ran a livestock farm with cattle and sheep. “I wasn’t too keen on school and started off in livestock work, working as a field hand, then I moved into mineral exploration as a driller which required me to get a truck licence. I got married, had kids and it just went from there,” he said.

Steve Grahame and his dog Bella have been regular faces on Outback Truckers across each of its nine seasons.

“I have three children and six grandchildren – I love my grandkids and have their artwork in my truck too. The youngest is almost five and the oldest is 14.”

As with many who grew up on farms, he learnt to drive the family’s truck – in this case an 8-tonne Austin – on the property as a kid.

“As a young bloke I always liked being in the bush and I liked big trucks and thought when I grew up, I would love to drive one of those things,” said Grahame.

He got what was then called his B-class licence when he was 18 and his C-class (now an MC) licence at 21.

“I remember once when I was in my twenties, I walked into the Million Miler Bar at the Gepps Cross Hotel in Adelaide. It used to be a central point where you could pull up with the truck. I walked in and there were these old truckies having a beer. They would’ve had millions of miles of experience and I wondered what it would be like to be able to sit on one of those stools like them, with all of that knowledge.”

Fast forward to now, and he’s certainly well and truly earned his place on one of those bar stools. 

His work takes him all over, from the corrugated dirt roads to crossing croc-infested waters.

“To me the job has gotten easier as I’ve gotten older. Now the trucks are air conditioned and there’s more bitumen. But some younger drivers might see this sort of work as too hard to get into. I think the average age of long-distance truck drivers now is about 59 years. Part of it is that there’s easier work around these days, but I think it’s also because insurance companies won’t cover drivers with less than two years of experience – so that’s two years of effort you’ve got to put in to get them working with you.”

In Grahame’s business, it’s just him and one other driver – Slick, who also enjoys the challenge and remote work.

In his work, Grahame says the rewards often outweigh the challenges. “There’s always the challenge of getting a job delivered on time, with the gear in good order; and the satisfaction that comes with being able to complete that and then the ability to keep on doing that.

“To be able to pull up at a station or remote community somewhere and have the essential stuff people have been waiting for is really rewarding. They might be desperate for fuel or not have enough blankets as we come into the cooler season. I have so many wonderful memories of being out on the road.”

And with the help of Outback Truckers, he’s sharing what he does best with the rest of the world. Grahame was actually approached by the show’s crew while he was hooking up a triple road train at Wubin.

“I was greasing a trailer and ready to hook up and only gave them short answers. But, then someone told them to follow up with me – and I’m so glad they did. It’s been a chance to showcase all of these parts of Australia. You can forget about ‘putting another shrimp on the barbie’. Now, people associate Australia with big road trains,” explained Grahame.

“The show has brought trucks into people’s lounge rooms so they can better understand that we are just like them – we have kids, we have grandkids, we have families and we’re just doing our job.”

Late last month, Outback Truckers aired its 100th episode. “I’ve been with them since the beginning and I was there in the 100th episode. They’ve never paid me any money to be on the show. It’s an observational doco but I’ve been surprised at the positive feedback and the work that’s been generated from being on there. It’s been positive for me in so many ways.”

I was interested to know if he gets any special treatment along his travels due to being on the show – but it seems not. “I’ve just unloaded and asked the blokes if there was any chance of a shower. They said the shower won’t be open there until later tonight. So here I am still covered in dust and dirt,” he laughed.

When asked if it ever gets lonely in his travels, Grahame answered without hesitation. “Not really. I can live with myself and I’ve always got my dog with me too – she’s very playful and a great little dog. In my lifetime, I’ve experienced more loneliness in a crowd than out in the bush.”

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