Long haul legend reflects on memories from the road

“We had to make money to survive. The only way to do it was to work and that’s what I knew best,” says Darryl Birrell of his role with G.W. Pennells, the first in his transport career of over five decades. 

An 18-year-old Darryl was tasked with driving a 1953 Austin tipper, carting offal from Braybrook to Kensington in Victoria. The trips were quick but by no means straightforward, given the tendency for the Austin’s petrol to vaporise as Darryl tried to drive up Kensington Hill. 

Armed with a brick on a rope for chocking the tyres and a damp rag for the fuel pump, Darryl kept the Austin moving and his trips efficient. 

Darryl Birrell and wife Barbara are now looking forward to watching their grandchildren grow up together.

Darryl soon joined C&C Thompson, first running local routes before graduating to interstate runs. Behind the wheel of a R190 International with a Scania motor and towing a boogie trailer loaded with James Hardie pipes, Darryl did his first interstate trip from Melbourne to Adelaide. It was here that Darryl realised his keenness for long hauls. He recalls his favourite run throughout his career was Melbourne to Brisbane.

Darryl’s time in transport can rightfully be described as diverse, both in the materials carted and the machines he used to get the job done. From carting LPG in a Slimline Mack to general freight in a 10 Series Dodge, and fuel throughout central New South Wales to cheese from Melbourne to Sydney and Adelaide, Darryl recounts that “transport has given me a life I’ve loved and thoroughly enjoyed.” 

Regardless of what he was driving, Darryl was well-known for the condition in which he kept his vehicles, often seen washing his truck at 2am after a trip. Observing that his truck was often a home away from home, Darryl made a concerted effort to keep it spotless and is very proud of this reputation. 

Darryl started with Don Watson Transport, responsible for carting hanging meat from Corowa to meat markets in Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide. Under the management of Noelene Watson, Darryl’s time at the company taught him the importance of strong and effective leadership. 

Darryl worked for Traianon Transport in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, carting general freight interstate.

Describing Noelene as “one of the greatest bosses I’ve ever had”, Darryl recalls that “we were paid for everything we did, given decent gear to drive and every Christmas – rain, hail or shine – you always got a slab of beer and a large ham.” 

The business never overlooked the value of family, appreciating that the time spent away from home inevitably puts great demands on a marriage and home. If a driver was having difficulties in their personal life, “Noelene was the first one to knock on your front door and help you out” or pull up a driver and tell them when it was time to head home and spend a few days with their family.

It was this supportive environment and direction that kept Darryl with the business for over 15 years.

Darryl remembers most fondly the camaraderie that comes with the transport industry. “If you broke down, blew a tyre or your load moved, four or five blokes would pull up and help, in the heat or in the wet.” 

Once, when travelling to Brisbane, Darryl blew several tyres west of Wooloowin. Word spread down the highway and, sure enough, six fellow operators soon arrived to drop off spare tyres and help change those blown. With the help of his mates, Darryl was back on the road within four hours. 

Although more reliable and powerful equipment and improved roads have seen the transport industry advance, Darryl fears that the camaraderie he valued has been lost. He advises those currently starting out in the transport industry to “listen to the more experienced drivers and get experience that way”, noting that these are individuals that you will be sharing the road with.

Having seen the “hustle and bustle” of the industry in more recent times, Darryl reminds operators “not to push themselves too hard. Pull up, have a rest and walk around the truck and trailer a few times. Don’t drive tired.” 

Unfortunately, an injury in 2020 put Darryl physically out of the transport game, but certainly not emotionally. He received a call earlier this year, asking if he “would do a few loads of steel” to assist a mate and wishes he could have accepted. 

“My mind tells me I can do it, but my body tells me, ‘Nah mate, you can’t do it anymore’,” Darryl says.

In any case, his time at home has given Darryl the opportunity to spend time with his grandchildren. The nomadic nature of transport meant Darryl’s wife, Barbara, was responsible for raising their two children, Kim and Gavin, and Darryl had to sacrifice being part of many milestones in fatherhood. Giving up the highway but being able to watch his grandchildren grow up is an acceptable compromise for Darryl. 

Darryl was inducted into the Road Transport Wall of Fame in 2021, nominated by his proud son Gavin. Sadly, Gavin passed away before he could see his father inducted. 

On many levels, Darryl’s induction into the Wall of Fame “meant a hell of a lot”. He is “extremely proud” to be recognised amongst so many influential industry members, a number of which he has known and maintained friendships with for many years.

He describes visiting the Hall of Fame as “very, very moving. It brings a tear to my eyes because a lot of the guys I drove with, worked with, learnt off are not here anymore,” one of which is the late Gerry Brown, who Darryl credits for teaching him everything he knows about transport when he first started at C&C Thompson. 

The Road Transport Hall of Fame thanks Darryl for the active and ongoing role he plays in promoting and supporting the organisation. 

We are privileged to have been able to honour Darryl and look forward to seeing him in Alice Springs for the Road Transport Hall of Fame Festival of Transport in the future. 

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