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High country loggin’: Bogong to Benalla

The clock is just about to tick over to 7am as Craig Buck peels off the Hume Highway at Wodonga and heads for the hills of the Great Dividing Range at the start of another working week.

Big Rigs is a passenger today as Buck sits behind the wheel of a Kenworth K200 which is coupled to an Elphinstone B-double logging trailer set and is bound for a locality known as ‘The Hollow’.

High on the range south of Mitta Mitta, his first load of timber for this week is destined for the Ryan & McNulty mill in Benalla.

With the weather conditions in the alpine area deemed favourable for log haulage, Buck had left his home in the Yarra Valley the afternoon prior and overnighted in the truck at Barnawartha allowing for the best use of daylight hours.

The Kenworth Buck is driving is owned by Steve Commans who, along with the log haulage runs a number of trucks on linehaul, with his K200 arriving earlier in the year replacing a Cat-powered T908.

Given the working environment and the vagaries of the spring weather, Buck was casting a critical eye on the sky which had been clear in Wodonga whilst heading around the edge of Lake Hume and on the first set of hills to climb over Lockhart’s’ Gap.

“That says rain!” he mused, giving a nod to the black clouds that had moved in over the range beyond Mitta Mitta.

The logging coupe he was headed for sits adjacent to Mount Bogong at about 1200 metres in altitude and timber haulage can be a stop-start operation with rain making the roads in and out of the coupe too treacherous for safe transport.

Having been in touch with the on-site logging crew the night before, his first load out would be back down the Hume – with the grade of the log determining which mill it will be sent to.

“It’s sawlog so it will be for Benalla, there is some to Dandenong, and some for Corryong but I will save that for tomorrow,” he explained.

“There’s is a bit of pulp up there as well. Saw logs generally are the priority as they dry out, pulp isn’t really the priority load.”

Heading along the Mitta Valley through Eskdale, Buck reflected on his time involved in both transport and log haulage, which began after a number of years working as a computer engineer.

“I did that for 18 years and found the industry very frustrating. I had no family transport connection but a change had to happen, so I took it. I liked driving, always had liked machinery and that sort of thing.

A couple of years of interstate and my immediate boss decided he was going back into driving log trucks. I didn’t have a reason not to do that. My boss said, ‘You’ll like it’, so I have been driving log trucks ever since.”

Starting out on timber hauling with a truck and quad-dog, after two years he moved into B-doubles and has done so ever since, and in that time has hauled timber from a wide part of Victoria, including a stint last year in the Upper Murray on timber salvage after the 2019-2020 bushfires with the T908.

Beyond Mitta Mitta the Omeo Highway becomes narrow and windy and Buck soon turns off the asphalt at Granite Flat for the 19-kilometre run on the dirt into The Hollow.

Calling his location on the UHF as he begins the climb up the range, the clear skies have given way to thick fog with the truck making its way through the gloom on the slightly damp road surface.

“I have come out of here a couple of times now; the fog was unbelievable and just had to poke along in first gear – generally when you’re in real bad fog you can’t even see the kilometre markers. The other thing that makes it scary up here is the rain – the road turns to soap,” he said.

On arrival at the coupe and after another chat on the UHF with the logging crew Buck makes his way down to the landing and drops his back trailer off the lead unit.

With a skidder and processor working further over on the landing Buck fires up a Cat excavator fitted with a grapple and loads the front and then rear trailers with cut-to-length logs.

Keeping an eye on the weights with a handheld unit in the excavator he is soon up near his maximum 68.5 tonne payload.

“I think I’m a bit light, it’s a bit hard loading with the scales when you’re on an uneven surface,” he said.

With straps thrown and tensioned, and a print-out of the paperwork from the logging crew, the Cummins X15 is soon rumbling as he makes his way out of the coupe and back onto The Hollow Way.

The descent back down off the range is slow and steady with Buck using most of the road in a number of places to get around a few of the tighter corners, with the shorter wheelbase of the K200 putting it ahead of the old T908 in his mind.

“With the longer chassis on the 908 you just needed so much room. If I had been bringing it up here it would have struggled.

“It was a good bush truck, but it sometimes needed two or three bites to get around corners where this will go around with one go. In saying that with the longer chassis it had plenty of ability climbing hills, it would climb tracks I wouldn’t thought it would go.”

The Hollow Way Track had been graded by a local maintenance crew the week before and Buck stopped on the way down the range to throw off a couple of rouge rocks which were likely to catch a tyre going past.

“A set of tries going around a corner really drag so you get plenty of experience in trying to look after the tracks.  After the work up here with the grader I have been throwing rocks off – but they have done a good job.”

Traffic can also be a hazard both on the bush tracks and work sites.

“The most traffic I got was last week with the [Melbourne Cup] holidays. We have had the same problem in coupes; you can be loading the truck and all of a sudden there is a car there trying to sneak past when you’re trying to put logs on.

“At the end of the day they are locked out for their own safety, logging by its very nature sometimes things can go wrong.”

After a final check of the straps and weights Buck hits the asphalt once again at Granite Flat, with the fog having cleared with the drop in altitude.

The kilometres tick over as he heads back down the valley in the sunshine, joining the Murray Valley Highway at Tallangatta and then picking up the Hume again at Wodonga for the run to the mill.

Whilst he is content in his work, Buck is concerned that the plans by the Victorian government to cease native timber harvesting by 2030 will put a premature end to his time driving in the bush.

“I think it will be a big pity and if they close the industry.  It will be a big regret – this sort of thing is not for everybody and for those of us who enjoy doing it will be a pity if we have to step away from it.”

With three years left on their current contract hopefully Buck and his K200 will be a regular sight on the bush tracks for some time yet.

“You have your moments, changing a wheel in the snow or crawling under the truck in the mud to fix something.

“More often than not you’re up in altitude but I like the challenge of driving – and we don’t get the opportunity to be challenged much anymore.”

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