Sunday, 29 September 2013

Track Winding Back

Like most baby boomers I have strong memories of the "deadly Hume" as it used to be called. The road served as a rite of passage for Australian teenagers. You hadn't lived, mate, unless you'd done the Hume, preferably overnight, more than likely drunk or stoned. - James Cockington
I've said before that whatever America can do, Australia can do smaller. It's starting to look like you can write that on your hand. Charles Kuralt famously derided America's new interstate system with, "Interstate highways allow you to drive coast to coast without seeing anything." The Hume Freeway as it's known these days allows a similar feat, the nine-hour trip from Melbourne to Sydney one of such stupefying boredom that most people don't even bother, preferring to let Qantas or Virgin sort out the bit in between. Their way isn't much fun either, but at least it only lasts ninety minutes.

The difference is, in the U.S. the rise of the interstate triggered a shamelessly nostalgic Route 66 industry, the towns amputated from the freeway now finding second lives in tourism, the whole thing running on that rose-tinted feeling of "Ain't it a shame?" That might not happen here in Australia, because the demise of the Old Hume Highway has been greeted with a less warm-fuzzified sentiment: Thank Christ.

If you're my age you know that as your dad's favourite song, or from the opening scene of Final Destination 2, which gave me a phobia of log trucks (and now I live in a logging district. Fun!). Today on the advice of Australian Muscle Car magazine it's our theme song. The Holbrook bypass was finished a few weeks ago, meaning Australia's two biggest cities are now linked entirely by smooth, boring, but safe dual carriageway. In Issue 69 AMC marked the occasion with a brief feature, tellingly titled On the Highway to Hell, reminding old fogies what it used to be like and telling younger fogies like me for the first time. Now recall another classic: remember the track what winds back to an old forgotten shack? The shack probably wasn't as out-of-the-way as all that, because the road to Gundagai was the Hume, and that made it the biggest arterial road in the country. Day and night trucks would boil their brakes rolling down the hill, hang a left and trundle along Sheridan Street, past the town's shop fronts, until they turned right again and mounted the Prince Alfred Bridge. In a semi the slow gadunkadunk across the narrow wooden monument to a ripper 19th Century flood must have been nerve-wracking even in the middle of the day. God only knows what it was like on a rainy night with traffic trying to go the other way.

That's Prince ALFRED Bridge. Get your mind out of the gutter.

The original Hume was laid out in 1842, just a track that happened to link Old Sydney Town with its opposite number in Melbourne. This was the era of explorers trying to find that alleged inland sea, of the Overland Telegraph and Cobb & Co., so those original surveyors might be forgiven for choosing a less-than-optimal route in places. They couldn't have known what was coming, it'd be like asking asking modern engineers to build a highway system suitable for podracers from The Phantom Menace (digression: Any engineers out there want a stab at this? Please?). If you'd told them one day their country would be building vehicles capable of 300km/h, they'd have been horrified - not so much at the speed, perhaps, as your use of the French measuring system.

But it happened, and was probably 100% inevitable. Australia has always been a nation of revheads. The closest thing we have to a national epic, The Man From Snowy River, is about a young hoon before there were even cars. It was like we couldn't wait for them to finally be invented, and no wonder. Our sparse river network had hamstrung narrowboats, and by the time our industry needed steam the age of rail was likewise almost over. Throw in the vast distances, draining heat and shortage of water for horses and it's no wonder when the car came along Australia fell for it and fell hard. Holden started building cars locally in 1948: a decade later they'd built and sold a million vehicles. No joke, a million. Another decade and Ford were shoehorning big V8s into family sedans and calling them "Australian muscle" and giving the masses the thrill of averaging 150km/h over a day's journey... but scandalously, the roads they were driving on differed from Henry Lawson's only in that they were now tarred. And even then, only the really important ones; most of the country was still just corrugated dirt and bulldust.

The combination was deadly. Again, it's hard to imagine today, and if you're my age this will probably be news to you, but up until the 70's wearing your seatbelt was actually optional. And so, incredibly, was was the speed you were doing - once you were outside built-up areas (usually defined by the presence of street lights), NSW had "deristricted" speed limits. If you're not sure how that's different from "unlimited", well, neither did the average motorist - and the "she'll be right, mate" attitude of the boys in blue made it all but official. Now with that in mind, have a look at this:

Sylvia's Gap Road, present day
Believe it or not, that was once a part of the busiest road in the country. Forget dual carriageways, whether it's even a dual lane depends on the courtesy of the other drivers. If they were at the wheel of a semi, dropping a couple of wheels in the dirt was probably the sensible thing to do. It was also easy to lose an oncoming car in the hills, and it wasn't unusual for them reappear suddenly at the crest - where, thanks to being a corner as well, you might find yourself invading their lane unexpectedly. If that wasn't enough, this particular bit used to lead to a spot called Sylvia's Gap, a name that probably still makes baby boomers shudder.
The deadliest part of the deadly Hume used to lie just south of the Tumblong Tavern, near Gundagai in southern NSW, leading down from what was known as Herpes Hill. This was the infamous Sylvia's Gap, scene of numerous head-on collisions, many resulting in fatalities. It's easy to see why.
Now cut off from regular traffic, Sylvia's is a narrow, steep descent (or climb, if heading north) between solid walls of rock. It's a threatening location even in the middle of the day. At night, in fog or rain, it was lethal. Trucks would crawl up the hill in first gear while desperate car drivers would take the risk and try and pass on the double yellow. Cars travelling in the opposite direction would suddenly appear over the top of the hill, headlights blazing, gathering speed down the slope. The overtaking driver would suddenly realise there was nowhere to go. They were trapped by a wall of rock.
Going down wasn't  much easier. At the bottom there's a sharp right-hander with steep drops on either side. The state of the fence shows that not everyone made this turn.
It's hard to believe now that Sylvia's Gap, despite its suicidal limitations as a main artery, was once a part of the most-travelled highway in Australia. It was only replaced by a safer stretch of freeway in the mid-1980s and now exists as a farm access road partially blocked by falling rocks and fallen trees. These, so I'm told, were a regular hazard even in its prime.
"Cut off from regular traffic" is an understatement: Sylvia's now stands on private farmland and a sign on the gate warns, "Private Property Entry Illegal Camera's In Use" [sic]. The cameras are necessary, so I'm told, because city people tend not to understand property laws, and because it's reckoned at least 40 people have died there over the years. If six degrees of separation holds true, there must be literally thousands of Australians wanting to lay flowers there.

And yet, until I read James Cockington's article, I'd never even heard of it. Nor had I heard of the section north of Mittagong where the road snakes back and forth under the railway line in a series of overpasses that truckies used to dread. Or of taking an hour-and-a-half to get through bottleneck towns like Yass and Goulburn. Or of the school bus actually slapping mirrors with a truck while crossing the bridge in Gundagai. Or of the fiendishly narrow Little Harbour Bridge, built in 1938 in imitation of Sydney's most famous landmark and still in use in the 80's, where truckies had a gentlemen's agreement never to pass one another and northbounders gave way to southbounders because their approach was downhill and gave them more trouble stopping.

Little Harbour Bridge: once produced negative figures on the sphincterometer

All to be lost because of nothing more sinister than the birth lottery, and Australia being too young to treasure its history? No way. This is me putting out a call - dads, uncles, everyone, please to tell us your stories. This is the road, quite simply, that Australian cars were built for. It's part of our heritage. And it'll be lost to myth unless the memories are saved somewhere - so why not here? Click the Comment button and leave your story, or your dad's story, or your granddad's story. If you're not sure how much truth there is to it, tell it anyway, it's not like this country's never heard a yarn before.

Here's mine, passed down by my old man many moons ago. He was tearing along the Newell near Gilgandra (another road packed with hidden crests that make it a black spot to this day) in an LJ Torana, a decent one with a 2.8-litre Red six and three on the tree. Coming to a nice long stretch of straight, he thought he'd try switching the lights off and gunning it. It was was great fun, ghost gums by moonlight, revs rising, that fabulous Holden engine note, until VROOOM... another car tore past, someone doing exactly the same thing in the opposite direction! The lights were switched firmly back on for the remainder of that journey.

No, technically it's not a Hume story, but it's the same genre and I bet it's already primed the pump. Maybe you've got something from Mt Victoria pass? Or the Nullabor? The Min Min lights have got to show up somewhere, don't they? The Comment section awaits.

Meanwhile, although you can't visit Sylvia's Gap anymore, you certainly can still visit the Niagara Cafe in Gundagai, and you really really should. Once upon a time every man and his dog stopped in there on the way to or from the land of the Mexicans. It still has the Fonzerelli-style booth seats of yesteryear, and you'll get to have a rest and a feed in the same space occupied by Don Bradman, any number of Aussie cricket teams and at least three Prime Ministers... and remember.