Wool industry stalwarts truck on
They are the former shearers, woolclassers and rouseabouts who braved the heat, isolation and warm beer of the North West.
And more than 50 years on, they have still got a story to tell about an era known colloquially as “the truck days”.
Peter Letch was just a teenager from a sheep farm in Clackline when he packed up his life and went north to Fitzroy River in the Kimberley.
It was the start of a 54-year career in the wool industry, of which almost a decade was spent shearing across the Kimberley, Pilbara, Gascoyne and Murchison.
“We spent nine months travelling south, stopping in at various stations along the day,” he said.
“Riding the trucks was rough, dusty, hot, sometimes wet and cold.
“If it wasn’t any of those things, it meant you were bogged.”
Before cattle dominated WA pastoral stations, mobs of up to 100,000 sheep were commonplace on big properties throughout the Kimberley, Pilbara and Gascoyne. Each year, hundreds of men would board coastal steamers from Fremantle to start what would have been one of the toughest shearing runs in Australia.
Docking at Port Hedland, Broome and Derby between the 1920s and 1960s, the shearing teams would pile on to the back of trucks and travel from shed to shed.
For some, the runs would last up to eight months, while others would be away from home for years at a time.
Terry Wilkinson, 93, was one of 60 young men pulled out of the army and placed into a shearing team heading north in the early 1940s. He boarded a coal steamer from Fremantle and spent two years working in WA’s north.
“It was more or less like being in camp . . . it was real sticky heat, the bugs in the water nearly killed me,” he said. “I wouldn’t drink my water bag until after dinner.
“I drank sweet black tea and it would be a half an hour before I could pick up the comb again.”
Now, more than 30 years after the last sheep was dragged over the northern boards, a new film has been released to chronicle the history of shearing in the North West.
Shearers: The Truck Days was commissioned by the Shearers and Pastoral Workers Social Club.
It features interviews with former shearers and old photos and footage from the time. Copies are available at North West local government libraries and the Battye Library in Perth. The DVD can be bought through the SPWSC.
Former shearers Terry Wilkinson, John Moore, Peter Letch, Doug Kennedy, Darryl Grey, David Sears and Barry Mainwaring with an old circa 1950s Bedford truck.