In 1974, I had the privilege of travelling around Australia alongside the late ‘Gelignite’ Jack Murray. While the legendary Outback Trials larrikin is now long gone, the lessons in reading the road that he taught me on that trip remain fresh and helpful today in my everyday driving.
Heading for Queensland via the main roads and byways with our new Trakmaster Pilbara caravan in tow behind our Land Cruiser 200 Series, I’m finding that I’m referring to his full repertoire almost every day.
Here are the valuable things he taught me…
KEEP YOUR EYES UP
One of the first lessons Jack taught me was to anticipate unsettling dips in the road ahead by reading the road surface. The blacker the patch on the bitumen, the bigger the bump. While this was more common in Jack’s day when most vehicles leaked oil from their sump, transmission or final drive, you’ll be amazed how well this trick works today.
So when you see a black patch coming, slow down, then lift off the brake just before you hit the dip. By releasing the compression on your vehicle’s front springs you’ll cause the nose to rise and allow you to ‘float’ over the bump.
BEWARE OF SHINY BITUMEN
Also keep an eye for shiny patches on the road, particularly after rain. These are areas where wear and tear have worn down the grippy aggregate in the road mix and what’s left can be like ice when wet or frosty. If towing, make sure you leave plenty of extra braking distance and don’t try to stop suddenly on these surfaces if you can avoid it.
FOLLOW THE ROAD
Often on a major highway you’ll come to a rise and be unsure which direction the road goes over the crest. One way to anticipate this is by following the tree line or tops of the telegraph poles ahead, but be warned: this practice is not 100 per cent reliable, as power lines sometimes have a habit of short-cutting a twisty section of road and going straight on when the road goes one way or the other. So just as you should never fully trust a green light, apply the same caution to trees and poles.
KEEP OUT OFF THE EDGES
Another old school idea that Gelignite Jack taught me was to avoid ‘gutter crawling’, or travelling near the shoulder of unmade roads. We’ve just travelled the Oodnadatta Track and the danger of the ‘edge’ driving was very obvious.
On a sealed road, Jack’s contention was that all the sharp stones and other debris that might give you a puncture will normally be pushed off the crown of the road by traffic or rain and end up in the path of your left hand wheels. While most roads are much better engineered today, the same lessons apply on unsealed highways, where you will inevitably encounter the larger stones on the edges. I am not recommending that you follow the centre line of every road, but there will be times when it will be a good idea and possible to stay out of the shrapnel on the edges.
WATCH FOR STONES
Talking of stones, why do so many people hit them when they are usually so easy to avoid? It’s amazing how easy tyre-puncturing obstacles can be spotted on the road ahead once you develop the habit of keeping your vision up and looking for them. It’s then relatively simply to plot your course to avoid them. However, if you are towing a caravan, be aware that the wheels of your tow car and van will usually follow a different course, so you need to allow room for the vehicle you are towing.
DON’T THROW STONES
Being aware of road conditions also means taking responsibility for your own actions and this includes the stones your vehicle throws up. The first thing you need to understand about stones is that their trajectory, once they have been scooped up and ejected from your tyres, is totally unpredictable, so the only safe way to pass another vehicle on an unmade road – whether you are travelling in the same, or opposite, directions – is slowly and with as much safe distance as possible between your vehicles. Listen to that ‘tinkle’ of stones underneath your mudguards to give you a warning of the terrain ahead.
‘THE OTHER SIDE IS ALWAYS SMOOTHER’
If you have ever travelled on a corrugated outback road like the Oodnadatta or Strzelecki tracks, like we just have, the other side of the road often looks smoother.
Sometimes it is, as was the case on the Oodnadatta Track after heavy rain the week before we travelled it led traffic on a meandering line as vehicles sought the least muddy way through the morass.
But in many case the corrugations on a perfectly dry road look smoother on the right than left hand side.
Usually this is a trick of the eyes and the penalty of crossing from one side of the road to the other – apart from safety issues – is the choppy ride you’ll often make over ‘no man’s land’ in the middle, where the grader blade has failed to travel.
The exception is the section of road leading up to a creek or grid crossing, where braking on the approach side sets up waves as your car’s suspension hammers up and down on the surface, making it more corrugated each time. In this case the other side can, but not always, be smoother. I say ‘can’ because accelerating away again can also cause ripples in the road surface.
LIGHTS ON WHEN THE SUN IS BEHIND YOU
I’m a big fan of turning on my lights when travelling on major highways in daylight, but I’m even keener to have them on when the setting sun is behind me on a single lane each-way road.
The reason is that oncoming traffic is incredibly hard to see when the setting sun is in your eyes and your view of the road ahead is a letterbox-sized slit between the top of your dashboard and the bottom of your sun visor.
If oncoming vehicles have their lights on they are much easier to spot, particularly when they are overtaking.
GIVE WAY TO UPHILL TRAVELLERS
It’s good manners to give way to uphill travellers when approaching a narrowing section of road, such as a one-lane bridge, but this means looking ahead and putting yourself in the other driver’s place.
Conversely, if you are towing a caravan like we are, taking advantage of a good run up a hill and using your momentum to slot straight in front of another car or truck that you will then cause to brake or a slow down is just plain rude.