|Pictured here in 1962, looking south.|
For those who came in late, Sylvia's Gap was nothing less than the worst accident black spot in the country, a narrow stretch of the Hume meandering through the hills just southwest of Tumblong in NSW. And I mean it when I say through the hills: much of the road's lethality lay in the way it was cut through sheer rock, with absolutely no wiggle room if, for example, someone tried to overtake at the wrong moment. This was a constant temptation because of the hills themselves, which would've taxed something like an Austin A40 (the most popular car in Australia immediately before the Holden), with its wheezy 1.2-litre engine, to say nothing of the feeble 100-horsepower prime movers around in those days. If you got stuck behind one you were in for a puckering ride: I've been told first-hand stories of climbing that hill hand-over-fist, sitting less than a foot behind the semi in front, with another semi less than a foot behind. No wonder so many were tempted by the sliver of clear sky seemingly just ahead of them and decided to risk it: l'apel du vide was strong with this one.
The Hume, or Highway 31 as it was called, was punishing, a mostly single-carriageway accumulation of old wagon tracks, mixed surfaces and badly aligned curves that followed the topography and went through towns you’ve never heard of: Yanderra, Breadalbane, Jugiong, Collector, Towrang and the appropriately named Bookham. If the coppers didn’t get you, the trucks on Sylvia’s Gap might. Your chances of dying between Sydney and the border at Albury were exactly 15.2 times greater than they are today.So because it wasn't lightly that I dubbed myself "motoring anthropologist," I was very keen to see it with my own eyes. But that wouldn't come easily: since being bypassed in the 80's Sylvia's Gap had retreated back onto farmland, so if you aren't willing to aren't willing to indulge in some trespassing (and I'm not), it's completely out of reach. Unless, that is, you happen to attach yourself to the Australian Road Transport Heritage Centre's annual Road Run, which this year (once again) included a convoy along Sylvia's Gap Road to raise funds for a new truck museum. Finding an opportune gap in my schedule – and being a truckie's son, finding it a worthy cause anyway – I scooted off to the fog-ridden Gundagai showgrounds, paid my $10 and tagged along with the rest. What I found when we got there was... not quite what I expected.
This was the road, with all its lumps, bumps, expansion joints, off-camber blind bends, one-lane bridges and cracked concrete, that shaped the character of Australian cars. While the outback red dirt was the mystique, the Hume was the reality. This was our Road Most Travelled and it dictated a standard of ride, handling and steering so foreign to arrow-straight American freeways. And toughness and durability not required on the Continent. This road shaped our national motoring character, but it was such a bastard that it could never be as glamorous as Route 66.
Travelling from Sydney to Melbourne along The Deadly Hume, as the tabloids called it, could take 13 hours – at least – with stops at the Golden Fleece for motor spirit and a quart or two of oil...
The truckies had names for every bit of road on the old Hume. Turkey Town, Steps and Chairs, Carbon Black, Biscuit Bridge, Three Legs O Man, Sydney Harbour Bridge, Pretty Sally, Manse Hill, Customline Corner, the Mad Mile.
Yet the name that instilled the most fear was a place called Sylvia's Gap, the most dangerous few miles in Australia, bar none. Now on privately owned land, it's a place of ghosts, rusting wreckage and the faint echoes of downshifting gears and air brakes. Seven fatal accidents in a single two-week period during 1981 took place between its sheer rock walls. Usually, head on. The truckies feared it. – Wheels, 1 Nov 2016
|The same section seen in 2018, from the other end.|
For starters there wasn't just one narrow pass through the hills, more like three or four, although the first (if you're in the southbound lane) is the longest, and the worst. The sense of bottleneck was startling, and a little bit frightening – a low-loader hauling a bulldozer might just scrape through, but "scrape" would be the active word, because the dozer blade would be gouging rocks and soil on both sides. Two modern wide-body Australian cars could pass there, but two Hummers probably couldn't. And because it appears immediately after a crest, it takes you by surprise, still on the power from the long climb immediately before. No doubt plenty of people found themselves going over the top too quickly and rode the brake pedal to the bottom, heating their brakes into uselessness and finding, too late, they had nothing left when someone pulled out to overtake – or even just to make the turn at the bottom.
The turn was something I'd forgotten about to be honest. James Cockington's article had mentioned, "a sharp right-hander with steep drops on either side," waiting at the far end of the gap, but it doesn't really show up in any of the old photos, and out of sight usually means out of mind. Stumbling over it last weekend, it took me by surprise as well. I wouldn't quite call it a sharp right-hander, but if you didn't know it was there and arrived at 100km/h+ (no speed limits in those days, remember) it would certainly grab your attention.
|Especially in something like this, a VJ Charger with a 340ci V8 but, frequently, rear drums (also part of the Run).|
The "steep drops on either side" are another understatement; in truth it feels like driving over a bridge, with deep gullies on either side promising no soft landings if you get it wrong. "The state of the fence," Cockington wrote, "shows that not everyone made this turn." The really macabre detail is that apparently there are layers of wrecked, quietly rusting cars at the bottom of these gullies. If an accident blocked the road, getting it unblocked again was such a priority that emergency crews often didn't have time for a proper cleanup. Instead, as soon as the wail of the ambulances faded into the distance, they just pushed the wrecks over the edge, listened to the crash at the bottom, then packed up and left them there. Or so I'm told: you can't see to the bottom from the road (a fact that tells you everything about their depth and steepness), and with a hundred rumbling, snorting trucks around me, I wasn't really able to stop for a proper look.
|Another climb, another bottleneck.|
The rest of it is easier, but still dangerous. There are a few other, shorter passes cut through living rock, and a lot of steep drops, but mostly it's just winding road through the hills, like your favourite cliffside back-road in the Blue Mountains – and yet you were expected to get through even with a semi trailer. The mind boggles.
Just south of Bargo is a pristine section of old 31, a time capsule. It dips and drives under and over the main rail route near Yerrinbool with bridges perched on blind 90-degree, downhill bends and buttressed brick underpasses hiding sharp deviations. Left or right? Go on, guess. No wonder the truckies came to grief here.Maybe, maybe. You can get misty-eyed if you want, Wheels, but for the families of the 40-odd people killed on this road, progress didn't come soon enough. We've had a horror couple of weeks around here: the very day I visited the deadliest piece of road in the country, a local man was killed in a car accident just a few kilometres out of town – a man I knew personally, though not, I admit, especially well. This came only a couple of weeks after a Canberran was killed in another accident on a different road nearby. And the next day, while I was at work, I saw the police and two fire trucks go roaring down the road with sirens and lights ablaze because apparently a car was on its roof – though thankfully, I heard the driver of that one emerged unscathed. Two deaths in a fortnight is still too many, but it doesn't compare with the seven lost in 1981. If the price of that sort of progress is boredom, kids fighting in the back and learning the Frozen soundtrack by heart, I'll take it. I'll take it every day of the week.
It meanders under the new Hume Freeway at one point. To pause there and listen to the soundtrack is instructive. At ground level, the only noise is the XK’s slurred upshifts and honest exhaust timbre, chugging past the orchards and the abandoned general store. Above, on the multi-lane freeway, the whirr and pitched whine of high-speed rubber on road, the roaring of wind being cleaved by metal, the whistle of 18-wheelers with their turbos spinning, mums and dads in the family SUV with the air on and the music playing. Insulated, cossetted, safe and comfortable with boredom the greatest challenge.
Such is progress. – Wheels, 1 Nov 2016
I still haven't found out who Sylvia was, though.