Bertha in about 1965 (above) and crossing the Georgina River (below), driven by Lindsay Johannsen.
The Johannsen family’s involvement in the transport industry of Central Australia dates back to when camels were still carrying most of the loads, and the man destined to revolutionise it, Kurt Johannsen, was born at Deep Well, 80 km south of Alice Springs, in 1911.
The cattle station had the contract to provide water to the camel trains. 40 years later Kurt pioneered the use of road trains to transport cattle, instead of droving them.
He created the iconic Bertha by modifying an US Army prime mover and building trailers for it.
Kurt’s son, Lindsay, was driving her: “When I did a U-turn, like making an approach to some trucking yards to load cattle, or in the main street of old Tennant Creek in order to refuel, then old Bertha would have completed the turn and be going south, while the third trailer would still be going north.”
Today Bertha is the prize exhibit of the National Road Transport Hall of Fame in Alice Springs, and Lindsay, now 80, is wondering what will happen to her, and hundreds of other trucks and machines bearing witness to The Centre’s history, under the Hall’s new management, installed by decree of the NT Government.
Mr Johannsen spoke with Editor ERWIN CHLANDA: “What was your involvement in starting the Hall of Fame?”
Well I finished up with both the retired Bertha and the retired Rotinoff (at left), at our bush homestead, Baikal. As the movement to start up a truck museum in Alice Springs gathered momentum, enquiries were made and word got around as to where those two trucks might be. I was approached by John Martin, head of MVR in Alice Springs at the time, and told him that when they got their act together I’d be happy to place the trucks in their truck museum … on the condition that I would drive Bertha in any parade that was organised.
NEWS: What are the major exhibits – besides your and Kurt’s road train?
JOHANNSEN: Bertha came after the Government owned AEC road train. She’s now parked alongside Bertha and the Rotinoff in the Transport Hall of Fame, after a working life of hauling freight out to isolated stations and government outposts. And also school children out to Emily Gap on our annual school picnics, as I remember.
NEWS: A bit like the Bangtail muster in Alice Springs?
JOHANNSEN (at right): I mean imagine it! A truck-and-two-trailer-load of squealing kids plus teachers, about two hundred all up, trundling along the two wheel-tracks track that went to the south end of Emily Gap, where we then ran wild in the totally dry sand, after consuming an even drier Fritz sandwich and half a paper cup of pink stuff called raspberry cordial.
NEWS: Under what conditions will you continue to allow the Hall to display the historic trucks?
JOHANNSEN: Well, they are in the Hall of Fame’s hands. If the Hall of Fame continues to function, all well and good, but if it fails and closes then there’s a great deal more to it than just Bertha and the Rotinoff. And it will have to be considered on the day. The trucks in the shed with Bertha, the Rotinoff and the AEC road train will be under shelter and out of the weather at least, but the whole place will have to be made and kept secure.
NEWS: What about the modern trucks on display?
JOHANNSEN: Kenworth of course will most likely retrieve their trucks and exhibits – which would leave a large empty shed in which to secure more vehicles. And doubtless others from other places would come and collect their precious pieces. But all this is just conjecture.
NEWS: What do you make of the installation by the NT Government of a statutory manager?
JOHANNSEN: The only thing of which we can be certain is that this ill begotten scheme will see the Hall of Fame’s quarter million dollars, funds-in-hand, being plundered in double-quick time, by the five hundred dollars plus per hour professionals who have been engaged to manage the asset. The Hall Of Fame’s Board members have been summarily sacked by this pathetic excuse of a government we Territorians have saddled ourselves with, a Government which is currently burning our money at a rate of a million dollars a day – on interest! And the hypocrisy of sacking Board members because they weren’t NT residents and then appointing interstate managers is just breathtaking – not that it would make much difference to the idiocy of the business if they were NT residents, though some of the money might at least might stay here. And they already have the money; it’s already started.
NEWS: How and under what conditions do you think the Hall’s members would expect their exhibits to be displayed?
JOHANNSEN: Conditions that were in place before the sacking of the board.
NEWS: What has contributed to the immense popularity of the Hall and the yearly reunions?
JOHANNSEN: Lots of truckies with lots of trucks and truckies’ mates enjoying a really good get-together and having five or eighteen beers with lots of other truckies instead of just talking to ’em on the two-way for a bit until they’re out of range.
NEWS: What has been the support from Alice Springs locals, apart from Liz Martin, of course, for the Hall in the past five years?
JOHANNSEN: Great, I presume. I mean I lived out bush for forty years and only had the occasional opportunity to show a visiting relly or someone around.
NEWS: Would you think the fundamental questions about finance are these: Is there money in the bank?
JOHANNSEN: Well no. It’s in the legal firm’s trust account.
NEWS: Is there a reliable income?
JOHANNSEN: Sure. If it’s run the way Liz was running it. That’s self evident. She had money in the bank.
NEWS: Are any debts not being paid?
JOHANNSEN: By all accounts, to the best of my knowledge, as I understand it, I believe not.
NEWS: On that score what is the financial position, to the best of your understanding?
JOHANNSEN: About now, as of this juncture and approximate point in time: Hall of Fame, nil; consultant legal firm: a large number with lots of zeros.
NEWS: Are there big national operators – Mack, Kenworth, for example – upon whose support the Hall depends?
JOHANNSEN: As I understand it, the board members comprised a group of big players and individuals, many of whom have very large pockets.
NEWS: Under what condition would that support continue to be forthcoming?
JOHANNSEN: Only those individuals, each in his or her own manner, would be able to answer that question.
NEWS: In the hearts of the truckies, what does the Wall of Fame – the portraits and stories of the old truckies – mean to the members?
JOHANNSEN: It doubtlessly brings a feeling of satisfaction to each and every one of them, in his or her own way; the warming knowledge of recognition by friends and peers of their achievements, the bitter-sweet memories of trials and tribulations with those no longer travelling the road behind us, and the happy revisiting and retelling of occasions such as when bogged to the arse in the blacksoil out from Boulia for a week with three other trucks, and the local cocky turns up with a rump and the half hind leg of a bullock, plus a load of firewood and a couple cartons of VB, and then helps them drink it and stays for the night.
NEWS: What would give volunteers the will and pleasure to continue to help the Hall?
JOHANNSEN: The same sort of wholehearted welcome that Liz Martin gave each and every one of them, the genuine appreciation she expressed for what they had done there and her insistence that they should return some day.