Southern comfort

Gavbee Transport is an owner-operator logging carrier. For the challenge of navigating mountain slopes and dense forest, the west Victorian small business has discovered the Mercedes-Benz Actros, which meets its many safety requirements.

The task of carting Bluegum takes Gavin Rowbottom, the owner-operator of Gavbee Transport, often into rugged areas, where the climate is cold and the terrain can be perilous. Working in and around Skipton, a small town near Ballarat in western Victoria, where he is based, Gavin, runs three loads a day of pine and native hardwood on a single trailer. This marks the third year Gavin has carted wood, bound for Geelong where it gets chipped before it is shipped out of port, for Michael Fenn of Clearwater Logging Transport. For the task, Gavin drives a Mercedes-Benz Actros. This often requires him taking the truck deep into gullies and through dense bush on blocks where the grades are steep, as much as 15 to 20 per cent inclined. Working so closely to the edge of ravines, even on a daily basis, is not made any easier by the regularity.

“Work will take me out on narrow roads that fall away sharply,” says Gavin. “Let me tell you if you make one stuff-up there’s no return.”

He says the enhanced, expansive vision, offered from inside the cab means he is not leaning out of his seat to peer beyond the bonnet to see where he is going. It’s extra labour his lower back, at 58, doesn’t need. For someone operating in the subterranean depths of a forest, often working with low visibility on fog-shrouded hillsides, having a clear view of the surrounds is a significant consideration. Making a comparison, according to Gavin, between his last truck and this one is unfair.

“It’s got a 16-speed automated transmission, which is absolutely sensational for the work I do when you might be on a narrow dirt road for 30 kilometres,” he says. “It can be slow going. That’s where the auto is good. You’re not constantly changing gears. You’re not using your legs. The diff-lock works with the twist of a key. All round the drive is much easier.”

Gavin started working for himself in 2011. He runs the business with his wife Bernadette, who he affectionately calls ‘Bee’. Hence Gavbee Transport. Gavin has been driving trucks since 1978. He carted frozen chickens in refrigerated vans from Geelong to Melbourne for nearly 15 years before he responded to an advertisement in the paper from a Traralgon-based logging company working in Colac. Gavin gave it a shot and has been working in the industry ever since. Road transport, however, wasn’t his first calling.

Gavin is a jockey by trade. He commenced his track apprenticeship when he was 12 years old. It had been his ambition from an early age to race thoroughbreds, having grown up on a farm. He retired, after 75 rides, when he was 20. He says he placed in the money on a handful of occasions. His only winner came at Avoca in 1976 on a horse called Winter Charm, which was backed from 16-1 into favouritism. The struggle, he says, was always meeting the weight. At a meet in Geelong one day he made seven starts at 47 kilos. “I didn’t eat for a week,” he recalls. He was a waif back in those days.

Horseracing, not unlike truck driving, is a tough caper and it takes a toll on the body. Finding a vehicle to offset the demands on mind and body is part of the inherent challenge. There’s a prevailing mindset within the logging industry in which transport companies align themselves with a certain type of truck, according to Gavin, and it’s not European. He believes that this will eventually change. From his perspective the Mercedes-Benz Actros is the truck that will help change it. The benefits, from a safety perspective, he says, are  legion.

“For starters, the riding and the handling are great. For a bloke my age it’s more comfortable to drive and so much better in the bush,” Gavin says.

He sleeps in the truck comfortably three nights a week. The inner spring mattress is housed in a 30-inch bunk. Other signature comforts of the driver experience include climate control, the fridge and the heated seats. Of the added value features he can no longer live without, he cites the Bluetooth and satellite navigation. The Actros, he claims, is suited for the colder climes of mountain ranges, rainforest and working in valleys and at altitude, especially in  winter.

“Not being a bonneted truck the vision out of it is sensational. The cab has a built up floor. There’s ample room for me which is important as I spend a vast amount of my week in it.”

Roads are often restricted where he needs to go, which places greater stress on driving and the performance of the truck with its 580 horsepower engine is more than equal to the task. With the diesel tanks situated higher off the ground to ensure he doesn’t get stuck on tree stumps and roots, Gavin has the Actros fitted with super singles to accommodate the off-road conditions he will encounter. He uses a CTI monitor for the wheels, which adjusts tyre pressure, a major consideration for someone who shifts, at unfailing intervals, from hard and rough surfaces. It allows for more friendly wear for the tyres, says Gavin, preferring to operate with his tyres well below threshold in the bush for improved grip.

“The turning circle of the truck is great. Nowadays, because of environmental issues, there’s not much room for us to turn around,” he says. “Councils don’t like ripping up dirt to make roads for us. So there’s usually limits to the room we get to turn around our heavy vehicles. But the Mercedes-Benz Actros, in my experience, helps to get around some of the confinements I’m accustomed to. The handling of the Actros makes a noticeable difference on the job. Everything is that much easier.”

For Gavin, the Proximity Cruise remains one of the benefits of the safety suite. When he is on the double lane highway he sets the cruise control to 100 k/p/h as an afterthought.

“If you’ve got a car on your right hand side and you’re coming up to another passenger vehicle in your lane the truck will slow down,” he says. “It takes a bit of getting used to. But does it make life after a 12-hour day better? My word it  does.”

Intuitive systems such as those offered on the Mercedes-Benz Actros are no longer the way of the future, according to Gavin. They are very much here and now for those ready for them.

“It’s such a great feature. It’s just a matter of getting to trust the truck to do it. And it does take a bit of doing,” he says. “For someone who has been driving for 40 years it takes an adjustment. It’s the same as the front camera. If it sees something that it doesn’t identify it will initiate the  brakes.”

On country roads, according to Gavin, drivers in passenger vehicles will frequently overtake a heavy vehicle like his, so as to avoid the slight delay of sitting behind a truck for 200 metres.

“Down the road they’ll suddenly put on the brakes to turn left or right without warning,” he says. “Even on a single trailer I’m fully loaded at 46 tonne. How good is it that a truck actually helps you stop? They won’t let you hit anything.”

The process of mastering the on-board intuitive systems of the Mercedes-Benz Actros was hastened by securing a demo truck prior to purchase says Gavin. The testing helped him arrive at the decision to go for a classic cab given, he decided a lower roof was imperative, to reduce impacts from tree limbs. He says Mercedes-Benz was the only company willing to supply a truck for a three-week evaluation in the bush.

“They gave me a great trade-in and they stood by it while I waited for this truck to be built in Germany,” Gavin says. “They stood by the price they gave me.”

He calls the experience of financing the truck a pleasure.

“Mercedes-Benz finance was easy. They’ve been terrific. I like Mercedes-Benz that much I went out and bought a car.”

As part of the driver-training, one of the services Mercedes-Benz provides, Gavin recalls, the area he most needed to focus on was trusting the actual truck.

“That’s part of the learning process and it’s a big adjustment I found,” he says. “It’s where you get to know that the truck can do what they say it can do.”

Gary Parker, from Mercedes-Benz Trucks, even joined Gavbee Transport on a job and couldn’t believe how steep the going was according to Gavin.

“It’s a lot easier to see out of a non-bonneted truck I can give you the tip,” he says. “You go over the edge and then that’s it. The show is over.”

Since he got the Mercedes-Benz Actros, Gavin says he hasn’t missed a day’s work – an undisputed efficiency key to the likes of his small business. Some days he is travelling up to 1000 kilometres roaming as far south as the Otway Ranges and across to Apollo Bay. The last thing he wants, a long way from home, is to be at the mercy of getting towed out of the bush.

“If you’re hooked onto a big bulldozer, out on a mountain, you risk having the truck knocked around and all the other inconveniences that come with it. So far, there’s not a place the Mercedes-Benz Actros has not been able to enter or exit and you come away with the confidence knowing that you can go anywhere. That’s a big plus for me.”