Tom Kruse and the Birdsville Track
In another life (it was back in the 1960s – so that really is another life in another country) I worked for the Commonwealth Department of Education and Science as an “Induction Officer” (I think that was what it was called) which involved an endless string of three day assignments designed to introduce overseas students (mostly on the Colombo Plan or the Special African Assistance Plan) to the mysteries of Australia.
We would take them off to set up a bank account – with the Commonwealth Bank (of course) in Martin Place; treat them to an Aussie meal at Cahills in Castlereagh Street – Chicken Maryland was a favourite ; take them to Gowings to buy some suitable Aussie clothes (this is getting funnier as a write it); take them for a ferry trip on Sydney Harbour; and show them a couple of short movies about Australia.
One of the movies, which I must have seen at least 100 times, was Back of Beyond. It was a documentary which had been made in 1952 and it told the story of a man named Tom Kruse who, long before four wheel drive vehicles, drove an old truck from Marree in northern South Australia across the deserts, flooded rivers, sand dunes as high as mountains and other miscellaneous obstacles, to Birdsville once a fortnight. The distance was 519 km.
The road was nothing more than a rough track which had been created by the Afghan camel drivers who lived in Marree and had used camels to cross the desert to Birdsville.
Tom was employed by the postal service to deliver the mail – the truck had ‘Royal Mail’ on the front – and supplies to Birdsville. He started doing the fortnightly run in 1936.
I didn’t realise at the time, when I was watching it every couple of days, that it had won the 1954 Venice Biennale Grand Prix Assoluto and that the artist, Sidney Nolan, a friend of the director, accepted the award.
The film was, and remains, a remarkable record of the hardships and ingenuity involved in taking mail and supplies across a desert prone to flooding, being bogged in sand dunes and breaking down hundreds of miles (we weren’t using kilometres at the time) from any assistance. There is an extract from the documentary which can be watched on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NSa4esN3CHM
. Well worth checking out.
Kruse was, by any measure, a truly remarkable Australian. He lived to 96 and was there when the Governor General unveiled a statue to the tireless mailman at the National Motor Museum in Birdwood, South Australia.
In 1999, when he was aged 85, Kruse made the journey for the last time. It was recorded in the film “Last Mail from Birdsville”. It is a unique piece of Australian history and Kruse, by any measure, is as close to an authentic legend as this country will ever see.
Want to learn more? There’s a site dedicated to Tom Kruse. Check it out at http://www.lastmailfrombirdsville.com