Westward Ho!

Check in with the Australian tractor trekkers midway through their trip across America

Participants in the trek across America

Participants in the trek across America (from left): George and Anne Bass, Ron and Kerry Bywaters, Jeff Fordham, Jeff Smith, Wendy Fordham, Hugh “Cumber” Campbell, Barbara and Dick Garnett, Allan and Carolyn Faulkner, Peter Barr and Neville Thompson. The caravan consists of five Chamberlain tractors (each pulling a camper) and two RVs.

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Chat a bit with 14 Australians crossing America aboard vintage Australian-made Chamberlain tractors, and you might summarize their travelogue in simple terms: Stunning hospitality, bountiful crops and fried chicken.

In fact, the visitors’ impressions of the U.S. flow like a river. In late July, at the end of the fourth week of their 10-week trek, each had collected enough tales to last a lifetime.

“We’ve been blown away by the assistance and hospitality we’ve received,” says Ron Bywaters, who, with his wife, Kerry, acts as coordinator of the trek. “That was a surprise: We didn’t anticipate this much generosity and enthusiasm and keenness to help us.”

Nor did they entirely anticipate the lush rural vistas with crops at the height of their growing season. “We came from the end of a long, dry summer in Australia,” Ron notes, “and to arrive here, see green grass, ripe and growing crops, it was just amazing.”

And then there’s the quintessential American delicacy, fried chicken. Popular from coast to coast, the classic dish so quickly became a staple in the trekkers’ daily menu that they’d be forgiven for mistaking it as the national bird. Food in America, Ron notes, is generally less expensive than in Australia but lacks one familiar dish from home: “We do miss lamb,” he says, “and we do enjoy steak.” Other bargains here, he notes, include fuel and beer.

Following historic trails

The group set out from Westminster, Md., in late June, and expects to finish near Los Angeles in mid-September. During 18 months of planning, the group maintained clear focus as they considered their route. “We wanted to go from east to west to follow the historic wagon trails,” Ron says. That route eventually took the trekkers to Loveland, Colo., where they were to be special guests of the Oregon-California Trails Assn. convention Aug. 18-22.

While plotting a route is key to any trek (see related article, “Rule of the Road: Be Prepared”), planning for this trip differed from equally lengthy treks the group has tackled in Australia. There, they’d more typically travel bush tracks and gravel roads in remote areas, carrying fuel and water. Here, they often set up camp in the wilds of a Wal-Mart parking lot or a friendly fairground.

Here, they’re equipped to handle minor mechanical repairs on their own but hand off major needs (like the head gasket replacement that Ron described as a “quadruple bypass”) to well-stocked repair shops. There, they are totally self-contained. “These guys are bush mechanics. They’ve got to know tricks and ways to get out of trouble,” he says. “I’ve seen them make repairs in the middle of the desert, and it’s just like a team of doctors in surgery.”

Made in Australia

The Chamberlain Champion 9G was built by Chamberlain Industries in Western Australia from 1955 to 1966. Powered by a 4-cylinder Perkins engine, the 9G can whip along at speeds of up to 30 mph. Designed with farmers’ input to be an all-purpose workhorse, the 9G was outfitted with a bench seat and cab, and could muscle its way through rock, mud, sand and relatively deep water. At the end of the American trek, some of the tractors (as well as five campers and two RVs) will be offered for sale. “They’re unique antiques,” Ron notes, “and well traveled.”

The trekkers, also well traveled, never lose sight of safety. Each tractor is outfitted with a roll-bar (required equipment in Australia). Because each tractor pulls a camper, controls for electric brakes are located in the tractor. Each has a triangular “slow moving vehicle” sign posted prominently on the back, and oversized mirrors lend another set of eyes. The procession stops for a few minutes every hour to allow drivers to stretch their legs. “A lot of our people drive trucks,” Ron says, “so they know the importance of safety on the road.”

By the end of the trip in mid-September, the Chamberlains will have traveled some 6,000 miles from Maryland to California, crossing West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, South Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada. Sticking to back roads and byways, the group has been treated like celebrities. “In the small towns, we’re big news,” Ron says. “People in the small towns seem to feel particularly honored by our visit, but really, we’re the ones honored. We’ve met so many wonderful people, and have been amazed by Americans’ friendliness and generosity.” FC

Follow along as Ron Bywaters and crew cross the U.S., coast to coast, on the blog  Aussie Trek Across America .

Thinking about a tractor trek of your own? Read “Rule of the Road: Be Prepared.”