Kurt Gerhardt Johannsen - Mechanic and Inventor

Kurt Johannsen
Kurt Johannsen's Diamond T Roadtrain.

The Propellor
The repaired propellor

Kurt Johannsen
Kurt Johannsen - Ready for anything.
1915 - 2002
Territorians are renowned for their innovative and inventive approach to the problems which arise from living in a remote area and one of the greatest innovators is Kurt Johannsen, mechanic, inventor and dogged pioneer.
His association with motor vehicles began on the family property at Deep Well Station, some 80 kilometres south of Alice Springs. When he was only 12 he had to drive his mother into town for medical treatment at the old AIM hospital along the rough track over sandhills and through bushy scrub.
At age 14 the family left the property and moved into the city where Kurt acquired the contract for sanitary and garbage collection to help provide for the family. His reputation for hard work grew and he was soon operating mail runs to the eastern stations and Arltunga Goldfields, and was a popular driver and guide for expeditions into the surrounding areas. He took the first motorised excursion to Ayers Rock and was the first person to sign a list at the summit.
In the late 1930s he took over the mail run to Birdum in the north.
Kurt's own book 'A Son of the Red Centre' modestly explains his extraordinary achievements and why he became a legend in the outback.
He invented the road train by designing a self-tracking trailer system which allowed a prime mover to pull several trailers at once and which revolutionised the method of getting cattle to market from the outback stations.
Among his most daring exploits was the carving of a broken propellor on his plane which nose-dived upon landing near Lake Hopkins. Some 40 cm. was broken off one of the blades and he patiently and expertly whittled each side down with a tomahawk until it balanced over a screwdriver. He refitted the propellor to the plane and, with his companion Jimmy Prince, flew back to his base camp at Mt. Lyall Brown.
During World War Two petrol was rationed and Kurt invented a wood-gas producer to run his vehicle. He drove this vehicle, a car with a large unusual contraption on the back which boldly proclaimed, 'This Car Runs on Wood' and with a brief description of how the system worked. Kurt lived his later years in Adelaide and the vehicle was parked for many years within a kilometre of my own home and I saw it often at Henley Beach. It is now in the Transport Museum in Alice Springs.

In 1937 Kurt had the overland mail contract from Alice Springs to Birdum, then the northern railhead to Darwin. The contract called for a weekly delivery to Tennant Creek and once a month to Birdum. In 1938 the biggest 'wet season' in twenty years hit the Territory and this presented problems for the delivery.
The hired pack-horsemen, threatening a shoot-out, demanded double rates for the final section of the run from Roderick Bore to Birdum and Johannsen refused to pay.
He decided to take his old 4 cylinder Dodge through the flooded section and deliver the mail himself.
He stripped it down to the frame leaving space only for the mailbox, a swag and rations. He modified the rear axle and fitted 24 inch dual wheels with home made chains, and set off.
Near Powell Creek surging floodwaters became a problem and he waterproofed the magneto and spark plugs with a paste made from the local soil. At Lake woods, the water was 10 miles further out than it normally was and he was forced to detour over ridges and around the lake to get back to the telegraph line.
He eventually made it to Newcastle Waters aerodrome where he wired 12, 44 gallon (200 litre) drums together and prepared a raft to float the truck accross. He crossed Newcastle Creek by tying a rope to the front of the truck and swimming from tree-top to treetop securing the truck as he went. 24 hours later the floodwaters swept him to the opposite bank with the truck and mail intact.
When he eventually reached Oldhouse and his pack-horseman on the other side, he found him drunk and incapable. Kurt 'flattened' him and headed for Sturt Plain, now a huge lake 12 miles across. With the throttle jammed open and the dual wheels and chains providing traction, he made the crossing at 4 mph.
A QANTAS pilot flying from Daly Waters to Queensland was the first to know that Johannsen was getting the mail through when he saw an enormous and inexplicable bow-wave streaming across the flooded plain.

If you want a good read and a great true adventure of courage, innovation and persistence, you should get a copy of 'A Son of the Red Centre', by Kurt Johannsen, it is truly ispirational.



Copyright Peter W. Wilkins