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Crossing to bear

Saturday, 3rd March, 2012

NO CUSTOM: Meredith Esam at the Cockburn Hotel can still raise a smile despite expecting an extremely slow week. NO CUSTOM: Meredith Esam at the Cockburn Hotel can still raise a smile despite expecting an extremely slow week.

By Paula Doran

 It was not a case of “the pub with no beer” in Cockburn this week, but with the highway to Adelaide closed and all traffic blocked, the Cockburn pub is certainly the pub battling for trade.

Publican Meredith Esam’s regular trade has come to a standstill following the closure of the damaged Pine Creek bridge which today looks worse for wear but not overly dramatic (such a powerful halt to traffic caused by such an unassuming bridge).

The closure has caused mayhem for transport operators, miners, graziers and the Cockburn township itself. The Border Gate Roadhouse has shut up shop in the face of a traffic-less highway.

Up at the pub Meredith says business has been non-existent, except perhaps for a shearer who can’t get out to join his team, and so she is staying at the pub to help paint interior walls to fill in the days.

It seems the lack of movement is building creativity amongst the many in station country who prefer to be busy rather than land-locked and listless. 

“I had a call from a team of shearers who are sitting doing nothing because it’s too wet. They were keen to come and spend their down time at the pub but they just can’t get off the station because the roads out are too wet.  

“If they could have made their way to the highway and walked across the bridge I could have gone to pick them up on the other side...”

In the Thackaringa Hills cattle have a field day, strolling lazily across the highway, almost frolicking in the absence of traffic. As I drive to and from Cockburn mine is the only vehicle I see for the duration of the trip. It’s eerie.

At the bar with Meredith, the pub has an air of anticipation - a party waiting to happen on the border that could be a week coming.

“The White Dam mine workers can’t get out so we’ve lost trade from the changeover in shift. The trucks are going via Renmark so that’s also affected trade. The pastoralists can’t get through and then we’re missing the intermittent traveller.”

Yes, the tiny town of Cockburn has ground to a halt and locals are frustrated too.  

Meredith says the Pine Creek Bridge was damaged by previous floodwaters and should have been fixed 12 months ago. Instead, the damage was ignored and now graziers in Broken Hill are unable to return home until it is fixed and transport operators are having to send their trucks to Adelaide via Mildura.

Paul Cuy from Hi-Trans in Broken Hill says the blocked highway is doubling costs for the company. 

“Redirecting those trucks adds four-plus hours to each trip. We’ve virtually had to double the number of drivers to combat fatigue, and then of course you’re looking at more fuel.

“And then we’ve got the freight itself arriving late because of the extra kilometres and we’ve got customers getting anxious.”

One of Mr Cuy’s truck drivers crossed the Pine Creek Bridge late Monday and was perhaps one of the last trucks to do so.  

“He noticed things weren’t right.”

At White Dam mine, west of the bridge, a shift of miners can’t get home, while their replacements on the eastern side of the bridge can’t get across to relieve them.  

One of the workers said the airstrip was also too wet to bring staff in, but would not comment on whether mining operations had been affected.

Back in Cockburn and Meredith says she’s trying to keep busy.

She’s made a few trips now to the buckled bridge that crippled the west, and says she’s not anticipating a quick fix.

In Broken Hill one canny grazier is reported to have hired a plane to fly the 100 kilometre trip home, too worried to leave his dogs without food, and his house unattended.

And while the South Australian contingent of pastoralists, in town for just a few days for the School of the Air Tutors conference gets settled for a longer stay amid the asphalt, a team of engineers in Adelaide plots the quickest way to return life to normal on the Barrier Highway where a tiny bridge has become, ironically, a major barrier.

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