Flash back to the late 1960s. Trucking was very much a man’s world and women in the industry were few and far between.
But that didn’t stop Suzette Byrnes Statham O’Reilly from following her dream. Her story was a little different to many women working in the industry all those years ago. She didn’t come from a trucking background, nobody in her family drove a truck and she didn’t ‘marry into the industry’ either.
“There were hardly any women who were truck drivers, at least not out in the open workplace, if you know what I mean. There were a few women drivers driving with husbands or for husbands, but I put my hand up that I was one of the first female drivers to go it alone,” said 73-year-old O’Reilly proudly.
So how and why did she decide to get into trucking? “I don’t know really, I guess I just fell into it. My mother couldn’t drive and never sat behind the steering wheel of any vehicle in her life. And my father was a shocking driver. He drove mostly in the middle of the wrong side of the road, with one foot on the clutch all the time,” she chuckled.
“No one in my family was interested in trucks but I’ve loved trucks all my life, not any other type of machinery, it’s always been purely and simply trucks. I’ve been lucky with all the work I’ve done.
“In this day and age, it’s not so much of a drama for women wanting to get into truck driving. Back in my day, there was never any glamour or romance attached to it, it was all grease, guts and hard work. But I survived it and I loved it – I still love it today as much as I ever did,” said O’Reilly, adding that she doesn’t have much in common with a lot of other women.
“When I was young, you didn’t even make it to 73 and the fact that I still drive trucks and still do my barrel racing with my horses is absolutely incredible. When I was young, by 73 you were done and dusted.
“There have been heaps of things that have happened in my lifetime, there’s a lot I can repeat and a lot I can’t,” she laughed, as she spoke of the joy of being behind the wheel late at night, while the tyres and motor were cool, and so were the roads.
“It felt like heaven on earth to me. It must’ve just been the freedom of it.”
O’Reilly became a truck driver when she was 23, and before long was driving road trains along the rough roads of outback Queensland. She was born in Walgett in northern NSW and now lives in central Queensland.
“I started with a body truck licence, then my lifestyle changed and I wanted a semi licence. When I when got my semi licence, it was actually an articulated licence, so I could drive any articulated vehicle – except for an omnibus it said.
“Licensing was very different back then.”
When she first moved to the town of Mitchell with her first husband, she was driving a Volvo G88 and carting kangaroo carcases from Charleville to Roma. Once she moved to Central Queensland with her current husband Anthony O’Reilly, she began transporting weaners to homestead cattle stations.
They eventually purchased some livestock trucks of their own and through the 1990s carted cattle and pigs. “Then in 2000 I was running night shuttle down the Bruce Highway,” she recalled.
“I also did a lot of side tipper work on mine sites in central Queensland. My husband and I did a lot of driving from Toowoomba carting gas pipes. Then I was driving on the Barkly Highway upgrade between Mt Isa and Camoolweal, and then working for a contractor at Moomba. While I did that, my husband bought his own prime mover. The job I was doing was ready to be phased out anyway because the pipelines had all been built up around there.”
Though she drives much less these days, trucking is very much a big part of her life.
“I don’t drive much now because the lifestyle that I enjoy dictates that I can’t. We have small acreage with a few cows, horses, cats and dogs.
“It’s much to my disgust that I don’t do a lot of driving now. It’s not due to a lack of opportunity, but if I want my horses, it means I have to sacrifice being out on the road. I’ve been very fortunate that my husband Anthony has allowed me the privilege of him getting the work and letting me be home to do my thing with my horses. Though I do sometimes help my husband if he wants a bit of relief driving.”
Just a few months ago, Anthony bought a 2003 Kenworth T904, which he uses to cart general freight into Townsville, Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.
“It’s been a hard slog out there but that’s how I wanted it. Back in the day, you had to be perfect and I had to be able to do things all on my own. I didn’t have to do all that much maintenance, but I had to be able to diagnose what was wrong with my truck so I could tell them when I got back to the yard. I can still read the old motors but diagnostics is not so easy now with the new trucks. I started out when the roads were so much harder and the trucks weren’t computerised.
“It was very hard to get a start unless they saw you operating. That was always my biggest challenge, to be accepted on equal footing as a male driver. Almost always a male would get the job ahead of any woman. I was one of the first women to have a Dangerous Goods ticket, but many businesses wouldn’t even look at me.
“Once I got my foot in the door, they saw I could drive a truck and that I looked after the truck. There was one place I worked at where I called it ‘my truck’ and they said ‘what do you mean your truck?’ I told them they should be happy that I call it my truck because I look after it. It was an old Kenworth W model and I thought I was queen of the road – they were a really good truck. We didn’t have to contend with computers and all that.”
O’Reilly gave up her last permanent truck driving gig in 2007, after she finished up working west of Moomba. “That was probably one of the best jobs of my life – I loved the people, loved the place and loved the job. I was very fortunate.”
Her love for trucks has also rubbed off on her son Gregory Statham, who is also a truck driver, living in the Northern Territory. “My first husband can’t believe it – he thinks we’re both insane,” she laughed.
O’Reilly also has two grandchildren and two great grandchildren, Jed (6) and Ayla (8). “I try and see them as often as I can, but since COVID that’s gone out the window. My great grandkids love going in the truck with my son. It’s mind boggling to think that my son is a grandfather. I still think I’m 25 – but then I look in the mirror!”