Trucking wasn’t always on the cards for Joe Watts, 50, whose trucking career has seen him travel the length and breadth of Australia.
These days you’ll find him in a Kenworth T659, driving quad side tippers for Wagners in Mt Isa, where he carts copper, lead, silver and zinc ore from Lady Loretta mine back into Mt Isa mines for processing. The Mt Isa based truckie has been in the role for just on 12 months. “Lady Loretta mine is two hours away, so I’ll go there, load up, tip off at Mt Isa, and then carry tailings, which is a by-product of the ore they extract from the ground, on the return trip, so we’re loaded both ways. I do two of these runs each day so they’re 12-hour days,” Joe said.
When he left school, Joe did a butchering apprenticeship. “Because Dad wouldn’t let me leave school unless I did an apprenticeship,” he said.
His father Keith Watts, 79, was originally a shearer but changed career paths after an injury. “Once he was rehabilitated, he started driving trucks, carting explosives. He’ll be 80 next year and he’s still driving. He drives grain tippers out of Toowoomba,” said Joe.
“Back in the 90s, to cart explosives, you had to have an offsider in the truck as well – the idea being that if you broke down, the offsider could stay with the truck,” explained Joe.
But he added, “That’s changed now providing the truck has a GPS and can be tracked.”
Keith was carting explosives for Helidon Carrying Company, based near Toowoomba. “I used to take holidays from my job at the butcher and I got paid as an attendant to travel with my dad in the truck – so I got holiday pay from my main job and then got paid from the transport company. I would have been in my early twenties,” said Joe.
“That introduced me to the life of trucking and I thought it was great. I found I had a passion for it as well. Dad talked me into getting my licence even if I might not ever use it, but I ended up getting it at the age of 23 and 12 months later started driving. I’ve been in trucks for 26 years now.
“I think the biggest challenge the industry faces these days is the lack of drivers. I got into trucking by going with my dad. That’s no longer possible in most trucking operations and these kids aren’t getting that exposure to trucking.”
For Joe, his trucking career started with a gig in Biloela in Central Queensland, driving a heavy rigid and carting lime slurry for Queensland Rail. “In that area there’s a lot of black soil, so they used to batch up lime slurry, which was then pressure injected to fill in the cracks and stabilise the base of the tracks.”
Though it was only a 12-month contract, Joe had made up his mind. “After that I knew I didn’t want to go back to the butcher, so I got a job with dad at Helidon Carrying Company, carting explosives for mine sites Australia wide. I did that for 15 years and went to every state and territory except Tasmania,” explained Joe.
When he first started with the company, it was in a rigid for the first year or two, then he progressed to a single trailer and then to a B-double. “We used to run all over the country, into remote mine sites. My dad and I would both do milk runs into WA, all the way up through the Great Sandy Dessert, Tanami Dessert, the Pilbara. It’d be six to ten drops, then you’d head into the depot in Kalgoorlie and have a few days off, then go back through the bottom, so it was a big round trip of the country. It would be 17 days normally and I did that for the last six years I was in that job – and I really enjoyed that work. I’d average about 230,000 to 250,000 kilometres a year.”
While Helidon Carrying Company started out as a small family business, they sold out to a WA company called Mitchell Corp (which no longer exists). They had about 300 road trains operating over there back then.
“At about the same time that Mitchell’s took over, they got the Defence Force contract to cart all of their missiles. That work was very interesting and was all done in convoy. You’d have about six B-doubles then there’d be a supervisor and an attendant in a light rigid, that was all decked out for them to stay in, like a mobile home. The rules were that we all had to stay together.
“It was particularly interesting after 9/11. For about six months after that, we had to have an armed security guard in each of the trucks with us too. You used to get quite a few looks when you pulled into a roadhouse and these blokes were walking around with shot guns.”
In 2011, Mitchell Corp was acquired by Toll Group for a reported $110 million. While Joe stayed on with the company, Keith moved across to Rocky’s Own.
“It was a great job and you never got pushed. Everything was legal and above board and the drivers set their schedules.
“But after 15 years in that job, I started looking for a new challenge and was looking to spend more time at home with my daughters,” Joe explained.
His next move was a job transporting drilling rigs, which was two weeks on and two weeks off, predominantly running into Roma.
“When I first started there I used to move the drilling rigs so it was a lot of oversize work. The company that owned the drilling rigs at that time had about nine rigs. I did that job for seven or eight years,” said Joe.
And with that, the time was right to move back into the sort of work he loved. During his previous role, travelling through the Top End, Joe was enamoured by the quads he’d see driving past and felt he was ready to give it a crack.
So he started working for WA based MGM Group and worked his way up to the ultra quads, doing side tipper work. “One of the great things about MGM is they’re willing to train you up into the quads, so long as you have a minimum of B-double experience. They put you with an experienced driver for as long as it takes. It was a really great system. You had someone there showing you the job the whole time.”
While the super quads could be up to 195 tonne Gross Vehicle Mass (GVM), the ultra quads were able to be loaded to 210 tonne GVM.
“The only difference is that the ultra quad has an extra axle on the last three trailers. The set-up of the ultra and super quads over there in WA use a very different dolly system, so the last three have a steerable axle and would handle absolutely beautifully,” explained Joe.
The role at MGM was four weeks on and two weeks off. “That was a great experience, I really loved that work. I did a couple of years with them out of Port Hedland. That was probably the best job I ever had, I absolutely loved it,” revealed Joe.
He says the only drawback of the job was the four weeks on, which is a long time to be away. So when his partner was offered a job opportunity to transfer to Mt Isa, Joe decided to look for work closer to home and secured the job with Wagners. “The benefit of us moving to Mt Isa is that I’m home every night. I do two weeks on and one week off. And Wagners is a great company to work for,” Joe added.