Tough Job, Tough Man, Tough Truck!

It takes a special character, forged by the bonds of birth and earth, to not only endure the vast extremes of Australian desert but also build a thriving business amidst isolation and hardship. Someone like Neil Dunn. TRUCKIN’ LIFE heads into South Australia’s remote back blocks for this story of a remarkable operation led by an exceptional man who has DUNN GOOD.

North, far beyond the postcard shades and ragged folds of South Australia’s Flinders Ranges, there exists a harsher world, an ageless, remote world of dust and dunes, of sharp winter cold and ferocious summer heat. A world of extremes, extreme people almost as much as place.

It’s summer on the Strzelecki. The infamous track first blazed almost 150 years ago by legendary drover and cattle duffer Harry Redford has no mood for the frail or the frivolous. The four-wheeldrives and off-road campers of outback travellers have for the next four or five months gone elsewhere, probably home to cooler coastal climes.

Six hundred kilometres north of Adelaide, the bitumen comes to a blunt end just out of Lyndhurst. With the mercury regularly rising to the mid-40s and beyond, there are only the trucks supplying the Moomba oil and gas fields and sparsely spread road crews treading the Strzelecki’s frayed cord of vicious ruts, blinding white bulldust, tyre shredding stones and angry, bone-jarring corrugations.

Surprisingly though, there is occasional relief along a few stretches of remarkably good bitumen. Most are about seven kilometres long and first impressions suggest they’re little more than token threads of tar across a boundless land of sand, stone and stunted growth. There is, however, a more practical explanation; they’re for overtaking heavier, slower vehicles and subsequently diminishing the deadly risk of boring ahead through blinding dust.

Then again, maybe these seemingly incongruous strips of civilisation are signs of things to come. After all, there’s been plenty of speculation in recent years that in response to repeated criticism of the track’s destructive condition and more to the point, its vital role in servicing the resource-rich Cooper Basin, Federal and South Australian Governments are actually considering a joint effort to seal the Strzelecki’s entire 470 km length between Lyndhurst and Innamincka.

Time and political resolve will tell.

For now, it’s a track fully deserving its fearsome reputation for cracking steel, torturing tyres and shaking confidence. As a maiden voyage for a new truck, it’d be hard to think of a more likely trip to unearth potential problems or a more severe introduction to life in the backblocks.

That was exactly the task recently confronting a new Cat truck; a flagship CT630LS model, headed deep into the dunes beyond Moomba to take up residence with an extraordinarily remote and resourceful company called Dunns Earthmoving.

The LS with its big sleeper, good road manners and gutsy C15 engine continues to be a solid performer in the evolving ambitions of Cat Trucks distributor Navistar Auspac and likewise, well known South Australian Cat dealer Cavpower. Out here, reputations can come and go like windswept sand and only sound engineering and solid foundations define the terms of survival. Fortunately, Cat appears to be doing most things right because this newcomer is the third of its breed to join the demanding Dunn’s operation, followed a few weeks later by a fourth unit which will at least have the luxury of being carried up on the back of a trailer.

In this instance necessity is dictating events: Dunns needs a trailer to be picked up at Hawker about 400 km north of Adelaide, so Cat number three just happened to be at the right place at the right time. There wasn’t much weight on the tri-axle flat-top trailer, maybe four or five tonnes, but as Strzelecki regulars know only too well, any weight is vastly better than no weight – and infinitely better than running bobtail – when tackling this tyrannical track’s countless lumps and bumps.

For such a tough maiden voyage and with barely 1000 km on the clock, the new Cat coped exceptionally well. Sure, there came the occasional savage thump as the truck dropped unavoidably into a deep rut hidden under talc-like dust, and other times the pulverising shudder created by a particularly severe stretch of corrugations. On the positives though, there were at least none of the incessant rattles, squeaks, grates or grinds that invariably suggest a failure in the making.

Meantime, the evasive attribute of good vision over a drooping snout, an inherently high level of ride quality, and a well-engineered steering system free of any harsh kick-back through the wheel at least, provided reasonable isolation from the harsh realities at ground level. What’s more, with the Cat’s on-board readout showing a midday temperature of 44 degrees, an air conditioning system capable of countering such saturating heat in a cab as spacious as the LS is certainly a welcome part of the package.

Even so, it’ll be good to get there. Eventually!

Back O’ Beyond

Reaching the Dunn base consumed considerably more than the seven hours taken to cover the 370 gruelling kilometres between Lyndhurst and the turn-off to the main Moomba camp. It’s almost another 100 km winding south-west through a maze of sandy access tracks and over dozens of graded dunes before finally, quivering in the distance like some alien outpost on a moonscape tucked between brooding sand ridges, there emerge the stark white domes of portable workshops and accommodation ‘dongas’ of the Dunns Earthmoving main camp.

A more remote, isolated and even implausible operational base is almost impossible to imagine, particularly as the true extent of an outfit now turning over many millions of dollars a year becomes fully evident. As the company’s formidable founder and managing director Neil Dunn will soon elaborate, it’s the isolation and the abilities of the company and its people to operate in uncompromisingly harsh and remote conditions that truly set Dunns Earthmoving apart.

As the latest Cat rolls into camp gratefully free of Strzelecki scars, and parks among the graders, dozers, scrapers, trucks, trailers and myriad machinery of this amazingly selfsufficient enterprise, a hulking figure sits under the shade of an awning gazing across at this latest addition.

A few minutes later, “G’day, Neil Dunn,” he says warmly, sticking a giant paw out before opening a door into the comparative cool of the cookhouse and meal room.

“Others talk tough then for one reason or another they don’t come back. They’re usually the sooks.”

In the directory of Cooper Basin oil and gas well sites, they call this place Padulla. However, a sign under the awning separating the cookhouse from the rest of the camp calls it something else. Dunnulla! Another sign, apparently the handiwork of a former employee, is especially entertaining, listing ‘Neil, flies, hard yacka’ as the area’s greatest attractions.

Neil Dunn is no shrinking violent, physically or otherwise. He stands a tad over 1.93 metres, or six foot four in the old measure, and at a rough guess hits the scales somewhere upwards of 120 kilos. Even at 54 years, he’d be more than a handful and as several people will quietly mention, ‘He’s generous and he’s got a big heart, but he’s not a bloke to be taken for granted.’

There is, however, far more to this man and the business built by he and wife Sue than first meets the eye. As Sue will unequivocally state a few days later in an Adelaide office a thousand kilometres south, everything about this business evolves from the extraordinary character, determination and tenacious work ethic of the man she affectionately acknowledges as, “My husband and my soul mate.” It’s quickly apparent there is a powerful bond between these two, something obvious yet far beyond simple expression, defying the distance and solitude that necessity has deemed such a prolific part of their 30 year marriage.

Meanwhile, Neil’s keen to show the working side of an entirely self-reliant operation that stretches hundreds of kilometres in every direction. For the moment, the big eye-Catcher is a Caterpillar scraper recently painted pink which, he says simply, highlights the company’s support for breast cancer research. “It’s a rotten thing breast cancer,” he says sharply. “We all know someone who’s been affected by it and just because we’re out here in the desert doesn’t mean we can’t do something to raise the profile and a few funds.”

It’s the level of self-sufficiency here which is most remarkable, highlighted by skill sets among the staff which can seem sharply at odds with the perception of such a remote location. With admin and workshop staff working two weeks on/two weeks off, the tradesmen list includes eight mechanics, two boilermakers, three carpenters and a contract electrician. “We have to do as much as we can ourselves,” Neil says seriously. “We’re far too remote to rely too much on anyone else.”

Among the ‘dongas’ for accommodation, ablutions, meals and even a well-equipped gym, is the main office where managers Trent Ulmer and Craig MacDonald take fortnightly turns keeping a 24/7 finger on the pulse of the operation, the people and equipment spread across a vast swathe of Strzelecki desert.

“This is a business that’s on call night and day, 365 days a year and being available is one thing I’m absolutely fierce about,” Neil insists. “If the phone rings (only satellite phones operate in these regions) at any time of the day or night, there always has to be someone to answer it. There are wells everywhere in the Cooper Basin and we have people and machinery all over this country, so if something goes wrong anywhere or a customer needs to contact us urgently, we need to be on the other end of the phone right away. No excuses.”

Neil acknowledges that life in such remote backblocks isn’t for everyone and finding people with the right aptitudes and attitudes to cope with the conditions can be a significant issue. “Some just can’t handle the remoteness,” he says bluntly. “The heat, the flies, no mobile phone service, away from family and shops.

“Our people come from all walks of life but we often find that someone who comes from a remote area, usually with a rural background, who’s used to working on their own and comfortable in their own company, they adapt to the job quickly and generally stay a long time.

“Others talk tough then for one reason or another, just don’t come back.

“…the occasional savage thump as the truck dropped into a deep rut hidden under talc-like dust”

They’re usually the sooks,” he says, the smile failing to mask the derision.

Most times there are around 50 people based at the Padulla camp but with more than 100 employees on the books and operational staff working a three weeks on, three weeks off roster. It’s blatantly apparent the Dunn workload stretches far further afield. With names like Worrior, Growler, Mustang, Snatcher, Kruger, Mirage and so on and so forth, Neil explains there are at least 100 well sites and countless access tracks that have been developed or are at least maintained by Dunn’s, spanning across the desert in roughly a 300 kilometre radius from Padulla.

Outlying camps are critical components of the operation. There is, for instance, an established 25-man camp at a well called Parsons about 130 km north-west of Padulla, and a 20-man operation at Growler roughly the same distance north. Additionally, there are what Neil calls “mobile camps of anything from four, five or up to ten men, all fully self-contained and all with distinct jobs to do.”

Heart of the matter

So what is it exactly that Dunn’s does?

Thoughtful for a few moments, Neil answers simply, “We have two main customers, both publicly listed oil and gas companies operating in the Cooper Basin: Beach Energy and Senex Energy, and I suppose the best way to explain our work is that we specialise in remote area earthmoving and road works, repairing existing roads and making new ones.

“The maintenance and repair of roads is a full-time job in itself,” he continues, “but with new roads we’re basically just given a GPS location, and, after all the environmental studies and cultural heritage sites have been identified, carve a track through virgin country.

“A dozer goes through first, then a scraper follows up and lays clay down over the sandhills, then a water tanker goes over it to bind the clay and the process is repeated until we get to where we’re going. Then most times we build a one hundred square metre pad of compacted clay for the drill rig to work on.

“On top of that we do the earthworks for things like tank farms and basically anything else that needs a machine or a truck to move dirt.

“It probably sounds simple enough but there’s an awful lot to it. You need to know what you’re doing. This country is very unforgiving.”

Performing all this work is an expansive range of equipment – 10 scrapers, nine graders, five dozers, three front-end loaders, three excavators, several skidsteers, a backhoe, a forklift, a highly equipped service and repair truck, more than 20 light four-wheel-drive vehicles, a diverse trailer fleet including 28 tankers for water haulage, and by no means least, a fleet of more than 30 prime movers.

Even at a quick glance, it’s a big budget business and as Neil quickly emphasises, operating in such a remote region doesn’t come cheap. “Just maintaining the camp facilities costs up to three million a year,” he comments. “Add that to a wage bill over seven million and around two in fuel, and it’s easy to see you have to do a lot of work, and I mean a lot of work, before you actually start making money.”

As for the value of all the equipment, he just smiles and says, “That’s something I try not to think about too often.” Then, after a few thoughtful moments, “This country’s quick to teach you what works and what doesn’t.”

Indeed, life-long experience in rough, remote regions has created some hard and fast preferences when it comes to machinery. In four-wheel-drive utes, for example, he reckons nothing comes close to the reliability and strength of Toyota Landcruiser tray-tops while in big gear, Caterpillar reigns supreme. As for trucks, it’s a mixed bag of makes and models but over the past two years or so, Cat has clawed its way deeper into the Dunn mindset.

Cat is, of course, the new boy on the block among heavy-duty trucks on the Australian market and while Neil acknowledges a high regard for Cat’s C15 engine, he also knows it’s still relatively early days for the truck and in this neck of the woods much continues to depend on durability and dealer back-up.

“Yeah, we’ve formed a reasonable relationship with Cavpower and that definitely had an influence on buying the Cat trucks,” he comments. However, he’s quick to stress the brand wouldn’t get a second chance if it wasn’t already showing acceptable levels of endurance.

“So far, they’re doing pretty good,” he says casually, though improvements have certainly been evident in subsequent models since the arrival of his first CT630 in early 2013.

“Our first Cat is a day cab but since then we’ve only bought the sleeper (LS) model,” Neil explained. “That first truck has had a few issues, mainly small annoying things, but the second truck came nine months later and it has been much better. So with some of the changes we’ve made in these new ones, I can’t see why they won’t be even better again.

“We don’t do big mileages, around a hundred thousand kilometres a year, but it’s all hard going. Road conditions are the killer up here and it doesn’t matter what brand it is, something breaks eventually. We expect it. What’s important is that it doesn’t keep breaking and not being forgotten by the supplier just because we’re out here off the radar.”

Some initiatives have, however, been implemented to make life easier on trucks. As part of a specialised monitoring system, for example, the CATs have a warning buzzer which sounds when speed exceeds 80 km/h, yet programmed to work only in a wide expanse of Dunn’s operating range within the Cooper Basin.

“The roads are rough enough,” Neil explains, “and around here trucks just don’t need to be doing any more than eighty kilometres an hour.”

As for the effects of summer temperatures that spike to 50 degrees, Neil says succinctly, “It’s tough on tyres but other than that, all the equipment seems to handle it okay, trucks included, as long as the cooling systems are up to scratch.

“It doesn’t matter what the gear is, if it’s not maintained properly it won’t live.”

From the Start

Later, the day’s work done and daylight’s sting receding as the sun dips into the dunes, questions of ‘the early days’ draw a relaxed response from Neil Dunn.

“It wasn’t easy,” he says casually, “and it always surprises me, even gripes me a bit, when people say ‘geez you’re lucky.’ Luck didn’t have much to do with it, except maybe for meeting an oil company executive who was looking for someone reliable to work in remote areas.

“Apart from that though, it’s been all about hard work.”

There’s much more to this story than a chance meeting and a decade of toil with its inevitable moments of calculated risk. The fact is, Neil Dunn belongs to these remote regions. He was born to it.

The hardship and isolation that probably seem so daunting to so many is, in fact, an inextricable part of his being. The remoteness is his peace. It is where he belongs, what defines him. Where he needs to be to be the person he is.

To sadly cut a long and enthralling story short: As the crow flies, Neil was born about 130 km west of Padulla on his parents’ million acre Cattle property bordering the Birdsville Track. As he puts it, “A million acres of desert.”

The third of four children, he left school at 14 and recalls with total adoration a tough life in desert lands almost constantly besieged by drought. “But I wouldn’t swap it for anything,” he says with a surprising softness. “You learn how to survive. How to be resilient.

“And like every big place, there’s always trucks and machinery so you just grow up with these things. Operating dozers, graders, trucks, it all becomes second nature.”

By the time he was 21 the family headed north to a similarly sized property around Mt Isa in the hope of a life a little less afflicted by drought. It wasn’t to be. “That was real rough country. Busted arse country,” Neil says emphatically.

Sue, however, has a slightly different take because the Mt Isa property also came with a resort business that required constant attention, providing a busy and enjoyable distraction for a young wife from Adelaide’s leafy suburbs while her husband was away mustering.

Anyway, as circumstance and family finances determined, a nice house on 20 acres outside Adelaide eventually became home for the Dunns and their three children – Katie, Tom and Will. As for work, a rigid truck and a skid-steer at least kept Neil in the outdoors doing everything from fencing to driveways and landscaping work. Still, for a bloke bred in big sky country it could be a frustrating existence, albeit tucked quietly under the skin and known to only himself and his wife.

In early 2003 came that chance meeting with the chief executive of an oil and gas company operating in the Cooper Basin.

“They were looking for someone reliable who could do the work and probably more to the point, cope with working in remote areas,” Neil explained. So at 43 years of age, he jumped in with both big feet.

“We don’t do big mileage , around 100,000 a year, but it’s all hard going.”

“It was just me and another bloke to start with and it was pretty basic. We lived out of a caravan and as far as equipment went I had the skid steer loader. I’ve still got it, and managed to get hold of a D7 dozer, hired a scraper and later bought it, and bought a second-hand roadtrain truck to pull a float and water tanker. The first grader we got came out of an underground mine so it had an open cab.

“Try an open grader in mid-summer out here when the wind’s blowing,” he suggests with a wry grin. “That was tough. Really tough.” So tough that soon after came the start of a relationship with Cavpower when he ordered a new Cat grader with an air-conditioned cab.

Fast track to today and there are no people more surprised with the growth of Dunn’s Earthmoving than Neil and Sue. Keeping the actual numbers close to the chest, Neil at least concedes that from the start in 2003 to the present, turnover has grown almost hundred-fold.

Has it grown big enough? “Yeah, it’s probably big enough now.”

Two days later in their Adelaide office, Sue laughs when told her husband’s comment about the business being big enough. “That’d be fine if he didn’t keep saying ‘yes’ to new jobs. Neil has only ever known hard work and we all know he’ll work all the days of his life.”

As for the years ahead, “Who knows what’s around the corner,” he shrugs. Two of their three children are heavily involved in the business with Katie operating as finance manager and youngest son Will as general manager, seemingly destined to follow in his father’s footsteps with an inherent passion for machinery and wide open spaces. Middle child Tom is equally enamoured with big skies, working as a commercial pilot.

Suitably impressed after taking his latest Cat for a test drive over the dunes, a satisfied Neil Dunn appears entirely at ease as the Padulla camp comes back into view.

“Yeah, we’ve come a long way I suppose but it’s something you just have to keep working at. Nothing happens unless you work at it,” he says seriously. So there’s nothing else on the horizon, nothing else in mind?

“Only one thing,” he instantly replies. “Running Cattle on a big property. A really big property somewhere around the Cooper. That’d be good.”

Will it happen?

“I’m working on it. Definitely working on it.”

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