Blast from the Past: Hopto flashback
Get yourself a drink and sit back as Ron Horner tells how a rusty Hopto excavator reminded him of how he got his big break in the earthmoving industry.
Not too long ago, during one of ‘Ronnie’s Road Trips’ through Frankston in Victoria, I came across an old machine that had seen much better days sitting in an old quarry. We have all had those life-defining moments, and this old girl took me back to one of mine.
I was being a stickybeak, catching a look at a working quarry and admiring all the new screening plants, crushers, plant and equipment when I came across the old Hopto 550 excavator, which was lying idle in a state of disrepair.
I was no longer interested in the new gear, and instead made a beeline to the old girl.
MOOMBA TO SYDNEY
My thoughts immediately went back to my old Moomba to Sydney Pipeline days in the1970s.
You see, back then I was struggling to get a good long-term construction job. The Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) union was running rampant and we spent a good time on strike.
Times were hard and, with many weeks on the sideline, money was tight.
I was working on the construction of the Wallerawang Power Station, freshly married but with little cash, when I heard from a few mates out Cobar way that they were looking for blokes to work on the construction of the pipeline.
The remuneration was claimed to be excellent, but days were long with 12-hour shifts, six weeks on and 10 days off … get your own way there and back.
For a young bloke in desperate need of cash, I could see no reason why I shouldn’t give it a go. After all, I used to be a professional roo shooter out that way and I knew that country well.
At this time I was living in the Wallerawang Caravan Park, playing football with Lithgow Workmans Club.
I had good mates from both sides … one in particular was Bobby Jakeman, who just happened to be my neighbour and workmate (even though he was the current first-grade Lithgow Shamrocks halfback). We were in the same position, so over a couple of beers we decided to have a crack at this Moomba job.
DOWN TO EARTH
Being pretty cocky and bulletproof, we had no hesitation in driving out to a construction camp out near Mt Hope, about 150km south of Cobar.
Saipem were the constructors of this section of pipeline and, to our dismay, they told us there were no vacancies. But they also suggested we try the Australian Pipeline Construction (APC) camp located down on the Lachlan River at Booberoi some many kilometres to the east.
We didn’t come prepared to camp out for the long term. My old EH Holden sufficed as accommodation with a tarp wedged in the offside doors and pulled across to form an awning held up with rope and mulga branches.
We also had an old Esky with no ice, sleeping bags, matches, a frying pan, cast-iron pot, billy can, canvas water bottle, some army serving plates, no spare fuel, and my old 303.25 rifle to shoot some fresh meat (just as an emergency).
After all … we were young and ready to work. Should only take about two days and we would be set. Famous last words!
We eventually found the APC camp and announced we were there to answer all of
their prayers, but to our dismay we were given the ‘bum’s rush’ and told to go to Sydney to submit our job applications … no one was to be engaged from site. What the…?
We left the camp disheartened and drove out until I found a suitable campsite where we set up to suit a longer-than-expected stay. We had no intention of driving to Sydney but a willingness to give it a shot every time we saw a foreman’s ute drive back into that APC camp.
The days passed so slowly, food ran out, water was gone, fuel was so low but we kept going back to the camp and enquiring about work only to be met with the same answer.
I did, however, make contact with a few of my old Cobar mates (Patty Jermyn and Onkers Brown), who put a good word in for me to the Yank bosses in charge.
The floods of ’74 were severe and construction delays at that time were heavy, causing some men to seek alternative employment – so we were hoping our luck may get better.
I was fortunate enough to knock over a rabbit and a roo which I cooked up, supplemented by food, water and fruit pinched from the mess by my mates. This meant we were able to hang in for seven days out on the track.
Early one morning, a Toyota ute drove in to our camp and a lanky old Texan hopped out and introduced himself as Ditch Boss PJ Hall.
Hall claimed he hadn’t seen fellas live in such poor conditions for years, said we had “lots of spunk”, and offered us a job as a couple of blokes hadn’t returned from their leave breaks.
Bobby Jakeman and I were in, signed up the next morning. Fresh beds, showers, heaps of good tucker and, most importantly, we were on the payroll. You bloody beauty!
ENTER THE HOPTOS
We were both engaged on the Ditch Crew which was responsible for the suitable and timely excavation of the 500km trench and worked alongside a team of Victorian operators running Cleveland bucket wheel ditching machines (see http://bit.ly/TradeEarthtrencher) and the Warner and Swasey brand of Hopto 700A excavators, all of which were imported from the US.
Hopto, by the way, is an acronym for hydraulically operated power take-off.
These Hopto excavators weighed in at about 35 tonnes or so, were run by a screaming GM motor, and had more levers – both hand and foot controls – than a fleet of old Bucyrus cable draglines (see http://bit.ly/TradeEarthsteam).
They were state of the art at the time, though Kato excavators were making a big inroad into the Australian market through Thiess Bros.
Needless to say I fell in love with them and often wondered what they could be used for besides excavating pipeline trenches.
Never having operated any machinery before, I pushed hard to get into the Hopto crew and eventually ‘suckholed’ my way in as a grade checker or swampy.
The job itself was easy as my role was to ensure enough trench was pegged straight, the trench was dug to exacting depths, and any high trench due to rock was clearly identified for the blasting crew to deal with.
These Hopto excavators weighed in at about 35 tonnes or so, were run by a screaming GM motor and had more levers — both hand and foot controls — than a fleet of old Bucyrus cable draglines.
2 1. Ron Horner with the old Hopto 550 excavator sitting in a Victorian quarry
2. A Warner and Swasey Hopto 700 excavator as used on the Moomba to Sydney Pipeline during the 1970s
3. Ron Horner looking like a kid with a new toy at the controls of the Hopto 550
4. Hopto track drive motor shafts were changed as often as your underpants