One life lived on the road
PAUL Witte's life could read "... of no fixed address", given the parts of Australia in which he has lived and worked.
It is a life of trucks, quarries and love - lost and found.
Born in Wentworth, just over the border from Mildura, his parents split up when Paul was just four. His first move was when his mum got a job at the old Kraft factory in Port Melbourne. They returned to Wentworth where Paul went to primary school, followed by a short stint at Mildura Tech. At age 10, his mum passed away and he went to live with an aunt and uncle.
"I ran off the rails a bit at that time, to the point where I was given an edict by both the cops and another uncle, that I had two choices - reformatory school or go to Darwin and live with the old man. Wasn't much of a choice really."
So at 14, Paul found himself working alongside his dad in a quarry for the princely sum of five pounds a week.
"I spent the next six years pounding rocks and doing hard labour in the quarry. On reflection, reform school would have been a doddle."
During this time he had picked up some part-time work driving a truck, carting a dozer around to house blocks.
"I had to back-up an empty alleyway in the heart of Darwin. Unbeknown to me a car had pulled into the alley and I backed straight over it. This was a bit of a problem as I only had a car licence. Luckily I knew a sheila who worked at the registration office so I scarpered around there and she wrote me up a truck licence."
Being a legal truckie opened up a new world of opportunity, so it was off to Alice Springs hauling general freight in a Mack Maxidyne for Co-Ord Transport to the railhead at Darwin. Six months later Paul moved to Gulf Transport carrying cars, again from Alice to Darwin. During this time he came across a childhood mate, Pete Bottoms, who convinced him to come and work for Cold Storage out of Melbourne, running to Adelaide, Perth, Sydney and Darwin.
"One time I was carrying a load of orange juice concentrate out of Berry. Figuring I was a bit overweight, I decided that it was best that I dodge the Marulan Weighbridge. Stupidly, I decided to go up by Wombeyen Caves. The road's so winding that semis (and caravans) were outlawed from using it. Cliffs on one side and straight drops on the other. Once a fool...
"I got to a corner but didn't make it around and over she toppled. It was only the bull bar and the tyre rack that caught on something and stopped me from heading down a 200-foot drop. I contacted Cold Storage owner, Tony Nivens and he said, 'Does it look like going over?' I said, 'well, it does actually; it doesn't look too good'. Tony replied, "Well make sure you're in the bastard if it does!
"Tony was a great bloke, a real diamond. He went from a lear jet and two Rolls Royces to driving a taxi in Townsville. Who'd want to be in the transport industry? Cold Storage was without doubt the best company I've ever worked for. That was the period where I made lifelong friends."
After he left Cold Storage Paul headed back to Darwin and carted fuel for George Stevens. Then he drove two-up with Johnny Doyle, running to Melbourne. Three years with Ascott Transport followed (now Scott's of Mt Gambier), carting fuel out of Darwin to Alice, Mount Isa and sometimes over to the West.
"There were a couple of hairy spots on the South Road. The 87 Mile, out of Darwin was one. You'd come around this right-hand bend and it'd be straight up. You were supposed to be in first, but a lot of us used to fly it and just hope to hell you never missed a gear.
"Sometimes we used to get caught. You'd swing around the corner and an overloaded fuel tanker would've spilled some on the road. You'd be slipping and sliding everywhere. Then there was the 74 Mile going back into Darwin, which was on such a camber that if you had a high load on, it would pick the drives up.
"The wet season was fun. Places like the Ferguson River in the wet season, and Katherine. We used to drive across the railway bridges because you couldn't use the roads. The Ferguson was pretty hairy because it had no side rails.
"We could have got into trouble and sometimes we did, but there was a lot of courtesy on the road back then. The camaraderie was fantastic. If someone was broken down you'd pull up and stay with them until they were right to go. In those days, particularly in that part of the world, timetables were ignored.
"You'd get there when you got there. Often a breakdown would turn into a big party. Cold Storage carried something like 75% of the food into Darwin so we were never short of something to eat and drink on the side of the road."
With his father's health failing, Paul again joined forces with him.
"He had four road trains based out of Katherine. We carted gravel, concrete materials and aggregates from Katherine to Borroloola and out west, but most of it was local - within 200 or 300km. When he died he left the business to my stepmother and I bought it off her. The business went well until they finished Tindal airbase and the government stopped pouring money into the Territory. Things just dried up. At one time I had about $3.6 million worth of assets, owed about $1.2 million and I walked out with $80,000. I couldn't sell so I just folded it up. I suppose I should have learnt a lesson from Tony Nivens."
Time for a sea-change, and Paul moved to Airlie Beach. On the local quarry's application form it said, "position applying for". He wrote, "anything but the shovel" - and walked into a manager's job. Then to Mackay with Boral for five years, back to Darwin, across to Innisfail and now down in Victoria to start a new life with a new wife.
Will he get behind the wheel again? "If I have to, I will, but I'd rather not. I've done my time. I'm not paying any more fines.
"Give me a forklift in a yard a couple of days a week - that'll do me."