Happy returns

In December 2023 - January 202421 MinutesBy Gavin Myers and Dave McCoidJanuary 18, 2024

The forest plantations of the central North Island are incredible places. In their silence they speak to so much – endeavour, challenge, camaraderie, a sense of purpose. As a result, they spawn wonderful communities of people, a specific type of people. People who understand good times and bad, who understand opportunity is one thing – recognising and acting on it is another. That nothing comes without effort, and work-life balance is whatever you make it. Historically, these folk often grew up, worked and grew old together. ‘Balance’ was centred in the word community, not delineated by the act undertaken. There was no burden in the need to work, especially when you worked in and around your mates.

The forests have provided a life and lifestyle for many they themselves might not have thought possible as kids kicking stones on their way to school. Again, the opportunity was all around them, they just had to see it.

A giant natural and commercial ecosystem, it engenders a sense of contribution without grandiose – thinking you’re bigger than the whole will never do here. The fact you revisit a forest compartment twice, sometimes three times in your life, teaches, even subconsciously, that although your contribution is critical and of huge worth, all this was here before you came, and it will be here after you’re gone.

‘Scania’ on the Rob Dahm Ltd 745 Fiat Allis loader. Loading Gordon ‘Boot’ Hill and moving to the next skid to top off – you have to get your ute there somehow.
Proudly in the bush, NZFP Crew 12 – Colin at far right.

As a result, success can be difficult to spot. These people are often all about the journey. That’s not to say it’s short on characters. Humility is allowed a larger-than-life personality; they’re in no way mutually exclusive.

Although the forest economies have felt the pressures of modern times – a lack of people, and a generation for whom choice in a borderless world is a way of life – it’s not hard to find true forest folk who honour it all. Even better, folk who have passed onto their own the sense of opportunity the green giants hold. It’s why we’re at the Central Equipment Movers Old Taupo Road depot in Tokoroa, to meet the James family.

Colin James, aka ‘Scania’, is a Tokoroa son and child of the mighty Kinleith Forest that surrounds the pulp and paper mill bearing the same name. He was born and grew up not 200m from the Central Equipment Movers yard, and the house he and wife Deb live in today. He’s the living embodiment of everything that’s great about the area and people. Sharp as a tack, he’s a hardworking, jovial, cheeky, charismatic character who will always give an already happy gathering, ‘that little bit extra’. He will hate all this being said, and run for cover – that’s the forest in him. He’ll probably try and stop us printing that line, but son Matt will no doubt help us there. He and sibling Taylor are chips off the old block, dead straight barrels with few prisoners taken – a spade is a spade.

‘Scania James’. A label assigned to him in connection with a big, largely white, cabover Scania truck – not the one parked in the yard below the office. Like the trees all around them, you could say things have come full circle. But the new one is Matt’s brainchild, not Colin’s. I guess just because you revisit a compartment years later, doesn’t mean you replant it each time.

“The Roundwood yard over the fence,” says Colin, sitting in the office and pointing out the south-facing window. “It used to be GM Fellingham Ltd. I lived just over there,” he says, pointing out the front window facing northeast, “and spent all my time riding around with drivers Graham Duff and Murray Bayer (a well-regarded old-school driver who later drove for us for many years) in one of their three TK Bedford trucks. They repowered his truck with a DS8 Scania motor, and then in time bought New Zealand’s second Scania truck – an LB80… I think John Beasley had the first?

1 ) The truck that started it all and
2) the truck that sealed the deal: the GM Fellingham Bedford TK repower and the LB141 V8

“Anyway, that was followed by another LB80, then a 111, and then an LB141 with the 375 V8. That was big gear in the early 70s! Pretty much the equivalent of that thing down there […he loves it really]. Apparently, at school and then even later on in the bush, I wouldn’t shut up about these Scanias.”

There you go, how Scania got his name, and why the 770S has ‘The man, the myth, the legend’ as a holographic watermark on the rear sleeper wall.

Colin’s dad worked in the silviculture and fire prevention side of the forest industry. Not surprisingly, Colin’s first job out of school in the late 70s was at Fellingham’s as the loader driver. From there he went into the bush, doing his time with a harvesting gang before coming out and working for three years on the Kinleith weighbridge. In this time, he secured the coveted HT and trailer licence courtesy of New Zealand Forest Products’ Kenworth, fleet No. 71.

“I would spend all my spare time hanging around at places like Dahms and the local trucking community generally.”

A short period driving stackers at Kinleith preceded his first on-highway driving job at one of Tokoroa’s true iconic trucking brands of the era, and International stronghold, T Doidge.

In his time at Doidge, Colin drove an International S-Line, a truck he really rates in his career. He recalls company owner at the time, Ray Mildenhal and says with a laugh, “it was the good old days.”

For a young fella with the level of enthusiasm Colin had, there was any and all manner of driving available.

“Errol Hanley carted short pulp out of eastern Taupo with a Cat 450 V8-powered cabover Kenworth. Just unheard of power. He asked me once to drive it on a Saturday because he had a wedding or something to go to. ‘Let them put a good load on you, and keep the boot up it. You shouldn’t have to drop into the low range between eastern Taupo and here.’

3) HT licence secured courtesy of NZFP fleet No.71.
4) The first on-highway permanent drive, an International S-Line for T Doidge.

On the way home I was in the low range about four times, and remember thinking ‘What the bloody hell am I doing wrong?’ I crossed the weighbridge at 58 and a half tonne. Doh!”

We all invariably end up with some little anecdote in our careers, something quirky or cool, but ‘Scania’ has a real doozy. “I carted the last docketed load over the Kinleith weighbridge in a Doidge International R190. My truck was in the workshop and Mildenhal pointed at the 190 and said, ‘You can drive that’. ‘Really?’ I said. It was the last of them and it was for sale.

“When I got back to the yard, Mildenhal said, ‘they’ve sold that truck so that’s the last Doidge R190 load ever into Kinleith.’ Pretty, cool all right. Funny, we recently shifted a machine from up Cashmore Road where I got that load from.”

From Doidge’s, Colin went to Trailways for some full-on Kaimai Ranges action, and under Brent McCombe’s management, he almost stepped into his first owned truck.

Stretching his legs, he and wife Deb’s next move was up the road a little to the bright lights of Auckland where Colin worked for a couple of years for Danny Lendich. “He was a good boss to work for. He had his own ways but that was all good.”

The couple’s first venture in business was to follow with the purchase of Addis Cranes. “That came with three trucks and a bit of gear, but let’s just say it wasn’t all it was made out to be. We ended up walking away from it after about three years. It was just too hard.”

5) The single stack tells us this shot is early in the The General’s life with the company. What a classic image cresting Tarr Hill on SH1, southbound.
6) State trooper with the last ever 009 Madill hauler leaving Kinleith.

By this time, Matt was on the scene, and the family moved to Puriri near Thames and Colin took on work with Provincial Freightlines, first as a driver and then in operations. “That was a good period. I had brought some work and contacts with me, and Dave Malanaphy did a revenue share thing for the work I brought to the table. There were loads out of Pukepine, and Roundwood from down here. I’d call in and stay at Dad’s when I was home.”

The home fires beckoned however, and in the mid-1990s the James family moved back to Tokoroa, after which Taylor arrived on the scene. Colin worked driving a transporter for Colin Sargison’s Rotorua Forest Haulage before heading back in the bush to operate a hauler for Alan Sinton. He also did a four or five-year stint in the bush driving loaders for Gordon Dahm at Rob Dahm Ltd, loading out logs in the ‘cold deck’ loading days.

With the depth and breadth of experience in and around the industry, Colin made an obvious choice for a key front man when Trevor Woolston launched Logger magazine in 2003, taking the role as machine field tester and business development manager for the first couple of years. He was able to give a great publication for the forest industry real credibility. “Bloody production weeks! You know what they’re like. I don’t miss those at all,” he says with a laugh.

As is so often the case, it was a beer with some mates that would lead to the family’s commercial destiny. “I was having a beer with Alan Sinton and some mates, and he was really pissed off with the service he was getting from his supplier for machine shifts. Back then there were no contracts, and the crews could use whoever they liked, paid for by the forest company. He said, ‘I should buy a truck and get going’.”

And so in 2005, Central Equipment Movers was born. The first machine was as close to a sure-fire bet as you could get, one of the legendary original T900 Kenworths bought by Mike Lambert. T9005 was driven new by Andrew Douch, and was now being called upon to help stand up the fledgling enterprise.

“A four-and-quarter Cat, 18-speed, 44,000lb rears at 4.56. Lambert bought them all with Jacobs and Brake Saver, they had power dividers but no diff locks.” Although a modest rear end for transporter work, nothing was altered beyond the shortening and set-up for heavy haul.

If you wanted to make sure your first unit really did have all the good juju, then hooking the late Dale Hoyt’s dolly and three-rows transporter behind the Kenworth was certainly one way of doing it.

“She’s done 3,000,000km, plus whatever’s on the clock now – about 180,000 I think. Great machine.”

Today the Kenworth tows Taylor’s drift car trailer, so still gainfully employed in family duties.

Enthusiastic, service-focused, and part of the local community, Central Equipment Movers has grown steadily in its 18 years and has been well served by the bulk of its trucks. The first new truck was the 4900 Series Western Star State Trooper that Colin and Matt say was a magnificent machine.

7) A classic Central Equipment Movers scene. Big Red was eventually lost to fire, but here the big Kenworth C508 leads the T909 through the Kinleith forest with a pair of Sany processing machines on board.
The first brand-new truck bought, State Trooper, ran Caterpillar C16 power – pictured here blasting through the forest. The two Western Stars owned by the company were magnificent servants.

“It had a C16 Cat in it, and not far into its life I fitted a set of C18 injectors. Soon after, I took a hauler over the saddle from Turangi to National Park and it was drinking fuel at the rate of .01kpl – that’s a litre every 10m. The crew at Goughs couldn’t believe it, and it was on their wall of honour for years. The foreman at the time said if you were standing on the motor and poured it in with a bucket, you still couldn’t get it in as fast.”

It’s not all been plain sailing: Big Red the C5 series Kenworth, was lost to fire, but all in all, it’s a typical James’ journey – looked on as an adventure, and enjoying the ride.

It’s a fascinating work profile with much of it undertaken away from the public eye and VDAM compliance. In the bush, haulers and machines can be moved fully rigged, even with the spar up on occasions, and GCMs in the 110 to 130-tonne range are common. It makes for an impressive photo collection, that’s for sure.

Today the fleet comprises five transporters. A Kenworth T909 bought new, the ex-Jilesen Contractors sleeper-cab T908, two T404 Kenworths ex-T Croft in Greymouth (nicknamed Mario and Luigi – trucks Matt says have been a bloody good buy), and of course the 770S Scania – named Suspicious Minds, both a tribute to Colin’s favourite Elvis song and Matt’s observation on the transport industry. Bringing up the rear is an Isuzu 8×4 crane truck, used for all manner of support and on-site mill work. There’s also a quad-trombone for the long and longer.

In terms of succession, we have the answer to that in this story. Matt has the bit between his teeth and is intent on honouring the values his folks have built the business on in its first two decades. It’s typical of the ilk, again, like a repeat visit to a forest compartment, that he’s being given the opportunity to put his stamp on the operation and grow in the business. “Dad said ‘it’s your turn to buy a truck’, and here it is.”

We end the story in the corner of the yard, in ‘the shed’. A shrine to all things – trucks, business, memorabilia, stories, and recollections. A celebration of life, great people, and adventure. It’s a typical James’ venue, a place that allows everyone – whoever they might be – to simply be themselves. Who you might find in there at times would drop your jaw – yet the reason they choose to congregate at this place speaks volumes to the family who create the environment.

Colin sits at the leaner, “I’ve got a couple more years, and that’ll be enough I reckon.”

Yet another Tui ad!

Special thanks

What a supremely awesome few days spent with Central Equipment Movers! Matt and Colin James, thanks for your time, your stories and your enthusiasm for us to feature Suspicious Minds.

To Nadine Bell and Tom Mitchell of Overdimensional Transport Services for tolerating an additional moving obstacle alongside the truck, and sharing an insight into the world of piloting oversize loads.

To John ‘Woodcutter’ Edwards and Jon Schick at Shaw’s, thanks for the tour and hospitality.

Thanks to Andrew Lane for the relevant technical info on Matt’s 770S, and of course to the whole team at Scania New Zealand for your unwavering support of New Zealand Trucking.