RIGS AND SKIDS

In Kenworth, Driven to Succeed, Scania, Freightliner, September 202115 MinutesBy Gavin MyersOctober 3, 2021

Big trucks, fast cars, and behind the wheel of either a person you probably wouldn’t expect – RFH driver Melanie Skelton may “wear make-up and have blonde hair”, but she is a truckie to admire.

It was a chance encounter with a mate’s Kenworth in 2015 that set Rotorua’s Melanie Skelton on a path to success in an industry she knew nothing about.

“I turned round to him while admiring the truck and said I’d like to drive one of them one day. His reply to me was, ‘Mate, you can do anything you put your mind to.’ I just thought, ‘yeah, right’,” says Melanie. “It was not really something I’d thought about.”

Then a stay-at-home mum to two-year-old son Mason, it took Melanie another year or so to make her move. But if Melanie initially had doubts, they were probably misplaced. Growing up with a racing-obsessed dad, who’d drag the family to meetings on the weekend, sparked an interest in all things mechanical, automotive and racing. Melanie completed her automotive and panel beating level 2 certifications in 2010 and then spent three years in Auckland working in the automotive industry before Mason arrived.

Scania convert…

Ready to re-enter the working world, Melanie was faced with a choice: become a chef, or become a truck driver. “Two very different choices, but I love cooking,” says Melanie, adding with a laugh, “A passion for food is not the best thing to have when you’re a truck driver!”

Of course, we know which way that decision went, and for the second half of 2017, Melanie drove back and forth to Tauranga to attend her level 3 course in commercial road transport at Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology. Melanie left with her class 4 licence in hand. “I wanted a course that would put me through all my licence classes and teach me the right processes to follow in the industry,” she says. Six months later, she was back for her class 5. (While doing her licences, Melanie also achieved her forklift; wheels, tracks and rollers; and dangerous goods endorsements.)

Working through her course and with class 2 in hand, Melanie spent a couple of days a week building up work experience with Mainfreight, running around Rotorua in a little “puddle jumper”. “I loved it,” she says. Once she got her class 4, her run was extended to Kawerau, Edgecumbe and Opotiki, which she loved too. “Nothing was ever the same; you had to think about the loads you carried. They had me doing everything.”


In 2018, a brief opportunity came from Tally-Ho Industries to be a trainee crane operator. “But it wasn’t for me. I needed to explore the industry more,” Melanie says. She did have some highlights, though, like installing all the signs in the Hemo Gorge.

An opportunity with Patchell Industries followed. Although Melanie had her class 5 by this time, she’d not yet done any work with trailers… “That’s where I learnt how to back. On my first day, they said, ‘Can you back that trailer into the shed?’ and it took me about half an hour!” Melanie laughs. “I learnt how to back every combination of trailer you can think of.”

Again, shunting trailers around wasn’t for her. Melanie wanted to give linehaul a go and applied for a position carting timber around the North Island with Honeycomb Bulk Transport. The job came with more struggles and more learning.

Melanie’s approach to her job is systematic and methodical.

“I’d never thrown a chain in my life or driven a 44-tonne unit. It took a good few months of making errors and asking tonnes of questions before I really felt confident in the job and what I was doing. Towards the end, I started doing linehaul where I was away five days a week, which is not easy when you have a kid.”

Then Covid-19 happened, and with that another new opportunity. Melanie joined Rotorua Forest Haulage when level 3 rolled around. Now with the company for almost 18 months, Melanie feels she’s found her ‘family’. “It’s probably one of the best places I’ve worked. The boys work as a team; we have a laugh. I’ve learnt so much there and have really come out of my shell as an operator.”

Day to day, Melanie drives a DAF XF 510 with an 18-speed Roadranger. For a week a month, she gets to drive the Scania you see here, when the truck’s usual driver is away. The DAF’s doubleshifted and is now at the 900,000km mark, so both Melanie and the DAF’s night driver are getting new trucks. “I’m a Kenworth girl, but once I drove the Scania, I fell in love with it. It drives itself,” she says. And so a Scania’s what’s coming Melanie’s way, which will also allow getting back into linehaul. “I enjoy being on the road; there’s something about it,” she says.

Throwing chains … one of those skills that came with practice.

On the road

I met Melanie at the RFH Vaughan Road depot in Rotorua on a clear and calm June winter’s morning. She’d already been in the yard long before daybreak cleaning the Scania; as luck has it, she’s behind its wheel that week. “I spend a lot of time looking after the trucks,” she says, and it’s clear she takes a lot of pride in that.

We only had a local run ahead of us, but it didn’t take much more to see Melanie’s positive attitude extends to how she conducts herself behind the wheel and in the yards of customers and suppliers. “I enjoy the procedure of it all,” she says. “I have developed my own ways of doing things, figured out what works and what doesn’t for me.” For example, she’s methodical, working one side of the truck at a time, minimising the need to run back and forth, side to side, and helping to make the job of the forklift operator a bit easier.

Melanie’s quick to acknowledge those who have helped shape her over the past few years. “Some of the old boys are really good, freely offering advice. Drivers I’ve never met before have given me advice or complimented me on my driving. I wouldn’t be the operator I am now without their tips and tricks.”


She also says she couldn’t keep living her dream without the support of family, especially her parents who take care of Mason during the week. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without their support and help over the last four years. I’ve missed out on a lot, but I’ve had to do what I’ve had to do to put us in a better position for the future.”

However, it’s not all been smooth sailing. A trailer accident on SH1 and the loss of a close friend in a truck accident took their toll on Melanie, making her realise how quickly things can go wrong and not take any day for granted. On the positive side, they were also incidents of great learning. “The accident scared the living daylights out of me, but I got back on the horse with some training and some support. As much as it was a major stuff-up, and I hate to admit that I rolled a trailer, I honestly think the accident was pivotal for my driving.”

Melanie says being singled out as female still happens a lot across the board. “The difference between males and females grinds my gears, especially the comments from other drivers. I normally just brush them off, but sometimes they ruin your day. I don’t want to be treated differently to the boys.

Melanie with the Argosy she drove at Honeycomb.

“Some days, that makes me hate being a truck driver, but other days I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

Melanie is pleased to see the increasing number of females entering the industry. A couple of months ago, she was even called on to train a woman who joined the company. “It was cool that a female could teach a female to place loads and throw chains,” she says.

She’s also on a charge to do her bit to promote the industry to women, with seminars for females and high-school talks planned. “When I first got my licences, I was a bit intimidated as the only female in a class full of boys. We need to make it more of a friendly situation. I’m a good candidate for knowing what has, what can, and what can’t work.”

Speaking at the 2021 EROAD Fleet Day conference.

Her enthusiasm is already rubbing off on seven-year-old Mason. “He comes out with me and asks 50 million questions. It’s great that RFH allows it,” she says. “He loves it, and he wants to be a driver when he’s older too. I tell him he needs to earn lots of money to look after mum when she’s old,” Melanie laughs. Melanie’s partner Hayden drives for Kris Slater Cartage, so there’s certainly no shortage of influence for young Mason.

Earlier this year, Melanie was invited to speak at the EROAD Fleet Day 2021 conference. She closed her address by saying: “Don’t give up on your dreams. If you work hard and put in the effort, you can achieve anything you put your mind to.”

It seems her mate with the Kenworth was right.

SIDELOADING TO SIDEWAYS DRIVING

When she’s not behind the wheel shifting the Roadranger in her DAF or enjoying the comfort of the Scania (and not playing competitive netball or pottering around the garden), Melanie can be found navigating her R32 Nissan Skyline around the track, looking through the side windows at full opposite lock.

“At the moment drifting is more a hobby; it’s really expensive, but competition is something I want to do once I get sponsorship,” she says, explaining her journey into the local drift scene.


“Mason’s dad does drifting, and once we separated, I wanted to do it as well. I built my own car, by myself. Dad’s thing was, ‘Learn to build it yourself, so you know how to fix it.’ So I did that.

“I learnt how to drift in it, but it didn’t have enough power. So I built the R32, doing everything except the electrical and fabrication work.”

Melanie says that New Zealand’s drifting scene is a great vibe. “It’s like one big family. I had no idea what I was doing at first, but the boys helped me learn, and everyone gets stuck in if someone has a problem,” she says.