Southern to the core

8 MinutesBy NZ Trucking magazineApril 9, 2019

Hughie Harris, a legendary figure of Otago and Southland road transport fame, has recently retired – yet another honourable and distinguished career that in all likelihood will not be repeated in modern times.

Photo: The Foden Alpha that Hughie Harris saw out his driving career in. A combination and work profile normally the realm of younger men, with bulk, hay, baleage, machinery, and general all part and parcel.

Secrets and celebrations
One fine day in July 2017 proved to be an eventful day for Hughie Harris. Hughie was encouraged by his stepdaughter to join her for lunch to celebrate his 75th birthday at Tapanui. Upon returning to Heriot they decided to visit the local hotel for a celebratory drink. Unknown to Hughie there was a platoon of family, friends, and work colleagues waiting there to surprise and congratulate him on his anniversary. This had to be a non-notified event or the birthday boy would not turn up; he doesn‘t relish the limelight.

Bruce Robertson presented Hughie with a certificate of appreciation from the Road Transport Forum for his 55 years service to the road transport industry. This, along with a few humorous speeches and presentation of a birthday cake in the form of a West Otago Transport Bedford TK, led on into a memorable evening as a continuation of the originally planned ‘light lunch out‘.

Photo: West Otago Transport manager Bruce Robertson and Hughie with the certificate of appreciation from the Road Transport Forum for 55 years of service to the transport industry.

A distinguished career
Hughie grew up at Waipiata in Central Otago, and his first taste of truck driving came with driving a 1948 Bedford in the hay paddocks. The truck belonged to Waipiata Motors and he would jump in as soon as he got off the school bus. Upon leaving school he worked for two years training as a welder, a skill that would prove valuable later in life. In 1962 he began working for O‘Malley‘s Transport in neighbouring Ranfurly,where he first drove a Commer TS3 with articulated unit on stock cartage. This was the start of his long career and life in a compelling industry. During his time at O‘Malley‘s he progressed through a range of rural trucks to a Mitsubishi Fuso with a Detroit Diesel 8V-71 engine, carting stock and rural produce Otago-wide. In the rural off-season Hughie‘s welding skills were utilised to build and repair stock crates. They were 3-deck crawl-through units for sheep, and single deck steel cattle boxes.

Photo: Hughie‘s 75th birthday TK Bedford cake.

In 1979 a move was made to work for West Otago Transport at Heriot where, in keeping with his Detroit Diesel experiences, he drove a Bedford KM with a 40-foot selfsteer semi-trailer on stock work. From that truck it was on to another Fuso, this time a single drive tractor also on stock and bulk work.
During his time at Heriot Hughie has seen several ownership changes. In 1983 West Otago Transport sold out to Southland Freight Haulage Ltd and soon after Hughie found himself with a new MAN 26-321 8×4 stock truck. With Southland Freight Haulage being owned by Southland Frozen Meat, their stock trucks travelled over most of the bottom half of the South Island as procurement contracts dictated. This meant carting a lot of stock from Canterbury to southern meat plants early in the season, and then huge movements of stock northward later on as the southern plants became swamped with local lamb flocks.

Photo: Hughie drove this GM powered Fuso for O‘Malley‘s Transport at Ranfurly.

Photo: This Bedford KM stock truck was the first West Otago Transport rig for Hughie.

Southland Freight Haulage eventually became one of the founding companies that formed the ill-fated Transpac. Upon Transpac‘s demise, West Otago Transport Ltd at Heriot was purchased off the company by Jim Dynes, Bernie Osborne, and Richard Davison. In the late 90s Bruce Robertson and Dynes Transport (Tapanui) Ltd bought out Richard Davison. The years that followed the restructuring saw Bruce and wife Shona taking on the majority shareholding, and through a strategic amalgamation the company today forms part of the RTL group, still operating from its Heriot base.

Photo: Hughie even appeared on advertising literature for Sutton Stock Crates.

Hughie went on to wear out a further two MANs on stock and flat-deck work before moving on to a Foden equipped for bulk and general work, covering much of Otago and Southland, including his original Central Otago stomping ground. Hughie‘s versatility meant he could cart wool, baleage, or machinery – in fact any general goods. Hughie‘s career was largely incident-free and he loved working in the picturesque ‘tiger country‘ that his occupation took him to. He even appeared in an advertisement for Sutton Stock Crates at one point. An ex mechanic from West Otago Transport said that in the past Hughie was a great help in winter months, rebuilding stock crates and painting cabs, chassis and trailers, and he could turn his hand to anything.

Hughie has always been a great inspiration to rookie drivers and would offer assistance where required, but if they weren‘t willing to accept it he wouldn‘t push it, or further it. West Otago Transport manager Bruce Robertson described Hughie and his career as “Gold, just bloody gold, if I could clone him I‘d order 10”. After an incident last year in which a bale of wool fell on him, causing fairly serious injuries, Hughie decided to finally retreat from full-time driving and enjoy retirement.

Photos: Hughie wore out more than one MAN in his career. The truck in the top photo was an ex demonstrator and performed well. The bottom photo was the last MAN he drove.