You can’t see elephants in the headlights

In Short Story March 2022, March 202210 MinutesBy Dave McCoidApril 26, 2022

Unless there’s a night-time breakout at one of our zoos and you’re in the vicinity powering down one of the local arterials, this is not a tip the average Kiwi trucker is ever going to need. But for Brett Meier, it’s something he absolutely needed to know at one point.

“Buffaloes and elephants, their skin absorbs the light, aside from which they’re just so big. Elephants are worse, though. A buffalo will turn and look, you see their eyes, but elephants have huge lashes, and they don’t want to look at you anyway. Plus, they’ll probably be in a group. At 80kph, you won’t see them until you’re less than 100m away. At 60 tonne, that’s too late!”

You’ve probably guessed by now we’ve uncovered another absolute gem of a person and story. Brett Meier is going to have to be revisited for a podcast interview or feature because his life to date is so interesting. Like most of his ilk, he underplays it all and shuns the attention, but the truth is, when this personification of an unassuming ‘good bastard’ writes his memoirs, I’ll be first to buy them.

Born in Zimbabwe, 47-year-old Brett’s family were farmworkers. The family immigrated to South Africa in 1978 before the Mugabe upheavals, where his dad found work in the mine repatriation industry. “I’ve always loved trucks, so post- school, I went straight to work in the industry.”

Following early adventures dabbling in things like furniture removals through South Africa and her neighbours, Brett headed to Zambia to drive trucks in the cotton industry.

“Zambia’s a great place. It was never colonised by the Brits, only a protectorate, so everyone largely gets on like a house on fire. The Indians and Chinese are huge in Zambia’s cotton farming. They own and run the cotton gins (processing plants) and manage the farmers, supplying seed, fertiliser, packaging, everything they need. The farmers grow it, and are paid after harvest, based on yield.

“I drove an ex-Dutch Army DAF 6×6 with a GVM of ‘whatever you can get on’. Speeds on the bush roads were sometimes five to 10kph, so you took a long time to go not far. You’d be away two weeks at a time deep in the bush travelling from farm to farm.”

Work visa rules marked the end of Zambia and it was back to South Africa, where the father of a close mate ran a trucking company called Neven Matthews Pty. The firm was based in the mining, energy, and steel belt in the northeastern province of Mpumalanga.

Brett Meier: certainly not afraid of a challenge, and his life in trucking in so much of the world is a testament to the richness of experience such an attitude can bring.

“I worked in driving and in management roles. The company carted lance tubes used in the smelting process and finished steel. Trucks were mainly SK Mercedes-Benz, and we had some R-model Macks also. The driver pool tends to be hard on gear over there, so the Macks had good seats, but the rest of the interior was steel plate, with wind-down windows and rugged switchgear. We towed B-trains, but we called them inter-links (short front half, long back) or super-links (even trailer lengths). GCM was 60 tonnes. The Macks were grunty and durable!”

In 2002, Brett witnessed the murder by robbers of his close mate Stu, the guy who had organised the Neven Matthews job. Stu’s brother Rob was working in the UK as a commercial electrician at the time and encouraged Brett to visit.

“We’d all hung around as kids. I went back to work but it was difficult, to say the least. I headed for the UK and found work immediately, first on a small truck with a crane, then transporting horses for an Irish bloke. Following that, I drove tip trucks around London for 18 months before getting into Continental work as a relief driver via an agency. It was all Volvos and Scanias – really nice machines, but boring compared with what I’d been used to.”

Brett’s next adventure lay in the antipodes, Western Australia to be exact. Arriving in 2005, he enjoyed a mixed bag of driving work that included the BGC Quarrying and construction conglomerate, as well as work for the local shires (councils) on aggregate haulage and two-up road-train work running supplies ex-Perth to the mines in the far north west.

“One interesting job I had south of Perth… I was on a Kenworth road train, the lead trailer was loaded with fertiliser, the second with a Mack spreader, and the third a Manitou loader. You arrived on farm, unloaded everything, then loaded the Mack with the fertiliser off the lead trailer using the Manitou, spread it on the paddocks, packed the whole lot up again, and went home.”

A desire to check out New Zealand meant getting here before he was 32 to meet visa requirements. So, in 2006, he headed our way. As the saying goes, everyone else’s loss is our gain, and many thanks to Brett’s wife Jayne for capturing the heart of this most capable and affable bloke.

“I started working for Smith and Davies in Auckland on a tip truck, but that was short- lived. I met Jayne early on, and we knew this was it. I found work at LW Bonney in Auckland in their sugar-cartage business. It was largely in the greater Auckland area, further afield when seasonality in industries like bee-keeping demanded. Bonney’s was a great place to work. They run a cool variety of gear and it’s all well maintained. I was there for four years and really only left because our firstborn was here, and the hours didn’t suit. I didn’t want to be a dad who wasn’t part of raising the kids.

“From Bonney’s, I went to Boat Haulage, where I stayed for seven and a half years; undoubtedly one of best jobs I’ve ever had. The work was really interesting and challenging, great people, and the curfews for over- dimensional work around Auckland meant a good work- life balance.”

A lifestyle decision to move to the Bay of Plenty just under six years ago ended the Boat Haulage years and started the McLeod Hiab chapter. Brett’s role currently sees him bouncing from truck to truck filling in for leave and the like, as well as mentoring new drivers, with a view to take on a full-time role in the training team in the near future.

“Yeah, no complaints here. It’s a great company with a good culture and robust processes. There’s a huge emphasis on staff safety and, although that can be a bit frustrating in terms of not being able to introduce my son Noah to the wonderful world of trucks and machinery, it’s just how it is nowadays.

“I don’t miss the political crap and everything that goes with South Africa, but I do miss the African bush. Jayne has been, but it’s been over 10 years since I’ve been back. I can hardly wait to show the kids the African bush and where I grew up.”