Porter Press Extra: French Island Earthworks

By: Cameron Officer, Photography by: Randall Johnston

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  • Earthmovers & Excavators

A unique and isolated island work environment along the south Victorian coast makes reliability a non-negotiable for French Island Earthworks, which has recently taken delivery of a new Hyundai R80CR-9 excavator.

French Island Earthworks has recently taken delivery of a new Hyundai R80CR-9 crawler excavator

Name an island just off the Victorian coast south of Melbourne. Yep, I’d have instantly thought of Phillip Island too. Yet, there is a much bigger landmass tucked inside Western Port Bay that doesn’t have mains water, mains power, medical services or police.

There’s no racetrack either, although you probably already picked that.

At 14,000 hectares and 23km end-to-end, French Island is the largest of Victoria’s coastal islands yet is relatively isolated and only boasts a permanent population of around 150. The majority of the lowlying landmass is made up of the French Island National Park, administered by Parks Victoria and the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning.

A general store and a primary school form two hubs of activity for French Islanders, with a third being the French Island Quarry, which was established back in 1950 and produces volcanic rock and basalt products.

Quarry management company French Island Earthworks is the only privately established contractor on the island and is a preferred contractor to the Victorian Government. As French Island Earthworks’ general manager Doug Churcher tells me, the logistics involved in getting manpower and machinery to and from the island make for a pretty unique working environment.

"The only way over is by boat; there’s no causeway like they have at Phillip Island. Between tides and changeable weather, that means we often have to work in narrow windows of opportunity to get machinery across to the island by barge," says Churcher.

Tides and weather means there can be tight windows of opportunity to carry equipment over to French Island

"French Island Earthworks actually has its own boat, so my staff and I can get back and forth relatively easily. But with the main supply barge that makes the trek over from Corinella Jetty only having a 25-ton capacity, we really have to think about larger machine movements, such as crushing equipment for the quarry."

Churcher moved to the island full-time after taking over quarry operations in 2010, but now lives across the bay and makes the daily commute to and from the mainland.

The work on French Island Earthworks is seasonal, with up to seven staff members joining him through the busy spring and summer months.

The company looks after the island’s roading (a 57km network in total, consisting of either gravel roads or sandy tracks), as well as other construction activity such as drainage maintenance and culvert installations. The quarry is there to ensure stocks of material for the roads are readily available.

"I reckon the state of the roads have definitely improved over the years we’ve been here," says Churcher.

The company is also tasked with all fire prep activity on the island, including controlled pre-fire season burn-offs and the reinstatement of burn lines.

Doug Churcher took over quarry operations in 2010 and runs a fleet of Hyundai equipment


French Island Earthworks has recently taken delivery of a new Hyundai R80CR-9 crawler excavator, which extends the company’s island-bound Hyundai fleet to three new Dash 9 machines.

The compact eight-tonner joins a Hyundai R210LC-9 and a Hyundai R140LC-9 on-site, although the brand has had a presence here for many years; when Churcher first got to French Island nearly a decade ago, he inherited an older generation Hyundai R210LC-3, which now has 14,000 hours on the clock.

"Every machine we have here works hard. It’s a small quarry, but the volcanic rock and basalt material we’re quarrying is tough," he says.

"The Hyundai gear is really good though and they come with everything you need. I’m coming up 62 years-of-age and I’ve sat in quite a few machines over the years.

"But I reckon the Hyundai gear offers more bang-for-buck than anything else on the market.

"I’m very pleased that we’ve been able to upgrade our excavators and now have a quality line-up of reliable machines from Hyundai."

With French Island only having a boat connection to the mainland, the reliability of Hyundai machinery has been a big positive

And ‘reliability’ really is a key word for Churcher and his team. As you’d imagine, the island isn’t the easiest place to get to for servicing, but Churcher says Hyundai distributor, Porter Equipment, has been excellent in this regard, with all the warranty servicing carried out on the island.

"Porter Equipment are great to deal with. They’re a good bunch of guys and the scheduled stuff we organise through them works fine; we have contingencies for that.

"But we still need any machine we use to be bulletproof. Obviously, things go wrong from time to time; that’s just the nature of the business.

"While we’re only an hour away from Melbourne as the crow flies, we can’t get a service tech over here at the drop of a hat. We have tides and sometimes bad weather to contend with, so if I’m operating a machine from a manufacturer which doesn’t give us any bother – like Hyundai for example – then I’m happy with that," Churcher concludes.

So, who knows, with the productivity and reliability that French Island Earthworks have been able to trust in, thanks to the company’s rugged Hyundai gear, perhaps this Victorian island will get a racetrack of its own one day too. Just expect it to be constructed from gravel.


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