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Blast from the past: Hopto flashback

Get yourself a drink and sit back as Ron Horner tells how a rusty Hopto excavator reminded him of how he got his big break in the earthmoving industry

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NOT too long ago, during one of Ronnie’s Road Trips through Frankston in Victoria I came across an old machine that had seen much better days sitting in an old quarry. We have all had those life-defining moments, and this old girl took me back to one of mine.

I was being a sticky-beak, catching a look at a working quarry and admiring all the new screening plants, crushers, plant and equipment when I came across the old Hopto 550 excavator which was lying idle in a serious state of disrepair.

I was no longer interested in the new gear, and instead made a beeline to the old girl sitting in the yard.


Moomba to Sydney

My thoughts immediately went back to my old Moomba to Sydney Pipeline days in the mid-1970s.

You see, back then I was struggling to get a good long-term construction job. The Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) union was running rampant and we spent a good time on strike in the construction industry in NSW.

Times were hard and, with many weeks on the sideline, money was tight.

I was working on the construction of the Wallerawang Power Station, freshly married but with little cash to make headway, when I heard from a few mates out Cobar way that they were looking for blokes to work on the construction of the pipeline.

The remuneration was claimed to be excellent, but days were long with 12-hour shifts, six weeks on and 10 days off … get your own way there and back.

For a young bloke in desperate need of cash I could see no reason why I shouldn’t give it a go. After all, I used to be a professional roo shooter out that way and I knew that country well.

At this time I was living in the Wallerawang Caravan Park, playing football with Lithgow Workmans Club and battling it out against the Lithgow Shamrocks.

I had good mates from both sides … one in particular was Bobby Jakeman who just happened to be my neighbour and workmate (even though he was the current first-grade Shamrocks half-back).

He was in the same position as me financially so over a couple of beers we decided to have a crack at this Moomba job.


Ron Horner looking like a kid with a new toy at the controls of the Hopto 550.


Down to earth

Being pretty cocky and bulletproof we had no hesitation in driving out to a construction camp out near Mt Hope, about 150km south of Cobar.

Saipem were the constructors of this section of pipeline, and to our dismay they told us that there were definitely no vacancies; but they suggested we try the Australian Pipeline Construction (APC) camp located down on the Lachlan River at Booberoi some many kilometres to the east.

We didn’t come prepared to camp out for any long term. My old EH Holden sufficed as accommodation with a tarp wedged in the offside doors and pulled across the roof and out to form an awning held up with rope and broken mulga branches.

We also had an old Esky with no ice, two sleeping bags, matches, a frying pan, cast-iron pot, billy can, canvas water bottle, some army serving plates, no spare fuel and my old roo-shooting 303.25 rifle to shoot some fresh meat (just as an emergency).

After all … we were young and ready to work. Should only take about two days and we would be set!

Famous last words!

We eventually found the APC camp and walked into the camp office to announce we were here to answer “all of your prayers”, but to our dismay we were given the ‘bum’s rush’ and told to go to Sydney to submit our job applications … no one was to be engaged from site.

What the…?

We left the camp very disheartened and drove out along the dry dusty dirt track until I found a suitable camp site some miles away from the construction camp and some 50m off the road.

We set up camp to suit a longer-than-expected stay. I had no fuel, enough food and water for three days, no intention of driving to Sydney but a willingness to give it a shot every time we saw a foreman’s ute drive back into that APC camp.


The payoff

The days passed so slowly, food ran out, water was gone, fuel was so low but we kept going back to the camp and enquiring about work only to be met with the same answer.

I did, however, make contact with a few of my old Cobar mates, (Patty Jermyn and Onkers Brown) who put a good word in for me to the Yank bosses in charge.

The floods of ’74 were pretty severe and construction delays at that time were heavy, causing some men to seek alternative employment — so we were hoping our luck may get better.

I was fortunate enough to knock over a rabbit and a small kangaroo which I cooked up to fill some of the voids in our stomachs, along with food, water and fruit pinched from the mess by my mates. This meant we were able to hang in for seven days out on the track.

Early one morning a Toyota ute drove in to our camp and a lanky old Texan hopped out and introduced himself as Ditch Boss PJ Hall.

Hall claimed he hadn’t seen fellas live in such poor conditions for years, said we had “lots of spunk” and offered us a job the very next morning as a couple of blokes hadn’t returned from their leave breaks.

Bobby Jakeman and I were in, signed up the next morning. Fresh beds, showers, heaps of good tucker and, most importantly, we were on the payroll.

You bloody beauty!


The site of the Australian Pipeline Construction (APC) camp on the Lachlan River at Booberoi.


Enter the Hopto excavators

We were both engaged on the Ditch Crew which was responsible for the suitable and timely excavation of the 500km trench and worked alongside a team of Victorian operators running Cleveland bucket wheel ditching machines and the Warner and Swasey brand of Hopto 700A excavators, all of which were imported from the US specifically for this project.

Hopto, by the way, is an acronym for Hydraulically Operated Power Take Off.

These Hopto excavators weighed in at about 35 tonnes or so, were run by a screaming GM motor and had more levers — both hand and foot controls — than a fleet of old Bucyrus cable draglines.

They were state of the art at the time, though Kato excavators were making a big inroad into the Australian market through Thiess Bros.

Needless to say I fell in love with them and often wondered what they could be used for outside their current use of excavating pipeline trenches.

Never having operated any machinery before other than a rifle, rabbit traps and some fast cars, I pushed hard to get into the Hopto crew and eventually ‘suckholed’ my way in as a grade checker or swampy.

The job itself was easy as my role was to ensure enough trench was pegged straight, the trench was dug to exacting depths, and any high trench due to rock was clearly identified for the blasting crew to deal with.

My operator (Bob Ridley … RIP, mate) was ‘baby sat’ in the best possible way by me cooking lunch and smokos for the crew, greasing and fuelling up the machine and cleaning the cabin and glass. (Well … as long as it lasted, anyway.)

In return all I asked from Bob was that he taught me the basics of operating the old Hopto and explaned the finer points of operation. I planned to become an operator and eventually get onto one of these babies myself.

Persistence and luck play a lot your favour if you push hard enough for your goals … mine came when my old mate Steve Parsons, who was the main Hopto operator for APC, was stung by bees and had to have a good long break to get over the effects of the stings.

I had been refusing to get off any machine I could get my hands on in an effort to gain competency and came under notice of the new Ditch Boss, Tom Ford. He decided a poor operator was better than none and gave me the opportunity of running Parson’s machine until he returned.

The rest is history. APC bought a few more excavators as we headed up over the Blue Mountains near Goulburn, and I became a permanent fixture on the Hoptos for the duration of the job.


No regrets

I learned so much from a multitude of skilled and unskilled operators and got to be part of a crew responsible for digging the then longest pipe trench in Australia some 1300km from Moomba in SA to Sydney in NSW.

I owe so much to a Lanky Yank named PJ Hall who held faith in a couple of cheeky young Aussies, a team of good mates that I still keep in touch with after more than 40 years, and Tom Ford, who gave me another big break.

I’ve now owned 52 excavators but I’ll always remember the first … the old Hopto.

This industry has provided me with memories of so many great blokes, great machines, great jobs and great times and only strengthens my belief that we are still in the best industry one could imagine.

Us old blokes have long handed the reins over to the new generation of high-tech operators and engineers and can only admire the massive technological changes we have witnessed in our lifetime.

To the young blokes coming through, all I can say is, I hope that one day you can look back on the industry with as many fond memories as I have. It’s great to have you all on board.


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