On the pipeline

The work gang consisted of bulldozer and digger drivers, a group of labourers, three welders and their assistants. My assistant was Billy, a deaf-mute Welshman. So much for interesting company! Most welding joints were in isolated spots, so adequate fuel had to be taken each day, along with our precious water bags. Billy also had to carry a knapsack spray unit in case of fire. The petrol driven welding plant was a temperamental machine, started with a crank handle. Most times the spark plugs had to be removed and heated with a splash of ignited petrol to warm them up.

It was a hard job. The crew were transported along the track next to the pipeline on the back of the truck, then were dropped off at intervals and picked up at the end of the day. The truck drove past again at about midday to drop off a brown paper bag of sandwiches.

The Bedford tray truck was owned by a local contractor, Dave. It was fitted with a canvas canopy over the two bench seats arranged on either side of the tray. Dave, a solid man in his early 50’s, was contracted to transport the men and equipment during this leg of the pipeline. He wore a faded blue singlet and a pair of work shorts slung under his ample midriff. He was assisted by young Mike.

Mike was 14 years old and had been in Australia since he was twelve. He was brought out to Australia by the Big Brother Movement, a youth migration scheme. In post war Britain, thousands of orphans and children in state care were transported to Australia to work on farms or in the outback to give them ‘a better life’. The so-called ‘little brother’ immigrant was assigned to a ‘big brother’ resident citizen for advice, solace and companionship.

I checked that all of my gear was safely on board and jumped up to join the rest of the men. The forty-minute ride was bumpy and dusty and the Italians sang the whole way. The truck turned off the main road and lurched along a rough track for a further two kilometres, then pulled up alongside the pipeline.

“This is your spot Ray!” exclaimed Dave.

Me and Billy jumped down and unloaded our equipment. Dave leaned from his cab. “See you ‘round about twelve.”

The truck pulled away and continued along the pipeline track, the red dust soon obliterating the vehicle from view. Billy picked up the two drums while I inspected the first joint to be welded. The 600mm cement lined pipe sat 400mm off the ground on concrete supports. I stared at the anthill directly underneath the joint to be welded. Just my luck.

The pipes were 600mm in diameter and were cement lined with one end tapered. The lengths of pipes were laid on precast concrete cradles and then bumped together with a front-end loader. The joints were then welded. Not being able to control where the pipe ends were situated, the joints sometimes had to be welded with the welder laying on top of an anthill or some other uncomfortable object, or digging a hole to lie in.

The work was hot, so shorts, boots and overalls were the dress. In all the time I worked there I was never bitten, although many times I had to steel myself as I felt something crawling on, then off my body as I continued to complete a weld. Each weld had to have the welder’s initials welded on the top for future identification.

The petrol-driven welding generator was extremely temperamental. It was started by a crank handle and often didn’t respond. I had to remove the spark plugs, drop them into a tin of petrol and set it alight to warm them up.

After about a week I was getting into the routine of the job and my confidence improved significantly. Then disaster struck! When finishing off a fillet weld, Billy shouted and shook my shoulder vigorously. I whipped my welding screen off in an instant to see what the commotion was about. I didn’t have to look far. The grass along the pipeline was burning furiously.

Jerry Lee Lewis – ‘Great Balls of Fire’
You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain
Too much love drives a man insane
You broke my will, oh what a thrill
Goodness gracious great balls of fire

We both attacked the flames but to no avail. The fire jumped both fire breaks and was soon burning out in the open paddock and spreading at an alarming rate. Luckily, the smoke was seen by the crew further up the line. Trucks and men converged on the fire which was quickly brought under control. I had only been in Australia for a few weeks and was nearly responsible for burning half of the State. I got quite a bit of ribbing from the crew for days after.

Because of the heat, gaps had to be left in the pipeline to allow for expansion. When a section between sluice valves was completed, the expansion joints were welded in the evening when the pipes were cooler, then the section was filled with water and checked for leaks.

Ray at work on the pipeline – April 1963

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