Outback sewage truckers — an essential service, but not for the faint-hearted | Ralph-Lauren

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It’s exhilarating, as a passenger on a 36-metre pink road train, watching the world whiz by from up high in the cab of this gigantic truck.

Only, I’m trying not to think about how this will all end.

In roughly 1,260 kilometres we’ll be surrounded by sewage, as far as the eye can see.

I’ve jumped aboard for an outback journey with a difference.

We’ll be traversing what’s believed to be the world’s longest sewage run, across the Pilbara in Western Australia’s remote north-west, with possibly the world’s biggest germophobe.

Selfie photo with truck driver Heather Jones left and Karen Michelmore
ABC journalist Karen Michelmore jumped aboard Heather Jones’ truck for an outback journey with a difference.(ABC Pilbara: Karen Michelmore)

Truck driver Heather Jones and her colleagues make the round trip from Karratha to Newman and back every two days.

With each run they remove up to 70,000 litres of excrement from the temporary workers’ camps of Australia’s iron ore mines which keep the national economy afloat.

“It’s not all sewage. Sometimes I get stinky grease traps as well.”

An essential service

If this community of liquid human-waste disposal experts were to suddenly disappear, there’d be a messy problem indeed.

“I think the mines would actually shut down because you’d have overflowing septic systems,” Ms Jones says.

Heather Jones in a pink work shirt standing in front of her out of focus pink road train
Heather Jones developed a phobia to germs when her first child was sick as a baby and never envisioned herself working with sewage.(ABC Pilbara: Karen Michelmore)

But for now, as we leave Karratha behind with empty tankers in tow and no danger yet of a spillage, we have the world at our feet.

Expanses of rocky red hills dotted with clumps of green spinifex lie in wait as we thunder past.

It’s quiet, and Ms Jones chats away about one of her favourite movies, Kenny, the mockumentary tale of a Melbourne plumber.

“Like old Kenny said, ’85 per cent of this is water, the rest is you-know-what’,” she says.

“But yes, I say, ‘It’s a little bit of sewage, a little bit of water mixed with hepatitis A, B, C, maybe some COVID-19, maybe some drugs, and a whole lot of other stuff’.

“Yeah, I don’t get that stuff on me.”

Sewage never on the cards

“Poo carting”, as she calls it, was certainly not something Ms Jones saw as a future calling — until COVID-19 struck and dried up a lot of other driving work in the region.

“I am germophobic [or more specifically, mysophobic] and this really, really messes with my head,” she says.

“All of our projects around town and local projects have been put on hold and this job came up. They asked me to do it, so yeah, I’ve been doing it since March.”

Ms Jones says she has been fearful of germs for decades after her child became ill as an infant.

“When my daughter Kersti was nearly one she got salmonella poisoning from some food we got at a takeaway shop,” she says.

“I had to go through a huge process. I was pregnant with her sister so I had to be really super careful.

“I had to put gloves on and everything for nappy changes, and I had to disinfect everything.

“Everywhere we went I had to wipe down tables and chairs so that Kersti didn’t get sick again. So that was the beginning of my germophobia.”

Equality means ‘doing the same jobs’

Ms Jones runs Pilbara Heavy Haulage Girls, a truck training company which aims to get more women behind the wheel.

It includes encouraging more women into areas that haven’t been traditionally female-focused. Like the world of septic systems.

“In trucking it’s been quite hard for women to get into. Now it’s a little bit easier,” Ms Jones says.

“To be able to be respected as a truck driver you do have to do the jobs that the boys do as well.”

Mid shot of Bernadette Tamakehu in a pink uniform
Bernie Tamakehu has only been driving trucks for about six months and is keen to learn all parts of the trade.(ABC Pilbara: Karen Michelmore)

Bernie Tamakehu has been driving trucks for about six months and started on the job with Ms Jones after being awestruck by the sight of the north’s huge road trains snaking their way down the highway.

Ms Tamakehu’s on the garbage run today — clearing trailer-loads of hard waste from the mine camps.

She’s actually keen to move to liquid human waste one day.

“I’ve come into this trucking industry, I want to experience everything — including the lovely human waste,” she laughs.

Too few loo stops

Other than other truck drivers, and a wild dog feasting on the carcass of dead cattle strewn along the highway, it’s an uneventful day.

A wild dog walks along the highway, with a carcass of a steer in the background. A truck rolls by.
A wild dog walks away from the carcass of a steer beside the highway near Newman in WA’s Pilbara region.(ABC Pilbara: Karen Michelmore)

We pull into the Auski Roadhouse for the night before picking up the load in the early morning and returning to Karratha.

The irony of a life carting sewage is there are few places for the truck drivers themselves to stop to perform a human’s most basic function.

“We’ve got one truck stop that we can use [at Auski].”

The exterior of a remote roadhouse.
Auski Tourist Village, about two hours north-west of Newman, is the only roadhouse with shower facilities for 630km.(ABC Pilbara: Karen Michelmore)

She says truck drivers are a forgotten people who are an essential service.

“It’s not just the food and the fuel and everything that’s really important. It’s those services that no one really talks about, or thinks about, like carting septic,” she says.

‘Press the button and run like crazy’

We’re up at 4:00am, before the sun, and within hours we have picked up our load on the side of the highway outside Newman — seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

It’s two, full tankers in a barren, dusty truck bay. Safe as houses — why would anyone steal them?

Within minutes, Ms Jones has attached the trailers to the prime mover and we’re ready to head back to Karratha for the most important part of the job. The release.

“There’s three buttons on my evacuation valve before it releases the sewage,” she explains.

“I have goggles, a breathing mask, a plastic suit, and I have gloves up to my elbows. Inside those gloves I even have other gloves just in case I get a leak.

“I treat it very respectfully because I don’t want any of it on me.”

But she has had it on her in the past.

“Many years ago, I was doing a run into Port Hedland and I opened the back valve. The wind blew it onto my shoulder,” she says.

“I didn’t care where I was. I just stripped my shirt off and ran to the front of the truck where the tank is and washed myself until the water ran out.”

‘It was pretty nasty’

It’s not the only such story I hear on the road.

Darren Horton, also a liquid waste removal specialist, copped a face-full of sewage several years back after an uncooperative hose exploded at the back of his tanker.

Mid shot of Darren Horton in an orange work uniform
Darren Horton, like many experienced waste disposal experts, has had an messy mishap or two.(ABC Pilbara: Karen Michelmore)

“The hose kicked, spilt,” Mr Horton says.

“My friend was behind me, about two-and-a-half metres away.

“So he was, yeah, spitting it a little bit.

“So it was a bit of a laugh. I’d copped a bit and I was like oh take it as it comes.

“[Before I could] go and clean up it kicked again, splashed straight into my face.

“Luckily I’m wearing my PPE. It was pretty nasty.”

A clean release

I admit, I’m a little bit nervous as we finally roll into Karratha’s sewage farm.

It’s 9:00pm. It’s dark. And the smell is overpowering.

Ms Jones’ commentary isn’t helping.

Heather Jones in white hazmat suit and red gloves unloading sewage from a pipe at the back of a truck
Suitably attired, truck driver Heather Jones unloads about 50,000 litres of sewage at the Karratha sewage treatment plant.(ABC Pilbara: Karen Michelmore)

“I really hate thinking about the germs.

“Right, suit’s on, goggles, gloves. Right, we are good to go.”

Her voice is muffled beneath her layers.

She climbs down from the truck and opens the valve, letting the day’s work disappear into the night.

For me, the memory, and the smell, will linger until long after, when Ms Jones is already on the road for her next delivery.


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