Longreach Excavations
Jim’s love of machinery has a long reach by David Palmer*
A fair proportion of the excavation work undertaken in nearly 15 years by Jim North with his Long Reach excavators, has meant working blind and relying on other people to signal his moves.

When Earthmover caught up with in Melbourne before Christmas, Jim was parked on a footpath in Lonsdale Street at the eastern end of the city, employing the full 18.5m of arm length on his Hyundai 290 LC-3 excavator, to remove earth remnants from a building site.

In that instance, another excavator operator piling earth at the bottom of the excavation, guided Jim as he engaged the pile and lifted the earth up to pavement level and into a waiting truck.

On another job near the Arts Centre on the Southbank, Jim sat his Komatsu 220-5 excavator on a concrete slab, and used all the 14.5m of the boom to reach another excavator which was filling his bucket from a lower level.

But while he could see the bucket through part of the lift, he was filling trucks he couldn’t see behind fences, thanks only to the hand signals of the truck drivers.

Also in Melbourne, going west from the city towards the West Gate Bridge, there is a huge, square now concreted pit Jim dug for Abigroup.

“Again I couldn’t see what I was doing most of the time. Then after I’d dug it they wondered if I could place concrete in the hole. So with someone giving me signals, I was able to use the bucket to place the concrete and trowel it off roughly. All the blokes had to do then was to screed it off,” he said.

Jim has done a considerable amount of work too in removing silt from the main irrigation supply channels in Victoria and southern NSW. On those jobs at least, he could see what he was doing almost all the time.

Sheet Piling
In that area, a challenging job was sheet piling and placing rock right across the Murrumbidgee River at the Gogeldrie Weir, near Leeton, NSW.

“I’d sheet pile as far out as I could from one position then build up to there with rock. Then I’d walk out on the rock and do it again until we reached the other side.”

That overcame a problem where eddies in the river were undermining the weir.

His most satisfying job was placing 80,000t of rock for McConnel Dowell, on both banks and well below the water line, of the Moonee Ponds Creek at Victoria Dock in Melbourne. “It looked a million dollars when it was finished.”
He has undertaken marine work too at Geelong and Mallacoota. At Geelong he placed armour rock at the wheat wharf to prevent ships churning up sand when they started their engines.

At Mallacoota he dredged the fishing boat basin at the caravan park to enable boats to still use the basin.

Albert Lake
Another big job, for John Holland, involved dredging Albert Lake in South Melbourne in 1993.

“We spent 12 months along with Wiliamstown Earthmovers who had a homemade long reach machine there. Two Cat D6 swamp dozers pushed the mud to us and we loaded out about 250,000m3 of mud into trucks,” he said.

There was also about 4t of European Carp and Jim accumulated a sizable collection of antique bottles.

When Jim North decided to go out on his own and started Long Reach Excavations in 1989, he was pioneering the use of long arm excavators in Victoria.

First up he bought for $157,000, a new long armed Komatsu 220-5, the first that company had sold in the southern state. It has now clocked up just on 20,000 hours and “doesn’t owe me anything. I reckon I’ll take it home and park it on the lawn,” Jim said somewhat tongue in cheek. That was the machine he used on the Southbank job.

Jim has had an excellent run with his Hvundai 290 LC-3 too. In 9000 hours over seven years he has only replaced two fan belts, a water pump, a turbo charger and one hydraulic ram.

New Hyundai
Now Jim has an order in for a new 29t Hyundai R290 LC-3 and will sell the old one privately for around $90,000.

He reckons the new one will do him until he retires in four or five years.

Jim started ploughing around Drouin in Gippsland, east of Melbonrne as a 14 year old in 1956.

“But when I got to about 20, I thought there had to be other plant operator work that was better than that.”

So in the early 1960s he started operating Tournapull scrapers for Gippsland
company Gamell and Hickev and drove the biggest to the smallest for 12 years.

“I worked scrapers, dozers, loaders and dump trucks in every part of Australia except the Northern Territory’ he said.

On one occasion, Jim was driving a scraper from Drouin to Marlo when the steering suddenly failed. He ended up mowing down about 20m of fencing before he stopped.

“I got it back on the road and couldn’t find anything wrong with it. So I went on to Marlo and worked it for a couple of days before the steering failed again. It turned out that a mechanic in fitting a graph lock to the firewall, had drilled through the firewall and one of the main wiring looms,” he said.

Jim used to employ up to three operators for his excavators but as he stares retirement in the face, he believes he can’t afford to employ anyone these days.

He believes a new Hyundai R290 LC-3 on order, will allow him to earn to his capacity until he retires at 65 or so.

Passionate about earthmoving from day one, he still gets up at 3.30 or 4am and often works through until 8pm. “It’s just a job I love,” he told Earthmover.

*Palmer, D. February 2004, ‘Jim’s love of machinery has a long reach’, The Earthmover & Civil Contractor, (Australia’s Leading Civil Construction Magazine)