It’s early in the morning when Craig “Funky” Doecke pulls his immaculately presented truck, aptly named “The Beauty”, out of his Angaston driveway, the throaty rev of the diesel engine swelling over birdsong in the muted tones of first light.
The middle son of Bruce and Lorna Doecke, founders of Angaston Transport, was up late last night, hosing out livestock crates in readiness for his next load, some 600 head of sheep, destined for the saleyards.
There’s much weighing on his mind, but as he manoeuvres The Beauty and her trailers out on to the open road—a task repeated thousands of times over the past decade—his thoughts settle on the job at hand: staying vigilant on the road, and getting his live cargo safely from ‘A’ to ‘B’.
“I still hate it when people say part of carting livestock is you’re going to have ‘deadstock’. I hate that, because you do whatever you can to avoid that,” says Craig, revealing a genuine compassion for the sheep, cattle, goats, camels and any other animal he transports.
He’s a young man still, only 45, yet the challenges of his often-underappreciated, sometimes-vilified job have left him scarred and wiser, in more ways than one.
“It’s right up there with the most dangerous job you can be doing,” Craig explains.
Between avoiding crazy drivers on the road and the unpredictable nature of heavy animals in confined spaces, it’s almost a miracle he’s so far escaped with only bruising, stitches and some long-term soreness. Some drivers, Craig notes, have died.
But there are other scars too—hidden ones.
“It engulfs you. It’s not a good way to be. Sometimes I find it extremely challenging to switch my mind off,” he says earnestly.
Life in the trucking business is not easy, especially when tethered to family pride.
It was the day before Craig’s birthday in 2012, when Bruce, the “determined German” as his son likes to call him, suffered a series of debilitating strokes.
The fate of Angaston Transport, which the Doeckes had built up since 1968, rested with their three sons, Matthew, Craig and Shane, all of whom had, at their parents’ encouragement, pursued other careers after high school.
With older brother, Matthew, established in Adelaide as an accountant, and Shane having recently started a business as a diesel mechanic, it fell to Craig, a carpenter and vineyard manager, to take over.
“I chucked in what I was doing. Everyone said, ‘What’s going to happen? Is the business going to shut up?’ I went, ‘Nah, I’ve got to man up’, and that was it,” says Craig, rubbing a work-hardened hand over his stubbly cheeks.
Other than driving casually for his parents during peak times like vintage, Craig had been shown little about running the business, or the nuances of how to transport livestock, which must be done with precision and care—delicately packed like a carton of eggs.
With Bruce in rehabilitation and unable to communicate properly for many months, Craig had to figure it out on his own.
“The first day after loading, I drove down the road a bit and just stopped and thought, I can’t do this. I’ve got no idea,” he recalls.
“You worry. You think, I’ve put too many sheep on and I’m going to have dead ones everywhere. I kept checking them, and I was only driving an hour and a half.
“I just stopped and cried on the side of the road.”
It was a deep sense of duty toward his family that urged him back into the truck that day. All the sheep arrived at their destination safely and after about a week of transporting similar loads, Craig finally started to believe, “I can do this.”
Ten years on, he hesitates over the question of whether he would make that same decision to take on the business again.
“I really love the work side of it. You go to someone’s place to pick their sheep up and I enjoy that bit because you have that interaction with everyone. It’s all the stuff that I have to do to get to that point,” he says, referring to the 24/7 nature of running a business.
With it difficult to find drivers with the right ethics and skill set to transport livestock, much of the driving is up to Craig, his Uncle Noel, and Bruce, who eventually returned to work in a scaled-back capacity.
In busy periods like Spring, they move up to 15,000 lambs per week.
Craig admits the many hours on the road, away from his young family, contributed to the recent breakdown of his marriage.
“Being divorced is pretty embarrassing actually, because I’m one of those who thinks I can fix everything. But I couldn’t fix this,” Craig says.
But it’s his children, eight-year-old Austin, and Daisy, five, who give his life a greater purpose, and while he admits he still struggles to find a work-life balance, they are by far the most important part of Craig’s life.
“Everything I do is just for them,” he says, eyes welling with a fierce tenderness.
“Austin, since he was probably three years old, said, ‘I just want to be like you, Dad, and drive trucks’.”
Having his son wanting to emulate him invokes a sense of pride, though perhaps also a hint of protectiveness in Craig.
On the one hand, it presents an opportunity for the family legacy to continue, a third generation of Doeckes at the wheel of Angaston Transport.
But on the other, Craig knows what it’s like “out there”, to be a truckie in the manic lanes of modern life. Loads are bigger, distances are longer, timeframes are shorter, and other traffic is an omnipresent hazard.
“I protect those people around me by not telling them what actually happens out there,” he says.
“I’ve been involved in an accident where someone drove straight out in front of me. I got out of the truck and I thought, ‘I’ve killed him’.”
While the other driver survived, Craig was haunted by the incident for weeks.
Being first on the scene of other crashes, at times with the most tragic of outcomes, is another peril of the job.
“I’ve come across I don’t know how many accidents where I’ve had to get people out,” he says.
“There’s a couple (of) things I can’t get out of my head.”
But there is good in life on the road too, sometimes in the simplest of forms.
“I love the fact of just seeing a kid on the side of the road do the horn action,” smiles Craig.
“Or you have a farmer come and say, thank you for what you’ve done. Those words: ‘thank you’.”
Whether it be fires, droughts or floods, Craig and his family frequently donate their trucks, fuel and time to crisis response and in normal circumstances are big financial and in-kind supporters of sporting clubs, schools, events and local business.
“If you give something, it actually makes me feel better than receiving something,” says Craig, who was raised with the belief that if you have the means to help, you do.
Raising his own children now, he hopes he is instilling the same values in them.
But above all, he just hopes he’s made everyone proud.