If bulldozer driver Dave Lott isn’t the oldest in the world, he’d be the only nonagenarian still working an 11-hour day on the machines. Hugh de Lacy catches up with him.
Dave Lott fell in love with bulldozers from the first day he lied about his earthmoving experience to get behind the controls of a Caterpillar D8 on the Roxbugh hydro-electric scheme.
That was in late 1940s when he was a kid in his teens. Now he’s 92.
He’d never driven a bulldozer before showing up at Roxburgh looking for a job on the $48 million scheme to harness the power of the Clutha River to meet a critical South Island power shortage.
However, this didn’t deter him from assuring his new Ministry of Works bosses that he was more than up to the task, and from the moment he first turned the key he handled the giant machine like a veteran.
Indeed, within a week he had been assigned to instruct other drivers on the Caterpillar’s gate-change intricacies, and his own lasting bond with D8s was established.
Scroll forward to 2021, and Dave Lott is still at the controls of a bulldozer, this one a John Deere 750J with hydro-static transmission and power-shifter, and he’s ripping out the concrete platform that, until its abandonment decades ago, used to serve as the railway station for the village of Rotherham in North Canterbury.
He’s been on the job since 7am and he won’t be turning the machine off until his own standard quitting time of 6pm or later, then it’ll be back to the house on the Waiau River, in the town of that name, where he lives alone next to the Lott Contracting yard.
Keeping him company in the cab throughout the day is his Jack Russell bitch Tui, the latest in a succession of such dogs to have shared his life and work.
Dave’s son Billy Lott is imbued with the same life-long love of earthmoving machinery as his father, and today runs the family business.
This is based on a plant inventory of four John Deere and one 36t Komatsu dozers, supported by seven excavators up to 25t, and four Volvo dump-trucks.
Billy showed his propensity for machinery at a young age.
Dave tells the story with gleeful pride of the day Billy got stopped by a cop driving his dad’s Fiat Allis 11B bulldozer down into the Waiau Riverbed for a bit of practice.
Billy was just five-and-a-half years old at the time, and Dave recalls with mirth the sight of the young fella driving the machine standing up because that was the only way he could reach the pedals.
The biggest social change Dave Lott has noted over the past few decades has been the emergence of health and safety as a major issue, something that has little troubled a man who’s worked on dozers without an accident for three quarters of a century.
Nor was he too fazed at being caught red-handed driving a large piece of machinery while unlicensed, telling the cop he wasn’t on a public road and the cop had no jurisdiction.
He was probably right, but the cop gave him a telling-off and told him to take the thing home and never get caught driving under-age again.
His father’s stint in Roxburgh lasted three freezing winters before Dave took his dozer-driving skills to the North Island, cutting forestry tracks in the Bay of Plenty and mining coal at Huntly, before hiving off to the Snowy Mountains hydro scheme in New South Wales.
Summoned back to North Canterbury by his mother who lived in Rangiora, Lott ran into a retired war veteran, Trevor Taylor, who sold him an International TD9A for $2400, that came with a contract cutting farm-tracks on Wandle Downs Station.
From there Lott grew the plant to include more bulldozers, several excavators, a dump-truck and transporter.
But even as a contractor Lott never lost his love for D8 bulldozers.
“I liked them better than excavators because bulldozers get you round the country, whereas diggers just go round and round in circles,” he tells Contractor.
“With a bulldozer you’re not sitting in one place all the time.”
A man who never tired of his own company, Lott lived in a little two-berth caravan he hauled round the countryside to his variety of work-sites.
Most of these were agricultural and to this day he spends much of his time doing agricultural work, and in particular giant-discing on the rolling North Canterbury hills where the farmers are trying to bring every square metre they can under cultivation.
Lott’s caravan, heated by a little wood stove and a primus, followed his dozer into some pretty high and cold country, and he remembers the curious sound his blankets made when, as he got up of a morning, he had to rip them from the caravan wall to which they’d frozen during the night.
The caravan has long since been replaced by the house in Waiau, and Lott’s icy days sitting on an open dozer lashed by wind and rain have been replaced by the comforts of a heated and air-conditioned cab.
Operator comfort is one of the biggest developments Lott has seen in his 75 years driving dozers – that and the emergence of technology that allows a dozer blade to tip and turn in multiple directions, and gears to be changed instantly with the press of a button.
Apart from the giant discing, Lott’s greatest work time is taken up with controlling the turbulent Waiau River, whose banks he has been shoring up for decades.
In 2008 he and Billy saved the town of Waiau from being wiped out by a 720 cumec flood, working through the night to reinforce the banks and steel-wiring in place the protective willow trees Dave himself had planted over many years.
The biggest social change Dave Lott has noted over the past few decades has been the emergence of health and safety as a major issue, something that has little troubled a man who’s worked on dozers without an accident for three-quarters of a century.
“We had a site meeting today where we were taught how to climb onto a machine without hurting ourselves,” he chuckles.
Lean and leathery, and assisted by neither glasses nor hearing aids, Lott looks as if he could last another lifetime at the controls of a dozer and, with his 100th birthday looming on the horizon, expects to do just that.