The unique challenges of being a small town mechanic in hot and humid Far North Queensland.
We’ve all come home from a day’s work, grabbed a cold one, collapsed on the couch and declared: “Toughest day ever!” Well, it’s all relative. How about being a mechanic in Far North Queensland during summertime? Consider a 12-hour workday, 42-degrees in the shade, 98 per cent humidity and a never-ending stream of locals, holidaymakers and backpackers hoping you can squeeze them in for repairs.
That’s the reality for Brendan Wynne, owner of Port Douglas Automotive in this humid holiday hot-spot, where his workshop is booked out two weeks in advance year-round. “A lot of out-of-towners want stuff fixed and fixed now as that’s what they’re used to, but it’s sometimes just impossible,” Brendan said. “Most people are pretty good though. In North Queensland you have to learn to just be cool and relax.”
“New Jobs Were Coming In And There Was A Nice Buzz To The Place. Plenty Of Smiles Too. The Conditions May Not Be Easy At Times, But Everyone’s Still Working In Paradise.”
I visit Brendan and wife Ann’s workshop during their cooler July season, and they’re quick to say this is the best time of get through three or four shirts a day,” he said. “Working in the workshop or outside it’s like an oven, it’s just so hot all the time. We have icy poles and Gatorades or anything else because you get dehydrated so quickly. By the end of the day, you’re absolutely shattered and then it all starts again at 6.30 next morning.”
I visit Brendan and wife Ann’s workshop during their cooler July season, and they’re quick to say this is the best time of year in Port Douglas. It’s very different at other times. “In summer we’re wet from 6.30 in the morning until we leave, so I’ll get through three or four shirts a day,” he said. “Working in the workshop or outside it’s like an oven, it’s just so hot all the time. We have icy poles and Gatorades or anything else because you get dehydrated so quickly. By the end of the day, you’re absolutely shattered and then it all starts again at 6.30 next morning.”
Respite comes from walking into the air-conditioned office, but Brendan said it’s just unpleasant going from the outside furnace into what feels like a freezer inside. Even so, he said he wouldn’t have it any other way. “I like visiting the city, but I couldn’t live there,” he said. “We work 55 hour weeks on average, but only over five days as we don’t work weekends. In downtime we’ll do archery, fishing and camping. It’s a great place to live and life’s good.”
Growing up in the small sugar cane town of Mossman, Brendan’s first mechanical exposure was aged 14 during school holidays, helping a mate pull apart lawnmower engines. On leaving school he worked for ten years as a mechanic in Mossman, progressing to workshop foreman and then, in 2002, relocating as manager to a sister shop in Port Douglas 20-kilometres away. By 2008 Brendan had bought the shop he still runs as a family business.
There are four full-time mechanics including Brendan’s nephew; daughter Katie does one day a week but will be full-time next year, and 14-year-old son Kyle is already proving handy on the tools. During my visit all were working continuously, new jobs were coming in and there was a nice buzz to the place. Plenty of smiles too. The conditions may not be easy at times, but everyone’s still working in paradise.
So how does a mechanic’s life differ up here to those in cities? “Parts supply is the biggest challenge,” Brendan said, “and diagnostics, we just don’t have the information that people have down south so we have to figure a lot out for ourselves.
“For example we have a Toyota Kluger in the shop with ignition key computer problems and it won’t start, and the parts weren’t in Australia. We had to pull the computer, send it down to Melbourne to be re-coded, parts had to come from New Zealand; it had to be reassembled and then sent back up to us. It all takes time. Even something simple like a clutch we have to get a flywheel machined in Cairns as there’s no one up here to do it; that means a dead car in the shop for three days we have to work around.”
There are plenty of holiday making large Toyota and Nissan 4x4s in need of quick help, and being one of the few mechanics in the region, Brendan deals with buses, trucks, all-terrain vehicles and even wood chippers and stump grinders. “You have to be multi-skilled,” he said. “We have to fabricate stuff ourselves simply because of time and availability. Mechanical, auto electrical and air conditioning are the basis, but we have to manufacture things as well.”
Port Douglas being a backpackers haven, Brendan sees plenty of desperate cases. “Most days in fact!” he said with a smile. “I avoid the really clapped out backpacker cars as I know they just can’t afford to fix them, but I’ll always try to help. We give backpackers options of a proper fix or just to get them where they’re going. I don’t recommend the patch up fix, I don’t like doing it, but I have to go by what they can afford as it can be the only option.”
Port Douglas needs experts like Brendan on hand, especially when work vehicles need repair. Despite how busy he is, he’ll always try to squeeze in extra work to help. And when the day’s done? Well, he’s still a car guy and heads home to tinker with his ’36 Chevy ute or ’46 Pontiac. “At home no one needs you, there are no phone calls and it’s almost therapeutic,” he said. Maybe in summertime an ice bath helps with the wind down too…