Throughout the night, a fleet of tankers is on the road collecting milk from all over the country. Meet a man behind the wheel of one of them.

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In the silent, starless night, Darren Mason’s enormous truck thunders off the state highway and onto a country lane, churning up a cloud of dust.

Sleepy cows rise onto their knees in fright, frozen breath suspended in the chill air. A lone dog starts to bark somewhere in the distance. 

The tanker rolls into the yard, its headlights illuminating two huge stainless steel milk vats.

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The farmhouse is lit up, inside the family is finishing up a meal, preparing for bed. 

Outside, Mason has just started work. His first run of the night has taken him 30km across the Canterbury Plains from Fonterra’s Darfield dairy factory.

He’s called at a dairy farm near Te Pirita, above the bluffs of the Rakaia River. But the sky is cloudy, blotting out the moon, and all around is pure blackness.

A 'mini-lab' on the tanker collects samples, to be tested for quality.

A 'mini-lab' on the tanker collects samples, to be tested for quality.

Mason climbs down from the cab and switches on a floodlight on the side of the truck. He flips open a panel on the side of the tanker and hitches a hose to the vat. With a loud hiss, the milk begins pumping - over 16,000 litres flowing through the pipe in five minutes.

Next to the hose is a computer and a small, portable ‘lab’ to collect raw milk samples, to be tested for quality and bacteria.

The terminal read-out shows the farm number, the milk temperature, estimated volume in the vat and how quickly the milk is being siphoned (1500 to 2000 litres per minute). Because it’s the first stop of the evening, Mason checks for any leaks.

When the vat is empty, he disconnects the hose and flips a lever, rinsing out the drum with cold water. The mini-computer prints out a docket, summarising the load, which is left for the farmer.

Within ten minutes, Mason is navigating the truck loop and heading back out on the road. He’ll make two more stops before returning to Darfield.

At the second, a 600ha dairy conversion, just over 10,000 litres churns into the tanker. While the milk pumps, he uses a hammer to test the tyre pressure on the enormous Volvo truck and trailer.

In 2019, Fonterra’s tanker fleet travelled 86 million kilometres, roughly the equivalent of driving to the moon and back 100 times.

In 2019, Fonterra’s tanker fleet travelled 86 million kilometres, roughly the equivalent of driving to the moon and back 100 times.

Some 90 minutes later, the truck rumbles back towards the Great Alpine Highway (SH 73). On board is close to 30,000 litres of milk - enough for nearly 120,000 glasses.

As it passes into the enormous plant, the tanker passes through a biosecurity jet wash. Mason will check the milk again,  before off-loading it.

The milk will be transformed into powder, in one of the world’s largest driers, or made into cream cheese. 

Mason, 52, has worked for the dairy co-operative for a decade.

“In a previous life, I was a coach tour driver and just needed a more stable job where I was at home, with a young family.”

His two daughters are grown up now. Hannah works for dairy processing company Synlait, and the youngest, Isabella, is a junior dairy farm assistant. He lives close to Darfield with his wife, on a lifestyle block.

“After 20 years of being away, I’m home every night now, which I like. The shift pattern works really well.”

Fonterra driver Darren Mason. One of the company’s tankers collects milk every four minutes.

Fonterra driver Darren Mason. One of the company’s tankers collects milk every four minutes.

Three drivers share the one truck, each working three days, then three night shifts followed by three days off.

 “Night shift is actually, probably a little easier than day shift,” he says. “There is less traffic and it tends to be more productive.” 

The night begins at 5.30pm and at the height of the season (October to early January) might not end until 5am. There are 43 drivers on each shift and they can clock up t0 500km in an evening. The night starts and ends at the plant, where the trucks are carefully hosed down before the next shift clocks on at 6am.

Although he picks it up, Mason is allergic to raw milk.

Although he picks it up, Mason is allergic to raw milk.

“If you're doing local work, you’ll do one to two farms per run, you might have five runs into the factory here,” Mason says. “Or you could be heading up to Kaikoura and back, in which case it might just be the one maybe two runs.”

That East Coast run is his favourite - even at night.  “It is always nice to get up there and have a look around. 

“Likewise, going across the Lewis Pass into the Murchison region, which we do frequently through the peak [of the season]. 

On night shift, you build up a picture of what an area might look like and then you get there on day shift and it's totally different.

Darren Mason

Fonterra’s giant milk processing plant in Darfield annually produces 24,000 tonnes of cream cheese.

Fonterra’s giant milk processing plant in Darfield annually produces 24,000 tonnes of cream cheese.

“It's quite a cool part of the job. Because we get into some pretty remote countryside. It's not just driving main highways. You're right out on the back blocks.

“If you get a nice, clear, calm night, the stars can be amazing. Some of those big bright moons we get. 

“Every night is a bit different, even when it's raining. There are certain challenges there with the roads - that keeps you alert as well.”

Non-professional drivers are the biggest hazard, he says. “You've got to be alert because it seems to be, every year, getting a little worse with the drivers on the road. People don't seem to have the patience or especially when you're working around town or on busy state highways.”

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Around 15 billion litres of milk were collected from milking sheds last year.

Around 15 billion litres of milk were collected from milking sheds last year.

At night, the roads are quieter but the drivers aren’t lonely in their cabs. “I listen to a lot of music, a bit of a talkback sometimes, but that doesn't last too long.

“The trucks are all equipped with Bluetooth. So we talk to one another on the phones … the crews are all a pretty close knit good group of drivers.”

Their in-cab computers also show when another trucker is close by. As they pass on the road, the drivers use their indicators to signal a hello. 

“Obviously, I like driving, otherwise I wouldn't be doing the job. But it's a really good group of guys, we spend a bit of time together after work, as well.”

At the end of his six-day shift cycle, Mason is looking forward to a quiet beer and a movie to wind down. There’s no hot milk before bed. “I'll have an ice cream or a milkshake but I can't drink raw milk.”

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Words: Andrea Vance

Visuals: Iain McGregor

Design & layout: Aaron Wood

Editor: John Hartevelt

Executive Editor: Bernadette Courtney