Toots Holzeimer earns a cold beer after another long-haul trip across Australia’s most remote and rugged roads. (Supplied: Donna Vawdrey)
Australia’s first female truck driver was a woman capable of the toughest stuff in the roughest country, able to outwork the men while still being a true lady with a heart of gold.
That is the elevator pitch that director and producer Tristan Barr hopes to turn into Australia’s next great feature film.
It is also the true-life story of Thora Daphne “Toots” Holzheimer who clocked up more than 1.6 million kilometres hauling freight along the dusty, corrugated roads of remote Queensland for three decades until her tragic death in 1992.
During the Far North Queensland dry season Toots would traverse the dirt roads of Cape York, and in the wet season she ran the inland roads west to Mount Isa.
Mr Barr has won local and international awards for his work and he thinks Toots’s life has all the elements to make a successful film.
“There’s an equal amount of commerciality [to relatability], and biographical works are fascinating. I don’t think we do enough good ones here in Australia,” Mr Barr said.
“[Her story] struck me and it’s also struck a few distributors and executive producers; it seems like it might just get up.”
Mr Barr said the screenplay development is in full swing, which is a huge process for a life as large as Toots’s.
“It’s actually a tough job trying to get the script right and include the right anecdotes,” he said.
“When you dig deeper into the stories … her encounters with crocs, with gangs … it’s just fascinating.”
A lady and ‘hero’ to women
The scriptwriters will be pulling from the memories of people like Sue Cooper who was managing Lakefield Station in remote Cape York during the early 1970s.
Mrs Cooper was just married with a new baby at the time and said there were no phones on the station, which made life an isolated existence, but Toots was her saviour.
“It took two minutes to realise she was pretty special,” Mrs Cooper said.
“She got out of the truck, filthy dirty and no boots, but she had an aura about her.”
Toots ran groceries and essential supplies and delivered female company to isolated women in remote Cape York. (Supplied: Donna Vawdrey)
And while Toots could match it with the men when delivering remote freight — groceries, fuel, farming and mining equipment and other essentials — it was the female company she delivered which made her a hero to the other pioneering women of Cape York.
“She was a very tough woman and certainly did a man’s work — no doubt about that,” Mrs Cooper said.
“She could sit with the men, laugh with the men, but she’d sit down and talk with us girls, mind our babies and talk to us about that.
No job was too big or small for Toots, who clocked up 1.6 million kilometres as Australia’s first female truck driver. (Supplied: Donna Vawdrey)
“She was very gentle, very feminine … I actually never heard her swear. To me she was an absolute lady.
“You felt you really should put the tablecloth out and the best china and sit her down.
“It’s not anything she demanded, it’s just the way she was; you just felt that respect for her.”
Preliminary casting for Toots’s on-screen persona is underway, but Mrs Cooper has her doubts that anyone could portray a truly one-of-a-kind character, and hopes the producers capture the lady trucker’s gentle kindness.
“I’m frightened they’ll just show this big gruff thing chucking stuff around — that’s not Toots at all in my opinion.”
Creativity ensures Toots’s legend lives on
Donna Vawdrey is one of Toots’s eight children who were devastated when their mother was killed in a workplace accident.
Toots’s daughter Donna Vawdrey self-published a biography on her mother to preserve the story of an Australian female pioneer. (Supplied: Donna Vawdrey)
A crane unloading pylons on the wharves in Weipa lost control and she was struck by the load, killing her instantly.
Ms Vawdrey told her mother’s story in a self-published book which sold more than 11,000 copies and has since become the basis of the film’s manuscript.
She first pitched her mother’s story to Mr Barr 12 months ago, but it was on another film shoot in regional Victoria where he realised how far Toots’s legend had travelled.
“We had a big truck on set … I was talking to some of the local truckies and they had heaps of stories to tell about her,” Mr Barr said.
“I realised I had something … I researched some more and was gobsmacked at what she was able to do.”
A monument for Toots — her restored MAN truck — was on display at Alice Springs National Road Transport Hall of Fame for 10 years before recently being relocated to Winton in Central West Queensland.
Ms Vawdrey hopes her mother will be remembered as a true pioneer, not just of frontier Australia, but for feminism.
“The norm of her day was that women should be barefoot and pregnant, stay-at-home mums looking after the house and the men,” she said.
“She was one of the first to prove that you could be a wife and a mother and have a career.”
Toots was famous for outworking the men during the three decades she worked in remote freight transportation. (Supplied: Donna Vawdrey)