Driving foreign diplomats around for a living is not your typical job, but then Andrew “Didge” Harding is not your regular kind of guy.
Even among Canberra’s chauffeuring fraternity, and for that matter the whole diplomatic community, he’s a bit of a standout.
Harding has been driving ambassadors around Canberra and beyond for 22 years – the past 17 of those years exclusively for the South Korean embassy in Yarralumla.
He is instantly recognisable. Dressed entirely in black (including his trademark trilby hat), tattooed and sporting all manner of shiny bling, you can’t miss him. It’s safe to say that he’s somewhat of a character and proud of it.
“It all goes down fine with the diplomats. They don’t seem to mind any of it,” Harding says.
“The only reason I don’t wear a suit much anymore goes back to one day when I was helping out the gardener at the embassy and I was wearing jeans.
“The ambassador came out and told me he needed me to drive him somewhere and I said, ‘Oh, I’m not wearing my suit, I’ll get changed’, but the ambassador said, ‘No, just wear what you’re wearing. I like it, it’s more relaxing for you’. So I’ve been that way ever since.”
Harding has worked for eight Korean ambassadors and before that the ambassadors of Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
He insists he has enjoyed working for them all, but maintains a special fondness for the Korean diplomats.
“You get to know the ambassadors really, really well,” he says.
“You have a different relationship with them obviously, but you talk about a lot of things. You talk about a lot of personal things between each other. It’s a totally unique but special relationship.
“There is a similar relationship with the madam, because you drive her around a bit too. It’s a very good relationship.
“The ambassadors (and their wives and other senior diplomats) absolutely treat us with respect. And I treat them with respect.
“I don’t treat them like gods though. They’re public servants working for their government and they come out here to represent their country and I try and relate to them on that human kind of level.
“But I definitely treat them with a lot of respect, which they deserve, and I find that humour goes a long way with them. I’ve had a lot of ambassadors who have had good senses of humour.
“There’s only been one ambassador I haven’t got on with and we won’t mention his name.”
Other things Harding won’t talk about are the countless observations of his bosses at work. Confidentiality is a supreme condition of his job.
“I’ve been doing this for 22 years all up and there are a lot of stories I could tell,” he smiles.
“There are some I definitely can’t and won’t reveal.”
But here’s a couple of yarns he was willing to share.
“I was working at the residency of the Korean embassy some years back and we were moving the banquet table and extending it for a function for a whole lot of guests,” he says.
“A bird got in through the front doors, a big currawong. The maid and I chased it around for ages and it eventually flew outside. But in the meantime he had been crapping all over the place.
“The ambassador later returned after a trip and asked us to move some more furniture in that room. He came into the room and looked at a painting and he said, ‘What’s that drip on there?’
“I said to him, ‘Ah that looks like a bit of the oil paint has run’ and he just went ‘Hmm’ and walked off. I think we got away with it.”
Another account relates to a Christmas party at the embassy where a drink known as ‘the bomb’ was enjoyed by all.
The bomb is almost a national drink for the Koreans, comprising equal measures of soju and beer.
“You have to drink it really quickly and it goes off like a bomb in your head,” Harding laughs.
“Well, I’d indulged a bit and I walked outside for some air with one of the diplomats and another locally-engaged staff member and suddenly the ambassador at the time was standing next to me.
“He said, ‘You’re not driving home tonight Andrew’. I think I was wobbling on my feet a bit but I said, ‘No, no no, I’m going to sleep at the maid’s quarters’, to which the ambassador replied, ‘On your own right?’ ‘Yes, definitely on my own sir’.”
Camaraderie between diplomatic chauffeurs in Canberra is strong. They all get along, knowing they are a small group with much in common.
But the old hands at the job are dwindling in numbers.
“There used to be a lot of the old drivers get together at Cafe D‘lish in Deakin on Fridays,” Harding recalls.
“One of the drivers who worked at the German embassy got bored one day and so he made little flags on tiny flagpoles of all the nations we were driving for. He stuck them into little corks and we’d sit around the cafe next to our embassy’s flags and just have a laugh and catch up.
“We did that for years, then people retired, some moved away, some unfortunately died and now there’s only three or four of us who catch up like that – but we don’t do the flags anymore.”
Outside of work, Harding’s nickname Didge is more frequently used than his actual name Andrew.
That goes back to many years ago when his then-wife, an outstanding guitarist, was playing a small gig and suggested some unique form of accompaniment wouldn’t go astray.
“I picked up a vacuum pipe and started blowing and she said that I looked and sounded like I knew what I was doing,” he says.
“I didn’t know what I was doing but I suddenly felt this great respect for what Indigenous Australians could do with a didgeridoo.
“So I took it seriously and we went to Alice Springs where I learned a little from the masters and bought some genuine instruments.
“That’s when instead of being called Andrew, people started calling me Didgie-Drew, then just Didge.
“Then my wife left me for a bass player.”