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Trucking the highways in PNG – the hazards and the perils


A convoy climbs into the PNG highlandsJACOB LUKE'S LIFE STORY started as a happy-go-lucky sort of fellow, raised without a stitch of clothing in an obscure village in the Papua New Guinea highlands.

From nothing but a noble family heritage, he now operates a fleet of 75 Kenworth T650s, around 200 flat-top, drop deck and tanker trailers, three depots and employs several hundred people.

Ten more Kenworths are due to arrive in the next few weeks and, with an order for 15 or so in January, he'll be the proud owner of his 100 of the landmark US brand.

There are also a dozen Japanese cab-overs in his fleet, which are restricted to town work because of the appalling conditions on the highways.

I drove the highlands highway with a convoy of 10 semi-trailers from Lae up through Goroka to Mt Hagen. My amazement and wonder at this majestic country was quickly overwhelmed by the critical challenges faced by PNG transport companies.

Although it's the key transport artery for the delivery of essentials to the population, and sole supply line for the projects that are financing PNG's future growth, the highway is a national disgrace. In fact, that's understating the case.

None of the test tracks I've driven hold a candle to PNG roads, despite big chunks of PNG kinas being allocated for construction, repair and maintenance. Wherever that cash goes, you can't see it on the tarmac.

Jacob's repair shop regularly replaces landing legs on trailers that have been bent beyond repair when a truck drops off a 600mm trench that is completely unavoidable.

I stood beside sections of road and listened to trucks grind and groan a tortured path across holes and gullies that had trailer linkages, suspensions, and turntables at and beyond maximum travel.

The holes are so extreme that trucks can easily lurch violently at crawl speed, lose stability and fall over.

That's when the second curse of local transport takes over. As locals descend to pillage the rig, the driver goes bush, and the police are nowhere to be seen.

Meanwhile, the cargo is "redistributed" and pops up at roadside stalls for several kilometres either side of the accident.

There is also an active and vibrant secondary economy trading stolen fuel, which is ignored by authorities.

Every community along the route has rickety tables on the roadside with dirty containers of diesel, where a truck driver has pulled over, dropped 20 litres of diesel into the vendors drum and moved on, picking up a commission for the sale on the return leg.

Last year alone, stolen fuel cost Mapai Transport over $3million.

If PNG's new government got serious about fixing the appalling roads, these lifelines of the future could rapidly reduce damage and delay enough to nearly halve fuel costs, slash repair bills and, most importantly guarantee supply of essentials to industry and community alike.

Then they could enliven the local business community to address the rest of the problems.

As a fair-skinned, bespectacled redhead in isolated tribal villages I felt all eyes on me, but the warmth and genuine friendliness of the PNG people always made me feel welcome, even the guys casually swinging machetes from their left hands.

Jacob Luke, his countrymen, and this magnificent country deserve a better deal from their national government.


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daniel karanja

very funny

Mathias Kin

I love this story, Mr Meredith. Mr Cleland, your Daulo Pass is not the same any more. You saw that. And Robin Lillicrapp, I can imagine a road through the Simbu portion in the 1960s or 1970s. It is worse now.

Most of our politicians are corrupt. And their briefcase carriers in the guise of important government bureaucrats are also corrupt.

Even our little reserve police officers who stop vehicles at Warabung are furiously corrupt. Corruption now is very endemic at all levels of PNG society.

That K6 billion is nowhere to be seen. The Chinese may do the job but our locals, construction companies (owned by politicians) and local labour, would give them much trouble.

Iko Palye

Can someone tell me what is the cost of moving a 20ft container to Mt Hagen from Lae?

Robin Lillicrapp

My memories of Kassam, Daulo, and the steep pinch just before entering Kundiawa are of 'chains on' and 'get pushed through the mud by Bulldozer' moments.

Dust was the common feature along the flats in the Dry. As convoys of Toyota six ton trucks made their way along the Markham valley, their Captains drove furiously and chewed betel-nut to wile away the hours. Wind blown spittle brightly emblazoned the doors and tarpaulins.

When wishing to overtake such vehicles, one's approach from the rear was mostly unnoticed by the driver in front as the plumes of dust obscured the vision.

In any case, the front-runner was mostly in a world of his own; an arm, even a leg languidly propped outboard as the chariot rolled on.

The best method of getting his attention upon emerging from the fog of dust was, in a none too subtle manoeuvre, to bump his rear end with the bullbar. It usually worked.

Many head-on collisions happened as a result of sudden unannounced overtaking out of the dust exercises.

The highway, in the days of my experience, was a great drive.
Coming down from Chuave toward Goroka, one day, I spotted Danny Leahy's Landcruiser ahead of me.

He saw me.

I imagine he didn't fancy the prospect of eating my dust because I sure couldn't catch the blighter. At times we exceeded 70mph.

(Sorry to those who assume my foolish driving was a precursor to the road's degradation.)

Alex Harris

Well written, David. Makes it an enjoyable read despite the tragedy that is the highway.

What a boon it would be for the local economy if it were fixed and maintained.

It would ease costs for the foreign mining companies, but more importantly, allow the rebuilding of agriculture and tourism industries, so dependent upon transport infrastructure.

Joe Wasia

Thanks David. It's very interesting to read the success story of this gentleman.

Bob Cleland

A month ago I was driven from Goroka, over Daulo Pass, to Chuave in a Toyota 'Troupie'. It took us two hours which used to be been one hour when the road was 'good' my reliable driver said.

Clusters of huge, deep potholes forced him to ease the vehicle into them at crawling pace. No room to go around them.

Slump areas formed an abrupt, 300mm step down right across the road and a similar step up further along. I can well believe the 600mm trench David Meredith speaks of.

A bit of a change since I and thousands of villagers built Daulo Pass in 1953. Traffic's a bit heavier too!

And Chinese money to fix it up? Probably Chinese labour as well. I fully endorse David's comments about the PNG people - friendly and welcoming as always. But I heard disconcerting whispers against the prospect of Chinese workers in their midst.

In the meantime - congratulations, Mr Jacob Luke. Keep up your enterprising work.

Mrs Barbara Short

One of my PNG friends who has worked in Sydney for a few years tried to impress on me that the main problem holding back PNGns is their lack of organising ability.

Now, if they are going to borrow K6 billion from the Chinese to fix up this road, I think they will definitely need a band of Chinese to organise the whole rebuilding and the constant supervision of the maintenance and policing of this road.

There may well be some good well-trained PNG engineers still around who could help. But due to poor government, and poor organising skills over the past years, these engineers have not been able to get on top of all the problems that have arise with trying to maintain this vital highway.

I'm glad that the warmth and genuine friendliness of the PNG people is still there and I would hope this would be shown to these Chinese people who would be needed to see the borrowed money is properly spent and bring great dividends for the country.

I wish Jacob Luke well. He certainly must be a person who knows how to cope with setbacks in life!

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