Perils of working in PNG
JACOB Luke's life story started as a happy-go-lucky native boy, raised without a stitch of clothing in an obscure village in the central New Guinea highlands, to the owner of Mapai Transport, one of the largest private operators in New Guinea.
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 across Central Highland's major centres, 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 first centenary of the landmark US brand.
There are also a dozen Japanese cab-overs, which are restricted to town work because of the appalling conditions on the highways.
Jacob's workshop manager is looking for replacements for some of them soon, but is not enthusiastic about the new models.
"Too electronic," he said. "The ones we have are dead simple mechanical units that our boys can repair from the ground up.
"The new ones are all European type systems that are too complicated for here."
The Kenworths are the venerable T659 model, definitely not the most stylish of the Kenworth range.
But they are the staple for most of the major operators as they seem to be best suited for one of the most difficult roles in trucking, anywhere in the world.
The 650s all use Cummins Euro 3 spec engines - simple, maintenance-free emission systems, and Eaton auto-shift AMT transmissions.
Jacob's workshop does all the maintenance and repair, from minor parts replacements to complete engine and transmission rebuilds. The cabs are day cabs, as none of the drivers would dare to sleep on board in PNG's bushland.
Under the skin, PNG T650s use the six-rod Kenworth steel suspension as any other variety of rear end has a very short life in the extreme conditions.
I drove the main highway with a convoy of 10 semi- trailers from Lae on the eastern coast, 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 road is a national disgrace. In fact, that's understating the case.
None of the test tracks I've driven on hold a candle to the PNG roads, despite big chunks of PNG Kinas (about two for one Aussie dollar) 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, also 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 $3m.
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.