From: Risking it all

Pakistani truckers’ perilous journey

Meet the men who navigate arguably the world’s most dangerous road in order to ferry goods to remote mountain villages.

The Lowari Pass begins in the Pakistani town of Dir and winds its way through the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.

Hell’s Road, as it is known among locals, is 240km long and forms the only supply route to the small villages in the Chitral valley in northwestern Pakistan.

It is a road where even the slightest error can be fatal.

The 20,000 inhabitants of Dir make their living off the road, with tonnes of goods loaded and unloaded from trucks each day. Trucks are the only means of transport in this mountainous region.

The trucker’s quarter provides most of the jobs here – drivers, mechanics and assistants of all ages work daily amid the dust and pollution.

Hell’s Road

Twenty-three-year-old Kamara is a successful businessman who owns two trucks. One is laden with two tonnes of sugar meant for a village in the Chitral valley. The truck is driven by one of Kamara’s best drivers, Dawoud.

“[Dawoud is] getting paid $60 a month and he works with his younger brother. They’re a very good team, very brave,” says Kamara, introducing Dawoud’s brother Khalid.

$60 is the average Pakistani salary. But since few drivers would accept the risks of the Lowari Pass for that money, Kamara offers a $90 bonus each way – an incentive younger drivers find irresistible.

Hell’s Road snakes through mountains and breathtaking corniches for hundreds of kilometres, and very few drivers manage to make it to their destinations within a day.

Dawoud, who has been a driver for 10 years, plans to make as many trips as possible, despite the danger, to take advantage of the bonuses. So he drives non-stop for hours on end.

“I have a very close relationship with my truck. It’s like my home. I eat here and sleep here. I spend more time here than I do at home,” he explains.

The truck is ageless, with the odometer permanently stuck at 776,000km. Dawoud and Khalid have decorated the truck in their own fashion – with photographs of the late Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto forming a collage alongside those of the Indian movie stars young Pakistanis idolise.

‘There is no future’

The first hazard of the journey emerges as soon as the truck reaches 2,000 metres up the mountainous stretch. Melting snow forms torrents that slice through the road, dozens of metres at a time, creating holes and landslides. Every trip damages the tyres further.

The Lowari Pass poses a series of problems, so four years ago, faced with an increasing number of injured, the Pakistani government financed the construction of a tunnel through the mountains.

“We’ll soon be able to cross through the mountain, which will really make our lives and our jobs far less complicated,” Dawoud says. “But for now, we still have to cross the peak, which is 3,100 metres high, and we never know whether we’ll make it or not.”

Dawoud says what he earns is barely enough to feed his family of three children, his wife and mother.

“There is no future. We work, that’s all. This job has no future.”

Crumbling mountains 

The brothers brace for the hardest part of the ascent, where melting snow causes avalanches and landslides. They manage to climb 1,000 metres to a height of 3km within an hour – a challenge to even the most experienced drivers.

The truck struggles to clock 10kph on the steep climb. At 2,800m the lack of oxygen causes drowsiness and concentrating becomes a chore – the smallest movement requires a real effort and staying awake is a major challenge.

“It’s very cold up here [at the peak]. Look down there … that’s what they call ‘the area of 45 bends’. The descent is just awful. Very dangerous because you need the brakes the whole time, and the brakes get over-heated,” Dawoud says.

“Plus, it’s narrow and on the bends there’s not enough room for two trucks to pass. So, it’s vital to concentrate and never take your hands off the wheel.”

Negotiating the curves becomes a physical battle – the goal is to simply go downhill without ever stopping and pray that there is not a truck making its way up.

Dawoud owes his life to the perfect control of his truck. But he has no control over nature and is at the mercy of the sudden avalanches that sweep everything from their path.

One final bend and the brothers are finally in the Chitral valley, where the road is surfaced and protected by the foothills. But there is bad news just a few kilometres further down in the valley, where part of the mountain has slid onto the road, making any further progress impossible.

“Look, the mountain is still crumbling. The road is completely blocked … it’s going to take that small tractor the whole day to clear a path through it. It is the only one in the valley,” Dawoud exclaims.

Dawoud and Khalid finally make it to Chitral, nearly four days and 240km later. They rush to unload their consignment quickly and get back on the road to make as many trips as possible during the month.