Bolivia’s coca farmers make a living criss-crossing deep valleys on a web of makeshift cables high above forest canopy.
The road terminus in Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is abuzz with activity.
Traders throng around the only available transport, hoping to get a lift into the town of Bukama, 650km away, where they will sell their goods.
Eugene, a truck driver, is one of the few truckers willing to risk the notorious road to Bukama. The bundles of goods are carefully positioned. To him, space is money.
A driver has to be careful, an accident can happen any time. The slightest risk, the slightest lapse or distraction and bang… you'll have an accident for sure
The fees are based on the bulk of the goods and their weight. And it is non-negotiable.
“The road is really bad, that’s why my transportation [fees] are so high. I need to make some money, so with any heavy bundle I charge 15 or 20,000 francs,” Eugene says.
“I need the money to buy another truck. The vehicles last for maybe three, four or five years. But it could break down in a month, or a year or two, you never know.”
The road to Bukama is merciless and takes a heavy toll on the trucks. Many have clocked more than a million kilometres. Eugene’s truck is relatively new. It has only notched up 700,000km.
His insurance is his driver, Domingo. Eugene pays him a small fortune – $300 a trip. That is three times the average salary in the DRC.
Domingo is undoubtedly worth his wages. He is considered one of the best drivers around and after using the road for 10 years, he knows it well.
Domingo loads his truck with 170 litres of reserve fuel. There are no petrol stations in the middle of the bush.
As additional income, Domingo has sold off 10 spots on the top of his truck to passengers. There is no bus service between Lubumbashi and Bukama, so he gets to decide on the fees. He charges $20 one way.
Long road ahead
Domingo estimates that the journey to Bukama will take four days. That is four days of torture for those who have put their trust in Eugene’s truck, nicknamed the phacochere or warthog after the animal that lives in the bush.
For the first 50km the road is paved. The warthog trundles along at a steady 40kph. But then the road turns into a dirt track. No more town, just villages, and the average speed drops to barely 20kph.
As unbelievable as it is now, the road to Bukama was actually paved some 40 years ago. Nature, in the form of tropical rains and furnace-like heat, have since repossessed the ground following decades of neglect.
They manage to cover 80km after six hours on the road, before stopping for some food at the last village before the real challenges begin.
“You think this is bad? Just wait, you’ll see, it gets much worse,” Eugene says. “A driver has to be careful, an accident can happen any time. The slightest risk, the slightest lapse or distraction and bang … you’ll have an accident for sure.”
The first difficulties soon appear. The rainy season has ended but the downpours have left the road with huge holes filled with mud. Domingo tries to manoeuvre the 15-tonne truck carefully through the wide potholes.
“It’s a hard way to make a living,” says Eugene. “I take huge risks whenever I buy a truck. With these kinds of road it doesn’t matter if the trucks are new or second-hand. Everything is unpredictable, even the lifespan of a truck in conditions like these.
“The truck can break up after just two trips. Even with the best driver, you’re always just one step from disaster.”
The truck has fallen way behind schedule almost from the start. They should have covered 300km but have made just 150km so far. So Eugene and Domingo decide to drive through the night, despite the risks.
“We’ve never driven this part at night because it’s quite a risk. Trucks can easily get stuck here. We’ve pushed our luck along these 7km, but we owe it to our customers to make up the delay,” says Eugene. “We never drive after 6pm usually, it’s for their sake this time.”
The truck has 500km more to go before reaching Bukama. This stretch of the road is dotted with potholes as deep as three metres.
On the tougher stretches of the road, Domingo asks the passengers to get off the truck to reduce the load. The truck is overloaded and, more worryingly, unbalanced by the huge amount of goods it is transporting. It could tip over at any moment on the uneven surface.
Mired in mud
Once on its way, Domingo does not stop driving for fear of the vehicle getting bogged down in the mud.
“Life here is all about suffering. Look at the state of the road. It’s like this every day. All we do is suffer,” says one of the passengers.
“The truck goes ahead and we have to follow on foot. The road gets eroded more and more. You, white man, when you go home tell them to help rebuild our roads.”
The passengers have to trek for 7km before being able to board the truck again.
Over the next few days Domingo and his crew do their utmost to prevent the truck from getting bogged down. The track is in such a bad state that it takes Eugene’s truck all day to cover just 25km. They left Lubumbashi nine days ago and have only covered 250km. They still have 400km to go.
However, after 300km of potholes and dozens of hours of being shaken, there is an unwelcome surprise. The truck loses a key component of its suspension, which breaks loose.
The crew has been trying to fix the problem for five hours. Eugene had expected the journey to take four days but now has to face the fact that they have been on the road for 12 days and are barely halfway to their destination.
The voyage is turning into a nightmare. The truck moves along at a snail’s pace. There is a traffic jam in the middle of the bush. A truck has been stuck for three days and the driver has unloaded all its cargo in a desperate effort to extricate his vehicle.
Domingo tries to bypass the obstruction. Any feelings of solidarity with the trapped driver are put aside as he tries to avoid getting bogged down himself. Galvanised by Domingo’s success, other truckers chance their luck.
But a few kilometres down the road there are another dozen trucks, all of them trapped in the mire. One truck has broken down and has to be moved. Out in the bush it is all a matter of being resourceful.
Everyone offers their own, bizarre solution. Eventually, a plan is hatched. Eugene is concerned that some of the passengers have not had any food. Some trucks have been stuck there for nearly two weeks.
Despite their best efforts, Eugene, Domingo and the rest of the drivers remain stuck in the mud for another two weeks.
A journey that should have taken four days, ends up taking a month. One month to cover the 650km to Bukama.
This film was first broadcast on Al Jazeera English in 2011.