Hitching a Ride on Bali's Highway of Death
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Travel

Hitching a Ride on Bali's Highway of Death

Hundreds have died on Bali's "Skull Track," but the danger hasn't stopped Indonesia's truckers from chancing their luck.
April 24, 2018, 12:27pm

I woke up to Said Rifai shouting profanities in Javanese, his face covered in sweat, his hands gripping the truck's cracked leather steering wheel as he swerved the truck around a motorbike driver who just recklessly turned right in front of his truck's path.

"Diamput!" Said exclaimed as he expertly avoided both the motorbike and the one-meter-deep ditch running alongside the narrow road.

It was our fifth hour on Bali's Gilimanuk-Denpasar Bypass—a 127 kilometer stretch of road so dangerous that locals have christened it the Jalur Tengkorak, or the "Skull Track"—and we were still nowhere near our destination. Said was piloting a battered European-made truck that was at least seven years past its prime down a bumpy, dangerous stretch of road running the length of the island, from Bali's far-western tip to the heart of the island's tourism industry in the south.

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So many people have died along the Skull Track that some think it's cursed. According to official estimates, there were more than 77,000 traffic accidents on this stretch of road between 2015 and 2017. In 2016 alone, 54 people died and another 153 were injured in accidents on the Skull Track. And that was in a good year. Only one year prior, in 2015, 92 people lost their lives on the same road.

The bypass is so dangerous that local police in Tabanan—a massive district in the island's interior—know the most-deadly stretches of the Skull Track by heart. Kilometers 25-to-26 and 34-to-35 are the worst, each of them a white-knuckle ride through sharp turns and down cratered roads.

"The most-common accidents involve motorcycles and freight trucks," said Kadek Dewi Supartawai, the head of the Tabanan Traffic Police. "Most of these accidents are caused by human error like careless, sleepiness, driving over the speed limit, and also the conditions of the road."

Truck drivers like Said know the Skull Track's reputation well. One trucker, a man named Yatno I met back at the port in Gilimanuk, told me about a time this truck slammed into a tour bus on the bypass. The vehicles crumbled upon impact, twisting into snarled knots of glass-dusted steel.

"A small mistake can get you killed," Yatno warned.

Said's truck.

So what the hell was I doing on the Skull Track? The truckers I met in western Bali were probably wondering the same thing. I arrived that morning in Gilimanuk, a tiny port town in Bali that's separated from East Java by a strait so narrow that I could stand in Bali and still clearly see the traffic on the streets of Banyuwangi on the other side.

It didn't take me long to find Said. He was cleaning out the cab of his light green truck after spending the night sleeping on the opposite side of the strait. Said's truck, a 16-meter-long flatbed loaded down with 30 tons of wire mesh made by Krakatau Steel, was due to arrive at Bali's Ngurah Rai International Airport that night, where it was needed for a road construction project. The order was actually so big that it took a second truck, this one driven by Said's partner Partono, to deliver it all.

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Said was, at first, confused by my request. There were clearly faster, more comfortable ways to make it from East Java to Bali.

"Are you sure you want to hitch a ride in my truck?" Said asked me in Javanese.

Sure I do, I told him. Said had the space. He told me that stopped driving with a kernet, or co-driver, years ago after his former assistant fell asleep and failed to keep Said awake. Said slammed into a few vehicles at an intersection and swore-off working with a co-driver ever again. After all, what's the point of splitting your profits with someone who falls asleep when you need them most?

Said was a slight man with a face that looked far younger than his actual age—26. He dropped out of high school after only one year to work construction. But that career didn't last for long. Said grew up in Alas Roban, a costal village in Central Java along the island's legendary Pantura toll road—a national highway that runs more than 1,300 kilometers along the entire length of Java's northern shoreline. It connects Sumatra in the west to Bali in the east and is a vital link in Indonesia's shipping network—which means that it's full of trucks.

One day, one of Said's neighbors told him he could earn so much more as a trucker. He quickly found a trucker who would take him on as an apprentice co-driver and show him the ropes. For the next three months, Said rode shotgun in trucks and buses, jotting down notes about gears and blind spots the entire time. The first time he drove a truck, he actually sat on the driver's lap like a small child whose father decided to let him steer.

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"I had never driven a regular car," he explained. "It's always been these trucks."

Said and Partono wait for a police escort at the port in Gilimanuk, Bai.

The attraction to being a trucker was clear to Said, but it came at a cost. At 26 he is still unmarried—he doesn't even have a girlfriend—because he spends most of his life on the road. But it's still better than being stuck in his home village, he explained.

"I like traveling," Said told me. "And as a driver, I get to travel for free. Hell, I even make money off it."

Said is a small cog in a complex machine that is responsible for keeping a country as wide as the United States stocked with fresh goods and fuel. Indonesia is an archipelago nation, but the vast majority of its goods are transported by truck, not boats. Every year, 2.5 million tons of freight is transported throughout Indonesia by truck—a figure that accounts for 57 percent of all shipments nationwide, according to the Indonesian Trucking Association. Boats, which require costly docks to unload their goods, only move about 194,000 tons in a given year.

President Joko Widodo promised to dramatically expand the country's maritime shipping industry with the construction of 24 new commercial ports, and more than 1,000 civilian ones, during his first term in office. But some of the promises, like greatly reduced shipping costs, remain out of reach and the hefty price tag—Rp 700 trillion ($50,4 billion USD)—means the project will take years to finish.

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That's why, every year, an estimated 7.1 million trucks hit the road nationwide, according to data from the Central Statistics Agency (BPS). And this morning, I was in one of them. I sat in the cab while Said waitied for a police escort to arrive and bring them onto the bypass. Heavy trucks like the ones Said and Partono were driving are only allowed on the bypass during certain hours, and always with an escort.

The police escort cost the pair Rp 1.6 million ($115 USD), and it was supposed to bring them all the way to Tabanan, 100 kilometers away. But the cop car pulled off the road and parked after only a few minutes, leaving both trucks to continue their trip without an escort. Said was fuming after the shakedown, clearly upset with having to deal with these kinds of extortion schemes on a regular basis.

"Nothing gets under your skin on the road like the police do," Said told me. "In Sumatra, the police sometimes charge you illegal fees multiple times."

Said in his truck.

The Skull Track laid in front of us. The truck's cabin was more spacious than I thought it would be. The gray floorboards were littered with empty cigarette packs, bottles of instant coffee and mineral water. Behind us was a modest bed with a blue sarong that could be used as a blanket on cold nights sitting on top.

The cabin rattled as we drove down the potholed road. Clouds of dust rose off every surface with each bump, catching the early morning sunlight in streaks. I was wondering how long it had been since someone cleaned the inside of this truck when Said took out his phone and turned on the GPS to mark his route.

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"I don't remember how to get around in Bali anymore," Said told me. "The last time I came here was three years ago and I got lost."

Said seemed unconcerned with the Skull Track's horrific reputation. Nervous, I kept talking about how many accidents occurred on the road, but Said just nodded. He didn't seem terribly concerned. I, on the other hand, was terrified.

The road in front of us was no more than six meters wide, a span almost entirely taken up by our truck. The asphalt was cracked and pockmarked and each bump caused the cab to shake violently. Said told me that he was thankful we were in a European-made truck. The last time he rode in a cheaper, Japanese one, it didn't have strong enough shocks and each bump would send Said flying. He eventually had to lash himself to his seat to remain in place.

By kilometer 25, the one police told me was among the most-dangerous, I saw my first accident. Two trucks, both of them smaller than ours, had toppled over and landed on their sides. I stared at the vehicles and couldn't help but imagine that it could've have been us. Said said nothing and we just drove past them, continuing on to even more hazardous locations ahead.

Said explained that a lot of drivers push themselves to stay behind the wheel for 10 hours at a time in order to make their deliveries by the deadline. He told me that he's done it himself, often relying on little more than cigarettes, sugary drinks, and Minang pop songs to keep him awake.

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“Minang songs don’t bore me,” Said told me as he turned the radio up. “Maybe it’s because I don't understand what they are saying. It's good driving music."

If he understood the songs, Said would probably still find a lot to like. The Minang people of West Sumatra are often merantau—a word that means they leave home and travel out into the country to find work. Merantau is a vibrant part of Minang culture, so, of course, a lot of their songs are about missing all the people they left behind back home.

The songs all sounded pretty melancholy, but Said couldn't let them lull him into too calm a state. Sleepiness can kill when you spend your life barreling down a highway with tons of freight right behind your head.

"Drivers have to race time,” Said told me. “There’s no time to relax, unless the road is congested or we’re waiting at the port. But sleepiness can be fatal. And sometimes we don’t even realize we’re sleepy. I consider myself lucky that I've only gotten into an accident once."

The view along the Skull Track.

The sun set as we continued our journey. Eventually, I started to feel my eyelids grow heavy. I glanced over at Said and caught sight of him chain smoking cigarettes in the headlights of passing cars. Whenever the truck swerved or rattled a bit too hard I would wake up with fright. But the rest of our trip was pretty uneventful, and we arrived in Kuta, near the airport, by midnight.

The same trip by car would typically take only three hours. But in a truck it took us more than eight. And that was only a small part of the journey Said had just finished. He had been on the road for two whole days, but he only earned about Rp 200,000 ($14 USD) for his time. Truck drivers don't work on a salary. Instead, they receive a budget for the trip and are able to pocket whatever is left over. For this trip, Said got Rp 5.5 million ($396 USD), most of which was consumed by fuel, road fees, and food.

I climbed out of the truck and waved goodbye to Said.

"Don't be a stranger," he said. "Keep hitching rides on trucks. And if you have time, come and hang out with me at Alas Roban."

He then drove off to finish his delivery and pick up a new one. The trip was over for me, but not for Said. There was always another shipment—and another stretch of dangerous road—in front of him.