Into the heart of the Borneo jungle

In Borneo’s unpredictable weather and rugged challenging terrain, transportation in the mining industry is a gruelling demonstration of driving skills.

Experience what life is like transporting coal through Borneo’s rugged jungle in this episode of Driver’s World.

Deep in the mineshaft, the machines move about like mechanical ants, persistent and indefatigable. There is a distant noise of engines. Outside the mine, the mist has recently lifted to reveal the forest-clad mountains.

Mist in Borneo jungle.

The climate in Borneo is hot and humid, and tropical downpours in the wet season can alter the whole landscape.

Down in the mine, there is a powerful roar. The sound of stone scraping against steel, when load after load of coal and soil are shovelled onto the flat body of the truck. Andreas Wahyudi waits with his hand on the gear lever for the few minutes it takes his colleague to give him a heavy load. 

He then puts his foot on the accelerator and once again climbs to the top. “The most important things are to focus, be careful and communicate with one another,” he says.

The Susubang Mine is a 9,000 hectare open-cast mine in East Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo. This is where the hardest and most expensive coal, anthracite, is mined. 

The exposed coal looks like black, vertical stripes in the excavated soil. Blasting, followed by the removal of the rock-filled soil between the seams of coal, is required to access it. Every day, 31-year-old Andreas removes soil in a Volvo FMX, from the area of the mine to a dumping site 1.5 kilometres away. The rough road surface and the heavy load, as much as 27 tonnes, require not only resilient construction vehicles but also skilled drivers.

We never know what lies further ahead. The ground moves and what looks one way at one moment can quickly change the next.

Andreas Wahyudi, truck driver

Deep wheel tracks, stones and large clay potholes make the roads in the area of the mine difficult to negotiate. The soil that is removed quickly changes the landscape, as do landslides and downpours. 

“The terrain is the greatest challenge. The condition of the roads has a decisive impact on safety,” says Andreas.

Andreas Wahyudi in his dorm.

Andreas Wahyudi lives together with 20 other drivers in workers accommodation close to the mine.

Fully laden trucks thunder past and Andreas keeps a watchful eye. He then reaches a water-filled hole in the road and grips the steering wheel with both hands. The engine revs as the truck approaches a steep hill and the truck climbs upwards. 

“No problems, this engine is powerful.”  

Constant instructions on where the load is to be dumped, questions about Andreas’ position and warnings of obstacles on the road are heard on the communication radio. At the mine, communication is the most important thing. 

“We never know what lies further ahead. The ground moves and what looks one way at one moment can quickly change the next. However, I know my colleagues will keep me informed and so I stay calm,” says Andreas.

During a shift, Andreas never leaves his truck, but the constant communication via the radio, the honking of horns and friendly greetings from oncoming drivers mean that he never feels alone. 

“The best thing about this job is the new friends I have made,” Andreas explains.

He comes from Longkali is eastern Kalimantan and, like many drivers, he is a long way from his family. During the past few years, the huge demand for black gold, not least from China, has encouraged foreign companies to open more and more mines in Kalimantan and this has created a real need for labour. 

Andreas currently shares workers’ accommodation with 20 other drivers a short bus trip from the mine. He has his own room, simply furnished, with a mattress on the floor and posters of his footballing idols on the walls. He spends most of his waking hours in the driver’s cab and he likes it.

Trucks in mine.

The landscape in the mining pit undergoes constant change due to the soil that is removed. Communication between the drivers is therefore essential and the CB radio is never silent.

 

Andreas has been driving trucks since 2005 and he has spent the last year working at the mine. He initially sat next to another driver to receive special training. 

“To begin with, it was really unpleasant when the truck tilted, but I’m used to it now. The Volvo is really comfortable, so I can relax. Compared with other truck brands, the suspension and shock absorbers in the cab are excellent,” he says. 

It is noon and time for a lunch break some way from the mine. The workers eat the rice they have brought with them in the shade of a roof and light cigarettes while the trucks stand in the parking area.

Andreas Wahyudi.

Andreas has been driving trucks since 2005 and he has spent the past year working at the mine.

There is total silence in the heat. The clay has been tightly packed by the heavy vehicles which appear to have been abandoned in the powerful, white sunlight. The mud has dried in the tyre tracks and on the wheels and lumps of muddy clay hang from the truck chassis.  There is a smell of diesel and hot rubber. Work then continues for the whole afternoon.

The next day, the scene has changed, however. Rain has fallen during the night, the mountains are cloaked in mist and the air is heavy with moisture. 

“It’s going to be slippery today,” says Andreas. He has just eaten his breakfast of rice and chicken in the canteen, where the air smells of chilli and oil, and he has put on his leather boots in the gentle morning light. 

A cool wind blows over the truck park and the earth is a pool of mud. Andreas quickly checks his truck. Oil, filter, tyres, brakes – everything looks fine. He pulls himself into the driver’s cab, steps out of his boots on the top step and makes a note. He then turns on techno music, leans back and waits – and waits. 

When I drive, I feel important and proud of myself.

Andreas Wahyudi, truck driver

In tropical Borneo, the monsoon rain falls suddenly and heavily. It arrives frequently, but it is difficult to predict. After the rain, the roads have to be scraped and all the other work stops for safety reasons. 

“Otherwise, there’s a risk that we'll find ourselves in the ditch and roll over, or crash. Today, the weather is clear, but we know that the rain can fall at any time.”

The work also stops in blinding fog and dust. So, when work is possible, everyone works really hard. A Volvo truck at this mine operates round the clock and lasts for as long as 10 years. 

As the sun rises and the fog lifts, the drivers bend over their white Volvo trucks. The sound of the engines has stopped and music from the drivers’ cabs flows between the trucks. One of the drivers has turned up the volume and stretched out, with his legs above the open truck door.

Trucks starts the night shift.

Andreas drives for 11 hours per day, covering the same 18-minute journey. When he finishes, someone else takes over and works the night shift.

 

The gruelling driving at the mine makes tiredness one of the greatest hazards and regular tests are conducted to make sure that no driver is too tired. Andreas drives for 11 hours a day. He admits that it is monotonous, driving the same 18-minute journey day after day. However, this is more than compensated for by the feeling behind the wheel.

“When I drive, I feel important and proud of myself. It fills me with satisfaction,” he says. 

Suddenly, he is given the go-ahead and immediately turns on the engine. The sun is already high in the sky above the mine. At the end of the working day, Andreas reverses into his parking space, turns off the engine and jumps out. The moon shines brightly from behind the peaceful clouds, over red piles of soil, the vegetation and the distant blue mountains. 

Men in blue shirts and helmets move from the canteen to the trucks, ready to start the night shift. Andreas stands in the moonlight. In Longkali, he was a farmer and truck driver. The opportunity to work and earn money brought him here, together with the chance to develop his skills and make a career.  

“In the future, when I can afford it, I would like to start my own business in the transport industry, using the experience I have acquired here. Who knows,” he says, as a modest smile lights up his face, “one day, I might even buy my own truck.”

The truck

Volvo FMX for challenging contracting assignments, in the form of a 6x4 Scow end dumper truck 17M3 (for overburden), with an in-line, six-­cylinder, 10.8-litre D11A engine developing 370 bhp

How it's used: To transport soil (overburden) at the ­Susubang Mine

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