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No easy feat for a sugarcane driver

Solomoni Biumaiono
Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The life of being a sugarcane truck driver is not always easy during the cane harvesting season as it will always mean long drives to the mills and spending days and nights waiting to unload their cargo of burnt cane.

Last week, during a three-day assignment trip to the west, I met sugarcane lorry driver, Salen Prasad from Natadola in Nadroga. He was waiting for his turn to unload the sugarcane he had brought from Nadroga the day before.

He had spent the night in his lorry and that morning he was hoping to unload his cane as quickly as possible.

That morning he was sitting around with other cane drivers drinking kava while engaging in conversation that ranged from farming, cane delivery and of course soccer.

At the same time, the drivers were keeping their eyes on the line of lorries that were parked behind them. Somewhere within the columns of cane lorries, are their own trucks, patiently awaiting their turn.

Prasad had to travel nearly 50 miles to deliver the cane to the Lautoka sugar mill and he had also spent a considerable amount of time waiting to have his cane unloaded at the mill.

"When we leave our homes, we pack mattresses, clothes and of course food and grog because we do not know when exactly we would return home," Prasad said.

"Sometimes we wait all day and all night and sometimes even longer, if there are delays at the mill, but it is something that we have to get used to, otherwise this job is not for people who can't stand the wait," he added.

Another driver Mukesh Chand, 45, of Nadi has been driving for the last 20 years. He says this is usually the ritual cane lorry drivers have to contend with every year. To them, the scenario is to be expected.

Twenty-four- year-old Shivneel Chand, also of Nadroga had only been driving for the last three years. He says driving a cane lorry is something he has to do because his livelihood depends on it.

"Most of us are farmers ourselves and we also own our lorries too. So in order to ensure that our cane reach the mill, we have to drive our lorries and bring our cane and our neighbours' cane to the mill because no one else will do it for us," Chand says.

Chand adds that they cannot just leave their lorries and go visit relatives or go into town because there is a queue and also because of security reasons.

"We just sleep inside our trucks because we cannot leave it parked here and go off as there will be no one to look after the truck," he adds.

Prasad and the two Chands agree that they do not have a choice but to be cane lorry drivers as they needed to make a living and also because they are cane farmers themselves and know the struggles farmers have to put up with, especially during the harvesting season.

"It is hard on us, it is hard on our families, but if we don't do this who else will do it for us. Look, we're farmers too and we need to be drivers to ensure that our own crops reach the mills," the younger Chand says.

The older Chand said cane lorry drivers had to be patient and endure long hours also.

Apart from that, they all agreed that other road users also pose a danger to them even though they all know that other motorists complain about them.

"Look, we cannot go fast because of the heavy load we carry, otherwise there will be an accident but we know too that other motorists do pose a danger to us.

"Many of them would abruptly stop in front of us or overtake us but they should know that we're carrying a heavy load and it takes certain skills to drive these lorries," the younger Chand said.

Some cane truck drivers have the novelty of driving some truck models and brands that do not have parts readily available now, like Bedford trucks or older models of Toyota trucks.

These trucks are usually decked out with colourful stickers and decorations and can take up to 18 tonnes of cane per trip.

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