Taking the High Road

Transporting goods in Australia at altitude is not a common task.

Aside from being the driest continent on earth it’s also the flattest with 94 per cent of its land less than 600 metres above sea level.

Being able to occasionally discuss the considerations of fleets and operators who navigate high country, escarpments and ranges closer to the coastal climes where we, as a populace, cling like baby lemurs to their mothers, are nearly always of interest for the many evaluations and challenges that go into assessing an optimised driveline and running gear built-for-purpose on terrain not typically conducive to higher mass transports.

Trucks in South America regularly are required to travel from Chile to Bolivia, a distance around 1700kms, over the Andes ranges encountering temperatures that can vary between below 15 to plus 30 Celsius.

There are five vertical climate zones across the Andes starting with the Tierra Client at sea level to the Snowline, at the highest, where glaciers are found on high peaks.

While few commercial vehicles enter this zone, with the mountain range standing at 13,000 feet at its highest points, a sophisticated supply chain, nevertheless has existed here for millennia.

By 1528, the Inca Empire covered an expanse approximate to 1.1 million km². Some 40,000 kilometres of roads connected mountainous terrain where a population of 12 million moved goods on paved highways, vast swathes of which are still in good condition 500 years later.

Engineer and Sociologist Andrew Côté has noted that these roads, which served many purposes, facilitated the movement of all types of traffic and something referred to as tampus — roadside supply depots provisioned by the regionally taxed local inhabitants.

The Incas, after all, were an empire albeit a preliterate one.

The network of Inca roads, storage facilities and administrative sites followed consistent organisation principles focused on efficient communication and transportation.

The layout of this network suggests municipal surveyors were primarily concerned with minimising the costs of movement between regional sites of authority, as opposed to maximising the efficiency of transportation within regions.

In short, the best routes were prioritised, not unlike they are in our digitally optimised age today, for the most effective means of transport.

To make this happen advanced engineering solutions such as suspension bridges, extensive switchback stairways, retaining walls and canals to control erosion, all without an iron tool in sight, were crucial to the functioning infrastructure.

For order visibility, an accounting system maintained by knots in pieces of string called khipu helped to keep track of the freight, the vast majority of which was hauled by foot.

Carriers moved premium products such as herbal medicine, gold and hallucinogenic plants and psychotropic stimulants. Royalty including the Emperor usually travelled by litter.

Pack animals, certainly Llamas, helped to carry some goods.

To maintain its empire, the Inca mobilised a professional army over a long distance.

The highway network enabled the faster transport of military units to quell rebellion or advance the frontier of empire.

The road also offered a unique communication medium: A corps of imperial messengers, the chaski, ran in relays, passing spoken messages 150 miles a day between Quito, one of the northernmost points of the empire, and Cuzco, the Peruvian Inca capital.

The main road apparently served as a conduit for products that represented the riches of this vast domain.

Feathers and wildlife from the jungle, gold and silver from Bolivia, massive stones pushed all the way from present day Ecuador, for use in temple construction, and beach sand transported from the Pacific coast to fill the ceremonial main plaza at Cuzco.

That same road even today is peppered with apacheta, a shrine consisting of a stone pinnacle abutting a smooth stone platform.

Modernity saw to it that roads now prefigure our sacred sites.

With the Inca the opposite held true. The road was considered sacred.

The New England Highway, at least in its current form, has a way to go.

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