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The loneliness of a cross-border truckie

It is on a narrow coast road between the south-east South Australian city of Mt Gambier and the Victorian port of Portland.

Most of the trucks that ply the route are hauling large loads of logs for export from the port, or returning for a new load.

Portland is Australia’s biggest export port for forest products, and the world’s biggest exporter of hardwood woodchips.

About three-quarters of all logs exported from Australia are loaded at the port, and most of them come from huge plantations across the border in South Australia.

Since the South Australian government closed its border to Victorian travellers several months ago, and tightened the screws further as the second wave of coronavirus hit Victoria in recent weeks, every truckie must take care to have an up-to-date permit if the valuable freight is going to keep flowing.

It has become a well-practised dance at the border post.

Each truck heading into South Australia stops, the truckie hands a printed permit to a police officer in a face mask, pleasantries are exchanged, the permit is inspected and handed back, and the truck grinds off down the road. Meanwhile, trucks heavily laden with logs don’t have to stop at all as they enter Victoria.

Border post inspections, unwelcome as they may be, are about the only on-the-job social interaction available to interstate truckies these days.

“Truck drivers are about as socially isolated as you can get,” said Brian Williamson.

Mr Williamson, the managing director of the Portland-based trucking company PortHaul, which operates about 60 large trucks hauling bulk freight across state borders, said transport operators throughout Australia had learnt to cope with the range of restrictions that came with the coronavirus pandemic.

“Basically, drivers aren’t allowed out of their truck – they pick up their loads while still in their cabin at one end of their journey, and they are unloaded at the other end,” he said.

“On long-haul jobs, they sleep in their cabins – they’re pretty comfortable and well set up these days.

“They travel with sanitiser and all the essential equipment for their health.”

Operations managers at home base were responsible for arranging and updating permits through the various state authorities to ensure their company’s trucks and drivers had no problem crossing state borders.

Freight, which is considered essential to the national economy, is exempt from border closures in Australia, but each state and territory has border control processes and permits for truck drivers.

Those carrying freight up and down the Hume Highway had to ditch their existing permits and hurriedly apply for new paperwork last week when NSW introduced strict border and zone controls on travellers from Victoria.

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The new arrangements began at midnight on Tuesday, July 21, and applied to all travellers, including essential workers such as truck drivers.

Meanwhile, as Victoria tightened its lockdown laws on those within metropolitan Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire, truck drivers were advised they could travel in lockdown zones without wearing face masks if they were alone in their cabins. However, trucking organisations urged drivers to carry face masks at all times.

The National Heavy Vehicle Regulator, the Australian Trucking Association and member associations issued a joint call to truck drivers to take a proactive approach to protecting themselves and the wider community from the spread of coronavirus.

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