Day and night, the 40-ton, five-axle freighters pound the highways of two continents and 10 countries, sometimes racing along on broad, fast expressways, often inching and jolting along narrow rutted tracks. In the winter they creep up icy mountain roads and plow through blizzards. In the summer they face broiling heat and sandstorms. Like a column of giant ants they wheel to and fro between the factories of Europe and the import-hungry countries of the Middle East: 60-foot, 350-horsepower leviathans hauling everything growing economies can buy from automobiles to after-shave lotion, frozen foods to printing presses.
Some start from the Atlantic - where the ships off-load cargoes from America. Others start from the English Channel or the North Sea, or from loading bays behind factories in Britain, France, Scandinavia, West Germany, the Netherlands and Italy and still others from centralized warehouses in Austria.
But they all, eventually, head east through the snow-capped Alps or across the plains of central Europe. And they all, at first, funnel into a single stream flowing into Istanbul and across the new mile-long suspension bridge to Asia - at the rate of 6,000 tons a day.
Then, at last in Asia, they fan out across the Middle East, hauling, some months, up to 180,000 tons of cargo worth some $270 million. For the trucking firms of Europe and the Middle East it's the biggest bonanza of all time.
Until recent years, the very thought of shipping goods to the Middle East by truck seemed absurd. Then, in swift succession, conditions began to change. The Arabian Gulf boomed and the demand for vast quantities of the industrial goods of the West soon began to clog ports from the Red Sea to the Arabian Gulf. Not long after, civil war broke out in Lebanon and the port of Beirut a key trans-shipment point between the Mediterranean and the Gulf, was closed. And suddenly, unexpectedly, the trucks of Europe were plying the eastward trail.
For drivers it's long trail: from Europe and Great Britain to places like Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - the principal destinations - and sometimes as far east as Karachi and Kabul. And, for owners, it's a profitable trail - if they succeed. For those who get loads safely to their destination on time the rewards - up to $5,000 on a fully-loaded round trip - are great.
But so too are the risks. Bad weather, breakdowns, unexpected levies and - now a key problem - interminable border delays can plunge firms into bankruptcy overnight. For the drivers it's even worse. For they face all that and the danger of wrecks besides. Indeed, so many wrecked trucks and abandoned trailers litter the road east that truckers call it the "Ho Chi Minh Trail."
Even when things go well the grueling 8,000-mile round trip from the Atlantic to the Gulf makes tremendous demands on drivers and machines. Self-sufficiency is the rule of the road. Rest and repair facilities are rare. And, east of Ankara, roads snake over 9,000-foot summits, and, further on all but disappear beneath the shifting desert sands.
Until the recent completion of a new desert highway, for example, hardly a day would pass without at least one 40-tonner sinking into the sand while traversing a 70-mile stretch of unpaved track between the Jordanian border and the start of the 500-mile Tapline road to Dhahran in eastern Saudi Arabia.
Because of such breakdowns, but also for other reasons, drivers have often run out of money or been left stranded. When Turkey, for example, introduced an $800 road tax without warning, hundreds of drivers were left stranded at the borders. On another occasion a British firm went bankrupt and six drivers and their trucks were stranded en-route.
"It's like Russian roulette," said Leif Ron, a long-distance truck driver from Denmark. "When you pull out in the morning, you never know where you will go to bed that night."
Then there's weather. In winter much of Turkey is covered in ice and snow and raked by blizzards; some drivers have had to light fires beneath their trucks to keep the diesel fuel from freezing. In spring, there's mud, and in summer, sand. Along desert tracks, deceptive crusts cover treacherous layers of soft sand that can trap and hold a truck for days. "I can tell you, mate," one trucker confided, "this route is twisted in more ways than one."
Drivers, obviously, must be tough and resourceful. To allow for the unusual assortment of hazards en route, and to keep on schedule, drivers are often at the wheel for 12 to 16 hours a day. They cook their own meals on small stoves fitted in their cabs, and sleep in bunks behind the driver's seat. And despite the discomforts and strain, they are not particularly well paid. West European drivers average about $1,200 a trip; East European drivers and others, much less. Many make only one journey, deciding immediately that they prefer the duller but lighter demands of home trucking to the trials, and sometimes illusory rewards, of the Middle East run.
On the other hand they've also developed a unique code that blends camaraderie and co-operation. "If you're in a fix," says one, "there's a good chance another truck, whatever the license plates, will stop and help."
Some drivers, to be sure, are better equipped than others. They also, in recent years, can usually depend on their vehicles: the sturdy Scania, Volvo Daf, Fiat, Mercedes and Mac 10-gear diesel articulated truck-and-trailer "road trains" which form the backbone of the Middle East trucking fleet.
The latest designs, moreover, feature steel-mesh guards to protect the windshield from missiles, heated mirrors and headlight wipers for mountain snows, and air conditioning for the desert. A few even have sinks.
Drivers, too, get some protection from the International Road Transport Union, whose blue and white TIR plates and customs-sealed cargoes usually sail through most European borders. TIR plates are not, however, much help crossing Middle Eastern frontiers, where the International Road Transport Union is not recognized and where, if a driver's papers are not in order, customs clearance can take days.
The owners, of course, have problems too - many of them stemming from success. As the great trucks proved that they could carry cargo safely and rapidly to the Middle East - and as more of them took to the road - the countries straddling the route began to raise taxes, impose quotas on the number of trucks that could use their roads, and increase restrictions. Austria, West Germany and Czechoslovakia, for example, now ban big rigs on Sundays and Turkish authorities, angered by the deafening, dust-scattering stream of trucks, have begun to demand that trucks detour around many towns and villages.
Success has also created delays at borders. In Bulgaria last summer, traffic at one point was backed up six miles from the border, and in Turkey customs formalities were holding up trucks for as much as three days. Success, moreover, has attracted predators - organized criminals who seize trucks, cargo and all.
For owners, there is also increasing competition. Large private trucking firms in western Europe, for example, have to compete with each other, with firms in Turkey, Iran and the Arab countries, and with the so-called "cowboys." These are independent individual drivers who, operating with hired vehicles and sometimes questionable documents, often try to cash in on the mushrooming Middle East trade - the fastest growing market in the world.
In addition Western firms face fierce competition from the currency-starved nations of the eastern bloc. The giant state-owned trucking firms of Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Yugoslavia, for example, operate more than half of the 6,000 lorries now assigned to the Middle East run.
Meanwhile, in the Middle East, the conditions that originally triggered or stimulated the trucking boom have changed. In Lebanon the war has ended and the port of Beirut, although still limited, is open. And in Saudi Arabia, where ports were particularly congested, the government, in a crash program to break the logjam, began to construct barge terminals. As a result, waiting times at Jiddah and Dammam were back to normal by spring. The Kingdom, furthermore, has undertaken a multi-billion dollar program to build new berths at Jiddah, Dammam, Jubail and other ports.
Similar programs were underway in other countries. Iran is planning a new $2-billion commercial port at Bandar Abbas and a $50-million computerized container terminal at Bandar Shapur. Dubai's Port Rashid is to be extended by another 22 berths - at a cost of $1.7 billion - and Sharjah is building a huge container terminal at Khor Fakkan.
The trucking firms, however, are still confident. They say that the Gulf will emerge as one of the world's top six trading areas by 1980, and predict that more and more Middle East imports will be delivered by road.
They point out too that, so far, they have found solutions to most problems. When, for example, some countries imposed quotas and route restrictions, the haulage firms instantly began to develop alternatives. One was to send their rigs piggy-back by train from West Germany to Yugoslavia. Another was to open a new route across the Soviet Union to Iran. A third was to cooperate in the creation of a roll-on, roll-off ferry service linking western European with eastern Mediterranean, Red Sea and Gulf ports.
Behind the truckers optimism are some solid economic facts: though it costs about 12 per cent more to move freight by road than by ship, it takes a truck only a third of the time to deliver cargoes, and trucks provide door-to-door delivery to even the most remote factory, warehouse or construction site in the Middle East.
European haulage firms, consequently, are investing heavily in new trucks. The Budapest-based Hungarocamion recently added 125 vehicles to its 800-truck fleet, and has set up two 100-truck joint enterprises with Iran and Kuwait. And they are backing plans for the future - the vaguely discussed 1,400-mile highway across Turkey and the 3,000-mile north-south European motorway linking the Baltic with the Black Sea.
In the meantime, the trucks roll east - day and night, winter and summer, across two continents and 10 countries, 60-foot leviathans hauling the output of western factories to the booming Middle East in a transport bonanza beyond compare.