Slaughter Alleys: 10 of the World’s Most Dangerous Roads
By Debra Kelly, Urban Ghosts Media, 1 October 2015.
By Debra Kelly, Urban Ghosts Media, 1 October 2015.
Many of us take our cars for granted today, even though they’re a relatively new invention in the grand scheme of things. Along with the privilege of driving comes responsibility, but there’s a number of perilous roads across the globe that make driving a terrifying ordeal. From narrow passes that dance along sheer cliff faces to poorly maintained mud tracks that can swallow a car whole, this article examines a series of the most dangerous roads in the world. Navigating these ‘slaughter alleys’ takes nerves of steel.
1. The North Yungas Road, Bolivia
Image: Phil Whitehouse; Bolivia’s slaughter alley.
It’s 43-miles-long and only a hair under three miles above sea level. It’s a height that causes havoc with engines and human respiratory systems alike, adding to the sheer terror of what has become known as El Camino de la Muerte…The Road of Death.
North Yungas Road is no off-the-beaten track stretch of back road, either. It’s one of only a handful of roads leading in and out of La Paz, Bolivia’s administrative capital, and the highest in the world. Built in the 1930s by prisoners of war, its death toll began before it was even built. It took countless lives to build it, and every year between 200 and 300 people are killed on this relatively short stretch of road. Little more than a few meters wide, in most places there’s only a sheer rock wall to one side, and an open, spiralling chasm to the other.
Image: Szymon Kochański; the Road of Death.
Sounds pretty bad, but those that drive it make it even more dangerous. The most common drivers on the North Yungas Road are buses and lorries, huge trucks that are a tight enough fit when they don’t have to pass someone else. It’s so dangerous that before tackling it, many drivers will stop to pour a beer out onto the ground as an offering to the goddess Pachamama, asking for safety. Then, they chew coca leaves to stay alert.
There are hairpin turns, flash floods and unpredictable weather, rock slides and crumbling roadways. When the BBC headed to Bolivia to get a first-hand look at the Road of Death, they came across a bus whose driver had been blinded by dust and rear-ended another vehicle. With no mobile reception and no access to emergency vehicles, there was nothing to do but wait as he bled, and died. Nearby, a set of tire tracks led off the road, and into nothing.
A bypass is under construction, but it’s been so for two decades now. In the meantime, El Camino de la Muerte continues to be used, continues to claim lives, and continues to attract a bizarre mix of people - extreme cyclists, who court their own deaths on the narrow track 11,800 feet up.
2. The Guoliang, Xiyagou and Kunshan Tunnel Roads, China
Image: Fang Chen; extreme cliff driving.
Sitting high up in the Taihang Mountains is the little village of Guoliang. Home to only a few hundred people, the government seemingly signed a death certificate for the village when they refused to allocate the funds needed to build a road. For generations, the only way to reach Guoliang was to hike up a set of hand-cut stone steps, and they knew that without a real road, the village would become a ghost town. So, the villagers took it upon themselves to build their own road, and what they dug out through the mountains was an incredibly beautiful and incredibly claustrophobic solution.
It took five years for 13 determined villagers to finish the roughly mile-long tunnel through the mountainside. Just wide enough for two cars to pass each other and just tall enough for a truck, the tunnel isn’t exactly a true tunnel. Windows were blasted into the side to allow the workers to push rock and debris out over the edge, making for a hypnotically twisting, turning route up to the little village. Several people were killed during the building of the tunnel, but when it opened in 1977, it attracted people from all over.
Image: LosApos.com; crude tunnels through the Taihang Mountains.
The road - in spite of the potentially dangerous conditions that develop during the rains and the steep drop that rewards a single slip - became so popular that the people of Guoliang even had to build a hotel for their visitors. The path upwards was excavated in what was the easiest possible way for the builders, meaning there are plenty of blind turns, dips and pillars of rock, which appear seemingly out of nowhere.
Elsewhere, the villages of Kunshan and Xiyagou also decided to embark on a similar solution when attempts at building traditional roads up into their remote mountain locations failed.
3. Fairy Meadows Road, Pakistan
Image: Junaidrao; surely Pakistan’s most dangerous road.
If a country is going to offer an incredibly hazardous, insanely terrifying highway, what better name for it than Fairy Meadows Road. The dangerous road starts at the base of Nanga Parbat, the 9th tallest mountain in the world. From there, it winds its way six miles upwards. It’s not paved, there are no barriers to keep someone from plunging down the side of the mountain, and it’s more-or-less a single lane made of unstable dirt, rock, and occasionally mud. Driving Experiences awards it a 9 out of 10 “fear factor,” and we’re kind of surprised it wasn’t given at least an 11.
Fairy Meadows Road joins up with another treacherous pass on our list - the Karakoram Highway. If you weren’t terrified enough from a drive on that, Fairy Meadows Road raises the stakes even more. The increasingly high altitude makes for difficult driving for both machine and man, and the fact that this slaughter alley has remained unchanged for hundreds of years, since it was first built by local villagers, only heightens the danger.
Image: Omar Usman Khan; the cliff-edge slaughter alley.
The dirt road closes fully in winter when snow makes it completely impassable, and it’s recommended that those who are brave enough to try it only do so in June or July - well after the snows have melted and the muddy tracks have dried.
And it’s also important to note that if you do make it up the road, you won’t make it all the way to the top even in the hardiest 4×4 off-road vehicle. The last section of Fairy Meadows Road narrows so much that visitors need to plan on hiking or biking for the final leg of the journey.
4. R504 Kolyma Highway (Road of Bones), Russia
Image: Missy Leone; Far East Russia’s notorious Kolyma Highway.
The 750-mile-long R504 Kolyma Highway stretches from the Pacific Coast and the city of Magadan to Nizhny Bestyakh in the eastern part of Siberia. It’s technically divided into two parts: Lena is the western route, and Kolyma the eastern route, forming the majority of the highway. The highway is part of the M-56, which may not sound too ominous. But at the time it was under construction, this slaughter alley was more frequently known as the Road of Bones.
The perilously dangerous road was built as a part of the Dalstroy, a national trust set up to manage both construction projects and the labour force needed to complete them. That labour came from the Gulags, and with more than 80 set up across the country, that meant an incredibly large pool of workers to draw from.
No one knows how many people died building the notorious Road of Bones, but we do know that those who perished were buried where they fell. Beginning in 1932, the road took 21 years to complete, was dug mostly by hand, and today, when the permafrost thaws, the bones of the dead workers are churned to the surface by the vehicles struggling to pass through.
Image: Wikipedia; building the aptly-named Road of Bones.
But the thaw brings no picnic for the living, either. Mud can swallow cars whole, forcing people who really actually need to get from one side of the country to the other to do so by air or by sea. The Kolyma Highway itself isn’t maintained, save for areas immediately around its terminal cities, and in between are long stretches of treacherous terrain and abandoned settlements. During the winter months, temperatures can plummet to a staggering -45 Fahrenheit (-42 Celsius), but that’s when the road is at its most stable.
It’s when the thaw comes that the Kolyma Highway is at its most dangerous, and not only because getting stranded miles from anywhere in the Far East Russian wilderness is a terrible thing in itself. Because it’s such a common occurrence, gangs are well known to hunt the area, preying on stranded travellers, kidnapping, looting and mugging their way across the Road of Bones.
5. The Karakoram Highway, Pakistan
Image: Christian Benke; a colourful convoy on the Karakoram Highway.
It’s not only incredibly dangerous, but it’s been called one of the most scenic highways in the world. What’s today known as the Karakoram Highway runs along what was once called the Silk Road, connecting West, Central and South Asia. It connects Pakistan with China, and was built in large part as a show of good will.
Initial construction on the always beautiful, often perilous highway started in the 1950s. China has long relied heavily on the Pakistani post town of Gwadar, and in order to make the most use of the city, the 800-mile-long road needed to remain open and stable. That’s easier said than done, though, as part of the road runs through what Lonely Planet calls a “geological collision zone.” Throughout the 1970s, China marshalled a massive workforce to not only build the road but improve relations with the two nations. And now, improvements are needed.
Image: lapin.lapin; the desolate beauty of Pakistan’s slaughter alley.
That’s in no small part due to the earthquakes that regularly strike the region and occasionally destroy sections of the road. In 2010, an earthquake caused an entire mountainside to crumble, unleashing it on the roadway and damming a nearby river. Six months later the entire area was flooded, isolating more than 37,000 people, wiping out bridges and forcing travellers to rely not on a solid highway, but on downright terrifying temporary passes.
A large part of the Karakoram twists and turns though a spider-web of fault lines and seismic activity, an unstable part of the world where three different mountain ranges collide. Floods are common, along with landslides and mudslides, damaging not only to the roads but communication networks and electricity. The governments that rely on the roads know that the 2010 disaster is far from an isolated incident, and are trying to make necessary changes and upgrades.
6. The A3, Croatia
Image: Frka; the A3, Croatia’s unassuming ‘slaughter alley’.
We couldn’t find too much on this one, but it’s an intriguing story nonetheless. On October 16, 2007, a horrific car accident claimed the life of one of Croatia’s most beloved singers, 26-year-old Tose Proeski. Known not only for his Number One hits but for his work with UNICEF, the singer was killed instantly when his truck collided with another vehicle and veered off the road.
Several years later, on October 23, 2013, Croatian actress Dolores Lambasa met a similar fate when she was killed in a car accident on the same stretch of highway. The two accident scenes were less than 200 feet apart. Proeski’s death occurred at 6:20 a.m., Lambasa’s at 6:30 a.m.
Eerie? Yes. But according to nearby residents, it’s nothing out of the ordinary. The InSerbia Network Foundation reported that between the first day of 2006 and October 1, 2013, that section of the A3 saw 2,293 accidents, 54 people dead, and 180 seriously injured. Locals have claimed that drivers frequently suffer from hallucinations and other unexplained phenomena. Just what - or who - is to blame has never been accurately determined, but those who live there are convinced that some sort of dark presence hovers over the otherwise unassuming highway.
7. Skippers Canyon Road, New Zealand
Image: YSander; Skippers Bridge across the treacherous canyon.
When Driving Experience rated Skippers Canyon Road on New Zealand’s South Island as one of the most dangerous roads in the world, they also gave it a “fear factor” of 7 out of 10. The winding mountain pass is also surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, but those driving are unlikely to be able to enjoy it. The number of actual lives claimed is low compared to some of the other roads on their list - and ours - but the white-knuckle driving, sheer drops, narrow roads, and complete lack of easy manoeuvrability all mean that anyone brave enough to attempt it needs a special permit to do so.
Because it’s near Queenstown and nestled in the Mt. Aurum Recreation Reserve, many of the vehicles driving it aren’t small. Anyone trying to make the trip in a rental car has to contend with tour buses and commercial tourism vehicles full of people - making meeting someone on the road particularly hairy.
Skippers Canyon Road leads you to one of the most surreal, beautiful places in New Zealand. Make it through the twisting, turning road and at the end, you’ll come to what’s left of the Skippers Township, once a thriving gold mining community. And if you think it looks like something out of a fantasy novel rather than something that exists on earth, you’re not alone - Skippers Canyon was the filming location for the Ford of Bruinen in the Lord of the Rings.
8. The Nairobi-Nakuru Highway, Kenya
Image: Bing Maps; the seemingly-benign Nairobi-Nakuru Highway.
We’ve looked at roads that are dangerous because of their twists and turns, their sheer drops, and potentially deadly conditions created by extreme weather. But the Nairobi-Nakuru Highway is dangerous for another reason - its drivers.
Drunk driving is a huge problem in Kenya, and it’s only fairly recently that police have been cracking down on offenders. In 2010, there were 24.1 deaths on the road for every 100,000 people - that’s a lot, and even more shocking is the annual rate of 320 deaths per year on the Nairobi-Nakuru Highway alone. That makes it one of the most deadly stretches of road in Africa, and although parts of it are now patrolled heavily day and night, problems with speeding, drunk driving, and people just not paying attention to what they’re doing ensure its place among the world’s most hazardous slaughter alleys.
Image: Google Maps
A check on TripAdvisor reveals that part of the problem lays in deception. The highway is paved and maintained, seemingly with no concerns - at first glance. But one experienced traveller after another warns that it’s not the road, it’s the drivers, making the conditions so bad that even those who say it’s not a horrible drive recommend hiring not only a car, but a driver as well.
Impatient drivers overtake slow-moving trucks in bad places, weaving in and out of heavy traffic, and pot holes can leave you stranded on the side of the already dangerous road. Livestock and herds of animals moving down and across the roads are also a common sight, adding to the challenge and, without a doubt, the death toll.
9. I-15, Los Angeles to Las Vegas, United States
Image: Stan Shebs; I-15 passes through the Mojave Desert.
Once you’ve driven through the narrow back roads and navigated the hairpin turns of Europe, it seems almost laughable that anywhere in America’s network of wide open highways might make it onto a list of the world’s most dangerous roads. But the long, dusty highway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas is responsible for a large percent of the traffic fatalities in the United States - between 1994 and 2008, that was a shocking 627,433 deaths for the entire country.
Like its African cousin, the danger on Interstate 15 is deceptive. It’s a paved, wide open road where drivers can see for miles and miles…but that’s part of the problem. The U.S. Department of Transportation found that the 181 mile stretch of road was the site of 1,069 deaths during those years, more than double the numbers associated with any other road in the vast country.
Image: Stan Shebs; I-15, one of America’s most dangerous roads.
And part of that is because of its wide open endlessness. When you can see nothing much between you and the horizon, people tend to speed up, and to not even realize just how fast they’re going. That, of course, makes it much easier to lose control, and makes the consequences of an accident far more deadly. The study also showed that about half the people killed on the road weren’t wearing a seat belt, and about a third of accidents involved alcohol.
Local law enforcement thinks that what lays at the end of the road has something to do with it, too. Many people speeding along through the desert are heading for a weekend in Vegas, and more than a few throw caution to the wind quite literally before they even get there. The average speed that drivers are ticketed at is 95 mph (in a posted limit of 75 mph). The record-holder, however, was a Lamborghini clocked at 187 mph.
10. Luxor-al-Hurghada Road, Egypt
Image: Nikales Velli via YouTube
As its name suggests, this highway connects the ancient Egyptian city of Luxor with nearby Hurghada, a popular tourist destination that sits on the Red Sea, and is world-renowned for its scuba diving. Getting from one to the other can be absolutely terrifying, though, and what makes the trip most dangerous of all are the bandits, terrorist threats, and those who drive at night with their lights off in the hopes of slipping past unnoticed.
On November 17, 1997, six extremist gunmen killed 62 German tourists in Luxor, facilitating a massive government crackdown on the activities in the cities and on the slaughter alley in between. Drivers local and foreign run the gauntlet and risked stumbling upon those less-than-reputable characters on the desert road, but today the four-hour drive is understood to be far safer than it used to be.
Image: Ian Lloyd; Hatshetsup’s Temple, scene of the Luxor Massacre.
Still, many drivers refuse to use their headlights even after the sun sets, making head-on collisions on the road a tragically frequent occurrence. Bandits still prowl the Luxor-al-Hurghada Road - unsurprisingly, perhaps, given the number of tourists and vacationers going from the ancient splendour of Luxor to the underwater paradise that has made Hurghada famous.
Dangerousroads.org even suggests that those brave enough to drive the highway at night should invest in a set of night-vision goggles to help spot the cars speeding toward them from the opposite direction. The site also notes the importance of ensuring your vehicles are prepared for the four-hour drive. Breakdowns can be deadly, though it is of course possible to drive the entire stretch during the daylight hours.
Top image: The route to Guoliang, China. Credit: LosApos.com/Wikimedia Commons.
[Source: Urban Ghosts Media. Edited.]