, GUMBO, S-Sudan, Oct 7 – When Ugandan truck driver Idi Philip first began driving into south Sudan, he kept a gun by his side.
But times have changed and the once-dangerous trail is opening up to become the transport highway out of the impoverished region, where a UN Security Council delegation arrived on Wednesday ahead of a referendum early next year on whether it should break away from the north.
Years of war with Khartoum government had left the southern road in ruins, with bridges blown up, landmines buried either side and gunmen shadowing the trucks that braved the lonely track through the remote bush to the southern capital Juba.
"It would take days to travel just a hundred miles (160 kilometres)," said Philip, who started driving the route from the Ugandan capital Kampala to Juba four years ago, soon after Sudan’s bitter north-south civil war ended.
"We travelled in convoy for safety, but we would be forced to reverse for miles if you met oncoming traffic," added Philip, speaking at Gumbo, the final truck stop on the outskirts of Juba.
"There was only a single track and landmines on each side."
Now a wide red earth road snakes south on the 320-mile (515 kilometre) route to Kampala, with work to tarmac the 119-mile Sudan section due to be completed by the middle of next year, according to the southern government.
It will be the first tarred road out of any city in the south, a grossly underdeveloped region still recovering from its 22-year civil war with the north in which some two million people died, in a conflict fuelled by religion, ethnicity, ideology and resources like oil.
Building such infrastructure is seen as critically important for the south, where excitement is growing at the independence referendum that is due in January, set up as part of the 2005 peace deal that ended the war.
"This is a vital road and a lifeline because many of our commodities come through on this route," said Jacob Marial Maker, director general of roads at the south’s transport ministry.
"Without good roads you are not able to develop," he added, noting that the 162 million dollar (119 million euro) project is backed by the US government aid agency USAID.
No independent large-scale poll has been conducted, but people in the south appear to support full independence, a move that would split Africa’s largest country in two and create a new southern nation without access to the sea.
"The road will link south Sudan with an efficient route to Uganda, and then to Kenya, to the port at Mombassa," Maker added.
The southern government is keen to improve all routes into the south, with the road to Uganda only the first step planned.
"Being landlocked can be resolved in this modern world," said Barnaba Marial Benjamin, the south’s information minister, noting that the region also borders Kenya, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic.
"There are so many avenues — we plan soon to have a road east to Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, and then from there one can proceed by train to the port of Djibouti," he added.
Work is also ongoing to improve the river route between Juba and the north, but the road south is the first priority. Kampala is less than half the distance from Juba to Khartoum, about 1,200 kilometres (744 miles) to the north.
Southern officials hope that fixing the road will boost the economy, slashing transport costs and allowing business to grow.
Trade with Uganda has already risen dramatically since the war ended, with informal cross-border sales alone exceeding 900 million dollars (680 million euros) in 2008, according to Uganda’s Bureau of Statistics.
The south’s manufacturing capability is nearly non-existent and agricultural efforts are at an early stage, so almost all goods are imported.
Standard Chartered bank in a May report described operating in southern Sudan as "expensive and deeply challenging," despite strong recent gains, adding that the logistical difficulties of supplying the market allowed exporters to mark up prices by 30 to 100 percent.
However, with road improvements, traders say they have already noticed prices beginning to fall, with lorry loads of fresh vegetables, fruit, canned goods and grain arriving in Juba’s busy Konyo-Konyo market.
"The roads were once very bad, and goods would go rotten on the way," said Hassan Mutebi, chairman of the Ugandan Traders Association in Juba.
"Before it would take two weeks, but now the trucks can do the journey in two days, and that has an impact lowering prices."
The new road will be a step forward. But development still has a very long way to go in a region larger than Spain and Portugal combined where there are currently only 60 kilometers (38 miles) of tarred roads, with many of the mud tracks impassable during the long months of rainy season.
Half the population of the south — some four million people — will receive food assistance this year according to the United Nations.