Brush with death aboard a Bolivian bus

Trip Start Jun 04, 2005
Trip End Apr 05, 2006

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Monday, January 30, 2006

Hundreds of hours aboard overcrowded pubic buses in South America, thousands of kilometres of bad gravel roads in the rainy season, and weŽre still in one piece... though the risks are obvious, we hadnŽt given our good fortune a second thought until that fateful Sunday, 29 January.

WeŽd travelled by overnight bus from La Paz to Potosi on the Saturday evening, and, after killing a few early-morning hours wandering around the attractive colonial streets of Potosi, we boarded the 10am bus to Uyuni, about six hours away.

The road was gravel all the way (as they mostly are in Bolivia) but in pretty good condition. Minutes out of Potosi, we realised that weŽd lost our guidebook, our precious bible, probably left behind in the barberŽs shop where Rich had a quick haircut. Arghhh! Such an annoying set-back!

But things got more interesting. About two hours into the journey, our bus had a small 'incident' with an oncoming truck. The truck and bus were trying to squeeze past each other on the single track road, and predictably the truck hit the bus... just a small bump to the back left corner, right where I was sitting. The drivers spent 10 minutes or so shouting at each other before quickly and mysteriously resolving the matter and driving on.

It was about 2pm, probably another two hours to go. Rich was reading and I was dozing in my back seat by the window. Suddenly, we felt the bus swerve, then skid sideways, and before we knew it, we were flung out of our seats. I looked out the window to my left and saw only dust, heard only screams and the aweful scraping sound of metal against gravel. The bus was rolling.

Everything happened so quickly and a split-second later, the bus came to a halt. Of course, we instinctively reached for each other and gratefully realised we were both OK. I was dangling in mid-air, clinging to the back-rest of the seat in front of me. Below, to the right, people lay scrunched in piles and the terrible wailing of children filled the dusty, shattered interior.

The window above us was smashed. Rich gave me a leg up and I was out, standing on the side of the bus, in no time. He remained below and passed three children up to me... first a girl, then a small boy and his brother. Their mother lay at the bottom, contorted and crying out for her boys - she was convinced they were trapped beneath the bus. It took Rich a while to make her understand that they were safe and free.

Slowly but surely, all the injured passengers were being helped out of the bus by the able-bodied. By the time I climbed down, an Budget Expeditions overland truck with 30 young Aussies and Kiwis had arrived (we'd passed them just an hour earlier) and immediately set to work helping. Thankfully, there were three nurses and one paramedic among them, and they had some decent medical supplies on board.

Together with the six or so other backpackers aboard the stricken bus, we dragged our backpacks free from the jumble that was the roof luggage, and dug out our first aid kits. We did what we could to help the nurses, cleaning cuts, calming kids, passing water around. It seemed there were four seriously injured folk - a man with a bad head wound, a woman with a very painful back, one with broken collarbone and gash to the head - but nothing life-threatening, thank God.

Two more public buses and a private 4x4 vehicle arrived on the scene, and a while later, an Encounter truck. Dave, the leader of Budget Expeditions, did an expert job in negotiating the evacuation of injured people aboard the first bus, and in the 4x4. Needless to say, no ambulance or police had turned up.

While many of us were tending to the injured and the children, and loading them onto the designated bus, efforts turned to clearing the wreck off the road so that vehicles could pass. The Budget truck squeezed past, got its tow cables out and managed to tug the wreck out of the way. The bus and 4x4 with the injured hurried off in the direction of Uyuni.

The rest of us passengers were loaded into the Budget and Encounter trucks, and the remaining public bus. We arrived in Uyuni about 7pm, tired, filthy and still reeling with shock. Thankfully, we managed to get a room at the hotel where the Budget guys were staying, so did not have to go scouting around town for accommodation. That evening, we gobbled a huge pizza and a bottle of wine at Minuteman (the best pizza place in the world!!!) to celebrate... WE'RE ALIVE!

This was the first vehicle accident for both of us. In the days that followed, we continued to analyse the details of what exactly happened; those endless minutes were replayed again and again in our minds. We simply cannot believe how lucky we are to have excaped with only a few cuts and bruises; in fact, everyone aboard that bus was lucky. It could have been so much worse...
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