I glanced sleepily at my wristwatch. 6.15pm. We had been on the road for just over two hours. The journey to Rìo Gallegos would take at least four more hours on these coarse gravel roads. Yawning I stretched my legs across the unoccupied seat next to mine. Typical of so many other trips I had made in South America, the atmosphere on the bus was noisy and jovial. Local Argentines wandered casually up and down the aisle chatting with friends. As the only gringo onboard I was comfortable to sit by myself in a rare moment of travel solitude. The song playing on the bus cassette stereo caught my attention. "Vamos a la playa o o o o o". I had heard this popular latino hit on numerous bus trips all over this vast continent. The driver turned the volume up and began singing along word-for-word "todos con sombrero o o o o o". He sang beautifully. I rested my head snugly back into the seat. With the hypnotic rhythm of the song echoing in my ears, I slowly drifted into sleep.
In a year spent backpacking across South America, visiting Patagonia was one of my destination highlights. This isolated region encompasses the southern tip of Argentina and Chile and is defined by sheer Andean peaks, monstrous glaciers, sprawling plateaus and incessant howling wind. I based myself at a small Argentine Patagonian town called El Calafate. After two weeks of trekking endless natural wonders I decided it was time to continue my backpacking adventure. My next destination would be the town of Rìo Gallegos, a 200-mile bus trip towards the eastern Atlantic coastline.
I awoke as the bus slowed to an abrupt stop on the side of the road. The driver switched off the engine and opened the bus door. He turned the volume down on his cassette player and stood up. "Attention please passengers. We will be stopping here for a 10-minute rest break". He spoke quickly in his native tongue and I was impressed that I could easily understand him. My Spanish-speaking ability had greatly improved after many months of learning and practice. It was nearly 8.30pm. After this stop we had only two more hours until our destination.
I joined the procession of fellow passengers exiting the bus. Confronted by a biting cold wind, I securely zipped up my polar fleece jumper against the elements. It was now twilight in Patagonia and looking west towards the Andes I beheld a truly magnificent sunset. Snow-covered mountain peaks were illuminated against a foreground of rich hinterland. I had witnessed many amazing sunsets in South America but this was easily the most spectacular. Luckily, I had one remaining shot of camera film to capture a photo of la vista.
The driver noticed me with a camera; "Mr Australiano, do you like our sunset?"
"Breathtaking!" I replied, "Is it always this fantastic?"
He smiled wryly; "Of course...this is Argentina my friend!"
I huddled alongside the driver and a large group of passengers, most clutching lit cigarettes with their backs turned against the wind. A young couple offered me a drink of hot coffee from their thermos. I gladly accepted. The warmth of the drink offered some respite against the bone-numbing chill. A friendly conversation was struck up amongst the group, mainly discussing the topic of Argentina soccer. My support for the famous Boca Juniors Football Club was met with nods of approval. Stating allegiance to "Boca" was a safe bet in these parts.
The driver extinguished his cigarette and clapped his hands "People, let's get back on the road. Please return to the bus."
I thanked the young couple for the drink. Taking one last look at the fading sunset, I climbed the bus steps and returned to the comfort of my seat.
Having walked the length of the aisle to ensure that everyone was accounted for, the driver settled in his seat and switched on the ignition. Unexpectedly, the engine struggled to turn over...cough...cough...cough...silence. There was an audible sigh amongst passengers. Again he turned the key...cough...cough...cough...silence. After repeating this process over half a dozen times the engine still refused to start.
The perplexed driver leapt off the bus and disappeared to tinker with the engine. A toolbox was produced but nothing he did could get the vehicle to start. The battery was losing more power with every effort made.
Passengers began to realise the predicament we were facing. We were literally 100 miles from the nearest town. No telephone coverage. Not another vehicle in sight. The sun was falling and soon it would be getting dark with temperatures down to near freezing. Unless assistance arrived, it appeared we would have little option but to spend the night onboard, the prospect of which triggered visible frustration tinged with anxiety.
The grim-faced driver re-boarded the bus. In somber tones he announced, "Sorry, but the battery is flat. We will have to wait for help."
The next hour passed in ominous silence, with increasing darkness compounding the leaden atmosphere. Without internal heating the Patagonian chill slowly crept into the vehicle. Passengers gathered extra layers of clothing and blankets in preparation for a long night.
I sat quietly contemplating the situation. I jokingly wished my father was sitting next to me. He is someone who can fix anything mechanical. He would relish this scenario and would have the bus going in no time at all. Unfortunately I did not inherit his mechanical skills.
But in that moment, from the deep recesses of my subconscious, I heard my father's voice. It was something he said to me many years ago whilst teaching me how to drive a car; "Son, this little trick may prove to be helpful one day." It appeared that day had arrived.
I stood up in my seat. The driver and other passengers turned and looked at me. I cleared my throat and spoke as best I could in Spanish.
"I have just had an idea. Why don't we try and push the bus?"
The bus erupted in nervous laughter at my suggestion; providing somewhat of a circuit-breaker for the miserable conditions we were experiencing. The driver shook his head at me and turned around. I remained standing and waited for the commotion to die down. The driver looked back at me, inquisitively. Very calmly I said:
"Friend, I am being serious."
Moving into the aisle, I walked to the front of the bus to outline my idea to the curious driver.
I explained that my father had taught me the useful "trick" of starting a car engine using a rolling push-start. My plan applied the exact same principles. Our bus had stopped on a section of road with a minuscule downhill gradient. If we could use human strength to get the bus moving we might be able to generate enough momentum with the gradient to push-start the engine. Our efforts would also be greatly assisted by the strong tail wind.
The driver scratched his head and considered the idea; "My Australian friend, I think this is plain crazy. You may be able to start a small car by pushing it, but not a 20-tonne bus!"
"Are you sure? Have you ever attempted it?" I queried.
The driver let out a long breath. "Well, I guess we have nothing to lose...do you really want to give this a go?"
I looked him in the eye. "Absolutely" I replied.
The driver stood up. "Everyone off the bus. Please listen to Mr Australiano. He has a plan."
Despite confusion and numerous questions, I managed to organise a large group of passengers to assemble at the back of the vehicle (we numbered approximately fifteen). I became the impromptu team motivator and outlined the push-start technique we would be attempting. Most were skeptical at the idea but all were willing to give it a try. I told the driver we were ready. He screamed out "ok, I'm ready when you are!"
We formed a rugby scrum at the back of the bus. I counted, "uno!...dos!...tres!" On the count of three we pushed with all our might. It felt like pushing against a brick wall but, amazingly, the bus lurched forward and ever-so-slowly began to move. With our continued pushing it began to roll with ever increasing momentum.
Someone yelled out, "More! More! More!"
The bus was now travelling at a quick walking pace along the downhill gradient of the road. After approximately sixty seconds, wherein we had just about exhausted our energies, I screamed out to the driver "NOW!!"
With the bus already in gear, the driver engaged the clutch. The vehicle jolted with a single "bunny hop" motion. In the same instant the engine turned over..and then miraculously...the engine sputtered to life! With a few quick revs of the accelerator the engine simultaneously roared with approval.
The ensuing celebrations were similar to scoring the winning goal for a soccer team; scenes of impromptu screaming and hugging. Cold and exhaustion were instantly forgotten as we clambered aboard en masse to greet the jubilant driver, who I think in that moment would have been the happiest man in Argentina. With palpable relief he put the bus into first gear and we were on our way.
The cassette player resumed on maximum volume, belting out endless favourite latino tunes. Food and drink was produced and shared amongst passengers as we continued our remainder of the journey in a party atmosphere. It is not every day that you push-start a 20-tonne bus. We had achieved something special and our bond was genuine.
In the dark of night, we eventually arrived at Rìo Gallegos over an hour late. But no one was complaining. As I collected my backpack the driver sought me out to shake my hand.
"Thank you again my Australiano friend. Many thanks."
I smiled at his gratitude, "Anytime, my friend. I'll also pass on your thanks to my father!"