My first Dragoman Overland trip concluded last night when 20 of us sat down at a buffet restaurant in Rio for one final shared meal. I mentioned in an earlier post that my first impression of Dragoman (the company) and this internationally diverse group of backpackers was very good. After 19 days of sharing tents, dorms and cooking duties, countless games of President, a few thought provoking discussions, numerous tall tales, and one or two beers, I can report that I like Dragoman and this rag-tag group even more. I hope the feeling is mutual, but you never know.
As a group we saw some amazing scenery, had some good times, and got to know each other pretty well, I think. From shy introductions in Buenos Aires in mid-November to hugs and “add me on Facebook” goodbyes over the final breakfast, and everything in between, my first Dragoman trip was nothing short of awesome. I’m really glad it ended so well because it very nearly did not.
We were already an hour behind schedule when we left the beach town of Paraty for Tuesday’s 450 km final leg to Rio. It proved impossible to make up time on the winding coastal road so we were about two hours behind schedule when the giant ‘Christ The Redeemer’ statue came into view. That’s when things took a turn for the worse.
With about 15 km to go, traffic on the 8-lane highway ground to complete halt. We didn’t move an inch in one 10-minute stretch and at one point we had covered less than a dozen truck lengths in 20 minutes. Driver Bob described the traffic as the worst he has seen in South America – even worse than Rio during Carnival. And Bob should know a thing or two about traffic as he has driven over 80,000 km on his current contract with Dragoman.
The coastal scenery south of Rio had been amazing but in the hardscrabble suburbs of Rio we inched past the city’s major container port, a nuclear reactor, several scrapyards and garbage sorting stations, and mile after mile of low-slung industrial buildings. Most of the buildings and all of the fences were plastered in graffiti – and I’m not talking about the colorful ‘street art’ that I often photograph. This graffiti was the work of vandals and gang-members intent on marking their territory.
You might expect to find some very cranky passengers when traffic snarls, especially after an 8-hour ride in a metal box in 34C weather, but that just wasn’t the case. If the others were like me, they were dreaming of a good night’s sleep in a nice hotel, high-pressure showers, and air conditioning. Oh, the miracle of air conditioning.
Thankfully the congestion cleared after an hour or so and we quickly got up to speed again. In fact we were positively rolling down a near empty urban parkway when we came to yet another stop. What now, I thought? My GPS-monitoring seatmate noted that we were less than one kilometer from our hotel. At first I assumed that we had come upon a traffic accident. Closer inspection revealed that we had in fact been traveling at a good clip on open road when Bob spotted something that made him stand on the break pedal.
Once we came to a stop, which didn’t take long, Bob was able to pull the truck into the right hand lane, out of the way of passing traffic. He got out to survey the situation from the ground.
A few car lengths in front of us was a concrete bridge that allowed pedestrians to cross between parkland on either side of the highway. Bridges over parkways are common enough, but it was a small sign on the side of the bridge that was the issue. According to the sign, the clearance was 3.75m. This would not have been a problem for the standard 3.5m Dragoman trucks that Bob has driven up and down this road numerous times. I had heard Bob say earlier that Yana is the largest truck in the fleet, towering 4.0m over the pavement. We were perilously close to having what my nephew Andy would call, “a bit of an issue.” Others might be a little more dramatic, and justifiably so.
Thankfully Bob was on the ball and we narrowly avoided sheering the top off the truck. After backing up along the shoulder and making a few left turns, we were soon back on track. Ten minutes later we pulled up at the front door of Hotel Argentina, safe and sound.
Thankfully Bob didn’t have to explain to his boss that he had wrecked the truck. I imagine that would be an awkward call, especially after driving 80,000 kilometers and coming within a single kilometer of completing an accident-free contract. His explanation would have been even more awkward had some of my photos been viewed by head office. As if calling out a personal warning to our driver, the lone graffiti tag on the bridge read simply, “Bob.”