Crossing the Rio Grande – July 1979

If you were travelling to San Javier today from Montero across the Rio Grande, you’d take this bridge – the Puente Banegas. It’s the longest bridge in Bolivia, some 1.5km long and was completed in 2017.

Rio Grande Bridge Santa Cruz

In 1979 it was a different story. There was no bridge.

You can learn a lot about this river from this picture. It is big and shrinks and expands according the seasons. In the wet season all you’d see would be water. But in the dry season it shrinks to 50m or so wide and huge mud flats are exposed on each side. If you know what you are doing, you can drive on these. I didn’t know what I was doing.

At the time I was working for BTAM – the British Tropical Agricultural Mission – head quartered in Santa Cruz, the capital of the tropical lowlands of Bolivia which bleed into the Amazon to the East. I was given a mission to take a Land Rover to a BTAM outpost in San Javier run by a guy called Julian Burgess. I can’t remember exactly why this was necessary. The reason for the journey is lost in the trauma of the journey itself.

It was July 1979 and Jane had recently bought a bucket shop ticket on Laker Airways and had joined me in Bolivia having completed her degree course at Reading. We’d just moved into our lovely 3-room house opposite the telephone exchange in Montero.

Our House in Montero (1979)

We were to be married the following month but neither of us knew this at this point. We set off early in a well-used Series III Land Rover. The first milestone on this journey was to cross the Rio Grande about 60km to the East. We bumped along the dirt road through the bush to the edge of the river and the mud flats lay before us. They were vast. We could see the core of the river far in the distance. A metallic glint was the pontoon we had to reach to cross. There were no other vehicles in sight but in the past weeks one or two vehicles had made the journey we were about to attempt as evidenced by the faint tracks in the mud. All we needed to do, we thought, was follow these tracks and we would be fine. If they made it to the pontoon, we would too. So the Land Rover was put into four-wheel drive and a low gear and over the edge we went.

As we got closer to the core of the river the mud got more jelly-like and the small tributaries running across the mud flats to the main river got more frequent and bigger. We pressed on. Then, ahead, the tracks we were following went straight through quite a significant pool which I didn’t like the look of. To the left of this pool, away from the track, things looked drier so I made the split second decision – I didn’t want to stop in case we couldn’t get going again – to go upstream of the pool and drive around it. That was a mistake. Within a few metres of the wheel marks we’d been following the Land Rover started to sink. Very quickly. We ground to halt and kept sinking. We abandoned the vehicle as quickly as we could fearing that if we didn’t we’d be trapped inside unable to open the doors. At this point I was convinced that within an hour the whole Land Rover would be submerged and we’d lose it. Oh the humiliation! But, in my terrorised state, I was not thinking clearly. I hadn’t realised that when bottom of the vehicle hit the mud the weight would be spread and the sinking would stop, or at least slow down considerably which is what happened.

Rio Grande - sunk in the mud - Jane

Although the immediate terror had passed, we still had a considerable problem on our hands. We somehow had to lift a tonne and half of Land Rover out of the mud as we weren’t going to be able to drive it out.

Already people had started to gather apparently from nowhere with the clear objective of helping us out and I hatched a plan.

On our way onto the mud flats we’d passed the remains of an old barge. Perhaps we could lever off some of the planks that made up the hull – they were about the size of scaffolding boards – get them under the wheels somehow and reverse out. I grabbed the hydraulic jack from the Land Rover (you could still open the doors) and headed for that old barge with my new friends. While I levered off four planks they went off to find a suitable 6m tree to act as a lever to lift the wheels onto the planks. Fortunately, there were plenty of trees to choose from. A couple of hours later we were back at the Land Rover and we started to dig with purpose.

Rio Grande - sunk in the mud - Simon

The plan was to dig out a channel behind each wheel and lift each wheel on to one of the barge planks. We started with the front right wheel.

Rio Grande - putting first plank

The Series III Land Rovers had wheel studs that protruded about 100mm, just long enough to take the end of our tree lever. While the team pushed down on the lever, I inserted plank number one. It felt like we were on our way out of this catastrophe.

Rio Grande - levering out the left side

Buoyed by our success we started on the left wheel. Same approach: dig channel behind the wheel, lift the vehicle with the tree lever and insert the plank.

Soon we’d done all four wheels and I was able to reverse out.

Rio Grande - the reverse out

The relief was so huge, I remember no further details of this trip. How did we pay our rescuers? Did we ever get to the pontoon and on to San Javier? I think we did both of these things but they weren’t as memorable clearly.



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