Not a ride for the faint-hearted

KUALA LUMPUR - I could have been one of the 53 passengers of the bus that plunged 60m down the ravine in Genting Highlands on Aug 21. Worse still, I could have been one of the 37 who lost their lives in the worst bus accident in the country's history.

It was 4.30pm on Friday, two days after the tragedy, that I boarded one of the 12 stage buses operated by Genting Transport Sdn Bhd.

Every day, these buses ply the Kuala Lumpur-Genting route, with the first one leaving the Jalan Pekeliling bus terminal at 7am.

Talking to regular passengers in the days following the tragedy gave me the impression that every time they boarded these buses, they were putting their lives on the line.

On board this particular bus were 11 passengers. The total capacity was 45 seated and 18 standing. The drive up was uneventful.

When I reached the Genting bus station, I struck a conversation with Aji, a relief driver who had been tasked with bringing down a bus with malfunctioned brakes to the depot at the Pekeliling station.

Here was a chance to experience the dangers faced by these drivers and their passengers. On this particular run, Aji would be driving alone. The risk was just too great.

He was reluctant to take me on board. It took some convincing and Aji finally relented. In his 50s, he had logged more than 30 years' as a bus driver. I was counting on his experience to get us down safely.

After settling in the driver's seat, Aji went through his startup checklist before slotting the key in the ignition and firing up the engine. It rumbled to life and Aji pressed the accelerator, releasing a cloud of white smoke.

I remembered thinking as I boarded the bus that this was the same model as the ill-fated one that rolled down the ravine earlier. This one was registered with the Road Transport Department 15 years ago. Its number plate started with the prefix WGA, the same as the one that crashed.

We started our journey. If Aji was slightly nervous or apprehensive, he didn't show it. But cavalier, he was not. While driving, Aji explained the safety features of the bus, the techniques he planned to use to compensate for the spotty brakes and the prayers he normally recited.

"Genting Highlands opened 48 years ago, and over the years, drivers who ply this route know the bends that are 'always hungry and ready to eat' (selalu lapar and akan makan)."

Once in a while, he'd point to the sand traps to stop runaway vehicles, a new addition to the hills.

"It's not difficult to drive down. There are ample signs, including one that tells drivers to engage lower gears, warning them of sharp bends ahead, foggy areas and sand traps.

"There are also wide road shoulders and run-offs that drivers can divert to in case of brake failure."

We passed Km3.6, using the route directed by police. Aji made a stop at the Chin Swee Temple and showed exactly where the accident occurred. He said it could be tricky when it rained as the road could be slippery, but fog was not a problem as the roads had reflective paint.

Aji's windows were open and I was in the front row, right by the entrance of the bus. The air-conditioning was off. I told him that it was difficult to breathe and it was stuffy. Aji opened the doors.

At one point, while taking a sharp, steep bend, he took his foot off the brake pedal (which was faulty) and hit the "retarder" switch. A "retarder" is an alternate braking system in the bus. Almost immediately, the bus jerked and I was thrown forward. I managed to hold on to the yellow handles in front of me.

A grinding noise could be heard and the bus shuddered. We were going about 32kph and within eight seconds, the bus ground to a halt. Aji stopped by the road shoulder. He was calm. I was still praying.

Grabbing the fire extinguisher, Aji dashed out without saying a word. I decided to follow him.

I was reminded of a T-shirt I saw in Bangkok some years back that read "I'm a Russian nuclear scientist. If you see me run, try to catch up".

The bus had six sets of tyres and one of the inner ones on the left side was emitting smoke. He sprayed the tyre with the fire extinguisher to cool it down. The sudden contraction had caused the tyre to explode.

Despite the thick fog and smoke swirling around us, I could make out a figure in front of me. A policeman had heard the loud bang and came to investigate. Aji, who seemed to know almost everyone, convinced him that everything was under control. As I walked back to the bus, Aji asked if I was ready to continue the journey. I can't remember saying yes, but next thing I knew, I was back in my seat.

Aji's technique to compensate for the faulty brakes was to use engine braking. He'd shift down to low gears and let the gear ratios do the work. He said the "retarder" switch, which was fully automatic, made engine braking easier.

The bus was also equipped with a "kill switch" that engaged engine braking. The trick was, he said, "Don't panic".