'Four fellas jumped in van with guns pointed at our heads'
A TRIP to one of the world's most iconic destinations ended in terror as two Mackay couples found themselves looking down the barrel of a gun.
Frank Shepherd was on a month-long holiday in South America with his wife Kathy, and John and Sharon Taylor, when a bus they were travelling on was hijacked by four gunmen.
They had been on a morning trip to visit Christ the Redeemer, a cultural and tourist mecca towering 705 metres above the city of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.
Each year it is estimated almost two million people visit the statue, which is listed as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
But the four never made it.
Instead as their bus was travelling up Corcovado Mountain, in Tijuca National Forest, on March 21 this year Mr Shepherd heard the tour guide say "oh god, god ... no no no".
"I saw a silver thing and I thought that was a bit weird," he said.
"Before I knew it, it happened so quick ... they ripped the door open."
One of the men had stopped the bus before all four climbed on.
"He just jumped out of nowhere, out of the bushes with a gun pointed at the driver," Mr Shepherd said, speaking to the Daily Mercury about the terrifying ordeal.
The nightmare only lasted 20 minutes but Mr Shepherd said it "seemed like a lifetime".
He watched as one of the hijackers held a gun to the tour guide's head before pushing it into her stomach.
There were three other tourists as well as the four from Mackay - two South African women and an older American man.
Mr Shepherd said tension inside the bus heated up when the two South African women became increasingly agitated.
During the ordeal, the gunmen had directed the driver to turn the bus around and travel back down the hill, passing a police car in the process.
"We had all our hands up of course because they were pointing guns at us," Mr Shepherd said.
At this point the tour guide told everyone, including the gunmen, to put their hands down and sit down to avoid attracting police attention. One gunman sat beside Kathy Shepherd.
"Had the police become involved it could have become a shootout ... or we would have been taken hostage," he said.
Mr Shepherd said the robbers stole everything they had - cash, bank cards, phones, jewellery, hotel room keys, bags. They even took the American man's shoes.
"Naively you've probably got a bit more money on you than you should have because you're on a tour, it's all going to be safe."
Mr Shepherd managed to look at one of the men twice as his glasses were snatched from his head and tossed back, noting his description to later give to police.
At this point he said he did not think the situation could get worse - but one of the South African women became more upset when the hijackers took what he believed were identification papers.
"She stood up, so they grabbed her by the head and put a gun up to her temple," Mr Shepherd said.
It looked like they were going to shoot her.
"I wasn't too sure what to think," he said.
Finally the hijackers directed the bus to a certain spot and "before we knew it they were gone".
The four then spent the next five hours with the specialised tourist police detailing the incident before switching hotels ahead of their flight to Peru early the next morning.
Mr Shepherd said this had occurred halfway through their holiday. In fact they had just finished an 11-day luxury cruise along the Brazilian coast ending in Rio where they explored Copacabana and Ipanema the day before the ordeal.
"We thought we'd lost all our photos," he said, thankful they were able to access their phone sim cards through iCloud once back in Australia.
"It could have been a lot worse."
From there, the four went to Peru, Chile and Argentina.
Since returning to Australia, Mr Shepherd said he had been told one of the men had been arrested and charged. He also found out the incident had also made the local news in Rio.
"If there's any message for anyone ... only take bare minimum cash, always have backup credit cards in the hotel safe," he said.
"Our passports were in the safe. Ideally if you have a back-up phone take that on tour."
But the incident, although rattling, has not stymied their adventurous spirit with another trip already on the horizon.