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LR G4 Challenge: After the first remote day in Laos

It was the calm before the storm. Day three began on the banks of the misty Mekong with a Buddhist blessing at the 6th century Sikhottabong Temple. Then, as the first remote competitions kicked in, spirituality changed to raw physicality, serenity to sweat and chanting to cheering - it was game on.

However, before they could work up the first bead of perspiration, competitors got an immediate taste of driving in Laos: blinding "red outs" on dusty tracks, wandering animals and navigational trauma. Several teams lost precious time trying to find an alternative route after maps and GPS failed to show that an impassable river blocked their road.

Once located, however, the competitions offered pumping adrenaline with six challenges ranging from navigation to climbing to kayaking, in the middle of awesome scenery and stifling heat. The challenge at Sabaidee Pinnacles, mixed driving and running with climbing one of the area’s immense limestone pinnacles. This was followed by a showstopper 50-metre abseil.

"It wasn’t just great, it was also quick," said Turkey’s Tolga Senefe, partner of Ireland’s Gary Robertson. "We’re both big guys and our main strength is our power. We’re fast on the climbing and abseiling."

Equally spectacular was the competition known as Hidden Star, where competitors had to locate points inside and around the vast cathedral of Tham Xiangliab Cave; home to bats, turtles and hanging shards of rock-like dripping candle wax.

Ironically, the hypnotic scenery produced the Challenge’s first injury for Japan’s Takashi Sugiyama as he climbed through the cave. "I was looking up and thinking, "Wow, this is amazing", when I fell backwards onto a rocky ridge. My ribs are bruised and the events since have been quite painful, particularly climbing and running. It will teach me to pay more attention in future."

Other competitors also struggled at Hidden Star, with their satellite navigation useless around the cave and nearby mountains. "Without the GPS we made a lot of mistakes. We got them all in the end but it took longer than it should have," said Russia’s Dmitry Timokhin. "But the scenery was just amazing. It looked like Jurassic Park. I was half expecting to see dinosaurs".

A tough 4x4 driving course, where the Range Rover Sport vehicles had to be steered through narrow gaps on rocky sloping terrain with penalties for hitting markers, also formed part of the Challenge in this location - and it caused some problems. "There was one obstacle that was really difficult," said Australia’s Alina McMaster. "It was hard to judge and we kept slipping back. We should just have said "damn it", hit the marker and taken the penalty. We ended up clipping it anyway."

But the biggest nightmare occurred to the UK and Germany team. After a branch flicked up, caught in the tyre and wrecked the chain of Brian Reynolds’ mountain bike, he was forced to complete the course on foot. Failing to spot a cave that would have lead them to a marker point, he and German partner Robert Schweiger spent 45 minutes fighting their way through dense jungle, before realising their mistake.

On the way back, Brian slipped in the cave water, cutting his leg. And, when he finally thought he had finished the team’s first event of the day - he discovered he had to fetch the damaged bike by foot, a one and quarter mile run in searing heat. He then had to jog back with it. The team only finished two of the six competitions. "Tomorrow’s another day," shrugged Brian. "It can only get better."

But it was a less testing time in the vehicle for the Taiwanese / Italian team, who completed the driving course with just one penalty. "That was quite easy," said Marco Martinuzzi, as he parked up and wiped sweat from his brow. "Victor and I struggled a little to understand each other, but it’s only the first remote day - it’s improving."

Their language situation may have improved during the day, but their strategic planning and navigation let them down in a big way. After making a poor decision in terms of which competitions to visit first, the team made a navigational error en route to the camp. They missed the critical cut-off time of 18:00, losing all their hard-earned points in the process.

British competitor Brian Reynolds may not have had nearly as tough a day as the Italian / Taiwanese team, but even so the atmosphere in his camp was slightly less than rosy. "I’m really keen and hyped up," said Brian, as they finally arrived into the night’s camp. "But I think Robert is taking a slightly more relaxed approach."

Still, it’s only the beginning. Teams are feeling their way, the temperature is rising and another day’s fierce competition waits in the lush Laos wilderness.

2006/04/26 I 13:41 CET I Editor:

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