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LR G4 Challenge: Challenge report after Day 5

The teams awoke in the dark early hours of day five to blaring rock music, abandoned munitions and a long, misty river journey into the heart of darkness. It wasn’t ‘Nam. It was Laos 2006 and the Land Rover G4 Challenge’s most spectacular event so far - a head-to-head kayak race along a seven-kilometre underground stretch of the Nam Hinboun River. Watched by locals from boats fashioned out of old B52 fuel tanks, the competitors paddled furiously into the pitch blackness of Konglor Cave, passing rocks like limestone icebergs, vast overhead caverns and cascades of water.

They navigated rapid narrow stretches, shallows requiring portage and a white subterranean beach, before emerging below a dramatic mountain into an emerald lagoon, where Australia’s Alina McMaster and Brazil’s Eleonora Audra claimed first place.

"It was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever done," said Eleonora. "The two of us are working really well together. We were overtaking and being overtaken by the guys the whole way through. We paddled so hard near the end, and there was a big mess as we crashed into other boats. We didn’t even know we’d won."

Second place Martin Dreyer, a professional South African kayaker who has competed all over the world, described it as the paddle of a lifetime. "It was truly spectacular. I’m glad it was a compulsory competition and not something to do if we could fit it in. It would be a crime to miss it."

For the second time in two days, the canny South African displayed a blend of experience and tactical astuteness, attaching his kayak to his team mate’s, by a bungee cord. "It’s something I’ve learnt over years of racing," he said. "It lets the person behind stay on the downside of the wave behind your kayak - and that means 15 per cent less effort to keep up."

It was one of several gruelling events setting this year’s Challenge aside from its 2003 predecessor. "We wanted things to be tougher this time in terms of driving and the competitor’s environment," said Event Director, Niki Davies. "Last time there was a lot of tarmac and burger joints. This is different. You recce it, hope you get it right, and I think we have. The feedback from competitors and media is tough event, tough driving. I’m happy."

The trying conditions were in evidence today with deep mud that sent vehicles sliding, wicked ruts and precarious wooden bridges. Costa Rica’s Claribett Vega struggled to control her Range Rover Sport, regularly sliding sideways and eventually had to use the snatch strap to get back on track. After a late afternoon puncture, they completed just one further competition before returning to camp.

They weren’t suffering alone. Other teams were held up by navigation. Turkey and Ireland spent well over an hour trying to locate Stock Take, an event where competitors had to run between points, locating clues that would reveal the price of a local chicken. They changed direction three times after finding one route blocked by building sand and following a false trail that ended in a paddy field. "When the tak-tak track went to single lane, we knew it wasn’t going to happen," said Ireland’s Gary Robertson.

The team finally abandoned the event for another after discovering their visa - a time control system to stop competitor’s speeding between competitions - meant they couldn’t take part for another hour. Several other teams were held up by their visas, which, given the demanding travel conditions and limited maps, helps explain the small number of competitions attempted during the day.

But Stock Take did produce one sterling performance. Argentina’s Pablo Burattini and Belguim’s Kris Janssens split up to look for clues and found the answer within six minutes, well below the predicted time, after realising it wasn’t necessary to visit all locations - a smart move in 35ºC temperatures. "This is the muscle you really need to train," said Pablo, pointing to his head.

Stock Take also saw the first points of the Challenge for Taiwan’s Victor Huang. After being left to fend for himself in the kayaking by Italian team-mate, Marco Martinuzzi - a disastrous strategy when partners have to finish together - he put in a strong performance. "I’m very excited," he said. "We learnt from yesterday. Even if we hadn’t completed this, we would have abandoned it to return to camp on time. But we did - in ten minutes. Each day is getting better."

They were over twice as fast as the British German team. Regarded as strong individual competitors, they’ve struggled to gel as a team and were involved in heated confrontations during yesterday’s tak-tak challenge. Tomorrow’s Stage Final - an individual head-to-head - should be very interesting. It’s their chance to prove themselves - and the Challenge is waiting.

2006/04/27 I 19:45 CET I Editor:

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