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LR G4 Challenge: The competitors arrive in Laos.

After the searing temperatures and red-hot technical driving competition of Bangkok, day two saw the Challenge"s 60-strong convoy head east across the legendary Mekong River into the secretive communist country of Laos.

Under brooding skies, punctuated by forks of lightning, with a hot wind whipping up a distant sandstorm, the Range Rover Sport vehicles were ferried across the muscular, chocolate coloured river by ferry. Awaiting them were hammer and sickle flags, old American army trucks and two weeks of mental and physical challenges in the dramatic landscape of jungle covered mountains.

For the competitors, this was the real beginning of the Challenge. "The Mekong is the true starting line," said French competitor Jean-Baptiste Calais. "It"s the end of just travelling, the end of the highway and the start of racing."

Michael Tsaoutos of Greece, who only found out he was competing a fortnight ago, after the country"s first choice quit due to work commitments, said he was finally starting to believe he had arrived. "We don"t know what it will be like, and with a forecast of rain, the going could get really tough. The first main junction marked in our Laos road book wasn"t even paved."

As Alina McMaster of Australia sorted out her equipment and tents, she shared his uncertainty. "It"s a mix of excitement and apprehension," she said. "Now each day will be a test of fitness, skill and strategy."

But the competitors" mixed emotions were mixed with awe at the dramatic scenery. They approached the Mekong through the Jurassic region of Thailand, once populated by dinosaurs but now revealing a mix of pineapple fields, thickly forested hills, water buffalo and monks in mustard coloured robes.

"When I first looked across the river from Thailand and saw the mountains of Laos, I said Wow!" said Brazil"s Eleonora Audra, who spent the long journey honing tactics and promoting South American music to team mate Alina. "It was a mix of nerves and great views."

Similarly Russia"s Dmitry Timokhin, who triumphed in Bangkok´s urban driving challenge with his Greek team mate, was mesmerised at the thought of what lay ahead. "It was amazing. It"s been road trip, road trip, road trip and then suddenly you arrive at the great river and mountains. You"re aware that over the other side is another country and another culture. But who knows exactly what we"ll find."

But as well as memorable views, the 8-hour drive also produced the first tensions in partnerships selected on Saturday. Italy´s Marco Martinuzzi had spent the entire journey with team mate, Victor Huang, and a journalist from the same country. "All they did was talk in Taiwanese," sighed the lifeguard "not a word of English."

Still Marco, current holder of the coveted yellow leader"s jersey, is confident they won"t have any communication problems by the time the remote competitions kick off tomorrow - and he"ll have an Italian journalist in his Range Rover Sport.

By nightfall, the competitors, staff and 54 media had swapped air-conditioned luxury Thai hotels, for Norwegian biodegradable toilets, boil in the bag food and a campsite on the Lao bank of the Mekong. Let the remote competition begin!

2006/04/25 I 17:35 CET I Editor:

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