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LR G4 Challenge: The teams swapped their Range Rover for tak-taks.

You learn to expect the unexpected on the Land Rover G4 Challenge. After a blisteringly hot first day, including a severe test of their 4x4 ability, the teams swapped their Range Rover Sports for tak-taks, the local farmer’s motor of choice.

No amount of tuition could have prepared them for what lay ahead. The tak-tak is the poor man’s Easy Rider - a set of ludicrously long handlebars connecting an engine on two wheels to a back trailer. Instead of a 4.4 litre V8 engine and terrain response, they now had a deafening one cylinder 500cc diesel engine and the gearbox from hell.

Their task, the compulsory competition in the second remote day of the Challenge including kayaking, driving and rope skills, was known as Xien’s Tak-Tak. It sounded deceptively simple: negotiate a set of gates spread around a paddy field, pick up a couple of bundles of firewood, and use only first or reverse gear to finish in the shortest possible time.

Cue motorised mayhem, cheered on by a crowd of bemused locals. South Africa’s Martin Dreyer and Holland’s Thijs Maartense set the pace, heading dangerously towards an officials vehicle and then demolishing the first gate.

Pablo Burattini of Argentina was more successful - until gate six when his tak-tak suddenly stopped, whacked him in the back as he stood up, then veered wildly to one side, into a dyke. Voices were raised and hands waved as he and partner Kris Janssens tried to reverse.

"It should be so simple," said Pablo. "There’s just a throttle and a couple of levers but it takes a lot of movement to control it. The gearbox jumps and it stops, you put it back in gear and it shoots off. It’s hard to keep your balance. I prefer a Range Rover Sport." Kris was in agreement. "The tak-tak is so hard to make short turns. It has a mind of its own and it’s very stubborn."

But the day’s comedy award went to Australia’s Alina McMaster, who hit raised ground fast in second gear, flew in the air, landed painfully, almost overbalanced and ended up stuck behind a dyke. "We’ve got to get points for entertainment," she said. "I didn’t know whether I was going to go over the handlebar or under the wheels. The Range Rover Sport is a far heavier vehicle but compared to this it’s a feather."

Japan’s Takashi Sugiyama and Costa Rica’s Claribett Vega appeared to have far more success. A bright future clearly awaits them in the Laos farming industry after the Challenge, should they choose to pursue it. "I helped with steering and directions," explained Claribett. "But I’ve got a strapped thumb and it’s big machinery, so Tak did most of the work. The tak-tak takes off with a real pull, but we didn’t lose control at all."

Fifty-year-old Tak, and 25-year-old Claribett, the oldest and youngest competitors, are proving quite a team. "The secret’s to enjoy it," she said. "Sometimes we stop to look at the scenery. We both contribute different things; I drive, Tak navigates. It’s working well."

The job share is good news for Tak who is still nursing sore ribs after falling in yesterday’s caving competition and finds driving painful. "Today’s tasks weren’t bad for me," he said. "There was nothing too physical to strain the injury further."

But they have identified one problem - their lack of planning and strategy early in the day. "We’re the first team away in the morning and in our rush to get off, we didn’t read all the competition’s instructions. It cost us today." The price was that they spent two hours on the first competition - off-road driving to 11 co-ordinates on a dramatic rocky plain - and only completed two of five possible competitions.

And they weren’t alone. Several teams struggled to the same total, and Italy’s Marco Martinuzzi and Taiwan’s Victor Huang, who failed to notch up any points yesterday after returning to camp past the deadline, again failed to trouble the scorer. Not only did they abandon their first task, they also missed the compulsory competition. Worse was to come though, they again failed to meet the camp deadline and have now had two non-point scoring days, a disaster for Marco who started the Challenge wearing the Yellow Jersey.

While no obvious front-runner has yet emerged at the other end of the table, it’s already clear good strategy is going to be every bit as important as physical fitness or technical prowess. Teams that put in time with maps and the GPS before setting off into the beautiful but confusing Laos wilderness are proving more successful at reaching the competition points in time.

Tactics are also starting to rear their head. At today’s kayaking, the South Africa and Dutch team held back from starting, despite the day’s tight schedule, and entered the water seconds after the all-women team of Australia and Brazil. It may have been good manners, but it also gave them the opportunity to follow closely behind and see where the others located marker points. France’s Jean-Baptiste Calais also dedicated valuable time to closely studying the techniques of other competitors in the tak-taks.

It seemed to pay off. He and Spanish team-mate Gabriel Maldonado were able to complete three competitions, including spectacular Dicky’s Forest. The high-level rope course, spread around a lush rainforest, included jumaring (a method of rope climbing), abseiling and crossing between trees in front of hundreds of amazed locals.

"I’m used to canyoning and caving - activities involving ropes - in the Southern Alps," he explained. "This was really hard; you had to manage so many things. Perhaps nine of the competitors could have done it - and it may have taken them two hours. It took me twenty five minutes."

They may have missed the stunning test of their rope skills but there was ample compensation for the 16 other competitors in a superb four-hour drive to camp, past lush tropical mountains, towering hardwood trees and classic villages. As the jungle closed in and creepers scratched the kayaks and bikes on top of vehicles, they arrived at a muddy campsite soaked by large drops of hot rain. After days of sunshine and easy roads, the Challenge is properly on its way.

2006/04/27 I 19:26 CET I Editor:

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