The Land Rover G4 Challenge recce team has an enviable job for those adventure enthusiasts amongst us. They travel to far-flung destinations to kayak, climb and 4x4 drive in search of competition sites and routes that will make up the 2006 Land Rover G4 Challenge. During May the recce team traveled to Southeast Asia to delve deeper into the gems that Laos has to offer the Challenge.
The three weeks of tiring schedules covered approximately 4500km of Laos terrain and identified 80 potential competition sites for further investigation. Among them, a mountain-logging track revealed a challenging driving route through aggressive jungle-like flora made up primarily of dense bamboo. Dehydrated rice paddys exposed an orienteering playground and a network of mountain caves make for a perfect traverse and climb activity. The culture, scenery and people of Laos promise a fascinating, challenging and colourful journey for the eighteen competitors in 2006.
Freelance journalist John Arlidge accompanied this recce for a few days, and tells his own story...
The Land Rover G4 Challenge recce team are on a mission, they are in Laos host country for the second Stage of the 2006 Challenge. They are searching for a route that will take them north through the jungle to the Se Noy River, a tributary of the Mekong. John Arlidge joins them at the Savannakhet border post in the heart of Asia's Golden Triangle to find out what it takes to identify the locations that make up the Challenge.
The man standing on the border between Thailand and Laos asks to see our passports. He examines them as if they are as valuable as the opium that is still grown in misty jungle clearings. But Vong Athit, 35, is not a border guard. He is a former mathematics teacher who gave up the classroom to help guide the handful of tourists who visit the highly secretive Communist state each year. "Can you take us to the river?" I ask. "I cannot lie. I'll try," he grins.
Guided by Vong and our GPS we start our journey through the rice paddies and over collapsing timber bridges. It soon becomes clear we are going nowhere, so we stop at the Asaphone market to ask directions. Kong, the 38-year-old butcher, tells us to "go on the road". Yes, but which road? "The road that goes to the village." Which village? "The village."
An hour later we reach "a" village but decide against asking directions. The GPS puts us at 20 miles away from Se Noy, so we carry on but in a tropical minute, the weather turns against us. Rain drops that sound and feel like water bullets clang-clatter off the roof and turn the track we're navigating into a flash flood. I raise the suspension and switch the terrain response from gravel to mud ruts. I'm informed by the map-reader we're getting close now. Then, disaster the road ends.
By now I'm wondering whether we will ever make it to the river. We head back to Asaphone and ask directions again. A rice farmer scratches a route in the dust with a stick. We've been driving for seven hours without a break but we are determined to get to the river by nightfall. We lunch on the move and head on north, repeating our question from village to village: "Can you take me to the river?" Finally, we arrive in Nabaka where we meet Dongsan, a fisherman. "Oh, the river Se Noy. I can show you," he says.
The first crossing is way too deep for the Land Rovers to cross but we ask a fisherman, drying his green nets, whether the river narrows and shallows. "Kaenjon," he says. It's a village upstream, says Vong. The track to the Kaenjon crossing is steep and rutted and it takes five minutes for the Discovery 3 to crawl to the water's edge. "Turn the terrain response knob to rock crawl mode and give it a go," the vehicle's axles flex and twist over each rock. After two sodden minutes the massive low-ratio torque powers the car over the last rock and on to the sandy shore on the other side.
From Kaenjon the road opens out into the Mahaxai valley. The wooden bridges on this side of the Se Noy are so rickety that I take the Discovery around the detours designed for logging trucks. After refuelling at a chemist's shop where the local medicine man dispenses red-coloured petrol out of a giant glass jar, we cross the final jungly upper reaches of the Mekong Delta, where we see the Mekong Hotel.
The giant colonnaded Soviet-style building rises next to the border crossing from western Thailand to eastern Laos. At the check-in the Vietnamese receptionist asks: Purpose of Visit. I write: "River." The receptionist smiles and points through the window at ol' man Mekong, rolling along. "Sir," she smiles, "You've found it."