Bolivia and the Land Rover G4 Challenge

6 May 2006

Acclimatization of the mind. That is the one rock-solid benefit that international air travel offers me in this Jekyll and Hyde career that is international journalism.

The 8 or 10 hours it takes to navigate the continental divide does this for me. It gives me time to settle into my period of cranial quarantine in which I go from father/husband/neighbour/ benevolent dog walker to edgy adventure journalist.

The transition is never seamless and the hours spent in the time-space cocoon of a jet liner eases the metamorphosis. It gives me time to think about what I will miss. And it gives me time to dwell on what I will gain.

The precious moments I cherish as I take off into the drizzly Cape Town dawn are those of Beth and me, sneaking in an animated movie matinee, laughing until tears stream down our cheeks. Then going off to the ships to buy her a pink bicycle for her 4th birthday.

The chaos of supper-time, with Robert climbing chairs, Cathy nattering, the dogs alert at the commotion. Lying in bed later that night, my hand entwined in Cathy’s hair, listening to the small sounds my family makes while the clock ticks past midnight.

I will vouchsafe every one of these memories deep within me during the South American expedition. But I also know I will change once I set foot in Brazil. I will step beyond my comfort zone. I will embrace the challenge, become predatory. My senses will sharpen and I will commence the hunt. For the definitive image, for the inside story, for the sharp edge of my soul I leave sheathed when I am with my family.

I will become leaner. Meaner. A different me on an altogether different mission. But right now, I want to still be with the three people that anchor the bedrock of my life.

The weird thing is that flying used to be part of the adventure. Not anymore, unfortunately. Flights usually leave from Johannesburg, which means that I need to connect from Cape Town. And this necessitates getting up at some godawful time just after 03h00 in order to make it to check-in.

So it is no wonder that I’m a right grumpy git as we board the flight to Sao Paulo. It does not look too full, but you don’t strike it lucky twice in one day (my seat was double-booked on the red-eye from Cape Town and I ended up being upgraded to Business Class.)

But somehow, somewhere, I seem to have done a deserving deed and my row of window seats remains unoccupied. Territorial instinct kicks and I mark my space by scattering my paraphernalia around the seats. For good measure, I also sprawl lewdly and loudly hawk up some phlegm. (Well, not really, but I was quite prepared to resort to desperate measures.)

The upshot of all this is a laid-back flight, with good food, an undisturbed movie and a couple of hours of kip. Yeeha and good night!

7 May 2006

A relatively uneventful night (always a good thing, because I sometimes seem to lose it in Rio). I hook up with Martin and the rest of the SA contingent, have supper and generally get the inside track on what went down on the first two stages in Thailand and Laos.

Martin came out top dog during Stage 1, and the yellow jersey thus positioned him as a threat for the rest of the field. This meant that he was ignored during the partnership selections and ended up being paired with the much weaker Japanese competitor.

Taka held him back in some of the physical events and the upshot was that he dropped back to second place. “A lot rests on the selections this morning”, Martin said as we strolled to the event centre on Copacabana Beach.

The setting is breathtaking, with three parallel obstacle courses set up on the legendary golden sands of the world’s most famous beach. Pavilions have been set up to accommodate the crowds, and the 18 flags representing the competitor countries flutter gaily in the breeze.

The event unfolds as if perfectly scripted for the City of Rio. First off, Martin gets paired with local girl Eleonora Audra, so he has the crowd on his side navigate their first heat flawlessly to win by a comfortable margin.

This pits them against the two winners from the other heats, and you can literally feel the tension rippling through the arena. “This is an important stage to win”, Martin says, “if we can bag the points, we go into Stage 3 with a major psychological advantage.”

Facing them on the starting grid are the pairings of Greece and Australia on one side, with Russia and Turkey on the other. Aussie Alina McMasters and Michael Tsaoutos are the major threat, but the individual brilliance of Russian Dimitri Timokhen could easily swing the event too.

It is neck and neck right from the start with the three Freelanders contorting their suspensions along the metal and wooden bridges of the obstacle course. Then the athletes dash across the beach and into the vicious shore break before stroking out towards the buoys bobbing just beyond the surfline.

It is a punishing swim, with Alina and Martin matching each other stroke for stroke. Sometimes in life, Lady Luck comes a knocking and today she was tapping at Martin’s door. A bruiser of a breaker heaved up behind him and, without hesitation, he stroked into it.

It was as good a bodysurf as one could wish for, and Martin torpedoed away from Alina, the orange buoy bobbing dementedly in the roiling water. This allowed the South African to open up a small gap as they attacked the obstacle course in their Freelander.

But the gap wasn’t huge with Alina and Michael virtually breathing down their necks. While Martin had to climb along a rope into the finish tower, Eleonora and Alina set off on a final sprint. It was touch and go, but the Brazilian managed to triumph by less than a second. It goes without saying that the crowd went wild when Eleonora hoisted the Brazilian flag while Martin looked on with a satisfied smile.

Spent most of the rest of the day working on images, which is a sin when you’re in one of the world’s most amazing cities. Goes with the territory, I suppose. Did however manage to fit in the obligatory rough Rio night though, and ended up drinking Jose Cuervo out of ashtrays at a local restaurant until the early hours of the morning. Don’t even ask why – it just seemed like a hell of a good idea at the time.

8 May 2006

Helluva hangover. Not good, especially when another day of traveling looms. The logistics of transporting the whole of the G4 challenge to Santa Cruz in Bolivia go relatively smoothly but as usual there is a fair bit of hurry up and wait.

From Rio, we fly for approximately 5 hours into the west of Bolivia and land to the festive sounds of a local brass band. The municipality has pulled out all the stops and, after a smattering of traditional dancing, we are treated to speeches by everyone from the mayor to the state governor.

By the time the convoy is ready to leave, the sun is just touching the horizon. It is like an Agent Orange train steaming away from the airport, 60 Tabasco Orange Discovery, Range Rover and TDIs tail-backing into the Bolivian dusk.

To the Locals, it must look like an invading force, or at least like an Ajax supporter’s club outing. We pass through a number of small villages on the outskirts of Santa Cruz, the regional capital of the Mares area. Tiny pulperias, shadowy bars and dimly lit houses line the dusty roads and kids, dogs and locals eye us with an awed sense of interest.

It is only 30km to the camp site from Santa Cruz and we soon have a veritable tent city set up on a grassy knoll. Dome tents line up by the dozen, as if magic orange mushrooms have sprung up to salute the moon. I decline an offer of sausage casserole a la boil-in-the-bag and sneak off early for a night of lumpy sleep.

9 May 2006

Up at 05h30 for a bite of sloppy porridge (also from a foil bag) before hitting the first of the competitions. Basically the competitors have 6 or 7 possibles to choose from, and the more they do, the more points they can score. There are however, visa times set for every event and this influences the decision-making.

Take into consideration the mountainous terrain, exceptionally poor roads, your own strengths and those of other teams and what you have is a game of Bolivian roulette. But this is what the G4 Challenge is all about; strategy, planning, thinking on your feet and above average physicality in a range of adventure sports.

Team RSA/Brazil does not start off too well when they get bogged down in thick sand en route to the first comp. They manage to winch themselves out of trouble, but the ten minutes they lose will cost them at the end of the day.

They rock their way through the comps though, smoking a tough MTB course before heading into a strategic driving course via ten gates. The highlight of the day is the horse riding though. Eleonora’s Spanish ensures that they get fast horses and she sets a blistering pace right from the word go. She is a consummate rider and thunders through the pampas grassland, as at home in the saddle as a gaucho cowgirl.

Marty is a different story. He’s riding like a lunatic to keep up with Nora, but there’s no real rhythm or style. “Shit man, this hurts!” he shouts as they gallop past me a breakneck speed. From the riding, we head to a run/jumar comp an hour or so down the road.

The route is along a sandy river course, with ropes sneaking from tall forest trees. At each of these points the duo has to clip in jumar to the treetops and then plug in their dibbers. All goes well, but they miss their visa cut-off for the next event by 4 minutes. If it wasn’t for that 10 minutes of getting stuck …..

It is not all bad though, as this means we have the rest of the afternoon free to explore Santa Cruz. A good meal is in order to compliment the vagaries of a boil in the bag diet and we soon settle down at the Café Coza Nostra. Pasta, pizza, burgers, cold beers – it all goes down a treat.

Camp tonight is on the banks of a broad and sandy river and we have more than enough mozzies to keep us company. I go for a pleasant run with John Collins and Jeremy and then re-charge my batteries (body and camera) in the tent.

10 May 2006

After the morning rat-pit session, the teams race off to the first event, a multi-disciplinary compulsory competition staged within a natural amphitheatre about 30 km outside Santa Cruz. Here the competitors must kayak abseil, jumar and rockhop along the Rio Grande.

Team SA/Brazil pushes it to the max, and we’re one of the first groups to leave for the next stage. This is hard core mountain biking along a route nicknamed Red Snake. After this, I join them on a gorgeous run into a valley thick with ferns, heather and waving reeds. One of the checkpoints is inside a narrow canyon and the only way to get to it is to swim in through the freezing water, but the photographs are really great. I get the teams splashing their way through the waist-deep water while hurling curses at the organizers.

The peaks which have so far been lurking along the horizon are by now surrounding us and are rucking up with intent. Temperate forests cling to the steep slopes, with epiphytes clinging to the crowns of forest giants towering all round. It is beautiful and I can’t help but think that this is my first true taste of this amazing country.

The next competition is an incredibly steep drive up a sheer road of red rock where the competitors have to hit numbered plates with their Disco rear wheels. I run up with Martin as he guides Nora through the course, puffing and wheezing my way in the thin air of the mountains.

A final paddle on ToroTara Lake, a stunning mountain tarn hemmed in by gnarled trees, finishes off the day and then we set off to camp.

Tonight the G4 circus has set up its hundred-plus mini tops on a soccer field slap bang in the centre of a tiny village. All round dozens of villagers lean on fences and rusted bicycles, their mouths agape as they gawk at us setting up MSR stoves, downloading emails, eating boil-in-the-bag. To them, it is a spectacle of unparalleled interest, probably similar to how I would react if a tribe of Venusians set up camp in my backyard.

Some of the guys play football with the local kids, but I make it my mission to find an alternative to a meal of processed sausage casserole. Luck’s up and I manage to find an old and toothless crone killing scrawny chickens and popping them into a giant bubbling cauldron. The end result is a palatable, if very watery, chicken and potato stew, but this goes down quite well with a couple of empanadas on the side.

Bollocks-rattling freezing. And that was inside the tent with my sleeping bag wrapped around my entire being. Problem was, after 15 minutes inside your cocoon, you’d be going on the boil and would have to pop your head out into the sub-zero tent interior only to feel your ears and nose turning into ice blocks.

I survive though and pop out of my orange dome into a world glittering with frost. Breaking camp is an achingly cold business, but by the time we get to the running/orienteering comp, the sun has lifted above the saw-blade peaks to warm things up.

Things don’t go well for Martin and Nora. The one point is incorrectly plotted and they abort after 15 minutes. The drive to the MTB stage is over 3 hours long but once they get there, a wrong route choice costs them at least 20 minutes. To make matters worse, they get to the driving leg to find themselves way back in the competitor queue.

Decision-time, not only for Team SA/Brazil, but for me too. Twenty windy-windy kms down the road is La Higuera, the tiny village where Che Guevara was executed. I’ve always had a bit of a fascination with Comrade Che, and this is a chance in a lifetime to peek into the past life of one of the world’s most famous revolutionary celebrities.

The deciding factor is when a Discovery with a Greek photographer decides to head that way. I manage to weasel my way into the vehicle and sit back as we navigate the tortuous mountain passes running past picturesque little villages. We stop off in Pucara, a pretty place brimming with off-beat campesinos, rancheros and a generous dollop of local flavour. I end up in a grandmother’s living room; great pictures and a long conversation in Spanish, seriously taxing my “uno Cerveza, por favor” phraseology.

La Higuera is an unassuming and dirt-poor place, but the colourful memorial to Che is a must-see. I’m not a true disciple, but I can feel something stirring deep inside and have to mutter “Viva la Revolucion” under my breath. I find an open little general dealer and go in to buy a coke, but end up spending 20 Bolivianos on a packet of biscuits, a bunch of coca leaves and a quart of beer.

I do this purely because it is a magical little shop. The product range is confined to two shelves, the walls are adorned with a mix of religious prints and calendar pin-up girls, and at a rickety wooden table, three of the world’s cutest kids are drinking glasses of raspberry refresca. Their names are Xavier, Maria and Rodrigo and their smiles beam through multiple layers of grit and grime.

I leave after finishing my beer, leaving them the packet of biscuits and the change. The place where Che was captured is close to the village and we decide to take on the steep walk into the wooded canyon. It is a stiff tramp along a rugged trail, but 40 minutes later we’re at Che’s Cave to get the regulatory pix.

We drive back to Santa Rosa’s Camp, where we will spend the night. We pitch our tents on the sand bar and watch the moon rise over a fuck-off big landscape which, if you could import a heard of desert elephants, would look on a hair like Kaokoland.

11 May 2006

Big charger of a day for the athletes, with the Stage 3 Final poised on knife edge. The organizers have pulled out all the stops yet again, with a spectacular multi-disciplinary course set out.

First up is a mass bridge swing with all 18 athletes plunging off a span bridge in unison. Then they have to jumar back up to the top before springing off on a very sandy 2 km MTB track. Out of the saddle, the guys then sprint up-river, grab their kayaks and blade full tilt back to the bridge.

I set up a wide angle shot for the jump and ratchet off a dozen shots on motor-drive. You can sense the urgency in the athletes, with some of them pumping their jumars while half-way through the pendulum swing.

Martin suffers from the word go and manages to twist him and his ropes into a total knot. I can see the desperation on his face as he eventually rips the rope through the friction device with his teeth. He eventually makes it to the top in second-last place and sets off on the bike pumping like a maniac.

I run up-river and wade into the water in one of the rapids to grab close-ups of the competitors as they flash past. Martin paddles like a demented man and has made up a good nine places, but he is too far off the pace to get a sniff in on the leaders.

It is a bit of a downer for the SA contingent, but the drive from here to Sucré is so incredibly beautiful that there is no way that you won’t end up with a smile on your face. Thousand metre high peaks, eroded valleys, tiny mud-brick villages clinging to 3,000 metre slopes, a patchwork of miniscule wheat fields waving in the breeze and everywhere you look, 3 foot high ladies in bowler hats and colourful shawls that look as if they have just stepped out of a National Geographic Magazine.

It’s a helluva drive and it takes us a solid 6 hours of driving to get to Sucré. This high-altitude city was once the cultural capital of Bolivia and it brims with beautiful examples of Spanish colonial architecture. Whitewashed clock towers, gabled cloisters and cosy shops abound, and the local Bolivian people are pleasantly urbane and cosmopolitan.

The Bolivian girls are exceptionally pretty; smouldering, dark-eyed looks, black as coal hair and latte skin combine in a look that is half Spanish and half Egyptian. Every second one of them could be a dead ringer for Cleopatra and walking along the streets is not an unpleasant experience in any shape or form.

We gather at 19h30 in the historic square of one of the cloisters for the announcement of Stage 3 results. It is good news for us, with Team SA/Brazil clocking up a valuable stage win. This means it is party time and I’m only able to slip away from festivities well after midnight.

12 May 2006

Decide to spend the morning at the Parque Cretacico looking at the world’s biggest dinosaur footprints. Sucré’s Dinosaur Park is one of the city’s main attractions and is situated in a working quarry approximately 20 minutes out of town.

While mining limestone, the owners discovered more than 5,000 different footprints along a sloping face. Apparently this had once been the silted bottom of a large lake and, when it dried up, the dinosaurs left their tracks in the mud.

Sucré’s city council is currently trying to raise funds to conserve the tracks left by T-Rex’s, Gigantosaurs, Diplodocuses and a host of smaller creatures. This is a major obstacle and currently it seems as if these tracks might soon be obliterated by either the elements or the necessity to resume mining operations.

Back in the city, I happen upon an indigenous dancing display. It is presented by the Quecheua people and they’re dressed in colourful masks, monster suits, robes and hats, and it makes for an amazing spectacle. I chat to one of the musicians, but eventually give up when I realize that my sober Spanish is way off the mark. Seems to work better after a few beers, somehow.

Later on, I wander into the back streets networking away from the central plaza. It is chockablock with the usual arts and crafts shops but the prices are good enough to make me dip my hand into my pocket a few times. After all, I can’t head home without the requisite peace offerings after 2 weeks away from my precious family.

I eventually traipse back to the hotel, laden with ponchos, silver trinkets, jerseys and other types of colourful cloth. There’s not much time before the evening’s G4 function, so I head back into the dusk after a quick shower.

The highlight is Team Selection, as this will very much influence the outcome of the final stage. Our contingent breathes a collective sigh of relief when Martin is chosen by Pablo, the Argentinean competitor. He is relatively strong, but the major boon is his fluent Spanish. This is sure to come in handy and I can see Martin is on a definite high.

13 May 2006

Time to leave the lovely city of Sucré and get back into camping mode. We all meet on the plaza with the new media contingent bug-eyed with excitement. They’re snapping pix of everything, but I suppose I did too on the first day of the challenge.

From the plaza we head out by convoy towards the Altiplano, the high altitude plain stretching along the Andean foothills at around 4,000m. We stop in the city of Potozi at 3,900m, apparently the highest city in the world. It is quite a beautiful old place, with a mix of Baroque and indigenous architectural styles.

We’ve now reached our highest segment of the journey up to now, with the GPS topping out at 4,180m at one point. We wind our way through desolate valleys, along remote and grueling gravel tracks, occasionally passing herds of surprised-looking alpacas.

These half-sheep, half-giraffe creatures seem as astonished at our convoy’s passing and, given half a chance, will come and check you out at close quarters. The landscape they are wandering through can be described as desolate at best, but intimidating or “pissed off on a grand scale” is probably closer to reality.

Yet people live here. Tiny stone and mud-brick dwellings dot the bare slopes and every now and then a campesino would pop up on the horizon. What they survive on boggles the mind – straggly brush, wind-blown dunes, spiky cacti and knife-edged shale shuck up along the plains, and this is not the most benevolent place in the world.

We reach camp just as the sun succumbs to night. The temperature has already dipped beyond zero, and by morning the in-car temperature will be -10° Celsius.

14 May 2006

Last night would have reduced even a tough polar bear to whimpering. I had come prepared with ski socks, thermal underwear and a magic CapeStorm down jacket, but I can still feel the chill biting into my bones. The thermal sleeping bag offered a slight reprieve, but there is no way to really cocoon yourself in well enough to escape the big chill.

The road to Uyuni is a rough one, and so it should stay. This is a fly-blown, dust-bowl, armpit of the world kind of town and you’ve probably committed some heinous sin in a previous life to end up here. But you have to pass along these potholed streets if you want to reach one of Bolivia’s most memorable natural phenomena, the Salar di Uyuni.

These are the 12,000 km square Salt Pans of Uyuni, the largest of their kind in the world, and right now they spread away towards the horizon like the plains of Alaska after 6 weeks of heavy snow. It is an impressive sight, especially when more than 60 tangerine orange Land Rovers charge onto it.

We blast past local Bolivian salt miners who still work their claims with a pick and shovel. They laboriously pace out their claims and then set to work shoveling the salt into dozens of metre-high heaps. Ancient trucks, rusted and puffing acrid clouds of diesel smoke, then do the rounds picking up loads from the individual claim owners.

The lean on their spades as we thunder past, eyes inscrutable behind their dark glasses and wrapped up faces. About half an hour onto the pan, we stop off at the famous Salt Hotel. Like its frozen counterpart in Iceland, it is completely constructed from blocks of salt. Even the furniture inside is carved from the stuff.

A reception committee awaits us here and we’re treated to traditional dances, singing and the customary speeches from a number of local and provincial government officials. But then it is time to move on to the Stage 4 Start, a multi-disciplinary competition involving mountain biking, mountain running and vehicle navigation.

The location is Cactus Island, a 200m high rocky outcrop towering above the Salar. Giant euphorbia cacti stand guard all over this desolate and dry island, lending it an eerie feeling akin to that of an alien planet.

The tasks include a MTB spring to a point 4 km away on the pan as well as a run to a point at the summit of the outcrop. Team members split these, with Pablo choosing the bike and Martin slogging it out with gravity up the peak. The two athletes both do well, but a bit of hesitation means they only manage 3rd place. Good news for Martin however is that the Russian, Dmitry Timokhen only came in 7th, allowing the South African a major gain on his main rival.

Afterwards we do a Media competition where the journalists from various countries have to navigate their way to flags on the pan using GPS by the shortest possible route. It’s great fun navigating along the great white nothingness and we enjoy our stint in the limelight tremendously.

The camp is like something from another planet, with neon orange tents clumped together on the vast and glittering plains of the Salar. I stand atop a Landy and take pix as the as the sun dips down over a distant volcano, knowing that this must rate as one of the most unique experiences of my life.

15 May 2006

Wake up on the Salar de Uyuni just as dawn creeps is from the east in pinks and purples. Fortunately the temperature is surprisingly mild at around zero degrees, and we can therefore enjoy our morning coffee in relative comfort.

Everyone is quite adept at breaking camp by now, and it only takes a few minutes to take the tents down, roll up the sleeping mattresses and bags and stuff everything into the fleet of purring Land Rovers.

The mission today is to convoy across the Salar for a Strategy Pit at Uyuni before bombing to the first camp site. Martin and Pablo score quite well, despite one driving mistake, and head out to the MTB session in a buoyant mood.

The scenery we pass through is grandiosely off the scale, varying from rugged red peaks to gently undulating mountains rucking away towards the skyline. In the distance, their big Andean cousins stand tall, thrusting their snow capped summits proudly against the powder-blue sky.

As we travel south towards Camp 15, amber cliffs tear skywards. In places, massive caves have been converted to kraals and dwellings, with dry-packed stonewalls criss crossing the slopes in their immediate vicinity. The rural Quechua people farm the way their ancestors did for hundreds of years and generally seem quite friendly. Friendly waves greet the convoy as we steam through their land and their lives.

Martin and Pablo cream the MTB and hare off to make their visa time to the orienteering competition. They’re actually 3 minutes short to make it to today’s Compulsory, but set off determined to make up time on the run itself. And they do so brilliantly, reaching the end point in 21 minutes on a course set at 45 minutes.

The last competition for the day is the said Compulsory, and what an event it turns out to be. It starts off with an 80-odd metre traverse across a deep gorge. Once the first member of the team returns the other sets off along the rope, but he then needs to abseil from the rope to land on a tyre 30m down.

From this position, he or she then jumars back to the top before traversing to the start point. Then the team needs to sprint up the canyon to a dibber point and return to the start where their MTBs are waiting. The MTB course booms up another canyon and includes a scramble to a high ridge before the tired competitors finally pedal back into the finish.

Despite another hiccup with the jumaring, Martin and Pablo set a cracking pace. It is dark by the time they cross the river to the finishing point, but they are all smiles. We navigate under a sky heavy with starts to our camp site and narrow river valley hemmed in by cliffs shooting up into the night.

16 May 2006

Absolutely freezing night again, with my water bottle frozen solid inside my tent. Slept OK though with my head tucked inside the sleeping bag to warm it up with my breathing. It feels as if my fingers are freezing off while I break down the tent.

The team is raring to go this morning and does really well on the biking leg. Then it is off to a 6-rope abseil and jumar task along a 20m high sandstone cliff, where Martin finally lays his jumaring bete noir to rest. He spiders up and down in record time, finishing off the 6 tasks while Pablo still has two to go.

We’re now truly onto the Bolivian Altiplano, and the wide-sky horizons are vast enough to induce agoraphobia in even the most secure traveler. The vegetation is similar to the South African Karoo – angle-high scrub and the occasional cactus poking up between a brittle mix of jagged rock and red earth.

The Chilean border lies approximately 200 km to the west, and the snow-capped cordilleras making up the Andes tower above the arid pampas plains. It is cold out, with the thermometer nudging into single figures despite the sun hanging high in the sky.

I can feel the altitude every time I run with the athletes, but am fortunately one of the guys less affected by the elevation. This does not mean I don’t puff and wheeze as I bomb up Heartbreak Hill in the wake of Martin and Pablo.

The plucky little Argentinean is on tow most of the time, attached to Martin’s pack by a stretch bungy cord. He does not give an inch though and soldiers on as best he can. It is a bit like watching Don Quixote and Sancho Pancho, with Martin charging at imaginary windmills while Pablo determinedly bobs in his wake.

It has been a consummate day with everything falling into place for Team SA/Argentina. But shit happens. We’re on our way to the compulsory competition when it hits the fan. The approach to the start area is via a sandy river bed which has been pulverized by the passing of dozes of 4x4s and the Landy in front of us gets bogged down.

We manage to squeeze past on the outside but it isn’t looking too good. “Gas it”, Angus shouts from the back and I can see Chris’ knuckles whitening on the wheel. “I’m not feeling confident here”, he says through clenched teeth, just as we surge forward and seem to shrug off the suck.

But the planets do not align. The bluebird of happiness does not chirp up. This does not look to be a happy ever after story and the mood in the Disco snaps from euphoric to panic stations in the blink of an eye.

We hit a depression at speed, the nose lurches skywards and when we smack back into terra firma, we stall and sink right down onto the chassis. The chips are well and truly down; it is 15h48 and we have exactly 12 minutes to make it to the compulsory ….

“Martin! Martin! You better come back for us!” This is Chris, and his generally calm exterior is showing the odd crack. He was one of the top competitors in the previous G4 and getting stuck was not part of his game plan.

Twenty seconds later Martin is back on the scene, looking grim. He directs Pablo, getting him to reverse along the sandy but solid river bank. Chris and the journalists pitch in, running back with the tow rope and attaching it to the wallowing Land Rover.

Pablo guns the motor while Chris revs up the Disco, but it is well and truly stuck. The tow ropes tremble with tension and I can see the whites of Chris’ eyes through the mud-smeared windscreen. “Use the winch”, Martin shouts, gesticulating at Pablo to reverse in so they can unhook the tow rope.

The winch works and inch by inch the Discovery brutes its way from the mire. Six minutes have ticked by like an eternity, and we all scramble back into our vehicle as Martin and Pablo speed off. “Shit, I’m still stuck!” yells Chris, now with an undeniable note of hysteria in his voice.

Another two minutes of frenetic activity and we’re free. Four minutes to go, one kay to cover and another bitch of a crossing lurking right in front of us.

This time we can’t fail and Chris torques every ounce of power from the engine. We hit the water like a screaming banshee, throwing up muddy veils of spray 10 metres high as we plough into the river. The Landy lurches this way and that but does not hesitate for an instant as it rockets up the embankment like a wildebeest fleeing a crocodile.

We leave the mayhem in our wake and lurch to a halt, enveloped in a cloud of dust, in the finish area. We’ve made it, literally with a couple of minutes to spare, and Martin’s accumulated points for the day are safe.

The compulsory event is a mountain bike eliminator race, with all 18 competitors going head to head along a sandy sprint course. After the excitement of making it here, it falls a bit flat for me. Both Martin and Pablo have pushed their bodies way beyond what is humanly acceptable, and it shows.

Pablo is the first to succumb to the pace, falling out in the fifth round. Martin keeps going, picking off the opposition until it is just him, Jean-Baptiste from France and Kris from Belgium. These two are both excellent mountain bikers and their final challenge proves a bit too much for the South African.

It is still a phenomenal day, with six solid events in the bag for us. Camp is on the edge of a river, with water bubbling from a small geyser close by. We all sit around the fire and watch as the sun sets on the snow-capped peaks to the north. We might only have boil-in-the-bag to snack on, but tonight it tastes like a feast.

17 May 2006

We’re traveling along the “Plains of the Buried Smurfs”. For as far as the eye can see, pointy tufts of lime green grass protrude from the Altiplano, as if tens of thousands of fuzzy haired midgets stand buried here with only their hair protruding.

It has been another busy day again, with the team starting off with an orienteering event in the ruins of an old abandoned village. From here, we head to an old mine where the guys cranked a brutal and hilly route in mountainous terrain. They did well in both and we’re now on the way to an orienteering run along towering sand dunes known as “Bolivian Sahara”.

The landscape keeps on changing. We’ve moved beyond the red rock cliffs into a region where the rock is black as coal and these magma pillars mushroom up from the plains in contorted mazes. But the vast plains, vegetated with bonsai scrub, giant lichen circles and ground-hugging cacti, remain the overriding feature.

I’m not a John Denver fan by any stretch of the imagination, but Chris fires up the sound system with “Take me home, country roads”. It’s as if the song was purpose-made for the Bolivian landscape and we crank the volume as we bump and grind our way south-east along the Altiplano en route to San Vicente.

This little town was made famous when Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid were cornered in this little mining village. They were holed up in a bank they were trying to rob, and died in a hail of bullets as they tried to shoot their way out. It unfortunately seems as if we’re going to have to give it a miss because of the tearing hectic schedule.

One of the more interesting competitions of the day is a navigation exercise in a narrow canyon. This arid sidewinder of an arroyo has been carved into the plains by years of water erosion, and you’re lost within a metre-wide and twenty metre high passage within minutes of entering the mouth.

I scramble along a side passage and up a rope to an area where the sky becomes a narrow sliver of blue high above. This is a good spot and I wait for the competitors to shoot some photos of the athletes as they navigate their way through the centre of the earth.

The “Bolivian Sahara” also provides great shots, with the snowy ranges rising up beyond the rippling dunes. A penultimate test of skill is a winching competition, where Martin and Pablo have to lift a full jerrycan out of a riverbed using the Discovery winch system.

And then, just for a final twist of the dagger, there is “Kill Hill”. This is a sprint scramble up a 500m high rocky hill, and it is a true killer. Twenty two flags had been placed along the route, with maximum points allocated to the one on the summit.

The athletes have to race off and guestimate which of the flags they can reach. If you aim too high and miss you flag, you will have to retrace yours steps and hope you get one of a lower value before it is snapped up by the backmarkers.

Martin, Kris, Jean-Baptiste and Gary go big right from the word go. It turns into a two-horse race, with Kris just beating Martin to the top. John Collins, who had carried up a cylinder of oxygen just in case, sits with me while I shoot the guys coming up.

“Hey Marty”, he shouts while sucking in a hefty breath of oxygen, “do you want some of the good stuff?” Martin’s face goes from haggard to disbelieving before he breaks into a huge grin. “You bastard”, he shouts, giving John the finger.

This is the last team competition of the 2006 G4 Challenge, and the athletes wait for each other before trooping down the mountainside. One can sense that a close bond has been forged between the 18 athletes and whoever wins, they will have gained 17 friends over the past four weeks.

18 May 2006

Today is the final for Stage 4 and the last day the athletes will compete as a group. It is a relatively late start, with the convoy leaving camp at 08h00 sharp and bound for an undisclosed Stage Final venue.

The pass we navigate on the 90 km route is a killer, with insane drop-offs of hundreds of metres gaping alongside the narrow dirt road. The landscape is no less breathtaking and is reminiscent of scenes from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Erosion has eaten away at slopes nearly a thousand metres tall, carving out spires and gullies and towering blocks, as if unseen tribes of orcs might be waiting in ambush in a thousand unseen nooks and crannies. We peak at over 4,400 metres and then ever so slowly start winding our way down through the Mordor meets Mayhem landscape.

I don’t know who the road engineer was, but Thomas Bain could come and learn a few tricks from him. In some places, it is so narrow that you have to hug the cliff or your wing mirror will be sticking out into deep space.

We reach the Stage Final venue after approximately 3 hours drive and the first thing I spot is a massive condor. These birds of prey can have wingspans of over 3 metres in length and are South America’s premier raptor. I gather from one of the locals that the valley is called Valle Condor and that there are two pairs that return here every year to nest.

Towering red earth cliff stack towards the sky, with hundreds of tall cacti spiking the skyline. Through this, the 18 competitors will race along an MTB, running and scrambling course. It is an eliminator event again, with the last three countries falling out after every round.

Martin sticks to the front bunch for the first 3 rounds, but then ups the pace to take the lead in the penultimate round. The 3 usual suspects make it into the final. JB Calais from France, Kris from Belgium and Martin from SA.

When the siren goes for the final, JB blows during the MTB segment and immediately falls to the back of the pack. Martin and Kris duke it out for the next couple of minutes, but the Belgian is stronger and powers away from Martin to comfortably win the fourth stage.

We stop in the town of Tupiza to stock up on provisions before continuing to our final camp. It is situated within a sheer valley surrounded by thousand metre-plus slopes, with the orange G4 tents lined up in clusters along the lush river bank.

The inhabitants of the tiny settlement of San Marcos – a collection of stone dwellings stretching along the river – have gathered at the local school to welcome the Land Rover caravan. There is a festival atmosphere in the air, with make-shift stalls selling empanadas, tamales, barbecued llama ribs, grilled chicken and a host of unrecognizable local delicacies.

The organizers have also pitched in, with 4 sheep on the spit and a few cases of local vinho tinto of dubious lineage. For the 14 competitors now out of the race it is party time, but for the 4 guys still in the final, a tough night looms ahead.

19 May 2006

Time for the showdown at San Juan River. Within the context of the cowboy country we currently find ourselves in, this seems a very apt name for the Land Rover G4 Challenge Final.

We’ve received the plan for the event and it seems absolutely mind-blowing. The competition kicks off with a zip wire slide across the river, after which they have to solve a maze puzzle. Kris catches up about half a minute of the 40 second deficit, but the pedaling section down the river is Martin’s strong point. (He has won the Duzi six times, so no wonder.)

He’s nearly a minute ahead by the time he gets out of the water, with a MTB sprint back up the gorge. Through the lens I can see 100 percent proof determination etched on his face. All that waited now was a flat-out sprint to one of the waiting vehicles and a down-river dash to the final puzzle he has to solve.

From all the letters of the alphabet, Martin has to put together all the first letters of the other competitors’ names. This seemed to take an interminable age of heartbeats, especially when Kris sprinted in after a minute.

And then it all comes together. Martin bursts away from the puzzle zone at pace, sprinting upstream to his prize – a shiny Range Rover parked on a small island right in the middle of the San Juan River.

The South African looks over his shoulder and a huge smile breaks onto his face. The R850,000 car is his, but more than anything else, every one of the competitors know that he is a worthy winner. He worked harder than anyone else, got on like a house on fire with his fellow athletes and made time for every individual on the event. Go Marty, you good thing!!