Thursday, 14 June 2012

Day 79 - Car incidents. (Laos)

We’ve really done well with the car so far. Other than a minor ding in Thailand (Blog Day 34 - Car accident #1), and an embarrassing realisation that we don’t get as many kilometres on our LPG tank as expected (Day 2 - Adelaide/Balgowan), we just haven’t had any car or driving related issues. Then almost three months into our trip, we suddenly experience two minor but somewhat eventful incidents within the space of three days.

The first was two days ago, on a narrow and winding mountain pass where we stopped to take a photo of the spectacular view over the surrounding mountains.  We’d just visited the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which required us to traverse a fairly rocky and holey path for several kilometres, a few rickety wooden bridges along the way. So after stopping for a moment to snap a shot out the window, we continued a few meters down the hill and realised we were now driving on three tyres and a rim. Fortunately we had the foresight to employ Denner on an embarrassingly low salary to come on the trip as Car Man, and it was only a matter of minutes until the spare wheel was off the roof, the other wheels were secured with rocks (Ben and I did a really great job of finding three appropriately sized rocks), the boot was unpacked in order to get the hand jack out of its spot right at the back with all the other things such as the medical kit that we think we’ll never need but keep having to drag out, and the process was under way. Turns out being prepared with the right equipment is a good thing – that’s what we pay Denner for. The only issue we came across is that he hadn’t thought about the fact that a flat tyre is smaller than a new one, and therefore our chain to tie it to the roof rack was too small. Fortunately we had made the ridiculous decision in Port Klang to keep the ropes that secured our shipping container – chopped in sections and incredibly dirty – and were able to use one of them to tie the tyre down a bit tighter. We’re not sure if the puncture was from some sort of sharp rock or other object on the road, or more likely a nail or such like sticking out of one of the bridges, but seeing as I was driver for the day, general consensus is that it’s mainly because there was a woman driving. Anyway it took less than half an hour to swap tyres, and cost 25,000 Kip ($3) to repair (admittedly not the best of repairs), and happened to occur at a point that had a particularly stunning view, so no need to worry.

The second incident occurred today, and was actually quite a lot of fun. We drove from Ban Na Hin where we stayed for the night to Tham Kong Lo, which is the 7km cave that we were planning on visiting when we accidentally took the turn to Xepon instead. The drive itself was quite amazing, the road winding through a vast expanse of rice fields and villages. Some of the rice fields are deep in mud/fertiliser, some are completely covered in water like a pond, and the most beautiful ones are a sea of brilliant green, where the rice plant is growing through the water and shimmering in the sun. When the fields are ready for harvesting, the people from the villages wade out, upto their knees and higher in water, collecting their livelihood in neat bunches. And behind all this, the sheer and jagged mountains surrounding the plateau jut up out of nowhere.

So anyway, we got to the caves and paid our 5,000 Kip (60c) for car parking and 2,000 Kip (25c) each to enter the area. Unfortunately the car park was far from paved, and there’d been quite a bit of rain in the previous day or two, so we switched Trevor to four wheel drive and continued on our way. It’s pretty fun slipping and sliding between the trees, one wheel sticking to a bit of mud, then jolting us forward when it slips out, bumping over bits of rock or hard mud, and trying to go around portions of the ground that look particularly wet or deep. This of course was all very well and good until we reached a spot where there just wasn’t an around option and we had to go through a bit of track that was covered in soft mud half the height of our tyres. Needless to say, we got completely bogged. As it turns out, mud tyres can be useful, but that’s not what we had, so we had to resort to other methods. Again, it was Denner’s time to shine – twice in three days! We arranged bunches of twigs and logs in front of the stuck tyres and tried gripping to them. Not enough. We tried all the backwards and sidewards steering options, but we really were well and truly stuck. So we unpacked everything from the boot in order to get the winch out, which was of course packed with the hand jack and the medical kit and all the other things we hope we don’t actually need to ever use but keep having to bring out, and decided it best to leave the boot unpacked for the process. So with all our worldly possessions stacked up in the mud a few meters away, we got to winching. Then we discovered that the rope attached to the winch was about an inch too short to reach the most appropriately placed tree. So once again we pulled out the straps from our shipping container, which we saved for some peculiar reason, sure they’d never come in handy but somehow unable to throw out anyway. Now the length was too long to get enough tension so we gave up on the winching idea. During this whole process we had attracted quite an audience. Around twenty men who drive the boats through the cave we were trying to visit had been sitting around watching us from a distance, and in dribs and drabs had wandered over to get a closer look. A local family had also appeared out of nowhere to witness the ridiculous white people with their huge car bogged in mud. So with all hands on deck, we lined up along the rope attached to our tow bar and pulled. Straight away, the rope that’s supposed to withstand 4 tonnes, snapped and everyone flew backwards into the mud. All our new friends though, were well and truly in it for the long haul and weren’t about to give up because of a little mud. So we got out yet another rope, and with a line of pullers at the front, and a row of pushers at the back, Trevor revved and skidded and flew forwards out of the bog. Happy with their efforts, our helpers gave themselves a round of applause and Ben and Denner played Doctor to the guy who grazed his elbow during the Great Fall of Rope Pulling. We carefully chose a less muddy route back out of the car park and covered in mud, finally made our way to purchasing a boat trip through the cave, happy to give our new friends some well earned business.

After all this hoo ha, it was quite a relief to finally make it to Tham Kong Lo cave, through which we took a spectacular two hour boat trip for 110,000 Kip ($14) per boat (2 people). For the most part, they take you through the massive cave, the only light being the small head torches they use and whatever light you’ve thought to bring – we were very glad for the decent torches we’d brought along. We got out at a couple of spots – the first place was to walk through a passage lined in stalactites and stalagmites, many of them joined to each other and forming groups, sometimes metres wide and in an incredible variety of shapes. Our next stop was to walk upstream in some rapids, as the boat could only make it when it with no passengers. And the last stop was so that our drivers could sit down and have a cigarette.

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