Down from Dak Cheung

SITUATED AT AN ALTITUDE OF 1400m, DAK CHEUNG IS NO EASY PLACE TO NAVIGATE A 25 YEAR OLD MOPED TO AND FROM. HERE’S HOW MY JOURNEY DOWN WENT YESTERDAY…

For some reason, ever since I first heard utterance of the name Dak Cheung, I’ve envisioned is as a magical mountain kingdom, perched high on mist-wreathed peaks. The sort of place medieval travellers eulogised about. The fact it had been described to me in less flattering terms did nothing to quell my fantasy: it was somewhere I had to go.

Despite a hard 1400m climb to from Sekong to Dak Cheung, it was more than worth the effort. I spent two fabulous days poddling about the area and hanging out with a bonkers, brilliant Kiwi UXO clearance team. It was without doubt my favourite part of Laos – the only place I’ve been which hasn’t been logged to oblivion. How glorious it was to stand at the side of cool mountain roads and drink in an endless vista of jungle-clad mountains, and ride Panther across gin-clear mountain streams. Since the area is loaded with gold, rivers (hydropower) and valuable hardwood, no doubt it’s next in line. I highly recommend you go, before it’s too late.

I said a sad goodbye to the Kiwis yesterday morning and set off for Attapeu – 84 km south. Or so I thought. Mick, one of the Kiwis, had warned me about the bad road down. ‘Even our driver, in our 4 x 4, is nervous about it. Alot of it is deep sand and big rocks, so be careful.’ Surely nothing could be worse than the road to La Hap?

An hour out of Dak Cheung I stopped beside a roadside offering to the spirits. Incense, water bottles, bananas and cigarettes had been placed on a small wooden platform, the earth around its base strewn with further offerings. A narrow river gurgled in a ravine below. It was either a grave or simply somewhere  people asked the spirits for safety whilst travelling on the mountain roads. I took a few photos then kicked Panther into action and stamped her into first gear. But rather than clicking smoothly into first, the gear lever slipped uselessly through the gears. Not good. I switched her off and dug out the toolkit and my trusty Haynes Manual, thumbing through the index to find the correct page for ‘Gear Mechanism’. Flicking to the page, I was confronted with a terrifying looking exploded diagram of the inner workings of the C90 gear system. Oh no, this really was beyond me. Since the geary bits are inside the enginey bits, it meant taking apart the whole engine to see what the problem was. Nothing about the prospect appealed to me.

As I was uselessly thumbing my spanner set and peering at the diagrams, several trucks went past, the drivers and passengers all hanging out the windows shouting ‘Pai Sai?’ (where are you going?) at me.  ‘Attapeu!’ I shouted back, hopefully. All of them laughed, and without taking their foot off the gas, burned past me, engulfing me in a storm of dust. So much for chivalry in Laos.

Temporarily defeated, I sat down in the dust and wondered what to do. I knew that Mick was due to head down the mountain sometime that day, but relying on him felt defeatist. I’d have to try harder. This was the whole point of doing the trip alone, to work things out for myself. I studied the problem again, and my incompetent engineering neurons began to suspect the problem was alot simpler, and to do with the gear lever itself, rather than the actual gear changing mechanism. Just then, a cloud of dust signalled Mick’s arrival, and he got out the car laughing. ‘Oh dear, what’s happened this time?’ Mick, who’s a bit of an all-round engineering and gadgetry genius, diagnosed the problem in an instant. I was right, it was simply a matter of a bolt on the gear lever having shawn off. We stole a bolt from the number plate and within five minutes the problem was fixed.

Whilst we were doing this, Mick’s Lao driver, Lum, was busy giving an offering of incense and a delicately unwrapped chocolate bar to the spirits, muttering to himself as he did so. ‘It’s the spirits!’ I said to Mick. ‘I stopped to take photos, but didn’t offer them anything in return. That’ll teach me to take and not to give anything back’. I quickly peeled a banana and added it to the spirit’s collection, apologising for being so rude and asking for protection on the road ahead. Trips like this tend to make you extremely superstitious.

The red laterite road wound down through Talieng villages, coffee plantations, forest and patches of recently burnt trees. This time of year, just before the rains, is when many of Laos’ ethnic minorities slash and burn areas of the jungle in order to clear it for planting crops. The sight of blackened tree stumps smouldering in bomb craters is weirdly reminiscent of what it must have looked like 40 years ago. The odd Vietnamese moped passed me, otherwise traffic was limited to women and children wandering along the road, bongs and wicker baskets in hand.

At Chavane, an old French airstrip on a hilltop plateau, I turned south on the old road to Attapeu, riding through heavily scented pine forests and across parched grass clearings. I rode carefully, looking hard where I steered Panther’s wheels.  Since Chavane was an important hub on the Trail, and a target during Operation Tailwind,  the whole area was carpet bombed and is still loaded with UXO. The track narrowed through the forest, and I rode through a beautiful tunnel of pines, past a couple who were roasting skewered rats over a small fire on the track. ‘Pai Sai?’ they asked, waving a scorched rodent at me. ‘Attapeu!’ I replied, before riding off. I’d liked to have stayed and chatted to them a bit, but their fire made me nervous. Fires are one of the most common ways people die of UXO here – the heat igniting explosive that has been lying under the earth for 40 years. Round the corner, the whole forest was burning on either side of the track, filling the air with fragrant pine smoke. With flames licking the edge of the path, I pulled  the throttle, again slightly fearful of sudden explosions.

Ten minutes later I got it wrong coming down a steep, rocky hill and Panther and I went sideways, falling ingloriously into the dirt. Both the falls I’ve had have been irritatingly avoidable, and I stood up, wincing in pain and cursing my idiocy. Somehow I’d slashed my left shin, and a two inch cut was oozing blood through my jeans. I’d also ripped both my panniers. I led Panther down the hill, hopping and swearing – I couldn’t afford to make such silly mistakes, next time it might be more than a cut. There’s really no point feeling sorry for yourself when your on your own, so I pulled myself together, got back in the saddle and rode on, trying to ignore my throbbing leg. The only thing for it was to laugh; first a breakdown, now a fall, this was turning out to be rather an eventful day.

The road plunged up and down forested hills, an orange streak through the green. Soon I was riding through a wide, majestic avenue of tall trees, my path marked by red and yellow UXO markers. Further on, the road narrowed into a single track through the jungle, and I ran into a UXO clearance team. Vast reserves of bauxite have been found in this region, and the whole are is being cleared of UXO by an international mining conglomerate. ‘Pai sai poo-so?‘ (where are you going girl?) they asked. ‘Attapeu!’ I replied. One of them spoke a little English. ‘Attapeu!’ he said, raising his eyebrows ‘Oh – it’s 90 km from here. And the road is very bad, you might have to sleep in the jungle tonight. And be careful -we’ve been clearing the road ahead and it’s full of holes where we’ve dug up stuff’. To verify I asked if this was part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. ‘Yes’ he nodded ‘lots of UXO, stay on the track’.  I bumped on slowly through the trees, winding between freshly dug holes and jagged rocks, the path getting narrower all the time. At this pace I was definitely not going to get anywhere near Attapeu. I only had 1/2 a litre of water left, an old bit of bread and half a tank of petrol. And to compound it, the sky was darkening with massed ranks of thunderclouds.

I rounded a corner and there in front of me was a wide, dirt road, with people walking along it, bent against violent dust eddies. It was so surprising after the darkness and isolation of the jungle. I hit the dirt and urged Panther on, nearly jumping out of my skin at a deafening thunderclap – so loud I thought a truck had crashed behind me.  A thunderstorm – just what I needed. A few km later I came to a collection of shacks, one of which sold water. Well, at least now I wasn’t going to die of thirst, and I drank a litre on the spot, watched by 20 women and young children. ‘Where’s the nearest hotel?’ I asked, using the wonders of  Google Translate. ‘Muong Sanxai’ the shop owner replied. Muong Sanxai was about 30 km away from here – I had a chance of making it before dark.

As the road starting to really drop towards Attapeu, I passed the rusting hulk of a tank by the side of the road. The surface here was awful – deep sand, steep hills and loose rocks. Neither Panther’s tyres nor her brakes are remotely equipped for such terrain, and for an hour I battled to stop her from bolting down hill. Not only are the brakes on a C90 woefully poor, but mine have taken such a battering recently they’re barely functional, and emitting the most hideous squeals. A hamster strapped on to the wheel with paperclips would be a more effective braking solution. It was a wholly unrelaxing way to descend what was otherwise a delightful mountain road.

By five o’clock, we were still 15 km from Muong Sanxai, and my hands, arms and shoulders were aching from the strain. At several points I let out yelps of frustration, as another steep, sandy hill appeared around a corner. Then, yet again, I dropped her, precious petrol pouring out on to the sand as I did so. For the first time on the trip, I totally lost my temper, screeching furiously into the empty air. I’m ashamed to say I also lost control of my right foot, which gave Panther’s seat a vicious kick, hurting my foot much more than it hurt her. I apologised, dragged her 90 kg weight upright out of the sand and stamped on the kickstart. Nothing. That awful silence. Not even a pop this time. After more than ten tries it was clear there was no convincing her. Panther was going nowhere.

As it was getting dark and there was no traffic on this road, I was going to have  to drag her off the road and find somewhere to sling my hammock. But after a quick scout around, I couldn’t find any suitable trees, and I also didn’t feel safe sleeping so close to a road. I walked back to Panther determinedly. ‘Right girl, you’re GOING to start this time, OK’ I said  out loud. I gave the kickstart an extra hard kick and she choked into life. Oh the relief! Right, that was it, we were damn well going to get to that town tonight, even if it wasn’t until 9 pm.

More rocks, more sand, more hills. I was so determined not to fall off and to get there I screamed at myself every time I faltered or felt like I might go down again. I wasn’t going to fall off for a third time today. By six o’clock, the sun had set and increasingly frequent thunder was giving way to giant sploshes of rain. Soon I was riding through the full force of a tropical thunderstorm, the sky rent with violent crashes of thunder and terrifyingly close  fingers of lightening. As the rain hammered me, I wondered if pink mopeds were attractive to lightening.

Finally, oh finally…. lights… and I rode into what must be Muong Sanxai. The joy of seeing those lights, of knowing I had made it. To the right of the road I spied something flashing neon, and wheeled Panther down a muddy track towards them. As I got closer I saw it was a karaoke bar, and I literally rode straight into the bar, stopping next to a table of surprised men mid-belter  ‘Yeeeeeeaaaah!’ I cried, taking off my helmet and unpeeling my sodden self from the saddle. ‘Is this a hotel?’ I asked a teenage boy, in my best Laotian. He shook his head, pointing to a building 20 metres away. He showed me to my room, past all the hookers putting on their make-up for the night, not quite knowing how much to charge the first non pay-per-hour guest they’d had for a while. Never have I been so happy to get to such a grotty ‘hotel’ for the night.

(Apologies for the lack of photos – internet issues here in Attapeu. Please see www.facebook.com/AntsBK for an album of recent pictures.)