The Loop: Day III

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Whether we do the Loop in three or four days was something we hadn’t decided until the night of Day II. Whilst discussing what time to rise we opted for a slightly easier itinerary to cover everything at a more relaxed pace. As a result we had a slightly lazier start on Day III.

We awoke at a leisurely 8am and reluctantly got out of our very nice and comfortable beds. Abbie, Sinead and I made it down to breakfast for 0830. Some of the other folks doing the Loop were already on their bikes ready to complete the rest of the 250km ride that day. Breakfast was what we’d come to expect of Asia, a choice of fried rice, noodle soup, or eggs and bread.

When we went to order our breakfast we quickly realised all wasn’t okay with our ordinarily happy and banterful Anglo-Franco coalition. Celine was on the phone in tears. It was evident she had received some bad news from home. I didn’t probe. Whatever it was, Celine was strong in mind, body and character with a speed and clarity in her decision making – in a world where no decision is often worse than a bad one – that was admirable. Camille supporting her. Camille equally impressive as Celine, strong in mind, body and character with a clear moral and decisive compass. Both Camille and Celine are tougher than the toughest teflon. It was reassuring knowing I couldn’t help as they’d have it all covered between them. It’s actually one of the reasons why I’ve liked travelling and continued to travel with Camille and Celine, we’re alike in many ways, always finding the reasoned and logical response to any situation though Celine’s patience is the source of much amusement.

After a few calls back and forth between France and Laos we were ready to go. Day III would have us do:

– a 60km journey towards the Kanglor Caves
– a few hour stop off to take a boat through the cave
– a 60km journey the way we came
– a stop off at a limestone view point
– a 60km journey to the next large town

By opting to do the journey over four days we had left a final 100km stretch of road for the next day.

We headed down the road. I made a note of the numbers on my odometer. Since we left I’d had OCD about the odometer. I always felt more comfortable knowing how far we’d travelled from our last checkpoint and how many more kilometres to our next.

After 10km we turned left at the junction that would take us down towards Kanglor Cave. As we started on the road we could see the mountains on the horizon. The road was impressively straight and resembled an American highway cutting across the Nevada desert.

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As we drove further down we were quickly flanked by mountains either side of us. We were driving into a horseshoe shaped cul-de-sac of mountains, the arms of the horse shoe reached out for 45km. I reasoned our prize sat at the back of the cul-de-sac carving out a second entry and exit point to the large flat valley created by the mountain range.

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I checked my odometer again calculating the next leg of the journey. The 45km ride down was very impressive, with yet more beauteous landscape.

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Somehow we managed to resist the urge to stop every kilometre for a picture, just about.

As we became comfortable with each other’s driving, we broke our formation and I started to lead our Anglo-Franco troop towards the cave. 20 minutes later we were there.

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We covered the entry in, secured our valuables in the lockers and made our way down towards the cave.

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Now, I’m sure you’re all bored of seeing caves from the last few posts on my blog, but pause for a moment to think about it from my perspective, I had just spent a few days hiking, climbing, trawling and crawling through caves. I needed this to be something special. And it was. It was impressive beyond any pictures ability to serve justice to this landform. The cave was the largest cave I had ever seen. It’s darkness completely enveloping were it not for the head torches provided to us. In the darkness it was hard to estimate the vastness of the cave. It felt like it was 40 feet in height but it’s fairly difficult to say. There were impressive rock formations some of which were explorable by tourists…

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The rest of the cave took 45 minutes to ride through. Our highly skilled guide comfortably steered us through the cave showing off his impressive knowledge of the cave layout. Always finding the next obstacle or corner with his head torch within seconds and steering us safely. The ride wasn’t all easy sailing, there were times we needed to get out of the boat or help him pull the boat up through some rapids but these were merely trifling obstacles for our well versed guide.

We finally reappeared to the suns welcomed warmth through a slightly smaller opening on the other side. After a few minutes we docked near a small village. Unfortunately much of the village life was so far down a road it was difficult for tourists to get to. We were only exposed to a seating area and a few shops placed there for the benefit of tourists to buy snacks and water (I suppose for the benefit of the locals).

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After eating a few biscuits and a bag of nuts each, Camille and I went for a little wander up the road. The early afternoon heat was beating down on us. The lightly coloured dirt road only intensified the heat. We only walked for 10 minutes before turning back. We saw a lot of construction work…and of course a communist nod to the most famous T-Shirt in the world.

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After leaving the cave, Celine was becoming increasingly worried having been out of communication with home for a while. I gave Celine a hug and said “I don’t know what’s going on and I know you ladies are dealing with it, but if there’s anything I can do just let me know. Otherwise I’ll just keep being silly and joking.” Though unable to help the situation, an offer of support lifted her spirits and she responded “Just stay on good form with the jokes” with a smile on her face.

At about 3 o’clock we were back out of the cave and riding away. We had two pressing but related tasks, the first was to find food. The second was to find food at a restaurant with WIFI so Celine could check in with home After a 5 minute ride around on our bikes we find a restaurant with WIFI that just worked well enough to carry the messages from the middle of a valley enclosed on 3 sides by a mountain range, half way around the world to France and back again.

After a bang average meal of Pat Thai or fried rice that hit the spot because we were hungry we got ready to set off again. Camille and Celine talked for a moment, then Celine approached me and said she would like to ride back to Thakek (the town where we started our journey 3 days earlier). She said she’ll ride alone to clear her head and wanted to be at this transportation hub for better WIFI to call home and more importantly to be within 6 hours of an international airport should she need it.

I knew her mind was made up and I knew her character so simply responded “Ride safe. I assume you’ll message Camille when you get there safely?” She said yes. I wanted to say ‘don’t do anything stupid’ but resisted the urge to sound like an annoying parent to a fully grown woman. With that she rode off fast into the horizon at 4pm. My mind raced through a number of scenarios of what could go wrong and I let my train of thoughts rest on, if anything goes wrong it’s best it happens before Vang Chong – Camille, Abbie, Sinead and my final checkpoint that day – and that I hope she drives fast enough to minimise the amount of time she drove in the dark. It was 4pm with 120km to Vang Chong she could reach it by 6pm, at the very latest. But after that she had 100km or so to ride which would take another two hours. That would have her riding through 1.5 hours of darkness. With those final thoughts I stopped thinking about because there was nothing I could now do.

I once again checked the odometer before we headed off. We resumed our formation but this time with three, Camille led the way at the front armed with the map from the bike shop and Maps.me on her iPhone. Sinead and Abbie followed second and I tailed behind with the First Aid kit. Before we left I instructed Camille we needed to average 60kph to get us to Vang Chong within two hours. She said we usually do 60kph. I needed to only reiterate the word ‘average’ and she knew what I meant, we would drive with a top speed of 70-80kph on the straight road so that when we need to slow through the windy mountains we’d average out at 60kph. With that Camille shot off and created a good pace for us all to follow.

As always with the sky so low in the sky, the valley filled with some extraordinary colours streaming in from the Western walls of our cul-de-sac on our left. We had the brown earthy road underneath us, to our left were vibrant green rice fields, then stretches trees, in the distance the mountain range shot up fast lifting the trees into the sky with it and finally the sun created a red and orange glow. We didn’t stop for pictures because we had an average speed to maintain but Sinead had her camera out and managed quite a few snaps in her comfy passenger seat behind Abbie. She has kindly given permission for use of those pictures in this blog.

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With a beautiful array of colours feeding our eyes more warmly than a rainbow, we were also treated to watching the locals unwind. It was the end of a long busy day; along the road farmers were riding their tractors back from the fields; children were walking and cycling back from school holding colourful umbrellas; and even the animals felt mischievous as the temperature cooled, we had dogs, cats, ducks, geese, cows and pigs all either cautiously crossing the road in single file in front of us, or waiting on the side for us to pass as they stopped, looked, listened then crossed.

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We were about 15km from the junction when Camille slowed rapidly. We all gently hit our back breaks before slamming on them to come to a complete stop. Celine was on the side of the road very carefully walking her bike (in first gear with the help of the engine). She was expectant and relieved to see us. She started speaking quickly in French followed by an English translation, “I was riding along and my front tyre started wobbling from side to side. I had the same thing happen to me in Indonesia so I knew exactly what had happened. The tyre had gone flat, so I let it roll to a stop. There’s a garage about 100 metres away”. We tailed slowly in front and behind of her eventually reaching the bike shop. For a mere 20,000kip (<£2) the mechanic replaced the tube in her tyre.

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That was close. We were all relieved that she was safe. With her tyre flattening whilst she driving at 70kph, things should have been a lot worse. But she didn’t fall and she didn’t have a scratch on her. The tyre was clearly going to go, if it had happened 30 minutes later on the windy mountain roads, or worse after she passed Vang Chong things could have been a lot different. With a recently changed tyre we felt more confident with her journey. We set off with Celine at the front setting a fast pace. The rest of us kept up.

Having completed the 60km return journey back to the junction, we turned left heading away from where we had stayed the night before. I looked at the number on my odometer once again.

With the left turning, the road very quickly turned from the Nevada Highway back to windy mountain roads in the thick of rich green forestry.

Abbie’s bike’s handling was significantly worse around the mountain roads as she had two passengers on it. As we wound around the mountain roads we had to slow down so we can keep together. Celine continued at the slightly faster pace to make sure she doesn’t get caught by too much darkness on the way back to Thakek.

The temperature once again quickly cooled as the sun’s low angle in the sky created heavy shade from the trees. It was cool but comfortable, the cold air hit our face providing relief from the scorching sun that had been beating down on us through the day.

As we came over one of the peaks of the hills, I saw Camille decelerate on the side of the road. She indicated then turned into a road that led up to a little hut. We parked our bike next to hers and walked up the hill to the hut. She said “Check this out guys”. As we reached the top we saw the most stunning view of all of the valleys yet. “She said I was looking for this viewpoint. I’m glad I found it”. Frankly, so were we. I won’t use words to describe it, here’s the pictures:

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The view was pornography for my camera. As the sun descended the colours in the sky became more intense, the contrast of the picture deepened, the lit and shadowed areas rapidly changed creating a new picture every 5 minutes. Camille, cautiously eyed the time. She encouraged us back onto the bikes having taken plenty of pictures. We needed to head off. The earlier stop for Celine’s tyre had already cost us 20 minutes and the 30 minutes at the view point was eating our daylight time. At this rate we’d just make it to our final checkpoint as it darkened. We raced off as fast as we could.

The roads were windy but we maintained a steady 40-50kph around the bends and 60-75kph on the straight roads. We were making good time and would make it back just in time for the sunset. We had to slow to 30kph where we had to drive on temporary roads made of gravel and rocks as a result of maintenance work on the main road. But after the terrain the day before this posed little problem for us.

It was still light but we all had our lights on to make it easier for Camille to spot us in her mirror. We rode over another gravely maintenance bypass then sped off. As we turned the corner Camille raced to a stop and jumped off her bike. I spotted it too. I too raced my bike to stop but in front of Celine’s bike parked on the side of the road. I turned off my engine and jumped out. Celine was explaining to Camille in French fast followed by an English translation.

The English girls reassured her, “Don’t worry we’ve got a First Aid Kit. Rosh has it”. I was already opening my bag to reach for the First Aid kit as Celine lifted her arm showing the extent of the burns running down her arms.

She was still explaining, she was driving along at 50kph as she came out of the corner. Her front tyre exploded and the bike dropped immediately to the left. She said her father had told her if she’s ever in a bike accident, she shouldn’t try and stop the bike from skidding. Trying to stop a heavy bike just causes more injuries, you should just slide with it. She continued, when her bike fell, she just slid with it. After she had come to a rest, some people stopped to help her move the bike to the side of the road.

“Did you hit your head, does your head hurt anywhere?” I asked.
She said she had a little bump on her head but it’s okay. There wasn’t any blood…the helmet had done its job.
I followed up, “Do you feel dizzy or any nausea?”.
“No” she replied.
Phew, that would make it easier to transport her later.
“Do you feel like any bones are broken or fractured?”, I asked.
“No, I just have these burns on my left arm, a burn on my right arm. I have these leggings on so no burns on my legs. My hip hurts”.
She discreetly looked at her upper left hip to assess the damage. It looked like some bruising from the impact of hitting the ground, but didn’t look or feel to serious to her

I had the First Aid kit out. I opened it and though somethings had moved around everything was in the order we had put it before leaving and in the order we need it. The antiseptic wipes were at the top.

“Okay Celine, how much does everything hurt right now?” I asked
“It hurts a lot. But after it happened, I sat on the road and just laughed. I had to either laugh or cry, but I just found it funny. I knew you guys would be here at some point so I laughed it off and waited here”.
“Okay that’s good, save your laughter we’re going to need it. We need to clean your wounds straight away. We’ve got some stuff here, we have some anti-septic wipes and some Listorine.”
The blood drained from her face at that. She looked panicked and scared.
“No. No, no. No I can’t. Please no”.
“Celine, you’re already in pain. Your wound scraped across the ground. We need to clean it. If you think it hurts now, it’ll be a lot worse if the wound gets infected, and it will, because these roads are really dirty. If we clean the wound now we’ll save a lot of problems later. This is the most important thing we need to do right now”.
“Okay, but not the Listorine. Let’s use the wipes”, she said.
“Okay, that’s good. Before I do this, is anyone here a qualified First Aider?”, I asked
With an explosion of laughter, Celine says “I am”. She was. None of us could contain our laughter.  She said she also had a First Aid kit in her bag. Her sister was a doctor so supplied her well before she left.
“Okay, d’you mind if I clean the wound please?”, she countered to me.
“Of course, go for it.” I said as I helped her to put the gloves on.
Abigail reminded her “Dab the wound, don’t wipe”.
Celine said with a big smile masking her anxiousness about doing it “It’s like when you’re a child and you hurt yourself. And your mum says ‘I need to put medicine on it, this will only hurt for two seconds’. It never ever only hurt for two seconds”.
“But don’t worry Celine, this time it’ll only hurt for two seconds, I promise”.
She exploded in laughter once again, with a big smile on her face, she put the wipe onto the big wound on her left forearm, she took a really deep inhale and exhale.

Over the next 10 minutes, with admirable bravery Celine cleaned her wounds without so much as a yelp. She inhaled, she exhaled, she laughed, she tried to squeeze my hand but her muscles were too sore from the fall to tense. As she discarded anti-septic wipe after anti-septic wipe she left a pile of formerly sterile tissues coated in black exhaust fumes, dirt and grit that the road had imparted on her. This was one tough lady.

Whilst Abbie and I took care of Celine, Camille was already thinking ahead. She was saying as the above conversation happened that we need to stop a pick-up truck to help us get the bike to Vang Chong. Camille had unsuccessfully attempted to flag down pick-up trucks and busses but they all just waved back and drove off. One man and his wife eventually stopped. She explained the situation, pointed to the bike showing the flat tyre, then to Celline. Camille explained we need there help getting the bike to Vang Chong. The man initially reluctant as he still had a 300km journey, knew it was the right thing to do and acquiesced. Camille started helping them to prep the back of the pick up truck, moving the lady’s pot plants around the wagon creating a huge diagonal space across the back of the pick-up.

We were losing light fast. The sun was already behind the mountains, within the next 15 minutes it would set taking all the remaining reasonable light away from the shadow of a hill we were in.

Celine rubbed Sudocream onto the wounds then covered them with dressings.

Camille had come over and walked Celine’s bike over towards the pickup.

Abbie began to roll the bandage around the dressing securing it in place. She was doing a good job of nursing the wounds.

When I said Camille was tough I wasn’t kidding. The man and Camille were attempting to lift the bike onto the back of the pick-up. The man was lifting the front whilst standing on top of the back of his pick-up, Camille lifting the back of the bike (the engine!). As I looked over, however I saw the bike hadn’t made it on and Camille’s arms about to buckle. I sprinted over and grabbed the back of the bike with her. I gave one big push from the calves, quads and shoulders. It was on. Once on, I jumped on top of the car and adjusted it a little bit so that it fit within the boot completely. The man shut the boot, took out some rope from the car and secured the bike.

Camille started negotiating with the man’s wife. She asked if there’s space in the passenger seats behind the driver that they take Celline with them to the next village. The lady agreed. We then asked if Sinead could accompany her. It was almost dark, it made more sense for Sinead to look after Celine through the journey and when they got to Vang Chong. That would then lessen the load on Abbie’s bike making it more comfortable to approach the windy turns.

Celine was patched up in the car next to Sinead. The truck disappeared out of sight.

Surprised that even thin leggings had protected Celine’s legs from serious burns we all put on long sleeved and long legged clothing. We didn’t want to take chances. We covered up as much skin as we could. I looked at my odometer. I told Camille we still had 40km left, without the sun out we’d have to drive slower so it’d take us at least an hour to get to Vang Chong. We agreed that we wouldn’t aim for an average pace. It was safety first now. We’d already had one casualty who had a second lucky escape and it was now dark and we’d exhausted all the useful parts of the First Aid kit.

This was the first time any of us had ridden in the night, there we no road lights and cars tended to drive in the middle of the road and cared little for moving into their lane even once they’ve seen you. With an accident and Celine’s wounds fresh in mind we were proceeded cautiously.

After 25km I saw a service restaurant next to one of the maintenance lay-by lanes. I beeped for Camille to stop. I asked if they had any gas; they indicated there was a gas station about 5km up the road. I was on a quarter of a tank and I had the most efficient bike. Abbie’s was pulling two people so would definitely be low on fuel. Camille’s fuel indicator light hadn’t ever worked so it was a reasonable assumption she was halfway between my and Abbie’s petrol levels. Camille asked how long left, I said about 15km.

We filled up our tanks and headed off. About 20 minutes later we were in Vang Chong. A really small town that consisted of 150 metres worth of shops along the side of the main road. We drove slow hoping that we’d spot Sinead and/or Celine somewhere. As we approached the end of the road we spotted them. They were with one of the other groups that were doing the Loop from Israel. Natty, Roe, Maya and Leon were keeping them in good spirits.

As we pulled up, the light from the hotel illuminating our faces, Celine saw us and jumped up and walked over to intercept us on the way to the car park. She said “You have no idea how glad I am to see you. I’ve been so worried because it’s dark. I’ve literally been watching the road since I’ve got here”.

The remnants of the adrenalin and excitement that everyone was safe had everyone talking at a 100mph. We agreed to have showers and meet at the restaurant after 30 minutes for dinner.

Everyone met back up in the restaurant 30 minutes later. The Israelis and other guests waited for us before they ordered food. We ate together heartily and warmed up with beers.

The hotel was nothing to boast about but it had a comfortable bed. We sat around talking outside for a while and then one-by-one called it a day.

All but one of us slept well.

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