As it turned out, Stage 1 was the only task which was not formed like a loop, but stretched itself in a straight line over a length of about one mile. This task started with a steep descent, immediately followed by a sharp left turn entering a pitch-dark forest following a tiny little stream. Rather quickly, it became clear this is just the beginning. The ground in this forest was soaked with water and as tricky as a swamp. The Dutch teams' rigs sank into the mud above their axles and very soon needed the help of their winches. This part of the stage is about 100 meters long (110 yards) and it is fantastic to see the men struggling through it.
Shortly thereafter, the team arrived at a small opening in the forest canopy, which gave way to a clearing of grass and moss. The tiny little stream disappeared into nothingness-an ominous sign. Yours truly allowed himself to be mislead by the appearance of the ground and stepped unsuspectingly onto the grass-only to sink into the ground to the small of his back. (It even happened to the marshal and to the Dutch co-pilots.) With mud this thick, the use of the winches and ladders became indispensable. It took easily an hour just to traverse a few meters.
At the end of the clearing, the teams were faced with a steep descent into the forest. Suddenly, the engine of one of the Dutch team's vehicles shut off and could not be restarted. Ten minutes later, they discovered that the timing belt had broken. (Unfortunate and remarkable, since the engine only ran about 47,000 miles.) The Dutch left the disabled rig and piled into their remaining vehicle to ensure they could collect one point.
Some four and a half hours later, the gentlemen emerged from the forest. The longest stretch they actually drove was about 20 meters; the rest it was a matter of winching, winching, and again winching. Afterwards, this turned out to be one of the more difficult stages, maybe even the most difficult. (During the entire event, only one other team attempted this stage, and they gave up half way through.)
Stage 1 may have been tough, but there was another that deserved a collective Wow. Stage 14 was held near the end of the event, and only the winners, the English team of Bryn Hemming/Ross Langford and Peter Whitman/Simon Butler, were capable of driving it.
The meanest part of this stage came at the end. Arriving there, after some sharp turns between the trees, the British team was confronted by a steep downslope of at least 45 degrees. Pete hadn't used his rear winch throughout the whole competition to lower himself, but he didn't dare tackle this slope without the help of his trusted Warn. Bryn took the lead, going down the slope, and at first, wasn't a big problem. Then a huge piece of rock blocked their way. Since this was situated on a steep slope, the hole behind the rock was horrifically deep and perpendicular. As an added bonus, behind the hole lay an enormous, uprooted tree that left a deep hole in the terrain. Normal people would have given up, but this term does not exist in the vocabulary of these two gentlemen. Going down the slope onto the rock succeeded, but then Bryn's Land Rover stuck itself on the huge rock. From here, it was backwards, and then another try from a different angle. Several further attempts turned out to be nothing, but then, suddenly, there was movement in the rock. Bryn grasped his chance, and by using his Range Rover as kind of a tank, together with a lot of strenuous pushing with the feet of co-pilots Ross and Simon, succeeded in pushing the rock off the slope. It was still a tricky descent, but finally they managed to get down and leave the stage successfully.
The Brits' efforts did not go unrewarded. They finished the Challenge at the head of the pack, and at the end of the competition, they were rewarded with a blue-colored trophy resembling a certain part of the male anatomy, signifying that they were the only team with "the balls to drive this section." They were deserving winners, but to give you an idea how tough the Challenge really was, even they haven't managed to drive half of the 25 tasks.
Interested parties can find a complete table of results and information about future challenges at www.aryllforest challenge.co.uk.