Yesterday it was all smiles and laughter, but today it was all mud, sweat, and tears as the real competition got under way with a 53km monster.

The gentle shimmer of the new leaves on the trees was gradually drowned out by the short stabs of powerful engines and the unmistakable chatter of a Gigglepin winch and then like a rally-raid car at full tilt Jim Marsden came tearing up the forest track... and then there was nothing... not for another 25 minutes... until Hungary's Boros Csaba ambled by in his nice looking Jeep replica.

Another quarter of an hour later and it was Cristoph Wieland in his Jeep bodied Unimog closely followed by the Prologue winner Walter Schuhmacher in his beautiful Wrangler. They wound down a steep valley into a deep gully with almost sheer sides and then had the steep banks of a couple of streams to negotiate but after the first 15 cars had passed the gully had become a thin but impassible swamp and with one car on its side with a burst radiator and another immobilised with a jammed winch cable it was easier for those behind to winch up the bank to get around... It looked like Marsden was home free... a walk in the park instead of a winch event in the forest.

There's a lot to be said for momentum
There's a lot to be said for momentum

Photo by: Robb Pritchard

I know these hills quite well. I run an off-road tour company World 4x4 and know that although they're great fun to drive most of the old logging trails around here are dead ends, but event organiser Igor Bozikovic knows the woods even better and his roadbook led the crews off to place no other vehicle has ever been, just following the marks on the trees where it was quite hard to walk, never mind race!

I was back at camp at about 4... but not many others were. Only the best teams and those who'd given up early had made it back and most of the gazebos were still zipped up closed. My car is parked next to the Pro-X team so the first person I spoke to was Yuri Selifonov, director of Pro-X, one of the world's best off-road events. “It was a nice day,” he said. “We were slow, always slow, but that is the plan.” Last year he only won a single stage, the longest and hardest, and was so far ahead of his rivals that he won comfortably, so his plan is to take it nice and easy all the way.

Opposite Yuri's camp were my friends from last year's Ladoga Trophy, Peter Timmers and Michel De Witte, but instead of the nice G4 Land Rover they took to Russia they are in Peter's 90 in the slightly less intense Adventure class. “It was a very nice and technical stage,” explained Michel. “Apart from a nasty 300 meter long swamp there was nothing too complicated. We were the 10th car out in our class and that's not so bad!”

Walter Schuhmacher was sitting with his relaxed team. “Today was good,” said the guy who had the car about 2 metres off the ground yesterday. “We had no problems apart from a few issues with the roadbook and the ground was really dry so we didn't have such a trouble with the track. I was actually expecting it to be harder.”

Today's stage claimed many victims
Today's stage claimed many victims

Photo by: Robb Pritchard

Someone hoping that things were a whole lot easier was Peter Whitman in his huge D&G buggy. “There's no power in the engine,” Anthony, one of his team members explained. “We tried everything and think that maybe it's a problem with the cam...”

Fritz Becker in his massive Jeep didn't even get out of the camp this morning. He managed about 350 metres yesterday and now has some problems with the pistons in his big V8.

In the little G-Wagen Janez Krivic was going so fast that I thought he was in the Trophy class but as it's his co-driving son's first event he's in Adventure. “It was hard to follow the route as the trees had the marks put on them three weeks ago... it's all green now so it's very hard to see. But everything is good,” he smiled.

But it wasn't so good for the local Croatian teams today. Gordan Krota was doing well until a branch punctured the radiator. “We could have kept going,” he said. “But we thought it would be better to come back to camp. It's only the first day though, it's such a long event that one day doesn't really matter... we just had some bad luck.” He did much better than his team mate Boris Kus who smashed the rear diff just 3km from the start. “He didn't even get off the first page of the roadbook,” Gordan shrugged.

The bizarre pink buggy of Sergei Savenko had also made it back. “It was all going good,” said co-driver Denis Maltsev. “With the two low-boxes it goes up the hills really well and because it's so small and short it's easily manoeuvrable. But we broke a shock and so we didn't finish.”

In the Gigglepin tent it was a slightly better atmosphere... but only just. “We started well and overtook 3 cars straight away so I thought this is going well but the route is quite undefined in places and as we were first we lost time looking for the route. And then we got to a place where the marshal insisted that we had to cross the river and it was a damn nightmare. I am sure that the right way was to the right over the bridge and by the time we'd managed to get out Boros had caught right up with us. I was furious! And then we kept catching up with the Adventure class whose route kept crossing ours so we needed to constantly overtake. We were going well again but then had a puncture at km40. To be fair though I really enjoyed it today, but all in all I would say that we lost nearly an hour and a half... and we have a few little issues to sort... Yeah! The driver is useless!”co-driver Wayne Smith said.

Jim Marsden doing a good impression of a rally-raid
Jim Marsden doing a good impression of a rally-raid

Photo by: Robb Pritchard

“But to be fair to the organisers,” Jim added. “The roadbook was right. The problem is how you interpret it. And because it was made a little while ago the countryside looks different now.”

The organizers’ caravan wasn't exactly a hive of activity as I left for the internet connection in the village. “The marshal at the last time control has all of the cards and they are waiting for all of the people who are lost in the woods,” the guy at the laptop explained. So there are no official results from today yet, but unless someone did something amazing from near the back of the field then Jim Marsden, Boras Csaba and Walter Schuhmacher are somewhere near the top.

Tomorrow is Trophy day where crews form into teams of three or four and have to complete a short but hard section for the enjoyment of the spectators who will come from Zagreb and the surrounding towns. Then it will be the night stage... and so I am not sure if I will get out to the internet tomorrow...