I knew this moment would come. The moment of deepest regret that follows a moment of solemn defeat. It’s the second you realise that the car you’ve been hurling around the backroads of southern Laos in is inextricably wedged in the deepest of sludge, half-way between the ferry and the river bank; the back wheels spinning, the engine roaring and grunting and the clutch stinking like an electrical fire in a tannery.

Desperation, hopelessness and regret as the 20 Laotian guys stare at you, annoyed, with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths. Why didn’t we just take the main highway? Why didn’t we ask someone what the road conditions would be like? Why didn’t we just go backpacking?

We’d been travelling north of the Laos/Cambodian border and had ventured eastwards from Pakse to visit Tadlo Waterfalls. The next day, rather than take the sealed road back west to Pakse and then drive north to Savannakhet, we looked at the map and decided to take a more adventurous route travelling north first to Muang Phin, then heading back west. But the problem with trying to navigate in developing countries, is that they’re developing countries – roads change – and between our map and garmin, we couldn’t figure out which road we were meant to be travelling on. We drove til lunchtime on a sealed road that we thought was right, but shortly after lunch in turned southeast, and we realised we were wrong. After backtracking to the turnoff, that was the last we saw of the sealed roads, and after two more attempts up dirt road turnoffs we thought we were onto a winner – until we ran into a team of workers crowded around a Troopy marked ‘UXO’

‘What’s UXO?’ I asked Joe inquisitively.

‘Unexploded Ordinance’ he replied. I looked across at the metal detecting equipment. It seemed that this was the wrong road.

After getting some directions from the UXO team, we gave up on this route and decided to drive the 60k or so to get back to the main south/north highway – it was 3.30pm and we’d already been driving for 4 hours and were only about 50ks away from where we’d started. The unsealed roads were so potholed and churned up that the journey was horse and cart speed. But the GPS knew where we were and was guiding us back to that main highway. She just forgot to tell us about the river.

We rounded a corner and our hearts collectively sank as we saw the 100 metre wide river, but a little further, we spotted a small barge ferrying motorcycles, and further along, a larger barge with a truck and a ute was just about to push off the shore. Hurrah!

It was a steep, slippery, muddy road down to the barge. The operator signalled for us to wait whilst they lowered the ramp again, but all I could see was that they were lowering it straight into mud, and the path dipped harshly just before the ramp. One guy jumped down to test the mud; it was over his knees. But they decided that that was ok, and waved us on.

I know nothing about 4 wheel driving (or the maths of angles for that matter) so I shut my mouth and let my anxious face do the talking.

We revved down the hill and onto the ramp, but it wasn’t fast enough and with a massive crunch we came to a stop, our front wheels on the ramp, the toe hook jammed on concrete behind (buried beneath inches of mud) and the back wheels suspended, spinning.

As only I know how, I immediately imagined the worst of scenarios; we’d scrape a massive hole in the fuel tank; we’d demo the bottom of the car; the ferry would pull away and we’d sink like quicksand into the riverbed (I’m quite inventive when it comes to paranoia)

But conundrums like this must happen all the time here, because immediately the guys running the show spotted the emergency winch that we’ve been lugging around strapped to the bull bar, and they sprang into action.

I opened my door and tentatively touched the liquid mud with my shoe, and then decided I’d best just stay in the car. I am a lady after all.

The first winching attempt failed when their rope came loose and another loud crack sent the toehook back onto the concrete.

But the second attempt proved more fruitful; after the loudest of creaking as the winch was manually jacked up by two Laotians (both with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths), Joe revved the car only inches forward, and we were on the ramp.

I’m sure that operating a winch a metre or so from a 2.5 tonne truck that’s revving towards you, in the mud, on a small barge, with no-where else to go isn’t the safest move in the book, but hey, this is Laos.

As we took our place on the barge, beers were handed out from our fridge and we paid the operator 50,000 Kip for their troubles. Then we both sat in the car, keen to avoid the stares of disgruntled passengers who’d had to wait throughout this 40 minute ordeal.

Back on the road the next 40 or so kilometres took about 2 hours. As the sun was setting over the rice paddies, we ploughed along the dirt road, through mudfield after mudfield, holding our breath through every stretch, certain we were going to end up bogged once more.

But just as the night set in, we saw the tarmacked turnoff in the distance, and after much swearing, a few coca colas and some loud music, we broke out the ‘nightstalkers’ and burned up the highway, 170km to Savannakhet.