When I first found out I was joining a South African team, the Park Rangers for Expedition Africa, a 500+km adventure race, I freaked out a little. The effort it takes to even get to the start line of an expedition race, especially as an international racer is daunting. My team and I stayed in contact (despite the 9 hour time difference) via Skype and WhatsApp planning out how to get all the mandatory gear to the start line. My team was incredible in tracking down a lot of it so I had less to worry about it. That didn’t stop multiple obstacles from crossing my path before the race. On the Friday before the race’s Sunday morning start we unfortunately found that my bike had been broken during the flight.
Saturday was an extremely busy day for every racer, and even more busy for our team as we searched for a bike to use. Luckily a wonderful man lent me his wives bike and after a quick mechanic job, it was ready to ride. We had a list of things that had to get done before we could touch the start line on Sunday morning; prepare and seal bike box, abseil competency, compulsory gear inspection and so on. On top of that we participated in a community building event where we taught local kids how to kayak! The other part of our day was spent preparing our gear boxes. We had to be very strategic with what we placed in box A and box B as we would be seeing them at different transitions. For example box A we would see before our 90km trek, which also include our abseil, so we needed all our climbing gear and helmets in there. We would see box B before our cycles. We had to plan gear, clothes and food very carefully, which was an extremely overwhelming process.
As expected, the race started with a paddle into the ocean surf with plenty of carnage thanks to capsized boats making extra obstacles to negotiate. The waves were gigantic, and Shaun and I ended up in the water a few times. We made it out relatively lightly, but within 30 minutes of the start the leaders already had a 30 minute lead. A shark swimming between our boats was a unwelcomed surprise. We picked the biggest wave to ride in on and when the boat was completely vertical on the wave we knew we were hooped. Shaun and I got tossed like a load of laundry, had the kayak go right over us underwater, and we had to make a swim for the shore. Luckily we made it to the portage only a little shaken up. We headed out on the river kayak to our first, relatively easy, 12km trekking section. The scenery was incredible and we quickly realized how well matched of a team we were, because we couldn’t stop laughing. Our attitude as first time expedition racers was to take it one step at a time and not to be competitive. Other teams went sprinting past us, but we took an easy pace, knowing we had another 90km of trekking ahead shortly. The trek took us down to a river bed, where our fearless navigator brought us perfectly to one of the check-points. As we geared up to cross the river, we noticed other teams heading frantically back as they had missed the check point. We made it back to the kayaks after an awesome time hoping rocks down the river bank.
We finished up the kayak and made it to the first transition. Our navigator Craig got the maps for the leg, mapped out all the check points and a basic route to follow. (In adventure racing the only flags are the check-points, you must use a compass, the map and your navigation skills to find your way) The rest of the team prepared the food and the gear for the leg and packed our bags. We left transition 1 at 3:00, already a bit behind our schedule, but we soon learned that everything in adventure racing is always longer than you think. We started the trek with Lesotho Sky, who we decided to mark “our rivals” just for fun. We arrived at the abseil in relatively good time still in the day light but with the worst timing. The gridlock at the abseil was at its worst and we waited for over two hours but were unable to capitalize on the break as it was too early in the race to sleep. It was however a great way to talk and get to know some of the other teams! I had 2 minor panic attacks prior to the abseil. 1. My harness was way too big and the leg loops couldn’t be adjusted. Luckily the climber manning the ropes took two slings and figure-eighted them around my thighs givin the support I needed. 2. I had to abseil in the dark. When I was told to just sit back and walk off the cliff, I couldn’t do it. But luckily Matt had some encouraging words for me, “Just * do it”. I told myself I was bad-ass, and off the edge I went. The abseil was terrifying for the most part as I navigated my way down the cliff through trees and unexpected rock outshoots. I made it down in one piece to hear Shaun yelling “Can I get off the rope now?” I went to help him as the rope had tangled and he was unable to repel any farther. Luckily I kept my helmet on as a football sized rock bounced off my head.
After the abseil, we crossed another river, headed up the other side of the canyon and navigated our way to the beach, in the dark. Walking along the beach at night was a unique experience, but we were following the “highway” of foot prints of teams who had chosen the same way. We had a special encounter with the “wizard on the water”, which turned out to be a fisherman who was holding a large burning torch above his head while his sidekick had his spear at the ready to spear any fish attracted by the light. For our first night’s sleep, we were lucky to time our nap with our arrival at a checkpoint at a small lodge which had some cushioned benches where we crushed 3 hours of sleep. 3 hours was a bit longer than planned as our alarm did not wake us up in time. I was pleasantly surprised to see my boyfriend (who was on team Costa Rica) at the same place and we shared a hug before starting our second day.
Day 2 started well, spending most of the morning with Team HTFU. We dropped into a canyon, crossed a river and hiked back up the other side. We then headed over rolling hill after rolling hill, bushwacked through a swamp, and landed ourselves on a well-defined jeep track. After stopping to do some necessary foot-care, HTFU left us, and we spent the afternoon belting out our favourite tunes. We hit a nature reserve, listened to some local advice, and got a bit lost getting through the gorge south of Mkambati. Luckily we made it back on track having only lost a few hours. We again dropped into a canyon, crossed a river and climbed out the other side. This time we were with another team who hadn’t slept yet, and were already showing signs of sleep deprivation. We started a long stretch on the road which destroyed teams and is commonly referred to as the “Death March”, just as the sun was going down. Blisters and sore feet tested us but Craig did some good work with my blisters when they threatened to get the better of my mental state. Our team hit a pretty bad low, so we decided on an early sleep. With our spirits renewed upon waking up after 3 hours, I attached myself to Shaun to keep pace and then rallied in the small hours of the morning to be at the start of the canyoning section at dawn. This turned out to be exceptional timing as teams who had to negotiate the canyon at night took much longer. The canyon was so much fun and we were quick to navigate our way down the rocky river and pulled into transition 2.
We started the first cycle, 150km, in high spirits as the sun was setting on day 3. Some tricky navigation slowed our progress in the dark. We went to sleep at 1am as we knew it would be awhile before we were out of any villages. We unfortunately slept through to 4am as our alarm system failed us again. We started figuring we would be the team with the most sleep. The rest of the cycle went relatively smoothly, with initial slow progress cancelled out by a navigational master stroke. We celebrated as our kms travelled went past 70km… my previously longest ride. We also indulged in our first stop at a spaza shop, where we grabbed some coke and a few packets of “Go-Slows”. Local children crowded the streets to get a look at us and wave and say “Hello”. A calculated risk was generously rewarded when a short cut down a mountain slope actually turned out to have a road not marked on the map and we pulled into transition 4 with smiles across our faces.
Although starting the kayak slightly earlier would have allowed us to finish in the light and given us a bit more water depth, paddling with the tide helped us tremendously. We were able to navigate without much hassle in the dark and were at transition 5 shortly.
Initially we figured we would sleep at transition 5, but we pulled in at 8pm and decided to start the second trek leg of 40km. We were able to collect two check points before taking a nap. After seeing some other teams struggle to navigate in the dark, we decided to take the conservative, although longer route to the second checkpoint. Although it was against our instincts we were vindicated when we got to the second check point and we could still see other teams floundering in the dark. We found an awesome place to sleep at 3am and slept for 2 hours.
Thursday morning was the start of the end for many teams in the race, as some dodgy food or water gave many competitors an upset stomach. Immediately when we woke up, we knew something was wrong. My heart was pounding, I was sweating, and my stomach was going crazy. Our greatest fears were realized when we all had issues with number 2, and waves of nausea plagued us as we struggled our way down the beach. Apparently my Canadian anti-bodies were no match for Africa and I was worst hit. I found a beautiful spot to lose my lunch. Unfortunately we were forced to spend most of Thursday’s daylight hours sleeping as all of us felt extremely weak. We found a holiday cottage with a water tank and spent a few hours sleeping in its shade. Eventually we were forced to get up as high tide was approaching and we needed to cross the river mouth. We crossed it just in time but the roaring tide still reached our necks. After we wiped the sand off our feet, we stayed to make sure team Spirit made it safely across. We recovered our race momentum in the evening with the help of numerous locals who helped us navigate through a tricky part of the race. Shaun and I were worst hit by illness and suffered through the hike, but we pulled through in a big way to help us get to the final transition point at 1:30am.
In order to finish the final leg in time we had to start the final cycle leg by 6am, which meant we did not sleep as long as we would have. We were all finally in bed by 3 after preparing everything for the ride. We slept 2.5 hours. With 230km ahead of us, we put our heads down and headed forward. The first 40km was gruelling, with long climbs and plenty of track un-rideable. By the afternoon I was starting to show signs of extreme fatigue and illness and the worst abdominal cramps of my life started wreaking havoc. We tried to sleep it off and recuperate with some bread and ginger beer from a spaza shop, but my cramps escalated. With darkness falling, my team decided to call the medics before it became too late. I was so stubborn with the decision, but the probability of biking another 180km seemed impossible in the shape I was in. The medics were 3 hours away, so my team organised to get me to a hospital down the road. Shaun escorted me there while Craig and Matt rode the bikes to the hospital. The hospital was in pretty good condition and the nurses kindly let the entire team camp out in the emergency ward while we waited for the medics. It was my first hospital experience, in rural South Africa. I was so dehydrated it took 3 tries to start an IV on me. Shaun was thankfully there to hold my hand, as I am terrified of needles. The medics picked me up and I spent the rest of the night under the care of the races medical staff.
My team pressed on after sleeping the night in the hospital and crossed the finish line after reluctantly opting for the short course option. I was pleasantly surprised in the morning by my boyfriend jumping into my arms. He said the ride had been crazy and he was so glad I was safe. I am so proud of my teams’ strength and determination and so thankful for their care and support. We all knew we were taking a bit of a gamble when it came to inviting a stranger onto the team, but I think it couldn’t have worked out better.
There was plenty of big talk of living it up at the after party, but after the slide show, dinner and awards, we were all ready to hit the hay. Hard. Although it was disappointing not to finish the full course as a team, the experience of being in the race, seeing the setbacks that other teams pushed through, pushing through the lows and riding the highs far outweighs any disappointment.
I struggled with my decision to pull out of the race, but I realized it would have been gravely irresponsible to choose otherwise. This race humbled me deeply as I witness 40 other teams battle the elements, the course, sleep deprevation and gruelling long legs. But I also witnessed companionship and support like I have never seen. Any time a team passed another team there was always words shared, encouragement given, and smiles exchanged. Everyone was a friend to everyone out there because you all knew a little bit of what each other was experiencing. It was a truly beautiful display of human character, endurance and spirit and I am so thankful for the experience. After 6 days with such single-minded purpose to return to normal life feels empty and directionless. Despite continuing to battle a lasting illness caused by tick bites, suffering from extreme fatigue and body aches, my opinion of the race remains completely positive. I will race again.
Things which worked well in EA 2014
1. Kayak towing system
2. Fresh food
3. Peanut butter and jam sandwiches – halfway through the race they were a welcome change and probably what saved our butts after we got sick
4. Getting decent sleep early in the race – we never saw the teams who didn’t sleep the first night
5. Navigator Craig
6. Assistant navigator regularly checking the heading when off the “highway”
7. Laughing, singing sessions
8. Seeking out top notch sleeping spots.
Tweaks for EA 2015
1. Proper alarm system
2. Pannier type contraption on the back of the bike to take some load
3. Leave out tomatoes from the wraps – mmmm fizzy
4. More PB sandwiches for the last bike leg
5. More sour worms
6. Plenty of back-up tissues
7. Trekking poles
Craig and Shaun
Bruce Viaene – www.bvphoto.co.za