Expedition Africa 2013 was almost missed by Team Castle Lite due to the fact that I had to attend a wedding in Mauritius of a close family member and would never be forgiven if I chose an adventure race over the wedding. After a call to Stephan regarding the situation and the assurance that the race would only be starting on Monday 6th May I arranged to fly back on the 5th and be ready to rumble on the 6th with my team.
I contacted the troops Craig ‘Snakey’ Powell, Laura ‘The Law’ De Haast and Christo “’toffel’ or ‘the Stoff’ Viljoen and our team was formed and the serious training began.
I unfortunately missed out on all the pre-race hype and preparation as I was lying on an island beach while my team was at the race headquarters getting our race boxes and bike boxes sorted. I just received the odd photo or text but was apprehensive as I am a control freak and hated not being there to help sort the logistics out.
I arrived at the race Head Quarters on Sunday afternoon and was immediately in awe of the MASSIVE landscape and escarpment looming over the Orion Mont-Aux Sorces hotel that would be our start and finish venue. The battle field looked ominous and daunting and butterflies went havoc in my belly despite the calm exterior face I was putting up.
Immediately I could feel the apprehension of the racers that had already seen the Google Earth fly threw at race briefing and when I saw the maps for the first time my mouth went dry. We would be starting with a huge 75km trek up to the escarpment and to the Tugela Falls hereafter some serious route choices would need to be made. This is all we had at the moment.
There was much discussion between teams and navigators as to the best option to take on this leg either Ifidi pass marked as “rocky” and difficult especially if there was going to be ice, or the easier but further Rockeries pass. Eventually after much thought and debate our team decided to make the decision at CP 6 Tugela Falls as to which route to choose depending on weather and the time of day we reached the falls.
Race bags packed a good night sleep and 06h30 on the 6th of May 2013 we lined up with 31 other teams including 13 international teams on the start line of the 2013 Expedition Africa Adventure Race, little did we realize then what was in store for us hehe!!!!!!
As usual the ego kicked in and the 546km long Expedition Africa started of more like a sprint race with teams sprinting down the road to enter the Drakensburg Royal Natal National park to collect the first of 4 CP’s in the park before hitting the famous chain ladders to climb to the top of the world and onwards to the Tugela Falls CP. Man did the altitude kick us in the rear when we hit 3000m. It was as if someone had dropped a bag of cement on your back, tied weights to your legs and you had a ‘moerse babalas’ our whole team felt the effect of the altitude and this coupled with the fact that the weather was good and we hit CP 6 at the falls early influenced our decision to tackle the unknown and treacherous Ifidi pass, we just wanted to get lower as soon as possible to get rid of the baboon on our backs..
We hooked up with Team Olympus, what a bunch of genuine and great guys and Girl who were heading in the same direction to take on Ifidi. This was a blessing as Tim and Alex’s rock climbing background and the fact that they were wise enough to bring along a rope helped us get down this gorge that drops and impressive 800m. Despite this I managed to take a 2m free fall down an icy cliff and land with a thump on the ground first feeling if I could move my toes before trying to stand up, thankfully in Expedition Racing your packs are so heavy that they usually hit the ground first and break your fall as was the case here.
Descending this gorge it soon became apparent of the dangers that our sport holds when I dislodged a football size rock that missed hitting Kelly from Olympus by centimetres. If this had hit her I am afraid it would have been fatal. Thankfully our Guardian Angels were watching over us.
Ifidi pass was raw rugged and brutal yet strangely majestic and peaceful. What a privilege it was to be able to pass through such a wild remote part of our country and definitely a highlight of our race.
The worst part of this route choice was that we had to pass T1 and run up to CP7 then turn back and return to T1 a 10km little effort. Sole destroying when you are broken after being on your feet for 17 plus hours. We at least got to see the teams that were ahead of us on this out and back loop.
The 2nd leg was a transition bike to T2 where we would prepare for another Epic leg of this expedition namely a 75km paddle over 2 dams and consisting of a 5km white water section containing some grade 3 rapids. Before we got our boats however we had to contend with a FREEZING 500m swim across the Woodstock Dam. This swim loomed large in our team’s minds after race briefing and caused much anxiety. Once again Mind over matter we hit the icy cold water just after sunrise and swam in silence across the dam with the mist rolling off the glassy water. It was a surreal experience and once again proved that we as humans can handle much more that we think we can.
I experienced bad hypothermia throughout this paddle leg and thankfully Christo my paddling partner was as strong as an ox, he and Craig manhandled the kayaks through the portages as I was shivering uncontrollably as soon as I stopped paddling and couldn’t contribute much other than try keep warm.
Laura had a close call on one of the larger rapids being sucked into an eddy and under an overhanging rock ledge. With no place to grip the current was pulling her under and she had to rescued by Craig and Christo as I was blissfully unaware of her predicament and thought she was waving for us to shoot the rapid. (Sorry Laura!!!).
We were freezing by the time we paddled into T3 and spent some time at the fire warming our bodies and drying our clothes. We took some time in this transition to refuel and have a short power nap before taking on the 90km mountain biking stage.
Onto our mountain bikes we climbed for the 4th leg of this adventure and this is where we encountered our soon to be companions Team Black Diamond. We did most of this cycle without many problems except that I overshot the first 2 checkpoints on the railway line. After this we saw sunrise and the rest of the cycle leg was tough but uneventful, except for the Hike a bike section to the final CP before making our way to Midway camp.
Midway camp was a welcome oasis. It was great meeting up with teams that were just ahead of us and seeing friendly faces and getting to take a much needed break while plotting maps and getting ready for what looked to be an epic hike followed by a monster bike. As I had finished plotting the route and my team had already gone to sleep and I was due to follow shortly, I heard of changes that were going to be made to the route. I thus stayed awake waiting for these route changes so that I could prepare a route and prepare my maps this resulted in me only getting just over an hour of sleep instead of 3 hours that I was planning on. I would pay for the lack of sleep later. While plotting I spoke to James the Captain of Black Diamond and suggested that we tackle the night hike together. He spoke to his team and they agreed and so we set off into the night Teams Castle Lite and Black Diamond as a united front. I am forever grateful that we joined forces as not only was James an exceptional navigator in the testing conditions they are such a great bunch of people and we got to share a rare an amazing adventure with them.
On this Epic hike Christo who had been suffering from gypo guts since shortly after the paddle was struggling to keep anything down and just before the trig beacon we parted ways with Black Diamond so that we could ensure the Christo could get some relief and for our team to finish the race. After breaking forces with Black Diamond things went pear shaped for me personally as the hypothermia and lack of sleep took its toll and I became the walking dead. I was a Zombie.
When we hit the abseil I thought I would get some sleep as the rest of the team went down. WRONG!!!!!! The marshall soon informed me that I could go. I can’t remember how I got down the first abseil but after seeing the video footage all I can say is “IT WASN’T PRETTY!!!!!”.
I had developed serious “CHOMMY” chaff on this hike (think it was the compression tights squeezing my butt cheeks together for the 21 hours we were out on this hike) so after the abseil I pulled my tights down to below my butt and had instant relief. Smeared my delicate regions full of Vaseline and hiked the rest of the 15km to Transition with a kaal white ass to the amusement and detriment of my team mates and any locals who saw this Mlungu walking down their street with his bike helmet on and his gat exposed. A man must do what a man must do. In my defence I cant really remember much about this part of the race only knowing that I was woken up after a death sleep in transition to start the epic 150km MTB ride that would take us to Sterkfontein dam.
We started the bike ride late Thursday night and once we hit the town to collect the 1st CP on this leg found ourselves in a maze of houses and huts. People just built anywhere in this town and all the roads shown on the map ended up in a dead end in someone’s back garden. It was extremely confusing. After some discussion with a taxi driver who wanted to know what we were doing there at that time of night we found the reservoir and again met up with our mates from Black Diamond.
We decided to again join forces and finish this adventure together seeing that we were in each other’s company so much it only seemed fitting. Our nav on this leg was great till just before Bezuidenhout’s Pass. Both myself and James had an attack from the sleep monsters and just as we decided to climb the hill and make sure of our position team Olympus came cycling past seemingly with the same intentions.
We all stopped on top of the hill confirmed that the road that we were on is not the main road depicted on the map as this should be down in the valley next to the river. All three teams turned around and headed back down the hill to look for a junction to the correct road shown on the map. There was none. Team Indabushe joined us and much debate ensued before they raced off on the road we were on. Fox on Fire also passed us seemingly happy that they were going in the right direction. We deduced that this road was new and carried on following it thankfully getting to the start of Besuidenhout’s pass. Up and over we went and eventually arrived at T 6 Sterkfontein Dam Hall. This transition looked like a military war zone with broken racers lying around on mattresses marshals and medics doing their thing, team navigators plotting new maps and routes. The place was alive and electric.
As Lisa typed in her race report on the day: “Black Diamond and Castle Lite came in together – this partnership seems to be working well for team navigators James Lea-Cox and Adrian Saffy. They started the paddle together. Keeping the teams together for the hike would really be a good idea, if Silva’s track is anything to go on. The paddle is around 12km and these teams (also with Fox on Fire) got on the water at 17h15. Conditions out there are windy and cold – a la Sterkfontein style. I really hope it dies down for them with the coming of night.”
We did our thing and left the transition for a 12 -14km paddle across the infamous Sterkfontein dam as the sun was setting. Man o man what an experience. 1.5m waves crashing into our boats and drenching us with ice cold spray. Freezing water and our kayaks getting tossed and turned by the swell, we paddled this section like people possessed it was a severe case of self-preservation I have never been so determined to get my ass off a dam as at that moment. What an experience and only one that you would ever experience by doing an adventure race BECAUSE NO SANE PERSON WOULD DO THAT IN ANY OTHER CIRCUMSTANCE!!!!! EPIC.
On reaching the transition to hike we were freezing and had serious hypothermia. We were expecting a huge fire to warm ourselves. WRONG!!!!!! The only bit of shelter was a 2m x 2m fibreglass port-a-loo erected about 50 m away from the transition point we rushed to get shelter only to find 2 other teams packed like sardines in this toilet trying to get warm. Needlessly to say there was soon four teams with 16 adults cramped into this toilet trying to warm our bodies from the freezing paddle. I was so cold I ended up spooning with Kelly from Olympus just to get extra heat. Thanks Kelly I owe you.
After heating up we eventually decided to leave the shelter of the toilet to tackle the last 29km hike home and to finish this adventure.
Leaving the dam the rain started to fall and the mist started to roll in. I still said to James that we adventure racers are crazy MF’s because no normal person would even think of going into the mountains in this weather and here we were going in the weather and at night.
We hit the correct valley we chose and started ascending the mountain. When we reached the top visibility was down to 3 to 4 m and the rain and wind was seriously uncomfortable. After attempting to walk on bearings and not making much progress while everyone was suffering from extreme cold we made the call to erect our tents and sit out the weather till daylight. What a funny sight it was squeezing four adults (and Craig is not a small guy) into a two-man tent. Needless to say it was a joke with us pitching our tent next to Black Diamond’s tent and inadvertently over one of their tent pegs that was digging into Craigs ribs all night we had a couple hours of broken sleep.
6am and the mist was as thick as ever, 6h30 and a call to Stephan to let him know we are ok just stuck in our shelters waiting for a gap in the weather. He says down below it is clearing up and this was all the motivation we needed to pack up the tents and get moving. We contended with the weather and some great navigation by James saw us find the border fence into the National Park and soon we were on our way to collect the checkpoint and then homeward bound.
We thought we were home free but had to go up and over one more mountain range to get into the lowlands before reaching the finish. We saw Olympus behind us and as we ascended to the top of the range we had to pass over the rain and mist came in again. Murphy’s Law. We searched for a way down but were cliffed out in the mist. Olympus were having just as much trouble. Eventually Craig and Christo put us on a path that took us through amazing terrain to get us down the cliffs with a bit of rock scrambling and sliding. As we got down the weather cleared and Team Warriors made use of the opportunity to take a path down the cliffs that we scouted in the mist an hour earlier but couldn’t find. That’s AR.
What a relief to eventually cross the finish line after 129hours of racing and almost 16000 meters of vertical ascent in the race. Needless to say emotions were high and spirits high despite broken bodies. We were all ready for a huge party but this never materialized as we were all just to broken and exhausted.
Our thanks go out to Stephan and Heidi for organising and bringing to us a world-class event. Your passion and dedication and logistics are absolutely unbelievable. Thanks for putting in the time and effort to give us a playground to express our desire to push the envelope.
Thanks to our loyal sponsor Castle Lite for having the faith in us to proudly promote their brand and product that fits in with our healthy and active lifestyle. Believe me when I say that all you crave when you are out there is an ICE COLD CASTLE LITE. It keeps us moving.
Thanks to Salomon for the cool clothing, backpacks and footwear. Not one of our team had blisters despite the rugged and varied terrain. Happy feet make a happy racer hehehe.
And lastly but definitely not least thanks to my team and the guys and girls from Black Diamond and Olympus for sharing our journey making it fun and unforgettable despite the hardships. You all rock.
Here are some comments from the rest of the team:
What an expedition adventure, there were too many highs but after 2 days of resting and reflecting 2 moments stand out for me far above the rest.
During the long hike of leg one there was a few route options. We decided to try the shorter, but more risky option of descending down Ifidi pass. No one knew the condition of this route as there was a possibility of ice and water down the steep rocky kloof. We reached the top earlier than expected and started to descend together with team Olympus. About 1/3 down there was this moment that, even if the route option did not save us time on the leg, it was absolutely worthwhile just experiencing the true beauty and magnitude of the Drakensberg.
The second last leg was a 12km paddle across the Sterkfontein Dam. We joined up with team Black Diamond and hit the water just after 5pm Friday. The weather had started to turn bad as we paddled around the point we hit the open dam section with an almost head-on wind and a significant swell. We knew it would take us around 2 hrs which meant we would be paddling a section in the dark. The 4 boats formed a diamond formation and we hit the deep-sea conditions and waves head-on. As it turned dark I turned on my headlight and visibility was only reduced to a few meters as the wind was spraying the water off the waves. It was bitterly cold. Thinking back I realised that never once during this short but epic leg I felt afraid although we were highly exposed. Looking to my left and right while paddling I saw the determination of the other boats. We knew it was the second last leg and we simply pushed through facing everything nature threw at us. Finishing the race was all that mattered.
Thank you to legendary captain Adrian Saffman, super tough Laura de Haast, and super strong Craig Powell and the opportunity to take on this expedition experience with you, it has been the highlight of my adventure racing career to date.
Craig Powell (Pack Horse for Team Castle Lite)
Firstly I would like to thank the sponsors of Team Castle Lite & the management of the team for giving me a once in a life time chance to experience a Adventure Race in the Drakensberg Mountains. The race was far better than I could ever imagine and tougher than I expected.
As for the race organisation there was no room for error and the whole event flowed perfectly. The logistics as well as the people helping at all the transitions was excellent. In all a very professionally run event.
As for the route, there was a great mix of technical and not so technical terrain. The route took me to places that I would normally never see and believe me they are worth seeing, some memories I will never ever forget. The mountain bike had some great single track and technical climbs. The hike took us to altitudes I don’t ever want to go back to (got a feel of what altitude sickness is about, felt very fat ass and slow with a bad head ache). As a paddler love the flowing water with some classic rapids.
The lows of the race:
- Had a bad case of altitude sickness on day one at the Tugela Falls.
- Had a stretch of about two hours with bad sleep monsters on the 160km cycle.
- Riding over my team mate after she fell in front of me
- Being misted out on the last hike leg and not being able to race on (had to sleep for 3hours to wait for mist to clear)
The highs of the race
- Standing on the start line surrounded by so many of my friend and fellow adventure racers
- The beauty of the Chain Ladder, Tugela Falls, Ifidi Pass on Day
- The camaraderie shared with team Olympus as we descended the Ifidi Pass. The way both teams assisted each other to make sure no-one was injured during the descent
- Surviving the swim to the Kayaks on the long paddle
- Overtaking so many teams on the paddle with a team that does not paddle, machines for team mates
- Being given the maps on the dam in the dark and pulling off a decent navigation to get a tired and cold team home without too much delay
- A faultless trek leg on the 56km hike
- A awesome abseil and having my brother in law get great shots of me descending
- Being the path finder and pace setter for the final stage of the last hike after the last CP.
- The amazing friends we made with Team Black Diamond
- The way our team finished and the mutual respect we held for each other after a life-changing journey
- The knowledge that in the future we will be able to carry out another epic journey as a team
Laura (the Law)
We knew this was going to be a tough race but never did we ever expect it to be this demanding.
For me hanging on for the first day is crucial to my survival. The 75km mountain hike for this first day was no exception. The altitude played a major roll in leg 1. Feeling very sick from the lack of oxygen, I climbed the chain ladder to feel even worse. Luckily my teammates helped out with carrying my backpack. Descending Ifidi was one of the most beautiful moments, not only did I start feeling better, but the iced rocks and water trickles were breath taking.
The bike ride was in the dark and was one of the easier legs to this expedition.
Always at the back of my mind was the 500m swim in the freezing cold water, when we finally climbing into the water I was pleasantly surprised, the water was warmer than the cold air.
Into the boats, and off on our 15 hour paddle. We made a big push here to make sure we did not hit the dark zone. All along the paddle we encountered rapids not as small as we thought they would be, now that was a concern as to how big would the big rapids be.
At around 16h00 we found out for ourselves. The level of the river had drop turning the grade 1 and 2 into 3 and 4 grade rapids. Having a paddling machine behind me in the boat was a bit of a confidence booster. Remaining upright for the first 2 monsters, we were soon brought down to earth with tumble, sending myself, Craig and the boat down the rest of the rapid. The shear strength of the water terrified me. I was bruised and battered and a little hysterical. We tried the next but again we were turned upside down. People and boats and gear were floating all around, but soon it was all over and we were on our way to our next transition.
We arrived at this transition as cold as I can remember. Fires awaited us and something warm to drink.
Back onto our bikes and out on our 89km cycle. Here is where we met up with the race long companions Black Diamond. A little bit of hike and bike took us into a fantastic single track in a forest. We were all looking forward to our half way stop and 6 hour rest.
No sooner were we in at half way, we seem to be leaving again. I said to myself at the start of the race, if I was able to leave half way point intact, I would most certainly be able to stay with my team and see the finish. The guys were all looking very strong. The next obstacle on my mind was the abseil.
This was a massive hike, starting late in the evening. We had now grown to a strong team of eight. Sleep monster were knocking on all our doors, and just to walk upright became a problem.
We seemed to walk forever. We finally arrived at the abseil and hell it was worse than I expected.
We had 5 different drops of different lengths into the waterfall. The rock face was slippery and the water cold. We all made it to the bottom safely only just, one of our Saffman decided to go down head first while sleeping. The cold water soon shocked him awake. Then 1 more check point and then a long tired hike to our next transition.
Here we rested for a couple of hours before making our way on our bikes on an epic 163km cycle. More sleep monsters and a mega crash from me, falling under my teammate’s wheels and being ridden over. A few more tears and on we went. The weather started changing and wind and rain began covering the skies.
We arrived at the last transition point ready to take on our final paddle and then our mammoth hike back to the hotel.
The paddle across the dam was more like a paddle across the sea. The waves were huge and were slapping us around and it was very dark very dark. We seemed to paddle forever and the lights of the bank came no closer. It was very cold. This is what hyperthermia feels like, it sucks…………..
After about an hour just trying to get my underwear on, we dressed and climbed into a toilet booth (all 8 of us) and got our body temperatures back to almost normal. We had to get moving.
It was raining hard now and the wind and cold was biting. Even more sleep monsters attacked us and it was difficult to keep on our feet. We were soon very high in the mountains and it was clear by the mist and sleet we were going to spend the night on the mountain. Time for tents and a little lock down until we could see where we were going. This was one of the happiest moments for, I was tired and cold and the thought of a dry tent was better than Christmas. 4 cold people in a 2 man tent no problem. The lightning and the wind battered the tent for the next few hours and then it was still.
All packed up and on our way again. Then came the cold hard rain. Our progress was slow and the mountain peaks were all covered in snow. I don’t think the weather has hurt so much but now we were all frozen and wet.
A few detours and we were on our way down the mountain. 5km more and we would be finished our six day expedition.
The finish line was oh so sweet……..honestly that was the hardest thing I have ever done, it’s unbelievable what the body and mind can endure to survive. LOVED IT!!!!!
Author: Adrian Saffy | Team Castle Lite | Expedition Africa, May 2013