“What am I doing here?” I wondered. This was still type 3 fun (not fun at all) and it was already the evening of the second day. Behind us lay three stages, a 20km coastal run, a 50km paddle and a 37k trek, but through all of that I felt flat, wasn’t hungry and had no motivation. Now we were on bikes and ahead of us rose a beast of a mountain pass taking us to Checkpoint 22B.
Depending on who you spoke to at the pre-race braai, this was either going to be a fast, flat race or the longest, baddest Expedition Africa ever. We hoped for the former but got the latter.
Our team consisted of 3 of the usual suspects and a rookie. For some reason Xena (Ingrid Peens) had neglected to cancel her subscription to the Parallel circus in time and was now obliged to partake of an inexhaustible supply of silliness on a distinctly non-silly AR course set by sadist-in-chief Stephan “It’s all about love” Muller. The Hulk (Leo Sorensen), for reasons known only to himself, had foregone the opportunity to tow a top team around the course to a podium position and resigned himself to towing some clowns instead. And tow he did. As for Chuck (Guy McKechnie) and myself (El Capitan / Ronald Jessop) we just counted ourselves fortunate to have two actual athletes on the team which could only mean that our average speed would be dandy as long as we could point the whole procession in approximately the right direction. That would be key. And then hang on for dear life.
What started out as a collection of 4 individuals with a passing interest in viewing passing fauna and flora on a self-propelled basis, was soon to be morphed into a proper team by the hardest adventure race course and conditions yet seen in our motherland in recent times. But for now we were still aloof and hoping to breeze through to the finish with minimal emotional involvement.
The proceedings were as follows:
Leg 1 of 8: 20km coasteering from Doringbaai to Papendorp and Olifants river mouth
Time at start: 9am Duration: approx. 3 hours
Weather: cool, overcast and windy
As usual, the pace from the gun was as if for a park run, not a 567km expedition. And as usual, we got caught up in the excitement, running flat-out, burning matches we didn’t have.
To make matters worse, we misread the scale on the google earth map which saw us doing the walk of shame back along the cliff tops to retrieve a CP we overshot. A trivial mistake in the context of the race, it nonetheless elicited some glee on familiar faces at our error. From the scraggly clifftops we dropped down to the beach and upon reaching the Olifants River Mouth we opted not to swim across the estuary but rather keep ourselves dry by running an extra kilometre or two around it. Running in ankle deep mud wasn’t that easy though.
Leg 2 of 8: 50km paddle up the Olifants River from sea to Bellpost, winery, Vredendal
Time at start: noon Duration: approx. 10 hours Weather: chilly headwind
We had a hasty transition to the one and only paddle leg of the race. The severe drought in the region
had luckily dried up the other kayak options, so this was it. But at 50km, it was not a trivial paddle in a plastic sit-on-top kayak. It was going to take us 10 hours, despite having rested our paddling muscles for a full year. I was fortunate to have secured the services of The Hulk but even so, paddling into the headwind was hard. More so for Chuck and Xena, who languished behind us.
The wind was annoying on the wide-open estuary, but once the river started narrowing and twisting we did have some patches of calm and occasionally even a tail wind. One thing I do like about up-river paddles is how the character of the river slowly changes as you progress inland. By nightfall we were out of the wind, with high grassy banks and trees either side of us. By this stage we had resorted to tethering the two kayaks together so that The Hulk’s might could be shared more equally with the team. I thought this was quite considerate of me.
In the dark we started encountering frequent fallen trees across the river. A rudderless kayak hardly ever goes straight, so on two occasions I nearly got impaled by dead branches sticking out the river. One branch collected my head-torch and delivered it to the murky depths.
We kept him well fed but even so, The Hulk was starting to show signs of frustration. Once we got ourselves stuck on a submerged tree in a shallow bit and after having gotten out to release us, he missed the boat and sat down in the river. Just then another team (Swedish?) tried to overtake us, but The Hulk would have none of it, so in a burst of furious froth he propelled us forwards like a motorboat to the astonishment of the Vikings. They kept their distance henceforth.
We nearly wept upon reaching the flashing red light of the take-out on the river bank. This was about 10 ‘o clock at night. As we got within touching distance of it, the rear boat got snagged on something yet again and since we were still connected by a bungee cord, The Hulk and I shot backwards comically. The river was still having the last laugh.
The transition area at the end of the paddle was quite something. Heidi and Stephan knew that their customers were going to come off the water extremely disgruntled and were going to need cheering up. A long line of bonfires leading up to a huge marquee tent with more bonfires. Snoek and patat fresh from the grill. Neat orderly rows of transition boxes full of our pre-packed warm clothes. Friendly and amused non-racing faces everywhere. And a wine-tasting counter! It looked like a nice place to stay the night, drink some red around the fire and reminisce on happier times. It was a proper trap. But we somehow managed to dry ourselves out and pack for the next leg.
Leg 3 of 8: 37km trek across the Knersvlakte
Time at start: 11:30pm
Duration: 12 hours (thought it would be 8) Weather: cool and dry night
It felt good to be on our feet after all that time sitting on our wet backsides waiting for the Hulk to tow
us up the river. We had the feeling we must be near the back of the field, but I had my favourite socks on and a massive sweet potato in my hand, still warm from the oven. This section was where the proper adventure racing started because there was some tricky navigation. With overcast conditions making the night blacker and not much diversity in the topography of this featureless semi-desert, it was important not to lose your position on the map. Using pacing and bearings was made harder by erosion gulleys and dongas. Luckily there were fences and jeep tracks which we could use to get a fix.
In the witching hour of 4am Chuck was struggling a bit to stay awake so we decided to sleep for 45 min in the bushes next to a fence. It was a good call and we had some quality sleep until Radio Knersvlakte aka Kim van Kets from Team Grit Nyamazela cruised up the fence past us at full volume. Who needs an alarm?
We hit the trail again in better spirits and soon encountered a bunch of teams. Despite our slow start to the race it was comforting to be among the likes of Rustproof, A2A, some foreign teams and even East Wind (a top team who had let the Knersvlakte get the better of their nav) – these were good teams, so apparently paddling training hadn’t been a priority for them either!
The hike was about 50% too long and it was 11am by the time we met our media team of Theo and Lindie outside transition for interviews on the run.
Unlike the previous one, this was a horrible transition. A desolate shell of a building. A porta-loo baking in the sun. A big generator spewed noise and exhaust fumes at us while we tried to assemble our bikes and pack food, water and gear for the longest leg of the race. It was also the transition where the reality sunk in that there would be no tables full of First Choice custard and milkshakes like last year. Luckily I caught media-man Craig Giese with one such milkshake in his hand from his private stash and he gracefully forfeited it upon my polite enquiries. A top-class fellow.
I struggled to plot the maps. There were 8 of the 1:50000 scale maps to plot and then assemble like a puzzle so that they made sense. We’re talking about a kilogram of paperwork. The first challenge was just finding and clearing sufficient floor space to put this lot together among the chaos of transition. Sensing that this was going to take a while, the rest of the team grabbed some sleep.
Eventually, Chuck came round to help me out of my misery as I struggled to find somewhere to put the last 3 maps. To our amazement, they went south, end to end, a long way down to a faraway little town called Wupperthal in the Cederberg. It didn’t seem possible that we could ride all the way to Wupperthal, but there it was. We were about to try.
Leg 4 of 8: 220km ride to Wupperthal
Duration: 28 hours
Conditions: you name it, we had it
We set off at 13h20 at a decent pace in perfect weather, with a long flat section next to a railway line. On the railway line was the longest train I had ever seen – an iron-ore carrier that stretched over the horizon in both directions. A noisy mechanical monster that seemed out of place.
The first 20km was flat and dusty. Mentally I was tired, bored and not seeing the point of the exercise.
“What am I doing here?” I wondered. This was type 3 fun (not fun at all) and it was already the evening of the second day. Behind us lay three stages, a 20km coastal run, a 50km paddle and a 37k trek, but through all of that I felt flat, wasn’t hungry and had no motivation. Now we were on bikes and ahead of us rose a beast of a mountain pass taking us to Checkpoint 22B.
In sheer desperation, I enquired of my teammates as to some liquid food – the type of lab-made commercial-grade hyped-up rebranded sugar in a sachet that I usually avoid at all costs. Xena volunteered some Tailpipe®. I downed it. Then we set off. Sweating profusely and at max heart rate I somehow made it up Hell’s Pass. We nailed the CP. We turned south on the plateau on a good road with the wind at our backs as night fell. I felt good for the first time. Finally, I was in the game.
What makes a ride like this ominous in the context of adventure racing is not so much the distance itself but the time spent sitting on a saddle with an 8kg backpack on your back. With this in mind, Stephan had put out a red herring to tempt suckers into “a mere 2km portage” to earn a discount of 20km. As it turned out, we were lucky with our decision to go around to CP22B instead of CP22A. There is no comparison between a ride on actual roads of 20km and a hike up a muddy, rocky mountain path with a bicycle on your back, wearing cycling shoes.
Now with the wind at our backs we had hot meals in Nieuwoudtville to look forward to, at a checkpoint labelled “Church Hall”. On arrival we wolfed them down in one gulp and then passed out for a few hours in a kids play-room at the back of the church.
We left the church again at midnight. Four hours later a thick mist had set in, we could hardly see the road, but we were singing songs at the top of our voices to stay awake. Turns out that Chuck and I know the lyrics to almost every Pearl Jam song, so the Cederberg was treated to horrible renditions of their entire playlist, interspersed with contributions from The Hulk.
Thump! In an attempt at ending the pain in her ears (although she claims she fell asleep) Xena dived off her bike. She got up unscathed but rattled. This was the point at which we decided to seek accommodation for another 40-winks. The Hulk spotted a farmhouse at the roadside, door slightly ajar and cautiously illuminated the inside.
“What do you see there, Leo?” “Nothing, just an old mattress” “What!!!!????”
Within seconds we were deployed onto the mattress like sardines. A mangy old pink blanket lay initially untouched on the floor but as we cooled down it was eventually tucked up nicely to our chins. Meanwhile, the mother of all rainstorms had arrived outside. Team Tumbleweeds came tumbling in to seek refuge in our patch of paradise and scored the other mangy mattress. We slept like babies, listening to the wind-lashed rain hammering the thankfully intact tin roof and counting our blessings at this miracle.
Just before dawn, the rain had stopped and we hit the road again, high on life. Now we could actually see what we were riding through and it was the beautiful Cederberg in all its glory. This was one of the highest highs for me and a race-defining moment. I may even have shed a tear or two at the privilege of being where I was, doing what I was, in the team I was with. Everything was going to be fine. We were going to cane this race.
The Hulk called out to a farmer near the road, asking how much it had rained. 19mm was the reply. Quite a lot in 2 hours! The surface of the road had turned to a very sticky variety of mud, making the remaining 60km to Wupperthal a bit of a slog. Our gears and chains thanked us audibly, making expensive noises with each pedal stroke as we worked the grinding paste into the machinery.
The last 20km contained a sustained uphill that required us to play The Hulk card again: we came up with a towing system whereby Hulk towed Chuck who towed Xena, an arrangement which didn’t affect his pace one iota. I’m sure this saved us hours over the course of the race. This was when I realised once again that The Hulk is the strongest human being I know. If aliens were to arrive and demand a human specimen to represent the male of the species, I would have no hesitation in presenting The Hulk.
Cresting that hill and looking down into the lush green valley of Wupperthal, the most amazing double rainbow appeared in the sky, like a prize.
Leg 5 of 8: See da berg. Climb da berg.
45km trek from Wupperthal to Algeria via Sneeukop. Time at start: 10am
Duration: 20 hours Conditions: Crisp and clear
This next stage was an interesting one. The highlight was going to be summiting Sneeukop, an infrequently summited peak of 1930m. It was first summited in 1843 by Thomas Maclear, who built a wind-shelter out of stones while waiting for a colleague to summit a neighbouring peak and send him heliograph signals, confirming that silly excuses to go on adventures have been around for centuries. Cameraman Theo, an avid fan of the Cederberg, couldn’t resist the opportunity to join us for the leg, a decision he possibly regretted later.
When we set off at 15h30, I was looking forward to a break from the nav and just enjoying the hike, but Chuck was shattered from the ride where he had dug particularly deep into the well. Nevertheless, despite a bit of confusion at the start Chuck recovered remarkably well to get us to the summit of Sneeukop on the stroke of midnight. We were joined by fast friends Team Park Rangers at the wind shelter, which wasn’t doing a great job of sheltering us from 5 degrees Celsius and 15 knots of wind! We beat a hasty retreat and assisted by superb scouting from The Hulk, Chuck got us down to Crystal Pools hut without fuss.
To our glee, it was empty, so we made ourselves comfortable spreading out in the hay. Awoken by the cold and loud snoring at 2am, we realised our lodgings had once again been invaded by not only Tumbleweeds who seemed to be using us as their booking agent, but also Team Slummies, making it 13 people in the hut. Searching for our kit among the comatose bodies was challenging. I found my socks being used as an impromptu pillow by one undiscerning racer while my shoes were under another. We exhumed ourselves from the crypt and got out of dodge.
Now Chuck needed a break from the map – he is not a huge fan of the hours between midnight and dawn, but this is the beauty of the nav team we have. He and I mostly manage to not both be useless at the same time (except when we are – refer to EA2016 for details). Once again with The Hulk on point scouting barely discernible paths, we made decent progress and picked up a trail alongside an ominous deep gorge named “heartbreak” on the map. By first light we were on an incredibly pretty open plain flanked by beautiful orange mountains. It seemed a crime not to stop for breakfast. Avo, salmon, cheese, niknaks and all the good stuff came out and was shared. Then feeling energised by the surroundings, we took off at pace.
I was feeling The Stoke in a big way. Too big a way, in fact. I could feel another Manic Moment ™ coming on but there was nothing I could do to stop it. I was seeing imaginary shortcuts all over the place and by the time we got within a few km of the last checkpoint, a drone was buzzing us while I lead us with determination and speed up the mountainside towards a non-existent path that I swore I had seen from the other side. When the red mist lifted and I could see clearly again, I felt sheepish and the team was not in a happy place, each of us needing a bit of “me-time” in our own little bubble, mumbling unrepeatable murmurings and separated by personal space of twenty metres.
Luckily, we tend to bounce back fairly quickly from these things and taking a direct line down to transition helped break the tension. The sight of Renate and my kids, who had driven through from Cape Town, lifted my spirits immensely. What’s more, arriving in transition our bikes were already clean and lubricated, courtesy of the race mechanic Clint, who must have had his hands full after the previous day’s mud-bath. This is a luxury not often encountered in adventure racing, just one more way in which the Mullers make it special. Yes, the course is tough, but the organisation always over- delivers beyond expectation. Stephan himself was prowling around transition, too pre-occupied to chat, with a rescue mission underway to helicopter a team off Sneeukop.
Leg 6 of 8: 92km Ride north along the dam
Duration: 7 hours
We hurried out of transition at 12h30. Once again there was a portage on offer, this time it looked like about 1km of carrying to save 10km of riding. Again, we declined and were happy we did. This daytime ride would take us along the dry Clanwilliam dam through the thriving metropolis of Clanwilliam itself.
We stopped for the obligatory hot pie, cold drink and heartburn before gunning it along a piece of tar road which had us wondering if we weren’t perhaps breaking some or other race rule. Xena even had us stop to pull out the race booklet to make sure that this wasn’t too good to be true.
Just after sunset we pulled into a game farm called Zandkraal and met Couple’s Retreat and East Wind. This was another great transition area. Actual beds awaited us in a dormitory! Porcelain ablutions! Xena even scored a shower! Hulk, as efficient as ever, was already packed and snoring. I made a detour to the medic and got some eyedrops for an eye that had collected something, then I schemed to maximise my sleeping time and cunningly hid my mattress behind a sofa where hopefully none of my team mates could find me, leaving Chuck to attend to the maps. He was due for a big leg and this one had his name all over it. There was nervous tension in the air because of what lay ahead.
I had just closed my eyes when I had a nightmare about Chuck pulling on my toes and mumbling something about maps. But it was 3 hours later and the reality was that Chuck had located me and needed me to help with the plotting. He was fired up. I like it when Chuck gets like this, because his energy is infectious and he nails the nav when he’s in that state. One look at the map sent a shiver down my spine. This looked massively OMINOUS! We agreed on the longer but safer dry river bed route rather than risking the night nav over the plateau to the start of the Koebee Canyon, in which we would spend the foreseeable future, hemmed in on both sides by cliffs.
Leg 7 of 8: 57km Canyon trek. Into the Wild.
Duration: 38 hours. Yes, thirty-eight hours.
Conditions: cold but not raining other than the occasional drizzle
At 00h50 we set off. We were shocked to learn that the leading teams had not yet even reached the abseil. This came as a bit of a reality check for us. Our packs were heavily loaded with warm clothes, water, abseiling equipment, helmets, gloves and food. In my case, too little food for what would turn out to be a 38 hour leg for us. I had packed for 12 and a bit more, partly because I had been optimistic about blitzing the leg and partly because my pack was already loaded to the max. I’m still catching up on my eating as I write this.
As we scampered down the river bed, we overtook many teams sleeping on the sand. The terrain varied from sandy to rock-hopping to skirting stagnant pools of water to boulder-climbing to pushing through reeds and thornbush. At first light, 6 hours later, we were well into the Koebee canyon. It was one of those places that is magnificent and scary at the same time. In adventure racing terms, a real gem. A wild place, untouched by human interference. There was not a trace of anything man-made. All the paths were made by animals, of which the signs were plentiful. Besides the abundance of spoor and droppings of a myriad small creatures, antelope and baboons, fresh leopard tracks were surprisingly common. We were moving through one of the sacred refuges of these elusive creatures. We heard later that Team Namaqua (who had a cracker of a race) had actually seen a leopard while Tumbleweeds had seen three bat-eared foxes, also a rare sight. Team Parallel has never been fortunate with game sightings, which is understandable given our noise levels.
We were very fortunate that water was less of an issue than it might have been. Thanks to the heavy rain in previous days, the river system had sprung to life, albeit mostly underground. Here and there we found pools of water; referring to my tasting notes: “Colour and clarity an acceptable tawn with small particles of “other”. Nose and palette: slightly minerally with a hint of baboon but delicious, especially when compared to dying of thirst.”
Round about noon when we had been going for 12 solid hours, we got the feeling that the end must be near. Why, I don’t know. At this stage we were literally jostling for position with around 4 or 5 other teams including Plett AR, East Wind (who dropped the hammer from here and blew their way through the field into the top 10), Antimatter and Couples Retreat. It was another of those manic moments. Only when we opened the map, figured out where we were and did the math did we realise that we still had a long, long way to go. Like, we would be lucky to make it out in daylight. So we slumped to the ground, took our shoes off and slept in the shade of some thorn trees. Yep, consistency is not a word one can use to describe Team Parallel’s style of racing. It must be so hard for our dotwatchers.
When we got going again, our pace was probably half of what it had been. We passed a skeleton of some unfortunate animal and a feeling of dread came over me. Not having kept in touch with the map I had the irrational conviction that we had accidentally doubled back or gone up some side valley. For a few minutes I bombarded Chuck with silly questions about our whereabouts, much to his annoyance. There were patches of dense bush that were very tricky to find a way through. Sometimes we crawled, helmets on our backpacks catching on every branch. Thorn-trees were the main species of flora. I’m not averse to getting a bit scratched, but this was getting tedious. Being more of a giraffe than a ferret, I strongly disliked the densely wooded sections. Every time it looked like the valley was opening up there would be another dense section. At night it would have been ten times worse, the fear of which kept me going.
We continued up, around, over, under and through a variety of flora at speeds varying from an upright walk to a slow crawl on hands and knees, often doubling back to find another way, for what felt like several years. With long flowing white beards and tattered clothes, we rubbed our eyes as we caught sight of civilisation: a rusted old fence pole.
It’s amazing how for every low there is a corresponding high. We strode out of that canyon in the early evening like victors emerging from the carnage of a battle won. This was real adventure racing and we felt like we might just be real adventure racers.
We had this thing in the bag! The finish line was just over the next hill, wasn’t it? (It wasn’t) This called for a dash to the abseil, because there would surely be a long wait in line – we could sleep there while we wait. And then hop on the bikes, freewheel a bit and hey presto, beers at the finish! Xena rolled her eyes as another Manic Moment ™ reared its head. Next thing she was on the tow rope and we broke into a gallop up the road, chatting to Teams Plett, Antimatter, Castle Lite and Black Diamond in passing. Collecting CP31 further fuelled our state of wild euphoria and after a quick consultation with some locals on the best “path to the top” we set off up the nearest hill for the abseil, eager to make use of the last of the daylight.
To say the path proved elusive is an understatement. Several hours later we were still hacking our way uphill through thorn bushes. Bundu bashing up a mountain by moonlight on a compass bearing. That’s just what you want after having spent what feels like your entire adult life bundu bashing through thorn bushes in the canyon. Looking across the valley, we could see the lights of other teams. I was convinced that they were on a path. Nay, a highway. Then it started to drizzle on us.
The terrain got steeper. Rocks got slipperier. The moon disappeared behind thick mist and it got very dark. Things were starting to look, feel, smell and sound…you guessed it…ominous. And then to add to the scene, a plaintive wailing sound. “Marcoooooo!” “Marcooooo!” A very peculiar place to play Marco Polo.
Topping out at last on the plateau, we met the source of the shouting, a severely sleep-deprived Spanish-speaking guy and girl. “We are Team 29, we need help. We have lost a team member”. We established that Marcos had gotten separated from his team and had no map nor compass. Worse, his backpack was still here, still filled with the things one needs at such times. That was at 18h00. It was now four hours later, cold, dark, wet and misty. Marcos was without any doubt in a spot of bother.
Urging them to push their SOS button and follow us as we made our way to the abseil where help would be found, we tried to focus on the not-so-trivial problem of locating where the hell we had actually crested the escarpment relative to the next CP. The only way of figuring this riddle out, given the visibility of approximately 10m, was to walk on a bearing and hope to find something of interest. This was slow and time-consuming work. Moving slowly made us colder.
We found a fence. We followed the fence. We found a jeep track. We followed the jeep track. The track split 4 ways. We tried one option. Tried another. Looking for farmhouses, every bush or tree became a farmhouse in the gloom. It’s worth mentioning that our last sleep had been before the canyon. At this point, I was mentally fried, but I was convinced that I was the only one making any sense and that I was surrounded by idiots. However I was the biggest idiot, making suggestions such as we should simply find the road to the bottom of the abseil, then backtrack from there. How we would scale a 100m cliff was not a consideration.
We trudged along in wet sand, a haggard and broken little team with the even more broken Spaniards in tow. I drew alongside Xena and heard some sniffles. “I don’t think this adventure racing thing is for me”. I had no consolatory words as it wasn’t for me either.
The Hulk spotted it first – a large boulder that reared up in the gloom. Serving as a fence corner post, it was shaped like a bus shelter. It had its back to the breeze that was bringing in the drizzle. It may as well have had a neon sign advertising bed & breakfast. We announced to the Spaniards that we would be sleeping a bit and they were welcome to join us, but they opted to continue walking in circles in the fields. I remember later in the night being awoken by the sound of a vehicle hooting the SOS signal and realised that they were being collected, which was a relief.
By this stage we had refined our sleeping tactics to a T. We were packed tightly together like spoons for max heat retention and Hulk called out every once in a while for a “roll over” and then we’d all roll onto our other side, in our sleep. It worked well.
At around 3am, having enjoyed 3 hours of downtime, I got up and put my shoes on and climbed over the fence. On the ground I could see footprints of teams that had passed our little motel. I suddenly remembered it was a race.
Me: “OK team, shall we go?”
Hulk: “Is it still misty and drizzling?”
Hulk, uncharacteristically: “Can’t we sleep till sunrise?”
Xena: “Ooh it would be so nice to sleep till sunrise!”
Chuck just made groaning noises and pretended to be comatose Mutiny!
Oh well. We would slip down the rankings, but we were in no danger of missing the abseil cut-off and it would be nice to abseil by daylight.
Sunrise brought with it another high. The mountaintop scenery through the mist was absolutely eye-watering. Cobwebs with dew droplets. Veld flowers. Dramatic mountains.
Within a few minutes we had located ourselves and walked through paradise to CP32. Out of the bushes sprang the indomitable Bruce Viaene. He brought news of the other teams. Apparently we weren’t the only team to have spent some quality time on the hill. We were just outside the top 20. RAD! We still had a reason to race.
We had burnt 7 hours but we were definitely the freshest team around. We resolved to see if we could put that freshness to use to claw back some positions. I had been on slim rations for the last 12 hours but Chuck discovered half a kilogram of biltong in his side pocket. Things could not be better.
Rogan and his trusty Africanyon crew of ropework experts greeted us while chewing their breakfast. These are the guys you want when you’re about to take the quick way down a cliff on too little sleep, not some backyard budget operation. And this was some cliff. The first unassisted abseil was 15m down to a ledge where the big boy waited, a 100m plunge into the mist. I’ve done a few high abseils but this one was the best ever. The texture of the red rock face, the misty atmosphere; it was special. 30 minutes later we were high on adrenalin and caught in another crazy-eyed Manic Moment ™ – we couldn’t help but charge the 4km down the road into the final transition, clanging along still clad in our climbing harnesses.
Theo had been waiting at the bottom and ran with us. We steamed in to jubilation and cheers; Chuck’s better-half Saretha was there, along with his Dad Mac, Theo’s wife Lizelle and their two kids. It was festive and fuelled us up even more.
Leg 8 of 8: 57km bike ride to the finish
Time at start: 10am
Duration: 4 hours 40 min
A lightning-quick transition onto the bikes and off we went on the hunt, having left Black Diamond in transition, who were nursing an injured teammate to a hard-earned full-course finish.
As a small mountain pass appeared ahead, we spotted a team. Swedish team Naturkompaniet suffered a flat tyre just as we reached them. We gave it all we had and moved ahead, certain that they would chase us. The road was covered in deep sand in some places, but the scenery was rewarding. Xena had taken some sand-riding lessons from her boyfriend Tim who is an expert mountain biker and seemingly glided over the sand. “Keep your hands light” she said as I pummelled the sand with my chin.
This was not the time for nav errors and well aware of the increased risk under the influence of the red mist, it took all my willpower to maintain focus on the map and avoid last-minute detours. Other teams were not so lucky and one such team now appeared in view. The unfortunate victims were the excellent French team Issy. Having been miles ahead of us until the start of this leg, they went off in search of extra value from the course and having found it, were now a spent force just trying to make it home.
Before long we crested the very last uphill of the race. We whooped as we collected the last CP and then free-wheeled down the impressive Gifberg pass. All that remained was 15km of straight, flat dirt road. We knew we were now in the top 20 (ended up 17th from 52). Xena was now at the front of our peloton, driving us home. The boys were barely hanging on. Even the Hulk couldn’t take the lead. I felt the need to tell Xena how proud I felt of her, our team rookie, for racing like a seasoned veteran, but I couldn’t pull alongside her. The best I could do was shout from a few metres behind in between rasping breathes. She just kept her head down and fed us dust.
And then it was over.
The banners at Letsatsi Lodge, the sound of cheering, the colourful sight of flags waving, friends and family, Heidi personally welcoming us home and other friendly faces whooping in delight and the big red finish arch beckoning.
Champagne in my eyes. High fives. Hugs.
A beer appeared in my hand. Found ourselves seated in an outdoor lounge with a feast laid out before us fit for a royal banquet. Very civilised and in stark contrast to the last 125 hours. We stuffed our faces. Handshakes from other teams. Some questions asked by Craig Giese, while a video camera rolled. Silly answers, oblivious to live streaming.
Then moved to the lawn, to continue our lazy picnic there with our gang while more teams arrived. Watched their faces. Shared their joy.
This is Expedition Africa
Footnotes and thanks:
I’m grateful to God for the privilege of being able to do this and for keeping us safe. Not just our team, everybody got home safely. By the way Marcos lived to race another day – he managed to survive until daybreak by adopting the embryo position inside his stretchy T-shirt, his head closing the hole and his breath warming the space. A non-waterproof jacket helped a bit, but shorts not too much! Wandering around in daylight he was lucky enough to find footprints in the sand which he followed to the abseil point and Rogan’s crew.
To Heidi and Stephan Muller, your crew at Kinetic and all the volunteers who pulled off yet another incredible event. The course itself was diabolical but at the same time amazing. Summiting a Cederberg peak, trekking an untouched wild canyon and that long bike ride being highlights I will always remember.
Monica and the people of Namaqua West Coast for hosting us. A unique region with very special people.
Team Parallel Adventure Racing would like to thank Team Parallel Software, all the guys and girls who kept the pot boiling back at the office and supported the dot with their name on it.
I’d like to thank my family for getting so involved – Renate for kicking me out of bed in the dark to go and train, feeding me endless amounts of food from a non-endless household budget and putting up with my disappearance on many weekends. And for being part of the team in many ways. My kids who miss their dad when he’s playing his own game – hopefully we can play this game together in a few years!
My team mates, who feel like family. Under race conditions, the thin veneer of civilisation gets peeled off revealing the true character of the human animal beneath. We get to cooperate with each other in this state, for better or for worse.
Theo (and the Alkema family) for being our number one supporter and providing media coverage from the field, moral support and fine company.
Lindie Steenkamp for driving Theo around in her 4×4 and cheering us on at every opportunity.
All our dot watchers, thanks for the entertaining messages and support. Keeping the dot moving is easier when you know it’s being urged on like that.
Ingrid’s parents for feeding us copious amounts of delicious food before the race. That spaghetti bolognaise! Guy, for the amazing red bike box covers.
RADBAG for kickass bivy bags – important for a team that likes their sleep!
The other teams on the course that we shared the trail with, friends and rivals, contributing to a great atmosphere of something special. All the foreign teams that made a huge effort to travel all the way to the southern tip of Africa and give this race a true international flavour. A big thumbs up to Team Blizzard for showing the true spirit of adventure racing by going back out there after winning the race and joining the search for another team’s missing racer.
The media crew was a notch up even from the previous race, which was already amazing. This year the pics and videos are just incredible – I’m not just scrolling through looking for our team, almost every media item has me staring and absorbing the atmosphere and the scenery. The names on watermarks on those pictures can be proud of themselves.
The sponsors of the various dinners and functions, especially Klawer for the finish line feast and Namaqua wines for the prize-giving function – it was brave and generous to offer unlimited food and drinks to 208 adventure racers and as many volunteers and crew. I thought I was in heaven. Great venue too.
Letsatsi Lodge for excellent pre and post-race accommodation and hosting. Everyone else that contributed in any way or wished us well – thanks!
Until next time, cheers!