Team Cyanosis: Expedition Africa Race Report by Nicholas Mulder
“Are you excited?”.
That’s the common question leading up to any big adventure race. For me, the answer is no. At least not until about five minutes before the start.
Five minutes before the start, we found ourselves lined up on on beach with a red dawn, staring off into the breaking surf and the rising sun behind it. Despite what some other teams may say, the sea was relatively calm, at least compared to some other adventure races that we’ve been in. But staring at the breakers from this angle is nevertheless guaranteed to generate a good wallop of adrenaline for your system. Ahead of us lay 575km of Expedition Africa race course. 350km of that would be on bikes, 83km in kayaks and the small balance of 142km would be on foot.
With the sound of the start gun, Team Cyanosis headed into the breakers together with the rest of the 40 teams. I was paddling with our new team member and paddling big-shot, Hilary Bruss-Pitchford, whilst the old guard of Clinton ‘Mac’ Mackintosh and Nathan Thompson paddled together in our other boat. With Hilary’s knowledge of surf conditions, it wasn’t long before we were successfully out behind the back-line and heading down the coast from Port Edward towards the Mtamvuna River mouth that traditionally marks the northern end of South Africa’s Wild Coast.
We found ourselves slotting into about 4/5th position in the early stages on the paddle, mixed in with some of the 17 international and 22 other South African teams. Up front were the Kiwis of Team Seagate, currently world #2, but with more World Champs wins to their name than the number of expedition length races that most competitors have under their belt. We would not see them again until the finish line. Keeping pace with them were our old South African rivals of Team Merrell Adventure Addicts (World #10) whilst just ahead of us on our left were Team Haglofs Silva (World #6) from Sweden. On our other shoulder were Team Warriors (also RSA). Somewhere behind us, we dared not glance back at this stage of the game, were a plethora of other strong teams that made Expedition Africa the second-most hotly contested race on the planet in 2014 after the World Champs itself.
When you charge out from the beach with your kayak, heading for the breaking surf, you know you are going to be in trouble. It’s staring you in the face and cannot be ignored. When coming back into shore, there is a calm serenity when viewing the welcoming beach from behind the breakers. You cannot see their anger and their roar is muted. Experience has taught us that coming back in is actually ten times worse than going out. Heading for a sandbar across a river mouth inevitably means that there are going to be some good dumpers and that a combination of skill and luck is required in reaching dry land in one piece. Mac and Nathan found it, Hilary and I didn’t.
Five minutes later Hilary and I made it to shore. We dragged our bedraggled selves over the sandbar, put into the lagoon on the other side and quickly paddled up to the first checkpoint (CP), picking up our backpacks that would be with us for the remainder of the race. A hive of activity followed and we left in 6th place, with some teams having moved up the field after a smooth beaching (e.g. Team Painted Wolf – RSA/Chile), whilst others were still coughing up sand and snorting salt water (Sorry, I can’t tell tales). We had a short 5km paddle upstream to the Mtamvuna Nature Reserve where we once again had a quick transition onto foot, leaving out boats with a marshal for a later pick-up. In between, we had an uneventful 12km trek that saw us running along hiking trails, clambering over boulders as we made out way down a small side stream and finally running, swimming and wading our way down the Mtamvuna back towards out boats. In the process, we caught and passed Team Warriors after we did a sneaky on them, ducking away from a partially hidden CP marker just before they saw us. At the same time, regular glances over our shoulder revealed that Team Tecnu – U.S.A. (World #4) were slowly closing a gap on us.
The other Great Trek
After picking up our boats and paddling back down to the river mouth, we arrived at the first major transition for the race at the Wild Coast Sun. These transitions get a bit chaotic, as not only do we refill water bladders for the next stage of the race, but we also pick up food (24 hours worth for this next trekking leg!), pick up more compulsory gear (i.e. rope harness and kit), have a quick change into dry clothing and put on clean shoes. For the navigators, there is the added bonus of having to plot onto your maps the locations of check points, the next transition and one or two other pieces of maybe useful information. You then have about 1 minute to also come up with the best route choice for your team between all these checkpoints that span 4 maps sheets and cover 90km of sandy beaches, rural homelands, nature reserves, indigenous bush and a handful of canyon / kloof crossings and traverses.
We had a quick transition. Too quick. Determined to hold on to our current 5th place we left at pace and headed off at speed to CP8, about 4km down the coast. We took a nice inland route to avoid the sandy coastline and nailed finding it at a ruin amongst a grove of tropical bush.
Nathan (with the CP card): “Ah Nic, where’s CP7?”
Nic (with the maps): “Ahhh….. SH!%$@#.”
So. Three kilometre beach run back to CP7, just short of the last transition, then 3km back again to CP8 and 90km of trekking quickly became 96km. Rule #4 in AR: Learn from your mistakes. Never repeat a mistake! The team put this incident behind them and focused on the job ahead.
The error lost us positions and the team were now in 10th. A few kilometres afterwards, we arrived at the next CP, the abseil section and got to wait as Team Warriors descended the 80m cliff ever so slowly ahead of us. Fifteen minutes later we found out why they had taken so long, as debris from the cliff face rained down on us, and the main rope snaked its way though bushes and trees down the slope. It was definitely not an enjoyable abseil, nor was it safe. I had to unclip about 10m from the end as the remainder of the rope was stuck uselessly in a tree above my head. We regrouped mentally at the bottom of the cliff, as this point also marked a change in race temperament, from short quick legs between points to more open, long legs with big route choices.
The next CP was 18km distant, at a lodge overlooking the Mtentu River. We chose a route choice that brought us back to coast as quickly as possible, making use of a lower tide to cover the bigger distance in as straight a line as possible. We got to the lodge just after dark at the end of the first day, using the opportunity to refill our water bladders and down a coke. We’d moved up to 8th in the field, in a loose gaggle of South African, French and Swedish teams that made up 6th through to 10th. We left quickly, and immediately caught Teams Cinnobaer (the Swedes) and Arverne Outdoor (the French) as we headed inland towards two CPs before crossing the Mtentu River gorge. We managed to get into this gorge fairly easily (on a nice footpath), but struggled to find said footpath on the way out of the other side of the gorge. After about 30 minutes of bundu-bashing, Cinnobaer disappeared, presumably when deciding to tiger-line it up through the bush, up various cliffs and out of the gorge. This was the last we saw of them and they retired a couple of days later. Needless to say, we don’t think things went well for them. A short while later Arverne tried to do the same trick. My team almost mutinied on me as I insisted that we keep looking for the path and leave them to it. A few minutes after that, with the sound of falling rocks and some top quality French, my team were once again in agreement with me. Two minutes after that we found the small footpath out of the gorge.
The rest of the night was spent trying to distance ourselves from Arverne, who had turned around from their free-climbing experiment and followed us out of the gorge on the path. By day break, 6 hours and 1 CP later, after various differing route choice, they were nowhere in sight, but presumably somewhere ahead of us rather then our preferred option of behind us. At about 10am we reached the top of Frasier Gorge, with only 10km left of this big trekking leg. I had the advantage (or maybe disadvantage) of once having been in Frasier Gorge before during the Morgan’s Run 500km race in 2002. On that occasion, it took us 16 hours to cover the 6km of kloofing, even loosing one of our team members (subsequently re-found in moderately fair health). The kloof is probably the single toughest in South Africa to traverse. Large portions require you to lower team mates over house-sized boulders, swim through deep frigid ponds, rock hop over carpets of slime, or otherwise push your way through dense thorny bush spilling down either canyon wall right to the water’s edge. I told my team in no uncertain terms that there was not a hope in hell that I wanted to repeat one of the worst nights of my life in this kloof, where you can be lucky to progress a mere 400m in an hour in the dark. We had 7 hours of day light left. We did it in 5. It was great motivation.
We arrived in the Mbotyi transition an hour before sundown, just behind Team Arverne. We took the opportunity of the warm, cosy environment to catch an hour and a half of sleep before heading out onto the 120km bike leg. With the sleep time logged, we were able to push on nicely through the night and only stopped once for a 15 minute power nap in the long grass on the side of the road in the early hours. We caught Arverne early on in the stage whilst climbing the concrete monster track out of Mbotyi up onto a flatter landscape dotted with tea plantations. Two different route choices to the next CP at Magwa falls saw us each take different options, with Cyanosis sticking on the larger roads and coming out tops by about 10 minutes. After this the gap grew steadily and we didn’t see them again. Sixth place was ours!.
The stage pushed on into the rural areas around Lusikisiki. We even found ourselves cycling through the town itself at about 11pm, where a quick stop at the Engen garage saw us have our second dinner for the evening. Despite this, we weren’t noticeably fatter afterwards as it all went to replenishing our bodies from the previous 29 hours of trekking. We reached the furthest CP inland at about 3am and then turned back towards the coast and the Mzimvubu River running towards Port St. Johns. The dirt roads that we were following started getting busy just after day break. We found ourselves dodging hundreds of children on their way to school as the route wove through a network of roads linking villages along the ridge-lines. At one stage we had to repair a side wall cut to Hilary’s tyre, much to the amusement of the kids. Towards the end of the leg, we faced one final navigation test where a big drop off a ridge line showed no obvious routes on our maps. It looked likely that we would end up portaging our bikes down steep cattle tracks for about 2km, but in the end, we lucked out and found a superb, brake-squealing dirt track downhill that had my team members smelling the resin and hot metal of my brake pads. Another small ‘bump’ in the landscape brought the total climb on this leg to well over 3500 vertical metres before we did one final high speed descent into the transition in the Mzimvubu valley.
We packed our bikes into our boxes, restocked with food and water and quickly left transition, picking up our boats for a nasty 1km drag (oops, sorry, I meant carry) down to the river. This portage was immensely frustrating as the indicated path led us down to the ‘wrong’ side of a large hairpin bend on the river, forcing us to paddle an additional 3km in boats that we not so fondly call ‘bathtubs’. This section of the race had been shortened due to low water levels in the Mzimvubu. Instead of the originally planned 67km, the river paddle was now a mere 18km as too many sand banks and rocky rapids upstream would have resulted in a massive portage for the teams. Even this lower section was pretty dry and we ended up grinding onto sandbanks numerous times. However, with some good knowledgeable reading of the water ahead, we managed to avoid the worst of it, dispatching with the paddle in around 3.5 hours and paddling into a beautiful transition point at the Cremorne Resort just outside Port St. Johns.
With light once again starting to fade, and a daunting navigation leg up ahead, we had a quick transition that involved scoffing down toasted sandwiches bought from the Resort. Some foot care was needed from the medics, as the earlier 90km trekking leg through rivers, down sandy beaches and across grassy plains had played havoc on Hilary’s, Nathan’s and Mac’s feet. My feet were fine, but that just gave me more time to work with the maps for the next leg.
With about 1.5 hours of daylight left we hiked out of transition, heading for the first CP. This was only about 600m away, but as is traditional in Adventure Racing, was located on a Trig Beacon about 360m above our heads. Luckily the resort had recently done some archaeological work to uncover the old hiking trail going through the bush up to the beacon. This made the up section easy, but we also had to get down the mountain on the other side, heading further north-east along the coastline to the next CP. A possible route on the map turned out to be a non-option in reality and with fading daylight we struggled to find a decent or suitable way off the mountain. A network of cattle tracks on the top indicated that there must be a decent route down somewhere, but finding it was proving to be a hassle. We got lucky in the end, finding a trail head that led straight down to the coastal tracks with the last light of dusk.
The coastal track took us in the direction of CP23, just before a small river crossing. With low tide this crossing was not even ankle deep and was over in seconds (it would have been a good swim at high tide). One km further down the beach….
Nathan (with the CP card): “Nic, how much longer before the river crossing with the CP?”
Nic (with the maps): “Ahhh….. SH!%$@#.”
So we broke Rule #4 and did it again. Result: Add 2km and 30 minutes of time to this 40km trekking leg. Why did it happen again? I have no idea. I wasn’t tired, I wasn’t sleepy. At least someone was alert before things got worse.
The trek continued further down the coast, with us often scrambling along steep cliff edges and over rocky shorelines as the slopes beside us dropped off into the sea 40m below. We slept for 2.5 hours at one point on the verandah of a beach house, our longest sleep of the race, before trying to find a path that would take us inland through dense coastal bush to our next CP. We never found the first option indicated on the map and instead pushed on to our #2 choice. Luckily this was a decent path and we made good time along it, passing small little homesteads in the dark. It was mind-boggling to realise that these communities are so isolated that you can’t even drive a 4×4 to their houses. The nearest spaza shop was probably a good 15km walk down the very bushy path we were taking, a good 7 hour return trip.
We pushed on through the dark, finding the next CP at a large river crossing after a few minutes of searching for the right crossing. From there it was back onto small trails weaving through dense bush and grassland and back into the most rural parts of South Africa where definitely no census man has ever been before. Just after day break on our third morning, we were joined by two school children who were doing their usual morning commute to Mbotyi village, about 10km away.
We arrived back at Mbotyi Lodge for our final transition, surprised to find that Team Merrell just leaving. Having not seen them since the paddle on Day 1, we realised that we had obviously had a strong last hike and made up some good time. A further surprise was that we had passed Team Painted Wolf sometime during the night and we were now lying in 5th place. They came running into transition just 15 minutes later and the race tempo immediately heated up. It’s always amazing when after the solitude of not seeing another team for almost 36 hours, you suddenly find yourselves in head-to-head racing for 4th, 5th and 6th positions.
The Longest Cycle. Ever.
A rushed transition and we were quickly on our bikes for the final leg. A mere 230km cycle through some of the most undulating terrain the old Transkei region has to offer. To put this in perspective, any cycle leg of over 100km is considered long by Adventure Racers. When it goes over 150km, it is called a ‘monster’. 230km was the longest. Ever. That’s almost half the distance of a standard expedition race!!! We reckoned a good ride would take us 24-30 hours. That’s a lot of food and water to carry, so we chucked some out, anticipating a few stops at Spaza shops and water pumps along the way.
We left transition at the same time as Painted Wolf and after a quick divergence over route choice options, rejoined a few kilometres down the beach. A few kilometres after that we had a tough hike-a-bike section away from the coast up the cliffs to the plateau land above. The Wolves pulled away here as I started to suffer from some iffy food in transition. A few kiometres later I needed a short stop and 200m after that, we found Merrell on the side of the road, also looking less than chirpy. A good dice ensued, with the teams taking different route choices at the next split in the road. Merrell won this one, but we caught them again shortly thereafter negotiating a massive canyon crossing across the Msikaba gorge. This involved some highly technical riding down a steep cattle track, a rocky river crossing and then the complementary push-bike up the other side. At the bottom we caught Merrell and gave them assistance with a puncture. Shortly thereafter we left them on the side of the up-path as the face of their team captain, Tweet, quickly started passing from shades of white to green and back again. Merrell had obviously lost quite some time already that day and we pushed hard to capitalise and open a gap, knowing that they would be forced to sleep early that evening, but would probably bounce back with renewed energy for the final 12-15 hour push to the finish line.
We maintained a high pace as the sun dropped in the sky and the stars started coming out. After a few more long climbs we found a police station on the side of the road. We made best use of the opportunity and after some quick sweet-talking by Mac with the constable, we negotiated ourselves our own jail cell where we could sleep in warmth on some mattresses and blankets for a final couple of hours before continuing on through the night and towards the finish. We used a backpack to keep the gate wedged open… just in case.
The sleep did us good and we found some speed through a few more major route choice sections. We were constantly aware that Painted Wolf were out there ahead of us and that Merrell were somewhere out there behind us and that there was no opportunity to rest any more. One of the route choices involved some off-track riding across grassland and a short bike portage across a river. Hilary was suffering badly from blistered feet and a calf muscle tear obtained crossing the Msikaba Canyon, but she soldiered on none the less, trying to ride as much of the terrain as possible to save her feet. Just before daybreak we started hitting sections of soft sand that sometime resulted in us having to push. In the dark, I misjudged one of these when approaching at speed and had a spectacular wipe-out. Apparently I also found the dirt was a good place to sleep once I had crashed, as my team had to pick me up off the ground, something I have no recollection of.
With day break things became easier once again as the cool morning air and the sight of sunlight giving renewed energy for our quest to reach the finish line. The last 60km section was a nasty extended loop into the interior and involved a few more crossings of deep river valleys. We pushed on and even managed to increase our speed once again as we started expecting to see Merrell over our shoulder at any stage. The age of the cycle tracks on the ground showed that Painted Wolf now had a healthy couple of hours lead on us with too little distance left to the finish to catch, but we were determined to hold onto 5th place.
The final couple of CPs were collected without incident and we hit a tar road for the final 30km of downhill back to Port Edward, our original starting point. With the fear of being caught, we reached well over 60km/hr on some of these sections, even with 4-day old legs on us. Two kilometres from the finish we hit a red traffic light at the main road crossing outside town. This was a bit surreal after 100 hours of tramping through the most rural parts of South Africa.
Finally we made it across the line in 100 hours and 30 minutes, taking 5th place with much relief. It was an emotional finish for us as all of the team members had pushed through some very dark places in their minds during this expedition race. We had also pushed ourselves to physical limits and ignored days of pain and agony, all in order to complete the course as a full team, racing against the best in the world.
It would take days and even weeks to recover from this, both mentally and physically. Hilary would still be hobbling around on raw feet for three weeks. I would come down with tick-bite fever whilst both Mac and Nathan aquired the infamous ‘Mbotyi Belly’ that resulted in them becoming experts on the various types of porcelain as currently used in the South African plumbing industry. It was Hilary though who said it first, even though she was still relying on others to carry her around camp, just a mere 24 hours after we had finished:
“So when is our next race?”
Team Cyanosis is proud to have the following brands supporting them:
– First Ascent outdoor apparel, Salomon adventure footwear, Petzl headlamps and Foodstate vitamins and supplements.
– Specialized bikes and accessories, Concept Cyclery in Fourways and Melrose Arch, Form and Fitness sports supplements and Race Food (Real Food, Serious Energy).
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For information on the sport of adventure racing, local events, news and race reports, visit South Africa’s adventure racing website, www.AR.co.za.