Expedition Africa: Adventure racing has come of age

With the third Expedition Africa now done and dusted, all the happenings can now be brought together and put into one final report. I braved the cold to bring you up-to-date reports on my ar.co.za website.

Read the race report here

HQ is dismantled. The media room is devoid of laptops and cameras. CP markers have been collected. Racers are home – or still travelling home. ‘Friend Requests’ zip around as everyone involved reaches out to maintain new friendships developed… What a wonderful week at the third edition of Expedition Africa. This has undoubtedly been a superbly presented expedition adventure race.

Tuff stuff

Where some teams walked out of the previous two Expedition Africa events feeling that they were a little ‘gentle’, not one participant, media person, helper or online follower could possibly say anything other than that this race was hard. Hard in the nicest way. Hard in the way that teams gladly pay for the physical discomfort dished out from multiple days and gruelling stages and long legs. Hard in the way that both challenges and rewards. Hard in the way that Expedition Africa is a pinnacle event that South African teams aspire to compete in and finish. Hard in the way that it will be the first date blocked off on the race calendars of foreign teams. Hard in the way that participants will talk about this one for a long time to come. Hard in the way that this was no ‘walk-in-the-park’ AR World Champs qualifier but that it was a World Champs worthy event.

Better than watching Nat Geo 

When it comes to nature, South Africa is absolutely magnificent. I was amused to watch racers photographing the long, straight open road through the Free State (towards Harrismith) from the bus on the way to the Orion Mont-aux-Sources hotel. You just do not get this vast open space in Europe. We’ve got loads of it!

Tropical and warm coasts, high altitude mountains and vast semi-desert regions, snow-topped peaks, white-water rivers and crocodile-infested lakes, game reserves are only part of what is available within the 1,221,037 km2 area of our country.

South Africa doesn’t fare well in the ‘good publicity’ stakes for the incessant stories of crime and corruption. But when it comes to adventure racing as a means of discovering the true heart of a place… South Africa’s heart is big and warm and welcoming and friendly – from her nature to her people.

This edition of Expedition Africa presented one of my favourite areas of South Africa – a region visited mostly by locals from KwaZulu-Natal, Free State and Gauteng Provinces. Ugene Nel (Team Energy) lives in the Cape Town area and although he is an outdoor guy and long-time adventure racer, he has never been to the Drakensberg. The Capetonians have their own mountains – different vegetation and terrain – but still mountains. He was absolutely blown away by the Drakensberg and after this race he plans to come to the Berg in summer to spend a week at the near-isolated Injasuthi Camp, which he passed through on the second hike, to run, hike and kayak in the rivers of this valley. That’s local tourism promotion eh?

Adventure racing showcases the nature of a country like no other sport. Participants don’t just gaze through a car window looking at the pretty flowers and mountains. They are in it. And, to get to the finish they have to survive the terrain and climate for days over hundreds of kilometres and multiple disciplines. It is not easy. Hardship tweaks nature appreciation somewhat.

Heidi’s special touches

Heidi openly admits how she has hated those transitions, while she was racing, where there is little more than a marshal with an umbrella and she’s had to try to put on warm, dry clothing and dig around in race crates while the rain pours down on top of her. And also those where there is nowhere warm and dry to sleep. That’s why there are marquee tents (for gear boxes), rooms and chalets (for sleeping) and mattresses and tea and coffee for teams at transitions, roaring fires at the swim take-out and hot showers and a meal (with salad and dessert!) at midway. This is so Heidi – thank you.

I totally agree with her that it is things like this that helps those teams having a really hard time to keep going. It’s tough enough out there without transitions being challenges too and where a mattress to lie on and a wind-sheltered corner makes all the difference in the world.

Thinking of media

I’ve been to races where I’ve torn my hair out and slept in the driver (or passenger) seat of vehicles night after night. I’ve even been stranded on the side of a road. This was NOT one of those. Heidi and Stephan kept us clearly in their thoughts when planning this race. The transitions were well planned for both logistics and us. Soren and I left shortly after the start on Monday and returned to ‘home base’ at the Orion Mont-aux-Sources Hotel on Saturday morning. We slept out the whole time, staying on the course to find teams. We had mattresses and warm places to sleep and could bounce from transitions to CPs and places in between. Soren said that this is the first time he has been able to get so many photos of his team at different places in one race.

As cellular data signal wasn’t great out there, we had access to wi-fi at the Orion Mont-aux-Sources Hotel as well as the Dragon Peak’s campsite. We used mobile data mostly to send out reports, uploading photos when we got to wi-fi.

“Best track of the race”

Haglofs Silva’s track on the final hike wins hands down – no argument – as the ‘Best track of the race’.

HaglofsSilva

Followers all over the world were biting their nails for hours as the team tried to find a way down these cliffs during the night and in thick, thick fog. Even more gripping was Cyanosis closing in on Haglofs Silva’s squiggles. I even got a call from a friend at 06h15 on Friday morning asking what was happening out there. He was following the tracking. I had no clue as I was out in the sticks. What excitement! Silva had been expected in late on Thursday night but spent an additional nine hours or so drawing patterns on our screens.

“Best leg of the race” (and “Most guts”)

Team Warriors get my vote for the “Best leg of the race” and “Most guts”. They left the transition at T6 (Sterkfontein Dam) to start the paddle at 03h00 (Saturday morning). By this time they’d seen tracks from the teams out there and they knew that Haglofs Silva were way behind schedule – they still hadn’t come in – and that things were difficult out there. But, they went out anyway. They completed the paddle and totally blitzed the hike. Even without the numbers and track imagery, my gut feel says that they had the best route and the fastest time on this leg.

Helpers

What a team! Where Stephan and Heidi handle pretty much everything up to the race, it’s when things get going that dozens of other people are needed to make the race happen. From Harry driving media up front and Rowena driving marshals and hauling loads and Jose, who logged 3600 kilometres this past week… and that’s just the drivers. There was also Fred and William (general assisting) and Ian (hiking marshals in and commanding T4) for parts of the race. And, of course, Cindy, Marcelle and Lizelle who were right-hands to Heidi. And then the 20 Warriors youths.

Warriors is an adventure/outdoor gap-year programme. I guess these teens are around 18/19 years old. Well, they hauled crates and bike boxes from sunrise to sunrise and they manned CPs and transitions, sleeping less than the teams under their care. They set out mattresses, heated food, passed on instructions, checked teams in and out and made cup after cup of tea and coffee. They even took care of us media people – kindly offering to make us hot drinks, even at 2am. And then there was the pair out at CP26 for three days (this is the CP that was removed from the course; the pair had been warned not to leave the CP come hell or high water – or snow).

I didn’t meet them all and I didn’t get to all the names of the ones that I did meet. I think Travis and Seb were the marshals at CP14 (thank you for the warm place to sleep and hot cup of tea), Renske made me a cup of tea at T4, Ernie stands out as the most out-going and friendly and Alex seems to have kept a few transitions under control. This was one incredible experience for all of them. I hope it has ignited – or brightened – the flame of adventure in their hearts.

“Logistics Award”

Stephan most certainly gets massive commendation for his planning of race logistics. Trucks, crates, boxes, transitions, driveable roads, 31 teams spread over a vast area and a team of around 45 people marshalling, helping, driving, photographing, filming and writing… When you keep in mind that it is just Stephan and Heidi putting this race together and not a whole planning committee and that they both have their own day jobs (own businesses) plus Kinetic Gear and a host of smaller events (smaller in distance, not participation). Yes, quite extraordinary!

Team Media

Media-team

Part of Team Media (L-R): Bruce Viaene, Aya Kubota, Lisa de Speville (me), Soren Nielsen and Andreas Strand.

Missing from this picture are Rob Howard (SleepMonsters), Tommy (mom to a member of Team Tecnu), Steven Freitag (online videos; White Friday Films), Pierre-Yves (Endorphin Mag – French) and Zayne Botha and colleague  (ATV Productions). Graham Bird (with Team Merrell Adventure Addicts) was also on our media team. He put together some fabulous video posts. (There’s another photo with more of us together – but it hasn’t made it off the relevant flash card yet).

This group of creative, passionate and adventurous people totally rocked all week. I hooked up with Soren Nielsen, photographer for Team Merrell Denmark, and we had an incredible week hunting teams together and hanging mostly mid-ish-field.

Rob was up front of the field with Aya Kubota (Japanese media) and Tommy. I think Andreas Strand (Caadis Media) was all over the place (with Graham, I think) while Bruce Viaene (photographer, Bruce Viaene Photography) and Steven were teamed up together. I bumped into Pierre-Yves a few times as well as the ATV crew. Spectacular photographs are on the Kinetic Gear Facebook page.

Cindy van Zyl, who was running Race HQ was also very much a part of our team. We couldn’t always check tracking and I would give Cindy a call at any time of day and strange times at night to find out where teams were. Her finger was on the pulse constantly. She’s good. Very good.

Media people are motivated, enthusiastic, hard working and always ready to tease and post silly photographs of each other on the internet. They tolerate sleep deprivation and not showering for days. They’ll survive on water and peanuts and they’re ready to go out in any weather condition to get the shot or story. Many of the brilliant media people that you see at big events like this don’t make a living from race coverage and their professions may be totally unrelated to their media skills – like that of the ICU nurse and software developer on our team.

We live, drive, hike, sleep and eat together 24 hours a day for the duration of the race and are as much a team, sharing wonderful experiences, as the racing teams. After sharing their company non-stop, I’m missing my friends’ presence already.

my-team-Denmark_s

‘Adopted’ by Merrell Denmark. (L-R) Lars, Mikkel, Soren, me, Rasmus and Sanne

The warmest and sweetest post-race dinner ever

Saturday night’s post-race dinner-awards-thanks evening has to be hands-down the best one that I’ve been to. The presentation of photos and videos by media people shown in between warm and sincere thank yous from Heidi… just wonderful. My bead-and-wire Nguni bull has pride of place at home. Thank YOU.

The next one

The first week of May 2014 will be the fourth edition of Expedition Africa. Stephan has let only the tail of the cat out of the bag when he said that next year’s event will be warmer. I like to think that I know my country well and that my powers of deduction are pretty good. If I’m right I’d better stock up on Valoid for those sections of sea kayaking…

In an email from Heidi this evening she writes, “Keep the first week in May 2014 open”. Girl, as much as I absolutely love-love-love the immersion of writing, the pureness of my heart is that it is a racing heart. I only passed up racing in the D-D-D-Drakensberg because I’m overseas next month (for five weeks) and after being there and writing about this edition of Expedition Africa the flame is burning. Strong and hot. A place on your team or my team? Tug-o-war of the highest degree! At the bar after the post race dinner Andreas Strand (photographer) and I got talking about a media team for next year… It’s a credit to you when media people find participating a temptation too hard to resist.

Taking the words out of my mouth

At T6, just in from the long cycle to Sterkfontein Dam on Friday night,  Team Energy’s Trevor Ball, who has been racing since the sport started in South Africa 14 years ago, summed up this edition of Expedition Africa in six, eloquent words when he said, “Adventure racing has come of age”.

That it has.

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About Lisa de Speville

Adventure racing author, athlete and founder of FEAT (Fascinating Expedition ad Adventure Talks) and ar.co.za, Lisa is keenly interested in anything related to outdoor adventure, especially orienteering and trail running.

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