Team Thunderbolt were looking for something new and different in 2017 and so had chosen to do Expedition Africa as it provided a new location and previous competitors had spoken about how well organized the event was and how great the welcome was for competitors. We arrived at the event after a few days of travelling and a day of safari’s where we were very impressed by the local wildlife.
The event this year was run from Cape St Francis Resort about 1.5hrs drive west of Port Elizabeth. The venue was surrounded by beautiful beaches and coastal landscape and, with the Baviaan mountains only 80km inland, there were lots of options to run a superb race.
The usual briefings, gear and registration checks were efficient and we were left with more time than we expected to organize our gear into the various bike and gear boxes. We had the logistics planner but only maps for the first 6 of the 12 legs at this stage as the course was to be handed out in sections throughout the race. We liked the look of the course with some long and challenging legs.
Leg 1: 8km coastal run from Cape St Francis
Leg 2: 28km Kayak down the coast, around Canals and up a river (against the tide)
Leg 3: 6km Trek
Leg 4: 15km Kayak along a dam
Leg 5: 89km Cycle on farm & forest roads to the Baviaans
Leg 6: 60m Trek down a canyon and over a mountain range in the Baviaans (this area is not normally open to the public so we were very privileged to be able to do it).
Leg 7: 97km Cycle
Leg 8: 4km trek/ropes section
Leg 9: 25km Kayak down a river
Leg 10: 18km Trek through dunes and along the beach to Jefferies Bay
Leg 11: 123km Cycle
Leg 12: 48km Trek east along the coast back to Cape St Francis
Leg 1: Beach Trek
We awoke to a chilly but beautiful morning (this set the tone for the great weather we had all race) and made our way down for the beach start. As usual the pace from the start was ridiculous. We tried to trot along at a steady pace as quite a few teams took off along the beach. Sea conditions forced a slight change to the course with the ocean section of the Kayak not possible so the run was a bit longer but we were in pretty good shape in the top half dozen teams as we hit the water.
Leg 2 – 29km Kayak:
This paddle started with three check points (CPs) in the canals of St Francis, the largest man made canal system in South Africa. Following the web of canals was a little tricky but we managed it better than most and emerged on to the river for a long and slow paddle against an outgoing tide. We hung with a couple of the local teams, the Japanese and a few others, but the Swedish team Skylotec quickly established a break off the front. They seemed to be very fast. At the end of the leg we were required to carry the kayaks 800m up a steep rough trail and we all found this pretty tough as the plastic boats being used were not light!
Leg 3 – 6km Trek:
This leg was a short transition leg to bypass the dam between us and the next paddle. There were a few route options which we managed quite well to pick up a few places and making some gains on the teams ahead (except the Swedes).
Leg 4 – 15km Kayak
After another long portage we started this paddle with a strong wind building which fortunately was mostly from behind, but had a few sections of side on waves and head winds. Some teams struggled to control the boats in the waves and again we made ground and finished the 2hr paddle to get onto the bikes in 2nd place (much to our surprise as we thought more teams were in front). Another long carry at the end left us well and truly over carrying our kayaks! Four more teams arrived as we transitioned, so we kept moving.
Leg 5: Cycle
On the map this ride looked straight forward, and with the exception of a missing CP and a fun bit of single track, it was. It all went pretty smoothly for us and we moved at a steady pace (note that the dark zone ahead meant it was pointless to push hard) to arrive at the TA about 9pm. Due to the risk of buffalo encounters we could not enter the canyon on the next trek till 4am so did not need to leave the TA until just after 2am and we had a good 5hrs of rest. Bern found a quiet farm shed away from the TA so we had a great sleep without disruption from all the teams arriving at the TA after us. We appreciated this when we woke to find teams everywhere.
Leg 6 – 60km Trek:
This is where the race was expected to get harder. We got the road bash down to the canyon done in time and started the canyon right on 4am with about 5 other teams. 200m into the canyon we had to swim across a deep pool (the only swim for the whole leg) and this was not fun at 4am on a cold morning, but we nuded up and got it done.
From there it was all about finding a fast route around scrub, waterholes and boulders. We made good progress but a few teams disappeared ahead (the Japanese and the Swedes) moving at a much faster pace than us. We had some moonlight but we really only appreciated the beauty of the area when the sun came up, by which time the canyon was widening and the going faster. We caught a local and a French team and this group stayed together as we made our way down the river. Sightings of baboons and eland broke the trip up and we saw tracks from many other animals (leopard included we were told later).
We hit the final CP on the river as the day was warming up and received clear warnings that there had been buffalo sightings on the next section (Stephan one of the race directors had a few encounters on his pre race scouting trips and was clearly worried about the dangers). We did not see any buffalo but the Swedes up ahead had a very close encounter and there were a number in the area.
As we headed up the hill we were surprised to see the Japanese come from further up the river back to the CP at the bottom. They had missed the turn and were now behind the group we were with. Our pace on the climb was good and we put some time into the South African and French teams, but the Japanese were on a mission and flew past us up the hill. The next section was a spectacular walk along a range with great views of the Baviaan ranges. It was hot and we were short on water, but still moving well and caught the Japanese again as they seemed to be paying the price for their earlier efforts. They stayed with us down a rough decent to the next TA. We were a little surprised to be chased down the hill by a couple of local kids moving much faster than us and even more amazed to see that one of them was doing it bare foot on the rough and thorny ground. Any wonder they produce good runners!
Leg 7 – 98km Cycle:
After getting new maps and plotting CPs we headed off on our bikes knowing there were a few overgrown river crossings which we were warned might be difficult at night. This was quickly forgotten as we rode through a game reserve to see Eland in the light of a beautiful sunset.
We hit the narrower river section just on dark and quickly realized the advice on difficult crossings was right on the mark as we lost and found the trail many times. The first couple of crossings we found the trail pretty quickly but the third took much more time as we had to battle reeds or deep water and struggled to find the trail on the other side. This section did provide a funny moment for all of us but Josh. As we scrambled out of the reeds up the bank we heard a panicked cry from behind “I can’t find my bike”. Josh was wondering around in the reeds with no idea where his bike was! After some guidance from the bank the bike was quickly found but we realized that it would be easy to lose each other in the 10ft high reeds.
After a short but difficult bush bash we got back on track and from there on found the crossings without too much drama, but it did feel very slow.
As we left the river we were surprised to see lights ahead of us up the hill and 10 mins or so later we came across the Swedes. They had had a worse time of it than us and had also had a flat on the rocky decent. They caught us again when we refilled our water for the next section and travelled pretty much together with them on the next section, which involved lots of hike a bike up rocky hills. We were a little surprised that they seemed content to follow when we got back on good roads, but they did get a small jump when we stopped for battery changes. Their lights were gone by the time we got to the next CP and we assumed they were off ahead again so we kept moving as best we could. Towards the end of the leg we had a choice between following a hillyish road or following a disused railway which was flat and half the distance. We chose the railway and it was great at first but slowly deteriorated into short spurts on the bike broken by pushing our way through thorn bushes. This tested our patience but we were committed and had to get it done. It was with some surprise that we were told we were first into the next CP. Apparently the Swedes made a nav mistake (was that the reason for following?). This leg ended up being an epic and our total time out there was 14 hours.
Leg 8 – 4km Trek and Ropes:
This section was short but a solid climb around then down to the ropes. Unfortunately, we spent a lot of time finding the first CP as the clue was “End of Game Fence” and we picked the wrong fence. The Swedes did no better when they got there and we both headed off without finding the CP. 100m up the hill we found another fence. The Swedes climbed it and headed on up but we realized this might be the fence with the CP so scrambled back down and found the CP before heading up. The Swedes later realized their mistake so came back down to get the CP so we were first to the ropes. This involved an abseil across a river on a fixed rope (controlled zip line) and was very spectacular in the morning light. One rope made for slow going though and it was taking 45mins to an hour to get a whole team through so we were off on the paddle as the first of the Swedes came down.
Leg 9 – 25km Paddle:
Fatigue and sleepiness was our biggest challenge on the paddle. This is where we use Leo’s biggest strength to our advantage. Conversation flowed and before long we were at the river mouth checking out the swim we had early in the next leg.
Leg 10 – 18km Trek:
At 18km this trek was short, but involved a long swim and finding a CP in the dunes. We lost some time finding the first CP on the river bank as we did not look properly behind the bush and after searching up and down the beach found it exactly where we thought it should be! We needed to be careful with tiredness creeping in. We crossed the river and found the CP in the dunes pretty quickly. Then the Swedes came flying past. They were moving at a pace we could not come close to so, as usual, we travelled at our own pace and jogged down the never ending beach. It was all good until we reached TA to find out we had breached an instruction to stick to the beach for longer (we had taken a road instead – as had the Swedes in front of us). The lesson here for us was that we did not properly read the course book for legs we had not been given maps pre-race. We transitioned (with a great meal supplied by the organisers) and got on with the race as quickly as possible with the Swedes about 20mins in front of us.
Leg 11 -123km Cycle:
This looked much more straight forward than the last ride, but with some route choices – we did not anticipate any great challenges ahead. As with every ride in this race we got on our bikes with the light fading ahead our third night on the bikes. It all went smoothly, including a short 20min sleep to revitalize when we lost focus. As we left one intersection where there was a choice of routes we were surprised to find the Swedes riding back the other way! Was the track we wanted to take there? We decided to give it a crack as it was both shorter and saved descending just to reclimb. As it turned out the track was there and although little more than a jeep track it was good going and we got through this section quickly. We were even happier when we found a water tank to refill. Unfortunately, when Leo returned to his bike he found the front tyre flat and even more unfortunately when we took it off the rim to put a tube in we found it riddled with dozens of thorns so the new tube was just going to puncture again! It took a good 20 mins to remove what thorns we could and trim the ones we couldn’t and we prayed the bit remaining in the tyre would not cause further flats. We were off again and as we rejoined the other route we saw the lights of the Swedes go past about 5 mins ahead of us. The route choice was a good one but the flat nullified the gain.
The next section seemed like an endless series of ups and downs but we eventually arrived at the next major intersection just after passing the Swedes who were stopped with one of their team sleeping. We were bemused that they followed our every move through the next tricky section, whether we were going the right way or not. They did not seem to know where they were so we were a big cagy looking for the next CP, but it was not easy to find. It turns out Hugh had copied the CP a few mm off and this threw us out and we did not look in quite the right place. The Swedes had the same problem as they could not find it either! After 30mins or so we gave up and left the Swedes. Apparently they rode back 3km and retraced their steps before finding the CP on the ground having been chewed by a cow and ripped from the tree on which it was placed, making it even harder to find.
We kept moving and got through the next canyon section on a rough track reasonably well although a small nav mistake meant we lost some time finding the right tunnel under the freeway. It was here that we saw Stephan (the race director) ahead on the road and our hearts sank when he said he was pretty sure the CP was there but that he would go back and check it. We had to decide whether to ride back and look again (it had taken two hours since we left it) or continue on with the risk of a serious penalty. We decided to head back and did so via a longer but hopefully faster bitumen road. Stephan was off ahead of us checking the CP and we got there to find it replaced in the tree. The good news was that the third placed team had still not come through and after redoing the canyon section (in about half the time it took us the first time) we had lost a bit over 2.5hrs, but were still in the hunt for second (noting we were expecting a penalty at the last TA for our beach transgression). We pushed on into a strong headwind to complete the last 20km. We used the penalty effectively to get some much needed food and sleep so would start the next section relatively fresh.
Leg 12 – 48km Trek
The two teams following us arrived in the TA as we slept so we were straight into it when we woke and set a solid pace. We made good time except when we overshot a turn (because the gate had an unfriendly “do not enter” sign). The next section down the coast was spectacular trekking along beached and over sandy headlands. We got the next CP and hit the coastal town of Oyster Bay about half way through the leg (Ghost town might be a better description as we did not see a sole – the place is apparently dead outside holiday season). We refilled water bottles but relaxed somewhat when we could not see any teams on the long beach behind us. From here we had 7km and two CPs in some spectacular sand dunes. This was fun, but we lost concentration for a while and slowed somewhat.
We were sparked into action when we saw a following team not far behind and quickly found the next CP and ran the sandy 4WD trails along the coast. It was now dark and we could not see lights behind us (except when Bern and Leo were surprised by light reflected in a window from a beach house!), so we were comfortable, but did not relex. Getting to the final CP at St Francis Lighthouse took forever, but eventually we got there and trotted the 2km down the beach to the finish at Cape St Francis Resort. We received a tremendous welcome from the race team and media – as we had everywhere during the race.
In the end we were satisfied with our 2nd place, although we had a chance at winning our pace on foot and about 4.5hrs of mistakes had put us out of the running. We had a great time racing as a team through the good and the bad.
Those who followed the race coverage closely would have seen that there were a number of breaches of rules and the penalties that resulted were given both during and post race (we ended up only 27 mins behind first). Unfortunately, we now have another example of inconsistent application of penalties across the AR world series races. For what it is worth we believe that the penalties applied in EA 2017 for breaches of two fundamental rules (teams staying together at all times and carrying mandatory equipment) should be much higher than 1 hour. However, we have accepted the race director’s decisions and do not want to cloud the superb event in any further controversy.
Here’s hoping we recover in time for Geoquest in a couple of weeks!