Note: This race was actually held in Sept 2019 but all details have been kept secret until the broadcast of “The Worlds Toughest Race” on Amazon Prime. Here are the many details that the show missed about Thunderbolt’s race …. it is a long one. Due to the camera ban we do not have many photos.
Team Thunderbolt AR were pretty excited for the return of the infamous Worlds Toughest Race – Eco-Challenge Fiji thanks to Mark Burnett and Bear Grylls. 66 teams from 30 countries took on the course which promised to be challenging and spectacular and anything but a tropical holiday with up to 12days of 24hour non stop racing in disciplines including jungle trekking, mountain biking, outrigger paddling, sailing traditional Fijian camakau boats, whitewater rafting, SUPing and ropework, navigating only with a map and compass.
The line up for this race sees regulars Leo Theoharis and Bern Dornom joined by Dave ‘Sloshy’ Schloss and Elizabeth Dornom. Sloshy, who has previously raced with Thunderbolt in a successful 2018 Wildside Canberra expedition race, is taking on team captain and lead navigation duties for this race. Elizabeth Dornom whilst new to Thunderbolt is not an unknown, having raced extensively with Sloshy, and the twin sister of Bern, adding to the strength and joke telling ability of the team although did add to the confusion of who’s who when the sleepmonsters hit. It was to be the first time the twin sisters had raced together and not against each other in this race format so we were grateful to have at least 2 mediators. Our unique 2 male 2 female team make–up is a team that was always destined to have a lot of fun and laughs together on the way to pushing at the top end of the field. Taking on the role of Team Assistant Crew (TAC), a necessity for this race, we were very lucky to have the expertise and hugs of Jan Leverton, who comes in with a wealth of adventure racing experience being an experienced racer, coach of Tri Adventure and an Adventure Race event organizer for decades. Her race smarts and organizational skills definitely kept the team on the right track along with a good dose of tough love.
“Team Thunderbolt AR is a group of donut loving, joke telling, trash talking friends (and twin sisters) who have raced with or against each other for many years fighting for the top step of the podium in the Australian Adventure Racing scene.”
After literally months of planning and preparation it was great to finally arrive with all the other teams (and the mountains of gear) to the athlete hotel, the Pullman Resort Nadi, Fiji. We had a few days of competency and gear checks, a lot of time moving piles of gear around, re-sorting gear boxes and plenty of scoping out the competition. Lots of familiar and unfamiliar faces around. This was going to be an interesting mix of racers.
Leg One – OCEAN
After a final race briefing and getting all pumped up by Bear Grylls and the circling helicopters we had a mass le mans style start along the narrow banks of the Wainibokasi River with all 66 teams in the traditional Fijian camakau boats. It was definitely a sight to behold. We had unluckily drawn the second last barrier (Team NZ drew the third last so we were in good company) so we certainly saw a fair bit of carnage and luckily escaped most of it as we worked our way through the field. By the time we hit the end of the river and got onto the open ocean we had hit the front of the field along with Bend Racing and Team New Zealand. We were pretty excited if not a little surprised. Whilst we were able to hoist our sails once we got to the ocean we elected not to and to keep paddling as we were moving at a good speed and there wasn’t much wind. Saying nothing of our extensive(?) sailing experience. I think the actual plan was keep paddling until a team with its sail passes us then just copy whatever they do but this did not happen.
We paddled solidly to the first CP on Leleuvia Island before continuing to Ovalau Island to begin our jungle trek. It had been hot and long paddling the camakaus so none of us were disappointed to reach land mid afternoon and get onto our feet. The trek was Fiji jungle hot! We were running with the front pack – even nudging our toes in front at one point (;-)), but teams were definitely suffering from the humidity and heat of the jungle and a long day paddling in the sun. Any creek was an opportunity to try to cool down. We dropped off the pace slightly as we reached the summit and CP4, descending and returning to our camakaus as the sun set probably in 5th or 6th place
Retracing our paddling we headed back to Leleuvia Island in the Camakaus (still no wind and night paddling now), passing the back end of the field still heading towards the jungle trek. Elizabeth drew the swimming straw and free-dived down 8m to find and collect our first medallion. No easy feat at that depth in the dark with a torch and then we were quickly away across the ocean back towards the mainland.
Heading into the beach at the end of the camakaus in about 3rd position and not knowing what the next leg was at that stage, we had been looking forward to getting on our feet to give our arms a break. As we approached, we saw Team New Zealand just leaving transition heading out on SUPs. Big sigh. Not drying out just yet!
We inflated our SUPs, read the next set of instructions and marked up the maps. We took off under the moonlight along the beach and then followed Waidalici River upstream for about 30km. Not a bad way to bring in the start of Bern and Elizabeth’s birthday. We had planned to enact the Birthday Rule 3b.i. subsection 7 that states on your birthday you don’t have to carry any gear, but I guess technically our gear was sitting on our SUPs. Definitely felt slow going and a long night but we got our SUP groove on and continued the banter to keep us awake.
The end of the SUP was Sote Village and CP8, where we then portaged across the river via a pontoon to pick up our MTBs just as the day was starting to dawn. Plenty of Fijian up and down as we wound our way through village after village as the thermostat rose. It was our first real experience of the friendly Fijians. We couldn’t get through any of the villages without a friendly wave, shout out and even a few hugs and kisses from the locals much to Leo’s surprise when half his face was nearly sucked off by a Fijian lady at one village intersection as the rest of the mob laid banana leaf necklaces around us. Did they know how sweaty we were?! Plenty of ups and down as we worked our way to camp in the increasing heat.
Camp One – mid morning day 2. Naivucini Village
So great to see Jan. Not sure who was most excited – her or us. She had also organized some birthday celebrations and headbands for us to wear. Amongst cooling off in the river which was our first priority, changing gear in and out, fueling up, reading next legs instructions and marking up maps we managed a few minutes sleep within our 90min mandatory stop.
Leg Two – JUNGLE
We headed off in third position followed closely by Tiki Tour as we boulder hopped our way towards the jungle and into the canyon. Quick chat with Bear as he and his helicopter landed and met us just as we approached the canyon. We discussed the toughness of the leg and swapped a few motivational quotes, think Bern even taught him one “The race is just like eating an elephant – one bite at a time and a few gristly bits.”
The canyon definitely proved challenging as it had started raining but we were lucky to get through following closely behind Tiki tour. Swimming in parts up a raging river before finding the jungle medallion at the end of it and again saying Gday to Bear. Just like in the previous Fiji Eco Challenge which had a very similar if not the same leg we located a small creek offshoot and followed that up into the jungle. We did get turned around a bit in here crossing paths with Tiki tour again but eventually found the idol marker we were looking for that marked the track out to the Bilibili start at Navuniyasi Village
It was pretty iconic Eco to be able to build our own traditional Fijian bamboo Bilibili rafts, with a little instruction from locals looking on and largely laughing at us. That excitement was relatively short lived when we first pushed off in the rafts and picked up our bamboo paddles. Or rather, bamboo poles – how do these help you go fast, what type of paddle is this? What is the best technique for speed? It was to be a 50km raft down the slow moving Wainimala River and we spent the majority of that trying to work out what was the fastest/best technique. Paddle like a Venetian gondola; like a SUP; pretend it’s a kayak; push off the bottom; push off the bank; windmill style with a bit of flare? Basically our learnings boiled down to this – they are not speed machines and they make the SUPs seem fast.
The rain had continued throughout this leg and as we later found out the rising water at the canyon meant it had become impassable. As we came to the safety portage section about halfway through the bilibili section, an official informed us the race had temporarily been paused and we were to wait until 6am to receive further information about a possible restart. It was actually great timing for us to break up the bilibili and get a decent night sleep in local village. It meant we had once again caught the lead teams but also a couple of teams behind us also already on the bilibilis caught us. A local family generously took us into their home, gave us hot water and we had a great chat with them. They were very intrigued about the race, before we finally managed to excuse ourselves so our weary bodies could get our first real sleep (5hours ish) of the race. We had a sleep card for this race which meant that throughout the race we needed to bank or have signed off 5 lots of 3hours at any camp or CP. This was in addition to mandatory 90min stay at all camps. We were able to have one sleep signed off during the paused race.
Six teams set off together the next morning slowly making the way down the river. We passed a few locals going upstream in their bilibilis. We studied their technique but still no speed demons. A total of about 10hours on bilibilis was probably enough for all of us so it was with a fair bit of relief that we reached the final CP at Viria Village We just had to hoist our bilibilis up a steep muddy bank (of course) to the CP. Locals gave us fresh coconuts to drink as we walked from there to the MTB transition. Winning
Back on the bike again and finally dry again. A few more villages to negotiate. High fiving locals, having them cheer, yell and run alongside us was definitely a highlight. They pointed out the way, as did the Eco Challenge direction signage?!
Camp Two – early afternoon day 3 Waivaka village
Hugs all round from Jan and the beginning of a beautiful friendship with her Fijian style cheese toasties began.
Map mark up and instructions read, we tried to gather as much info from camp about how other teams were fairing in front and behind us so we had something to discuss and speculate on during the next leg. Namely our friends and adversaries in Team East Gippsland and of course checking Bern’s partner Myall in Team Scouts Australia was still travelling okay, and still behind ;-). A little bit of feet up time within our mandatory 90min camp stop and then we were back off on the bikes.
Leg Three – HIGHLAND
Up and down, up and down, the roller coaster roads of Fiji. Fabulous countryside, friendly locals and lots of high fiving. Nearly decapitated ourselves on a horse rope that was about chest height across the road as the horse was having a munch on the other side. Luckily Dave saw it in the nick of time and managed to wave and yell furiously enough for us all to stop as well. Of course, it was as we were barreling down a downhill. We crossed over a rising river cautiously as it started to rain and then slowly but surely our dirt roads began to turn into mud roads and then peanut butter roads and then impossible bike clogging cement that forced you to stop every few metres to clear the wheels enough that you could barely even push your bike forward. Impossible to ride and in many spots necessitated carrying your bike up or down the hill. We had hit the sweet spot of just enough rain to make it extremely sticky but not enough to make it wetter and slippery. And just as you thought it would dry out a bit or get a bit wetter it would either start or stop raining. Pretty tough, slow going and soul destroying (for Leo’s bike shoes literally speaking as well as figuratively) but we also realized we were pretty lucky as teams behind us were likely to have a more churned up road and for a lot longer as we’d got through a decent chunk of the ride before it started to rain.
We were pretty happy to come into the next CP transition area although whilst the CP volunteer was waking up, we rode past it a bit to a nearby stream to soak our bikes in an attempt to get some mud off and make them somewhat rideable later. Unfortunately, we were not informed at the CP that there was a pressure washer there to use that would have made the job a lot easier. We packed up our bikes in the rain, spotted one or two teams having a sleep but we opted to head on out to try and bank our sleep at the start of the rafting leg hoping to time it right to wake up to the opening of the dark zone for the rafting.
It was a short trek, enough time to stretch the legs, be thankful we were off the bikes and get some food in. Bern ate the remainder of a dehydrated meal that may have been baking in her pack throughout that last bike. Hmmm
We made it to the start of the rafting in perfect time with 3 hours before the opening of dark zone so banked a short sleep with the two other teams already there. We slept on the floor of a cramped storage room with just enough room for us to fit in like sardines right next to a loud generator that started about 30min into our sleep. Oh well at least we were out of the rain.
The dark zone stoppage meant we had caught the teams in front of us and when the dark zone opened we were in the lead pack of 6 teams.
On waking Bern had lost the contents of her stomach out both ends so wasn’t high on energy levels for this leg. She managed to put in a token performance down the initial rapids but spent the remainder sleeping in the middle of the raft recovering. It was otherwise a fun paddle, spectacular deep canyon, waterfalls coming in on either side and some cool rapids. We had a camera boat following us so swapped stories (and jokes sorry) with them for the paddle.
The paddle finished at the point we had earlier crossed the river with our bikes so we again saw some teams behind us crossing.
Namuamua Village at the start of the trek was where we collected our Highland medallion off the Chief. It was also where, as per instructions we were able to use porters, guides or horses from villages along the way. A huge novelty and great way to interact with locals. We hired a couple of willing locals to carry our packs. They were also useful as they were very familiar with the network of tracks between all the villages.
There were four sections to this 52km leg through 4 different local regions. Taking about 12hours in total. We had 4 separate pairs of locals/guides carrying our packs between each section. They were great to chat to along the way and hear their stories and also super impressive hiking. We had our hiking poles and super shoes and gear and they trekked along ahead of us through the jungle tracks and paths, up and down hills in gumboots, thongs (Fijian work boots), or barefoot. Strong.
We all struggled with some sleepmonsters along a long road section, as did our slightly less fit locals for this section, but we were re-enthused with a large school group joining us as school finished for the day for the walk home. Was great chatting and playing with the kids as we trekked.
The final section was quite hilly and some more challenging terrain – muddy, jungle tracks and numerous river crossings as we headed into the night and towards camp three.
Camp Three – late night/early morning day 5, Lutu Village
Pretty happy to get into camp and off our feet to the welcome hugs of Jan who had been waiting up for us into the early hours of the morning. We stocked up on some much needed and welcomed cheese toasties before banking another much needed couple hours of sleep.
Leg Four – RIVER
We left in the early hours of the morning just before it got light and slowly worked our way through jungle following creeks and a river climbing towards Vuwa falls. Wowsers, the rocks were slippery. Very slippery. Just as you thought you had solid footing on a rock the next thing you knew you were arse over. Certainly, this section contributed to lots of bruising and it was entertaining watching the stacks, as long as it wasn’t you that was falling on that particular occasion. We were lucky to complete that section with just minor scrapes and bruises and battered egos.
Vuwa Falls – Wow Wow Wow. Certainly an impressive sight. We had been looking forward to using our climbing gear all race. We had a lovely chat with Linda – a friend and checkpoint volunteer at the base of the falls and started up. I must say the excitement did wear off as the climb continued pitch after pitch after pitch. Definitely an impressive climbing set up and one of the highlights of the race.
It took us about 4hours to reach the top and collect the River medallion. From here we were to hit the swim section.
We had an hour or so of light left so we packed away our climbing gear and set off. We saw the first pool and swam across reaching land at the end thinking well that wasn’t too bad. We soon realized there were lots of these of varying lengths with impenetrable jungle all around. And each pool separated with more slippery rocks just to ensure any body part that hadn’t been bruised previously got bruised this time. As night fell the pools continued. It did get cold but we had our jackets on and still a spare warm top in our packs if needed. We tried to bash through the jungle beside the water in a few areas and weren’t unhappy to reach the road and make our way out to the CP. We had a short stay in the warming tent – there wasn’t much room for our team with team Spain suffering hypothermia and needing medical crew and of course a camera crew. We were moved out of there quickly once we had put on dry clothes. A bit of a novelty for an adventure race, from here all teams were taken in a jeep to the start of the SUP leg. Can’t say any of us remember any of this 40min ride – we pretty much fell asleep before the driver turned the key.
We had a much needed sleep, banking another from our sleep card, in a shed near the CP. We moved a bit of equipment to make space for 4 bivy bags with tired bodies inside.
The map looked like this was going to be a lovely 12km SUP across Monasavu lake with a slight tail wind/current straight to the CP. Sweet. Shoes off on the SUP and enjoy the moonlight paddle. Unfortunately this is Eco Challenge and it doesn’t work like that. Lake was only half full. The lake turned into a river and then a network of winding, ever smaller creeks and then a sludge fest of knee deep peanut butter consistency cow poo sludge. After dragging our SUPS through this for what seemed like forever we climbed the banks and headed on bearing towards the CP. Dragging SUPs in knee deep cow sludge in true adventure racing style. Pretty happy to get to the CP and use a small tap to try and clean ourselves up.
This was a much drier and hotter trek as we hit more of the highland open plains and hills. Nice to complete it during the day and be able to appreciate the diverse and spectacular scenery. Leo’s shin and foot, bruised from all the rocks he’d hit earlier had started to give him a fair bit of grief throughout this leg but he soldiered on albeit with a limp at times. A few brief foot care or power naps stops but otherwise trekked on all day up and over hills, hard work in the heat. A rarity, except for our ocean leg, was that we could often see such a long way across the land to the distant hills we knew camp four was beyond. A bit of a tease at times but lovely to traverse the varying terrain; open barren hills, dense, head high grass or trees, steep banks down and up from a few rare yet welcome river crossings to restock water supplies. The final trek along a river to camp four as dusk fell was a bit cooler thankfully.
Camp Four – early evening day 6, Navala Village
What a welcome into the camp as night fell with chants and songs from all the villagers at the Camp. Amazing enthusiasm. Sloshy managed to harness the energy of the locals and got them all chanting Aussie Aussie Aussie in time. The by now famous cheese toasties were again consumed in abundance before we took a couple of hours sleep, banking our final sleep card in a wonderfully spacious traditional hut.
Leg Five – ISLAND
A bit of rain had again started to fall as we set off in the middle of the night on our MTBs. Our bikes didn’t take long to be coated in mud -sorry Jan I know you cleaned them well for us (or paid the locals to do so). Not sure what use our reflector strips and back lights were coated in inches of Fijian mud. Endless hills up and up apparently along a little bit of a ridge not that we could see the spectacular views.
We arrived at the CP and got the map for the Oalaivuda Circuit loop trek around to a rappel . It was a pretty slippery loop and Leo’s shin was really not happy with walking but we struggled on. The rappel was good, thankfully not as long as Vuwa Falls, but in pitch black more of an unknown as we dropped into the pool at the bottom. A short swim and a rock climb for Bern to collect our final medallion from the side of the cliff we had rappelled down. Then it was slip and slide back to our bikes on the remainder of the trek.
We were relieved to see no other bikes back at transition so we knew we had a decent gap behind us. For some reason, sleepmonsters most probably, we had all thought the MTB from here to the SUP was relatively short and not too much climbing. Well. We were wrong. Lots of hills and quite a few hours. Our expectation not matching the reality made it even harder as we climbed and descended climbed and descended. As the sun came out and dried us and our bikes, with increasing temperature our bikes and chains were making noises about how unhappy they were. We had used all our chain lube but stopped in by a friendly village and picked up a small bottle of cooking oil – worked like a treat.
Unfortunately, as we were enjoying one of the many speedy descents after climbing, Sloshy’s bike ‘karked’ it. Popped a tyre and broke a chain. Tyre was repaired with a tube and gel wrapper and chain fixed however only temporarily. The skills of Leo and Sloshy came to the forefront as they worked their mechanical wizardry to convert it to a single speed with less than ideal matching parts. Bern and Elizabeth whilst contemplating having to hike the bike the remainder of the ride, contributed by snoozing quietly next to the boys whilst they worked away. Thankfully and tentatively it made it through the remainder of the ride and we were joined by a few helicopters for the final ride into the CP/transition area, a rugby field of Natalau Village.
Now this was fun. Sent on our way by the singing of the local school kids and villagers, a downwind river SUP on the Sabeto River in the daylight! First time SUPing in daylight for us this race. At times we even lay on our SUPs and let the current take us to the next bank before paddling around next bend to do it all again. Elizabeth wasn’t feeling so great so Bern towed her on her SUP for a bit – she had paddle credits to make up after sleeping on the rafting. By the time we hit the ocean it was a serious downwind SUP to the CP at Lomolomo Beach. Surfer Leo continued to attempt standing up, to little avail but to others enjoyment as we knelt and tried to keep the boards steady. KUPing?
We had noticed that the wind had picked up and the seas looked pretty rough so we were looking forward to a challenging outrigger paddle. Unfortunately, we were told that it was too rough to leave and they had effectively dark zoned the paddle until the winds settled likely to be the next morning. So whilst we were stuck only a few hours from the finish, on the plus side we had an afternoon, evening and night to laze about, sleeping eating and waiting. A few other teams arrived throughout the night so when we woke in the morning there were 6 teams ready to for the restart. We had been told there would be time credits but we were planning on showing our paddling prowess once again and finishing ahead of these teams regardless.
After Elizabeth had a breakfast of coke, neurofen, no doze and Kwells we set off. Was nice to gap the teams pretty early and we enjoyed the final paddle as much as our exhausted sleep deprived bodies could and reminisced about our race, the fun and not so fun times, our favourite legs, how other teams and friends were going and what would be awaiting us at the finishline. We headed around Beachcomber Island then collected our final CP, CP31 just off Tavua Island and onto the finish on Mana Island.
FINISH -late morning day 7 Mana Island
So stoked with 7th place – We enjoyed ourselves, had a lot of laughs (and a bit of pain) raced hard and would do it all again in a heartbeat. Such an amazing experience in what was and will once again become an iconic race. Full results are a bit hard to find so the photo below will help.
THE REAL RACE?
Okay so now let’s talk about the real race. First to the buffet at the Pullman for a 5hour leg each morning swapping stories of the race with your team mates and other teams as they finished over the coming days as you stuffed yourself silly. Priceless.
I was very honoured to be asked by Team Thunderbolt AR to crew for them at Eco Challenge. Being a TAC (Team Assistant Crew) meant I had to look after the team in many ways: Find my way around the main island of Fiji without any modern navigational assistance and set up camp to meet the team as they arrived in the camps – then, of course, greet them at the finish line…
Some memorable moments for me were:
- Letting go of the rope at Drabuta Village and hence starting my team’s assault of Eco Challenge Fiji
- Meeting the team at Camp 1 and giving out big birthday hugs to Bern & Liz who were ‘celebrating’ their 39th birthday
- Cooking copious amount of cheese toasties and guarding them with my life when the village dog was sniffing around
- Spotting a big white horse walking on the middle of a highway carrying pannier bags – not sure where it was going, not sure where it had been, it was just travelling solo. Pretty sure this was not an hallucination…
- Driving 8 hours between Camp 3 & 4 in darkness with David from Team Summit, trying to follow the crazy driving instructions. He was Catalonian (Spanish) and I was a bit blind, but we managed to manoeuvre our way through Friday night frivolity in Sigatoka without taking out any of the drunks on the road who were trying to flag us down
- Navigating our way via tram lines and bus stops to Navala Village in the dark – this was a challenge!
- Washing the teams bike nicks after riding in that red mud – at least 4 times – and they still didn’t look clean
- Did I mention I cooked some toasties – fried eggs were my other specialty…
- Spending a special and fun night at Mana Island with 5 other TACs – eating, drinking, and being merry. The United Nations of TAC – Spanish, Swedish, Kiwi, Brazilian, French & Aussie. We bonded for life that night!
- Standing with a lump in my throat at the finish line as my amazing team paddled in after 7 days racing – what a proud and exciting moment for me – I didn’t poison them!