Expedition Africa Adventure RaceEvents
Written by Ico Schutte // Photography by Bruce Viaene
I am standing knee-deep in the river, trying to absorb energy and refreshment from its crystal-clear waters. Every muscle in my body hurts, my legs are tired, and my back aches from carrying a substantial pack. I look down at my feet and I see a stingray appearing from the depths. My mind is playing tricks on me. I’ve been on the go for 36 hours non-stop, with over 50km of trekking, 38km of kayaking and 90km biking under the belt. I am part of Team Raidlight Tumbleweeds competing in the ferocious 6 adventure race.
We are halfway into leg six of a 59km wilderness trek following buffalo paths in the equally beautiful and brutal Kouga River canyon. In adventure racing, teams can typically choose if and when to sleep, often only for a few hours during an entire event. However, due to the looming buffalo in the area, a ‘dark zone’ is enforced. With this in mind, just before sunset we strip down naked to swim across the river. Unfortunately Kate has an equipment failure and all her gear gets wet. Sharing is caring so Damon and I offer her some of our clothing. We scrape together driftwood for a sizzling fire, cook a meal and settle in for the night. This is the highlight of the adventure – flames licking the sky, sleeping with only the stars watching over me.
At dawn we start up the trudge again. Thorn bushes grab and pull us back down the struggle up the steep canyon side. Scraped, cut and bleeding we arrive at the top. I jokingly tell the team we made a mistake and will need to go down and back up the other side. This results in tears; obviously I am not that funny. The African sun relentlessly beats down on us and as I suck the last drop of water from my hydration pack I realise my mistake; I forgot to fill up at the river. At lunchtime we arrive at transition, shrivelled and ravenous but euphoric.
The next leg is a staunch 97km (with 2,500m ascent) bike ride through what is commonly referred to as Mordor. Again we find ourselves in a river valley with the forest threatening to swallow us up. Attempting to find the track we cross the river several times, the water sometimes chest deep, carrying bikes and bags overhead. As the sun fades out of the valley we see the red lights of teams slowly working their way up the mountains beyond. We are truly secluded and although it is night-time we have a shimmering full moon to illuminate the surrounding mountains as we grind and push our way to the top. In the early hours of the morning we finally crest the last hill and speed our way down the other side. We still have a way to go but the sun lazily awakens; with it my frozen limbs thaw and diminished spirits rise. After 15 hours on the bike my bum has devoured my seat and I am relieved to see the banners indicating transition.
I hook into the imposing highline rappel, slide down the cliff and over the river below onto the Fluid Synergy kayaks for the last 25km of paddling. From challenging conditions in the previous kayaking legs I have severe tendinitis in my wrists. Excruciating pain stabs me with every paddle stroke. The rhythmic paddling causes my eyes to grow heavy with sleep, and I jostle awake to see the grey underside of my cap; thinking it is a bridge I almost capsize the kayak with my evasive manoeuvres.
Some hours later we reach the rivermouth and transition onto the 18km beach trekking leg. But first we have to swim back across the river. I climb onto the first sand dune; before me, more dunes advance as far as I can see until receding into the ocean. The last rays dance on the water and the sun settles in for the night. We soldier on towards the lights of Jeffreys Bay, the world-renowned South African surf town. Damon struggles with chafing and resorts to stuffing his Buff between his legs – never before have I seen a Buff so violated. We arrive at transition around 9.00pm, just in time to find the restaurant still open. I order two chicken burgers and chips, and yes I devour both.
Kate and I assemble the bikes, Damon is on the maps and Leanne sorts out food for the next leg. By now we are a well-oiled adventure racing machine. With everything ready to go we settle down for a midnight siesta. At 1.00am, reluctantly, I get on my bike for the longest ride, 123km all the way back into the mountains of the Baviaanskloof. Four hours later and I am delirious; I see a green octopus floating in the sky and I know I have lost the battle with the sleep monsters. A quick team decision and we whip out the sleeping bags for a 30-minute snooze.
I peel open my sticky eyes, my mind muzzy. I find myself lying in a ditch next to a road. Beside me a girl moves; she doesn’t smell very nice. I turn over and notice two more people sharing the ditch with us. Lying there in the early hours of the morning I wonder what poor life decision has led me here.
I peel open my sticky eyes, my mind muzzy. I find myself lying in a ditch next to a road. Beside me a girl moves; she doesn’t smell very nice. I turn over and notice two more people sharing the ditch with us. Lying there in the early hours of the morning I wonder what poor life decision has led me here. Then the sun hits my face and the haziness dissipates. I am a new man and enjoy the simple pleasure of riding my bike in the wilderness. Soon we find a team riding from the opposite direction and eventually they convince us that we also missed the turn we are looking for. We backtrack and find the turn, a small farm road, hardly visible but great fun to ride. Careening down I see Leanne in a tangled mess: she had a high-speed run-in with a sneaky fence, but a quick inspection assures us only her ego is bruised. We make transition late afternoon with only a 48km trekking leg between us and a comfortable bed.
We hit the beach at sundown for the death march back towards St Francis where we started our journey five days ago. A small mistake sends us up a dead-end trail. We crawl and claw our way forward to emerge victorious on the other side. Somewhere in the middle of the night we run out of steam and decide to take a nap while struggling to locate a checkpoint. It’s freezing cold on the beach – I lie and shiver for most of the hour. Afterwards, our brains a little less addled, we quickly locate the checkpoint and push on across the coastline and into the Moving Sand Dunes of Oyster Bay. The vast expanse of the dune field blows my mind. It’s a physical struggle through the sand and my shattered legs complain with every effort. Only the serene beauty keeps me going. For the last time I feel the sun on my face, and I know it’s only a couple of hours longer. I pull out my space blanket and sled down one of the massive dunes.
Champagne washes away tears of joy as we cross the finish line. One final smelly team hug as we celebrate what we endured in the past 124 hours and 500km.