Adventure Racing World Championship 2016
New South Wales
So yet again, the temptation was too great. This year’s Adventure Race World Championships were to be held in Australia and it didn’t take long for our friends Wendy and Jo Inge Fjellstad to agree to joining us for another outing to a far flung land, well away from the approaching North European winter.
Our previous results in this event generally saw us finishing somewhere mid-table so the promise of a course which had been designed around most teams being able to fully complete was certainly appealing and, as always with these races, it sounded like a spectacular area. The Shoalhaven area of New South Wales was the host region and we were in for a treat.
Preparation had gone quite well to start with. Christine broke he arm in a bike crash four months earlier but it was fixed well enough that she was confident of getting through everything and with a few days to go everything was looking good. Then, two days before we were due to fly out there, I had an accident at work which left me with a dislocated left shoulder. My very first thought after it had happened was would I be able to go to Australia and my second was would I be able to get in mended well enough to take part. It was put back in place shortly afterwards at the hospital and, although it all felt very traumatised around the shoulder joint, I thought I might get away with it even if it would require some nursing through.
We took our flights out there to Sydney on the 4th November and lost a couple of days en route arriving on the 6th. That gave us four days, interspersed with the jitters of the US presidential election, to get ready for the start of the race and we spent that time staying at a lovely coastal place called Mollymook a couple of miles away from the event centre at Ulladulla. My first impressions of the area were that, apart from the blue sea and white sand, more modern architecture and lack of dry stone walls, we could have been looking inland towards the Peak District. It was green with rolling hills, agricultural and generally very pleasing on the eye.
During the build-up we had a few logistical things to sort out. Ulladulla provided us with the shops at which to buy our race food and we spent the time leisurely coming and going and meeting many of the 96 teams which would eventually start the race. We had the opportunity to try out the kayaks which would be used for the race and it was quickly apparent that my shoulder was never going to let me use a double paddle but we found a fishing shop in town which had a single blade with T-grip tucked down the side of a display which would at least give me half a chance of contributing to the team’s propulsion.
The race was due to start on the Thursday so on Tuesday evening there was an opening ceremony on Mollymook Beach which had been preceeded by a light-hearted prologue event starting in Ulladulla. The teams all bore their national flags (ours going with our majority British make-up) passing through games stations involving Vegemite sandwiches, Aussie rules football, picnic hamper and flip-flop relays and the like until we all met up to be welcomed by the Shoalhaven officials and the local aboriginal elder. It was a relaxing do with not too much in the way of lengthy speeches and ceremony.
It was race day then when we eventually had the course revealed to us. Over 600km of trekking, mountain biking, kayaking, pack rafting and caving lay ahead with the course being open for eight days. Maps were dished out, final touches were made to the packing of our supplies which would be dropped off at transition areas for us and we embarked the fleet of busses which took us up the coast to Jervis Bay and the town of Huskisson from where we would begin our adventure.
The sun shone as the race got under way at 12.30pm and nearly 200 kayaks set out across the bay. Each team had a pair of kayaks supplied by the organisation: one three-man and one two-man. We started out with Jo Inge and Wendy in the larger three-man and Chris and I took the smaller one with a tow line attached between us. This is a familiar team tactic and was more necessary in our case with only three and a half sets of paddling arms, but it wasn’t easy going and we laboured across to the distant headland towards the back of the field. Out towards the ocean the swell was more challenging and the relief came as we turned into a gorgeous little bay to visit our first checkpoint after two-and-a-half hours. Time to reassess.
One down, only about 50 to go.
Putting three in the larger kayak and me and the bags on the two-man seemed to improve our progress. Even though I was only paddling to the right, I found I could keep it reasonably straight using the craft’s rudder and the tow line was only momentarily taut every few strokes which kept us nicely together as we collected the rest of the checkpoints dotted around the edges of the bay. I spent a lot of time keeping my eyes out towards the bay hoping to see some of the humpback whales which live there at this time of year but, although the tourist boats were later reporting sightings, none popped up. Even when Wendy donated her dinner to them – partially digested – over the side of the kayak it wasn’t enough to draw them and we landed back on shore at “Husky”, as the locals call it, 35km and six-and-a-half hours later. We had also managed to put a handful of teams behind us by then and we went through transition to set off on leg 2 to trek a brisk 14km along the beach as dusk fell.
We’ve always found ourselves to be pretty swift on our feet and we romped along past a fair number of teams along the white sand and the rocky headlands before cutting in across land to the next transition. This was onto another kayaking leg, this time across an inland basin named St George’s and down the Sussex Inlet where it drains into the sea. It was dark and moonless by then and the only visible mark was a red light marking the inlet some 10km away. It was windy too and our progress was again slow. Some lights on the land to our right seemed to be barely moving despite paddling at what felt a good rate but there was nothing to be done other than keep going. The cargo of bags on the front end of my kayak was not quite balanced and I spent the entire leg listing to starboard with cold waves frequently washing over my legs. Eventually we reached the light, and the relief of paddling down the calm inlet brought on a huge wave of sleepiness. Fortunately it wasn’t much farther to the transition area (TA) and we hauled everything ashore and treated ourselves to some warm food courtesy of an electric kettle we had to take turns to use.
Leg 4 and 95km of cycling lay ahead next, so we assembled our duly-delivered mountain bikes and headed off into what remained of the night.
As morning came the birds woke and the dawn chorus started up. Our songbirds are always a springtime treat back home and it was the Aussie spring during our time there. But parrots aren’t particularly melodious and the raucous squawking each morning throughout the trip reminded me of pet shops and garden centres.
Wendy demonstrating that, if she were to crash, she'd better fall to the left!
We cycled on through the day on many a forest road with a couple of monstrous climbs thrown in taking us to some dramatic overlooks. However, it seems that these adventure race course planners have an unsupressable urge to include something ridiculous, and so it was on this stage. A precipitous path around Florence Head rocks during the middle of the day had us, along with a number of other teams, bottlenecking along something which has probably never seen a bike and never will again. It took over two hours to cover a few hundred metres, passing bikes up and down rocks and through gaps barely wide enough. It did offer an opportunity to interact with some other teams around us though.
This is where cycling started to get silly.
That over, we rode on through the afternoon heading for the TA in a town called Kioloa. It was on the descent though the forest that I had a glimpse of my first kangaroo bounding away after being disturbed by us. Eager to tell the others about this I was gushing as we regrouped at the bottom and then we reached the edge of town. One of those yellow signs greeted us showing a ‘roo leaping to warn us that there was a chance of an encounter. No sooner had we passed that, we were suddenly in a town which looked as if it had been taken over by them .They were absolutely everywhere: hanging around in groups on street corners; lounging around in front gardens; stretched out on verges enjoying a bit of evening sunshine. The sports field being used as the TA was prime grazing with a couple of dozen of all ages and sizes nonchalantly munching the grass as we got on with the business of stowing our bikes and transforming ourselves into trekkers once again. A group of kangaroos are known as a mob. It would be interesting to know what they might call us if they could talk.
This was to be another coastal stage of 38km of soft sandy beaches and rocky headlands to be negotiated and darkness fell as we hunted around the cliffs for the first of the stage’s checkpoints. Progressing down the coast we were on the lookout for somewhere suitable to take our first sleep break. It was only going to be a short one and after a few miles we reached a little place labelled Pebbly Beach where the edge of a caravan site provided us with a suitable place to get our heads down. There were plenty of kangaroos here too and an inquisitive little possum was paying us some careful attention, no doubt hoping we’d leave some food unguarded. With the alarms set three hours hence we settled under the skies but it was soon afterwards that I woke to the feeling of raindrops on my face. I gathered up my primitive bed and reset it down on some concrete under a shelter to try and make the most of our allotted sleep time but it didn’t prove to be a restful time really. We were up and on our way again in the small hours and had our first swim a short time later as we crossed a sea inlet at Durras Lake. The maps, which, incidentally, had proven to be very good and accurate so far, carried a helpful illustrated inset showing the best place to cross. As we progressed inland at daybreak we moved into dense forest, although passable paths were there for us to make good progress. The checkpoints, though, were a little trickier to locate and the first one in the forest had us thrashing about in the bush. We weren’t the only team struggling to decipher the complicated topography, largely hidden by the undergrowth, and it took a diversion and a fresh approach to find checkpoint 17. There was some added entertainment in this area too in the form of leeches. I’d never really heard Christine do a proper girly squeal before but it turned out she had a proper revulsion of these bloodsuckers which attached themselves to out shoes by the dozen. One managed to find its way to Wendy’s shin and latch on, but the effective application of some insect repellent directly to it soon had it shrivelling away after having its breakfast disturbed.
We soldiered on through the stage and we eventually emerged on the shores of Bateman’s Bay to make our way through some exclusive neighbourhoods to reach the TA at the mouth of the Clyde River.
We took this TA with little delay to embark on leg 6 and a 37km upstream paddle of this tidal river. To begin with the tide wasn’t in our favour as we edged our way close to the banks through the oyster farms, but it was a beautiful stretch of water. We again opted for the 3-plus-1 configuration of our kayaks and snaked our way to the next checkpoint at Nelligen. This coincided with the tide turning and also an inviting waterside café, so we took the advantage of a cup of coffee to boost our progress. Refreshed, we headed on upstream again into the wilder reaches of the river towards the next TA at Shallow Crossing, so called because of the ford through which the main road ran. It had turned into a lovely sunny afternoon and spirits were high. One of the notable events was passing through smacks of jellyfish (yes, the collective noun is allegedly that!). These were not your everyday marine jellyfish but big hefty ones the colour of crème caramel. They were actually very good looking creatures as far as jellyfish go.
We reached Shallow Crossing shortly before dusk and decided on a bit more sleep after dark. We gave ourselves four hours and took full advantage of a few tents the organisers had put up for our casual use.
It was back on the bikes for 58km of leg 7 which was, again, in the forests of the Blue Mountains, specifically the Budawang Range. These take their name from the blue haze which frequently hangs around them caused by something from the gum trees suspended in the moisture. They reminded me of a central European range, heavily forested and lying below the tree line with a disappointing lack of spectacular peaks, but nevertheless they were pleasant enough and they all came into view as the sun rose. This was not until after I had had a few minutes crashed out on my rucksack after suffering a serious bout of sleepiness, but it did the trick and carried me through the rest of the day in a full state of alertness.
It was notable that the Aussies are a no-nonsense breed, shown in the way they build their forest roads. To get up a mountain side there’s only one route to pick and that’s the most direct. Hence there was a lot of pushing bikes at some points on this stage with our feet fighting for grip at times.
We reached the end of the leg as the sun was getting quite hot and used a creek for a bit of refreshment to prepare for the long trek of leg 8 which lay ahead. This was to take us on 45km of remote terrain high up in the mountains and through some of the best scenery along the whole race route.
We headed off up towards a mountain called The Castle to begin with which started out as a tourist path through the lower slopes. Then we reached something not obvious on the map and began picking our way along a loose steep slope in an attempt to follow what was shown as a path on the map. It didn’t look much like a path in reality and eventually we found ourselves bushwhacking our way through somewhere few people had ever trodden before. We were all a bit uncertain about persevering with this route but we had reached a point where returning to look for a better track may have proven equally or more costly than fighting on, so on we fought. I remarked how benign all the plant life seemed though. Something similar back home would have seen us shredded by thorns or stung but it was all soft ferns and remarkably helpful liliaceous grass-looking things which were anchored to the hillside like limpets and provided me with a lot of help on my one-armed journey. It was a tremendous relief when we were reunited with the path we had lost earlier and it led us up onto the tops where we were treated to some magnificent views.
On we marched through the afternoon and into cowboy and Indian looking terrain where great gritstone outcrops looked down on us. One in particular I noticed looked like a practice cliff for the Mount Rushmore masons, or was that just me needing some sleep.
Navigating round Mount Cole brought this rocky scenery to a close and there was a decent path to follow around its north side but the problem for us lay in finding the right path on which to descend into the valley to then attack the other side. We got it wrong. What looked like a promising path soon became just vegetation and, although we weren’t the only team to have been down there by the looks of it, we ended up as they must have done just surrounded by shoulder high plants. The general topography was just about discernable through the trees and we could identify the saddle we needed to be on so we opted for another bushwhack, and it was a truly memorable one. Credit for the hard work here must go to Jo Inge who repeatedly threw himself onto the vegetation, flattening it bit by bit and providing us with something resembling a track. Eventually we made it to the saddle and the path and we were back in cruising mode again.
As the day drew to a close it was time to think about what we should do overnight. We had almost reached what was marked on the map as the highest point in the race at 867 metres and the wind had picked up to a brisk westerly. Looking at what lay ahead I was concerned that our navigation had let us down a couple of times already that afternoon and we were all tired. It showed more of the same high ground with lots of dark green on the map and I put forward the argument of setting the tents up for some quality sleep while we could still see what we were doing, not that there was much in the way of nice level ground. Jo Inge favoured battling on into the night and stopping to sleep when fatigue was getting the better of us so we had a slightly tense discussion. Eventually we agreed to stop there on a patch of bare ground barely big enough for one tent, never mind two, and I was more than happy to go along with his decree that if we were going to stop and sleep then we would not start until daylight returned.
So we squashed the tents in amongst the rocks and plants, ate, then turned in for some kip. And sleep I did. From about 9pm until the alarm went off at 4am with very little disturbance. We packed the tents and set off again just as the sky was lightening, feeling fresh once more for what lay ahead.
We moved well throughout the morning and some great scenery, eventually reaching the end of the leg around the middle of Monday at a TA set up in the grounds of the Nerriga Inn, a curious roadside hostelry. This was where a Tuesday 7am cut-off would be imposed so we were comfortably inside that. After some footcare and food we transitioned into cyclists and set off on a tarmac stage to take us 70km up the road to a place called Bungonia.
We made good time, passing through some delightful countryside with a wide range of roadkill to be studied. Kangaroos and a wombat were interesting enough but I’d never seen a tortoise dead on the tarmac until then.
Riders On The Storm
Bungonia is a national park near a town of the same name and as we neared our destination the sky darkened and the thunder rumbled. Then came the rain for our last few minutes and we were glad to reach the TA which had the facility of a building with a big kitchen and a shower block. We hurried inside just in time to see the storm doing its worst outside. Hail smashed down on the roof and no-one was in a hurry to venture out.
Now, this next stage had been, until a few days before the race, the mystery stage. It was going to be caving. It had been sold as a bit of fun and each team had to spend a minimum of five hours from arrival to departure here. So whatever it involved might have been expected to take a couple of hours perhaps. No.
We had a short briefing to explain what was involved and it could perhaps be best described as an orienteering course with each control being down a cave. Simple really. Then we were given the map. A sketch on a scrap of paper might best describe what we had to work with which showed the location of six caves, any five of which had to be visited. Any missed caves would incur a four hour penalty.
We opted to find one of the furthest away caves first while it was still light and set off into the cold rain with our sketch maps and also cave maps which showed the insides of the caves in better detail. The first proved to be navigationally challenging but we actually found it quite proficiently while noticing other teams doing a lot of head scratching in the area. The cave itself was a simple one and on we moved to the next. This took a bit of finding too amongst the woodland and the innards of this cave were much more complicated. Crawling and squeezing was the only way through to some parts and we made a reasonable job of getting round this section, although we were all wondering what the attraction of caving was really about.
Another of the caves, which was a simple one to find, involved a manoeuvre labelled The Flattener. Another team were trying to fathom it out when we got there and it looked close to impossible. We decided that I’d better try going first, being one of the biggest on our team and also only having the benefit of one fully operational upper limb. I tried squeezing in feet first to begin with but when my ribcage reached the constriction, that was as far as I would get using that technique. Shuffling a bit to the left got me a bit further in but my helmet would then not fit through. I wasn’t really enjoying it either and wasn’t confident that even if I could get myself in I would be able to get out. Time to abandon this one and make up our five caves using all the others.
We moved on and found the rest and after much grovelling around in the dark and the damp successfully completed the task using up our whole five hours and a bit more, which actually turned out to be quite a good time. And with no time penalties.
We returned to the TA building shivering and muddy and headed for the showers. After a clean-up we ate and discussed what to do next. Our next stage was to be a combination of trekking and packrafting so we took a couple of hours to sleep then sorted ourselves out, setting off on foot loaded with our rafting gear an hour before it was due to come light.
Packrafting was a new one to Chris and me. Wendy and Jo Inge had done some on a race last year and between us we had two inflatable rafts and paddling gear. We had a bit of walking to do first, though, and descending a dramatic slot canyon on foot for a single checkpoint was the first part of leg 11. This canyon then leads into the valley of the Shoalhaven River and there were two ways of tackling this. We could either hike down to the river with all the rafting clobber and follow the slot canyon or we could leave the rafting kit at the top, hike down to the checkpoint and return to then take a much gentler route directly down to the Shoalhaven. We opted for the latter on the grounds that the slot canyon would probably be extremely tough going, made much worse by having to carry the rafts.
Incidentally, there was a checkpoint at an overlook before the decent which we reached just as it was coming light and we looked over into a valley full of morning mist, although it was extremely beautiful and mysterious.
Our next checkpoint was somewhere down there.
As we descended it got steeper and steeper until we arrived at bottom to face the climb back out. I really enjoyed this and it played to our team’s strengths even if we did end up slightly off piste again at one point. We encountered a startled goat down there too which skipped off as if it was negotiating nothing trickier than a grassy slope and returned to gather up our gear and take the other route to the river.
The Shoalhaven is the name of the river and the administrative district in this area of New South Wales and from here we were to experience what I imagine very few visitors to the area get chance to do which is paddle the next 100km of it, 44 by raft and 56 by kayak.
Our Alpacka packrafts were about to be put through their paces and, at £900 a piece, we had high expectations of them. They are ingenious things though. The inflation pump is like an oversized icing bag which you sort of hold open to get some air in it then close the top and squeeze with your elbows and knees. It wraps up into the size of a fist and takes about fifteen bags full of air to inflate the raft. When finished off with the mouth valve the finished product is a sturdy two-man craft into which we lashed our bags and set about heading off downstream.
This is where the difficulty started. Without a rudder, my one-sided paddling left us a bit like a one-legged duck and we spent a while working out what would work best. Connecting them both with a short line sort of worked but that wouldn’t have been any good when we reached the first of the dozens of rapids we would have to negotiate so we did a wife swap. Wendy’s paddling and my steering seemed fairly well matched with Jo Inge’s paddling and steering with Chris’ ride up front. We did expose a minor design deficiency with rafts though as the morning went on which was that there was nothing sufficient on the inside to strap the bags firmly to, so we were forever shuffling about trying to create something decent to sit on. But it was all good fun and we were all impressed with the stability of the rafts and their robustness. Scraping heavily over rocks hardy put a scratch on them which gave us the confidence to tackle the river like true adventurers. And it was beautiful too. There was no sign of human life anywhere and the river dragons were out in vast numbers enjoying the sunshine. Put “river dragon” into an internet search and it’s all fantasy stuff which comes up, but we were later told that these good sized lizards were known by that name. What their scientific name is, I don’t know, but seeing these elegant creatures swimming and lounging around on rocks really made me wonder what people see in a glass tank in the corner of the living room.
Rafters - a rare sight for this dragon
Wendy and I found it very entertaining watching Jo Inge and Chris descending the rapids. Chris – naturally nervous about things like this – adopted a low profile in the front of the raft with her legs poking out over the bow. Jo Inge – naturally adept at handling white water – sat high on the stern. It reminded me of seeing a little girl on her dad’s kness hurtling downhill on a sledge.
As we left the rapids behind after two or three hours we reached a checkpoint before the river began to level out. The last one had caught us out and tipped me overboard so, being wet and not being able to generate much internal heat by paddling, I had gone very cold and fashioned an all over undergarment from a silver blanket. We paddled on with our towline connected and as the sun was setting we reached the end of the rafting section at the Tallowa Dam.
We were all very cold, particularly Chris who headed in an emotional state to the tents and the care of a medic who swaddled her in blankets and hot water bottles. We made quick work of packing the rafts away before setting about the important business of trying to warm up and find our, by now, very limited supply of dry clothing. There had been varied success amongst the dry bags we had for our kit, their effectiveness having been compromised by their doubling up as seats.
We fed ourselves then bedded down for a few dark hours, setting the alarms for a couple of hours before daybreak so that we could switch to the kayaks and portage them downstream of the dam in time for the light hours. This proved, as usual, to be an awkward exercise. Kayaks go getter on water than being carried over rough land but it was only a few hundred metres and we were back on the water again as the sky lit up.
There were more rapids to get through on the early part of this stretch and we handled them well and it was a relief to have the rudder pedals under my feet again.
One of the most magical moments of the whole race came at this point. With the mist on the beautiful river and the sun rising directly ahead it was breathtaking. Wendy remarked that if there was a heaven then it would look something like that.
After 95k on the river.
Having reached the final rapid by mid morning we embarked on the long paddle down the Shoalhaven. It was long and it was tiring but we made good progress having reverted to our 3+1 configuration again to reach the TA at the town of Nowra late in the afternoon. There was not a lot to worry about here. We were able to say goodbye to our water vehicles and paddling equipment and set our bikes up for the final pedalling stage.
This began alongside the river we had been on that afternoon and we were treated to the evening wildlife preparing for the night ahead. A wombat was the highlight this time which ambled across the road in front of us with not a care in the world.
As it went dark, so we went upwards. The climb took us up into the mountains again and we felt done out of some good views. We could feel them but not see them and it was going cold too. We overtook another team early on but as we laboured on into the night it was clear to me that fatigue was getting the better of us. Progress had slowed and it was time to call out the suggestion of a bit of rest. The agreement was spontaneous and we had two hours in our sleeping bags at the side of the track. The Fjellstads went for the tented option but Chris and I just hunkered down in survival bags.
The cold soon got us moving again and we carefully followed the route as it became rougher towards what would eventually be our final descent of the whole race. I must admit that my shoulder was feeling rather weak by this stage and I wasn’t enjoying things very much. I normally relish a tricky downhill but I was having to be very cautious, but as the daylight returned and we reached a checkpoint at another dramatic overlook the spirits were boosted as we looked out across the last piece of land separating us from the ocean. Once we completed this we would just have the final coastal trekking leg of 18km to the finish line back in Ulladulla. It was a great feeling reaching that final TA and we shoved everything we didn’t need for this last stretch in the storage box and romped off to find the beach.
Early on in this stage we had a small estuary to cross to reach the long straight Conjola Beach. The ocean’s waves were high and noisy and the morning sun and blue sky gave it an uplifting atmosphere. In the distance we thought we could see another team and upped the pace. We were soon within striking distance and as we reached another water crossing – this time, a small tidal bay at Narrawalla – their hestitation and our plunge into the brine had us swimming away from them to emerge well ahead. From there we hit the tarmac Mollymook-bound, past the apartment which had been our home for four days before the race then rose over the headland and dropped towards the final checkpoint at Ulladulla Bay.
The sun was shining, the sky was blue and we were happy to be reaching the finish line on the grass outside the civic centre. It had been 6 days, 22 hours and 50 minutes since the gun had gone off at Huskisson and the pizza and champagne which greeted us instantly hit the spot. We had finished 54th from all those which had started and spent the afternoon slobbing about on the grass, not feeling like doing much else, and getting sunburnt because it no longer seemed to matter. We did eventually have to sort our kit and everything out but there was plenty of time for all that.
The course closed the afternoon of the next day and 77 teams had completed the full course. Two had been short coursed, nine had retired and six were unranked.
The following evening we had a not-too-serious presentation ceremony and so that was the race all over. We were looked after right up to Sydney Airport the following day by the organisers and left Australia thinking we would most likely be paying a return visit some time in the future.
The organisation deserves an endorsement. Geocentric Outdoors who put on the XPD race each year really stepped up to the mark to make this a world championship to remember. Their intention had been to devise a course which most teams would have the satisfaction of finishing and this was exactly the case. Their handling of the logistics was seamlessly impressive and there was nothing but praise all round as far as I could hear. It had been hard work, good fun and memorable.
My personal thanks go first to the rest of the team and to our family for the support they all gave us to enable us to abandon the children and dog for a fortnight and to everyone we met out in Australia whether competing or helping which provided us with the opportunity to experience this lovely part of the world.
(Photo credits as shown on the images, or if not shown then they're ours.)