By Ian Fehler, Team Escapegoat Adventures
The SA round of the Mountain Designs Adventure Race Australia combined foot and mountain bike orienteering, kayaking and some weather conditions that tested even the most hardened racers. Having just come back from leading a 2 week mountain biking trip in the French Alps, I was battling a serious case of jet lag that actually worked in my favour for once, as I was wide awake at 5am and ready to take on what was to become a challenging but rewarding day Adventure Racing. Adelaide doesn’t offer a lot of this style of racing, focusing more on individual disciplines. So I jumped at the opportunity to enter this event with my mountain biking mates Jeff and Dave.
The SA event was based at Wirrina Cove on the Fleurieu Peninsula, about 75mins drive from Adelaide. It was an extremely bleak drive down at 5:30am, with torrential showers and wind blowing the van around, and the temperature apparently a brisk 6 degrees outside. Light just started to creep into the sky as we dropped the bikes off at the bike drop at 6:40am, before we headed back to Wirrina to sign in. It was still decidedly cold and bleak as we boarded the bus at 8:15am to be taken back to Second Valley Forest for the group race start. Just 8 teams had signed up for the hardcore version of the race, with most entrants sensibly going for the raw edition, considering the conditions.
The race started off fast and in just mild drizzle, which was about as pleasant as the day got. All teams headed off on a similar route around the first 4 foot navigation controls, before it was time to jump on the bikes and head off to pick up four random MTB controls- at this point it got more tricky as teams headed off on lots of different trails, and no-one was quite sure where anyone else was going. We headed off in a vaguely anti-clockwise route, whereas most teams headed off in the other direction, even more adding to the confusion. This was were we made our first error by not recording control descriptions, costing us a few minutes searching randomly for the flag at each control. The torrential rain overnight had certainly also added to the challenge, and many trails were completely covered in water and the hills were extremely slippery, making staying dry and even staying upright an often impossible challenge.
It appeared our route choice had been good, as we came back through TA1 and it appeared we were in first place, but of course had no idea how much of a lead we had. It was now off on the ordered leg of the mountain bike section, with all teams needing to navigate to another 9 controls on a long leg back to Wirrina Cove- the last section comprising of a long descent through private farmland. We quickly worked through the first 6 controls that were reasonably simple to locate in the plantations of Second Valley forest. It was as we climbed over the fence out of the forest towards control 7 that our troubles started. The map clearly showed we needed to head over farmland following a ‘clearly defined’ trail, however as we were the first through there were no tyre marks to follow, and the whole paddock was rutted with cows tracks, with no obvious trail visible. Refusing to get the compass out, and worried about making a 90° error, we doubled back and tried another approach to the area to make sure we headed in the right direction, but still stuffed up the route. After 10 minutes of mincing around I conceded I needed to consult the compass, and worked out which direction we really did need to go- back to were we had been 15 minutes earlier!
It was at this point things went from bad to worse- as we headed off I dropped the compass and whistle, which spectacularly managed to land in my bike’s rear cluster, and quickly become wrapped around the cassette and rear derailleur, stopping the rear wheel dead. Bugger! Unfortunately extracting the recently embedded whistle from its new home in the middle of the cassette was made nearly impossible due to the string attached to the compass. After numerous curses and attempts to remove compass, whistle and string, it became clear surgery was required- as luck would have it I had some surgical scissors in my first aid kit, and after a serious amount of effort, careful caressing and brute force we managed to free the whistle, and my rear wheel would at last spin. However, we were still off-course, and were resigned to the fact we had well and truly lost our lead after taking 30 minutes to do a leg which should have taken about 5. I must be one of the only people on the planet who has almost crashed due to carrying a safety whistle!
So it was with some surprise that we returned to the paddocks to find the trail we needed, but no evidence of any tyre marks- either we were still lost, or we’d managed a big lead in the first leg. This next section should have been fast, as it was a big downhill, but the trail was indistinct, running along a paddock between two fences, and the ground was very wet, the terrain thick grass, and the rain started travelling horizontally at us as we headed off down the track- and then the cows started going mad! The cows wouldn’t let us past, but started running if we approached them, leaving us no choice but to follow! A couple decided we were so scary they seemed to attempt to perform cart-wheels over the fences to escape, before we managed to get past them.
At the bottom of the hill, it was thankfully just a short cruise back to the event centre, and time to drop the bikes off for the next foot leg. It was at this point we realised we were in trouble- having just come back from 4 weeks mountain biking in the Alps I was cycle-fit, but as soon as I started running it was clear I really should have tried to do a little running training too. We just had to hope we still had enough lead to limp through the second half of the race. The first few controls were tricky, particularly as a number of controls involved wading though rivers, and climbing near vertical crags. Nasty. Finally we skirted the reservoir to drop into the next leg which was kayaking. Heading into this leg, our lead seemed to be dissolving as we could see the following team visible on the mountain above us.
And then we encountered the next problem- an inability to kayak! Both my team mates were virgin paddlers and had never been in a kayak or canoe before. Added to that we were told to draw the 5 kayak controls onto our map, but our map had succumbed to the weather and was barely a watery psychedelic interpretation of what once was. Our fatal mistake was in only covering the front side of the map with plastic contact, so once the rear of the map got wet the ink ran into a rather fuzzy version of the original, worth details barely visible. Luckily as we headed off (initially in circles until the guys worked out the paddling and rudders) the controls were not difficult to find. However we struggled for a good 30mins, and it was dis-heartening to see the next team set off in their kayak like pros sprinting in the Olympics- we clearly had little lead to hold onto!
So, after 4 hours of racing, we had just 5 controls more to collect, and a narrow lead, but thought we’d be done in 40 minutes or so. Navigating though was going to prove tricky due to our interpretative map. Control 16 cost us a good 10 minutes as we spent too long looking too high up on a ridge, and then by control 17 we had been caught by the next team. We hobbled along parallel to the other team, who then gained a little time due to their faster limping speeds to control 18. But then disaster struck, as neither team could locate control 19. For a while we worked together to find the control, running backwards and forwards over the hill-face like headless chickens with about as much success at finding absolution, whilst both teams watching the other to see what they were up to. But then it got totally ridiculous, as a front of torrential icy hail battered us for a good 10 minutes as we ran shivering around an open hill-face in force 10 gails. After about 45 minutes we were pretty confident we were in the right spot, and had still not located the control, and with rapidly declining energy, mental strength, and the ability to speak or walk, our team decided to take a risk and head off for the last control, prepared to take a time penalty in the hope that the other team would have to do the same. In the end we spent a very cold hour between control 18 and 20. And of course the final run to the finish line was made all the worse due to the cold.
And so it was a very pathetic Escapegoat team of 3 that limped over the finish line in 5hrs 40mins, and with no idea if the other team had in fact found control 19. However it became clear they had made the same decision, crossing the line just 2 minutes after ourselves. Once it was confirmed the control flag had in fact blown away overnight (although the box was apparently still out there attached to a bush somewhere) we realised we really should have either looked harder, or realised we were in the right or wrong spot earlier- but then hindsight is one thing, and standing shivering in hail 5 hours into an adventure race running out of fuel and brain cells is another thing!
So all that was left to do was to go and stand under a hot shower for 10 minutes, and to inhale a delicious curry provided at the finish.
The race was certainly a challenge, and there was no doubt the ‘hardcore’ event was just that- although the raw event was probably as tough considering the conditions. The Wirrina cove/Second Valley area is superb for adventure racing, and the facilities there were excellent- the showers alone made the event centre a winner. A big thank you to all the organisers and volunteers, and also a big congratulations to the Team for SA Ambulance, who really pushed us at the end, and possibly could have won if things had worked out differently.
So, will we be back next year? Most definitely if we can, and maybe next time we will do a little training before, and even learn to paddle a kayak. But then of course next year the guys at In2Adventure will decide to throw in some underwater navigation or parachute legs just to mix it up! But please- can you do something about the weather next year?!