Team Sleepy Dragons took part in Expedition Africa in Namaqua earlier this year. The 530 kilometre multi-day event was their first full-length adventure race – prior to that they had raced only single day races - so it was a big undertaking and of course it took them for the first time into new domains such as sleep deprivation and multi-day planning. But it’s funny how addictive the sport can be… and it wasn’t long after the end of the race that they found themselves dreaming of the next event. Below, team Captain David Naylor talks about their race.
About the illustrations: Diane Shearer, a member of Team Sleepy Dragons, is an artist who specialises in landscapes and the outdoors. She has drawn a number of pictures inspired by the race and the Namaqua area on the west coast of South Africa where the race was held, and we are pleased to illustrate this article with them. See more about Diane Shearer and her work.
And see more about Expedition Africa.
What was Expedition Africa 2018 like?
David Naylor: #ExpAfrica was our first long-distance adventure race. We had previously done a few ~120km races but never before did we have to worry about budgeting sleep (we’ve never needed to sleep on a race before), taking enough food with us or blister management. The race taught us so much.
Namaqualand had been going through a drought just before we started the race, however on the very first day inclement weather rolled in. During the week of the race the area experienced more rain than in the previous 3 years. And we dodged all of it!
It was a beautiful race, with wonderful people at the transitions, keeping the spirits up and the fires warm. The legs were long and so we often went many hours without seeing another soul. At the end of the event, after a good sleep, we were already excited to do the next race. We wanted to improve upon what we had learned.
Finishing the race was a moment in itself - the vibe at the finish line was awesome.
## Adventure racing isn't only about the good and beautiful moments, but also about pushing yourself through tough times.
Did you get your Training and Planning right?
The fourth leg - the first and longest cycle - spanned nine 1:50,000 maps. Once we had plotted our route, we had to cut up the map as it wouldn't all fix in the map sleeve. So, during this leg we had to periodically stop and fish out another section of the map. That was a first!
##Training - More training, lots more training, over longer distances!
What team Strategies did you use?
#Pacing - We had been warned about setting a pace that was too fast, so we did the opposite and went too slowly. Next time we will focus more on setting a good sustainable pace. We will also cut down on the number of rests we have. There is no need for a 5 minute break every 45 minutes.
## Food - Make sure you take a variety of food. You will get tired of anything after a while. Our navigator had packed too many cashew nuts and ended up a cashew nut merchant, desperately trading them for anything that wasn't cashew nuts.
#Things get surreal - On the 6th day we found ourselves with a short ~50km cycle to the finish line. We set off and soon found ourselves in beach-quality sand, on the top of Gifberg Pass. Alas, someone was negligent and failed to include the ocean. So, through soft sand, comical moments of falling over, and sheer pain, we came to the end of Gifberg.
#Hike a Bike - Despite avoiding the hike-a-bike mud nightmare (see below) we did end up hiking our bikes over fences and up a hill at one point in the middle of the night, as our navigator took us on a scenic "shortcut".
#The end is magical - As we cycled down the last pass, we could see the fields of Namaqualand, and a road cutting straight across those fields into the horizon. That straight road was our route home, and what a beautiful sight it was. After 6 days, 127 hours of racing, less than 20 hours of sleep, the end was in sight.
Was there a particularly special moment?
There were so many memorable moments, but here are a couple:
#Cycling alongside a coal train - On the fourth leg part of our route took us alongside some train tracks and while we were cycling, during the night, a train passed us - except it was so long that it took a good ten+ minutes to pass. Never have I seen such a long train – there were packs of locomotives at the front, middle and back. The train passed us in the darkness, with nothing else to keep us company except the rattle of the bikes on the dirt road and the clinking of the wires above the train tracks.
#A Party at the top of Hel's Pass - It happened that our navigator had his 30th birthday during the race, on a day when we had a major route decision to take. Stephan (the race director) had given the teams an option for one of the CP points: either a shorter route that involved a hike-a-bike section of ~1km (Option A), or add 20km to the distance but avoid the hike-a-bike (Option B). Both options involved an equivalent amount of elevation.
We chose the long way around, and luckily that was the right option for us – it turned out that rain had flooded the plains on Option A, turning the route into a multi-kilometer hike-a-bike slog through mud. And that was before the real hike-a-bike section up the narrow pass. Taking Option B – and unknowingly dodging the mud – we had mostly dry tracks up Hel's Pass. And so, on the 3rd morning we found ourselves at the top of Devil's Pass with a little cake, a candle and a mini bottle of Amarula to celebrate our navigator's 30th. What a sweet moment!
#At the Finish - Getting back to our lodge on the evening we finished and turning on a cellphone for the first time in a week - and seeing a flood of over 600 messages on the Sleepy Dragon Whatsapp group discussing our progress throughout the race and messages of congratulations - made us realise that although we felt very alone at stages of the course, our trusty dot-watchers had been with us all the way.
Tip Top Tips - What did you learn?
Normally we include Tip Top Tips elsewhere, but as this is the view of a team on their first major race, we decided to include them here.
After walking for miles over quartz rocks and cycling for 36 hours at as stretch, were learned some key lessons - wear double socks for long treks and carry spare socks to allow yourselves to have some time with dry feet (say after sleeping). On long cycle rides wear double cycling pants.
#Other Random notes
- Sleeping at transition may be more comfortable, but it’s a lot noisier
- David has back problems and a back rest on the kayak leg was essential (and likely a life saver).
- Time your stops!
- Sometimes compasses invert (especially if you have a magnetic camel pack), look out for a "slow" compass that confuses the navigator.
You can read David Naylor and Sleepy Dragon’s thoughts before they set off for the race here.
And here are Diane’s images held in situ. The race course took them from the coast around Dooringbaai, inland on the Olifants River and then south to Sneeukop in the Cederberg mountains and then via Gifberg to the finish