words by Angus Rodwell images from the amazing Margarete Oti and Murilo Mattos
It was nearly 3 years ago to the last XPD – Bay of Fires, NW Tasmania. A great expedition race in a beautiful part of Tasmania and where Team Antelopes stamped their authority on the race from start to finish. Their dominant performance had left an indelible mark on my mind.
Fast Forward to July 2021 and the world was a different place. COVID 19 had spread like wildfire across the globe, extensive and unpredictable lockdowns had made holding the event a massive challenge. Some NSW and WA competitors dreams of racing had been ruined and the old adage of “the hardest part of XPD is getting a 4 person team to the start line” had never been so true.
Meanwhile in one of Victoria’s several Lockdowns Team Resicon- Thought Sports had been very secretly assembled via zoom conference calls and under a large cloak of COVID darkness. Our aim was to assemble a competitive team on the start line that could take on the best teams and challenges that XPD always presents.
Our team line up was Angus Rodwell, Tim Boote, Kathryn and Rob Preston.
FIRST THINGS FIRST- THE RUSH TO GET AWAY
After bringing flights forward at the last minute to beat state border lockdowns and the excitement of escaping a Melbourne winter, Team Resicon-Thought Sports arrived in Cairns. It was the first time we had all raced together and it was a nice relaxed few days for strolling the beach, enjoying the cafes followed by mandatory gear checks and last minute food packing for this 500k expedition race.
Any thoughts of relaxing and swimming at the beach with other teams was finally cast aside on race eve and the last few beers in the fridge were savored on the beach as the sun set.
Before we knew it race day arrived and by 730am on Sunday 17th July the race route and maps were handed out. Our first impressions were of a Race that had many stages with lots of transitions but without any super long daunting legs. There were also a couple of levelling stages where teams had the chance to catch back up to the front teams. More about this later….
LEG 1- COASTEERING 16Km /PADDLE 22Km 2hrs45mins
The first leg of the race required the Teams of 4 to split into 2 pairs. Kathryn and Rob opted to run the 17K coasteering leg North from Palm Cove under the hot midday sun while Tim and Angus paddled out around Haycock and Double Island past a large very surprised sea turtle and North along the coast collecting 3 checkpoints and surfing the sea breeze swell into the beach. Arriving back on the beach narrowly in front of Chipesti, The Avengers and several other teams it felt great to see Rob and Kathryn and get the team back together. We quickly set up our bikes and packed our boxes onto the truck before heading out on an 8k trek loop.
LEG 2- TREK 8Km 1hr20mins
An 8K loop through the lower portions of the rainforest and alongside a stunning rainforest river. The leg headed from the beach towards the hills where our jaws dropped after seeing a 2m Saltwater croc swim in a creek below the road. We didn’t want to come too close to these notorious prehistoric animals at any stage during our race but it was still great to see one from a distance. We ran a steady but easy pace crossing path with many teams on the very scenic loop. The waterfalls and refreshing rock pools deserved way more time than we could give away as we returned to the TA to collect our bikes. The day was still very warm and humid, and we made a conscious effort to keep hydrated as there are always so many that blow up and overcook with all the excitement of the first day.
LEG 3 – MTB 42Km - 3hrs
Leaving TA in first position we knew it was a race within a race to make the first bus transfer leaving Mt Molloy at 630pm (If we missed the first bus the next one was 8:00pm and every 90 minutes thereafter). This was the first levelling stage in the race which we felt would inevitably bring all the top teams back together. The big question was which teams would cook themselves with too high a pace to make the bus and consequently suffer in the later stages. The MTB course took us on a long steady hot hilly climb where any shade cast on the side of the road was a welcome sight. We kept the pace steady but could certainly feel the constant hill climb strain the legs and push out the sweat. Robs experience was already showing as we eased up the pace due to being well ahead of the bus transfer schedule and wanting to conserve our energy. Some welcome flowing 4WD roads through the shady rainforest helped keep us a little cooler and we then made our way onto more open farmland roads before arriving in the town of Mt Molloy after about 3 hrs.
Arriving in the very small town of Mt Molloy we realized we had a 1 hour window to the bus departure. Even though we had ridden without seeing anyone else we were surprisingly quickly joined by Team Chipesti and then the Avengers. Taking advantage of possibly the last real food for days we went way back in time and ordered a hamburger and milkshake from possibly the oldest shopkeeper in Australia. Rob totally confused him with a last-minute burger selection and a can of cold beer instead of a Coke which created a total docket rewrite and some valuable time!! BUT when those burgers arrived, we realized why this old legend was still working the take-away counter and Mt Molloy was nearly World Famous.
A relaxing TA on a nice grassy footy oval and a chat to a few other teams as they came streaming in with a smaller and smaller window of opportunity to grab a small break. Team Thunderbolt arrived with just minutes to spare and some great stories of bike repairs, massive cramps and head shaking before 9 teams boarded the transfer bus for a 30min trip to avoid a very dangerous section of Highway.
Our team was very conscious about what was coming up next. As soon as we got off the bus we were going straight into a very critical leg on the race. The middle of this XPD was where the race would really take shape.
LEG 4 – TREK AROUND MT ELEPHANT /ROPING LOOP 35Km + ROPING - 9hrs30mins
The Bus pulled up and we quickly got our bearings. Several of the top 9 teams got off the bus but needed to go and retrieve water bladders from the TA and we saw this as a great opportunity to make a break on them.
It was a warm QLD night, and this leg had very little reliable water. The trek was often through waist high grass with underlying easy tripping rocks, dry farm tracks or dry creek/ riverbeds. Our pace was steady and we jogged wherever possible to try and gain some distance on the chasing teams. Rob's navigation kept us on track although once again we bumped into a very consistently fast Chipesti for several kms before we moved away on a slightly different bearing and deep into the night. Arriving at the second last checkpoint before any other teams on the track we harnessed up to a static line and onto an abseil that finished in a large refreshing very dark river pool. We enjoyed the short swim in the water and made sure we filled up our drink bottles while sifting out the pond life. After arriving back at our packs, we headed back out to finish the last few kms of the trek just as the next team arrived to start the roping. We had a lead but knew the rest of the pack were out to hunt us down.
LEG 5 PADDLE – MITCHELL RIVER 53 km - 11hrs including 2.5hr mistake
Setting off on the Mitchell River in the early hours of the morning was a welcome relief. Off our feet and onto a nice flowing river was a pleasure and enabled us to catch back up on our fluids and getting in some food. To our surprise the river often split into 2 or 3 braids separated by islands, large logs across the river, tea strainers and even sections where the braid simply dried up completely and we had to carry our boats. We hadn’t been on the river for long when we realized the map we had packed was the paper one and not the waterproof one. Our map was turning to paper mâché faster than a freshwater croc can launch off a riverbank. Whilst we only had 1 checkpoint to get midway along the river, we started to believe we’d gone past it already. We agreed that it was quite likely we had gone past the checkpoint so we made the tough (And not very exciting) decision to paddle back upstream in another braid of the river to see if we could find it OR come across another team and beg for a look at their map. After at least an hour of paddling upstream through small rapids we came across the friendly Team Avengers and started our begging. After a very kind quick glance at the map we soon realized we hadn’t passed the Checkpoint yet and so continued to paddle downstream once again. We found the checkpoint and proceeded to head into TA in second place with Chipesti already checking out of TA and onto the MTB leg. (Chipesti had passed us in another braid of the river while we headed back upstream) The Avengers were now hot on our tail (And not that impressed that we had paddled away from them😉)
LEG 6 – MTB 50Km MTB / 15Km TREK GOLD RUSH - 8hrs
We set off in the early evening by crossing the river again in our nice dry MTB shoes. This leg involved mountain biking to a check point, then dropping our bikes and hiking out to another checkpoint before returning to the bikes. At each of the 4 hiking checkpoints we collected a pre prepared bag of soil which we would then gold pan just like the old miners of yesteryear. The course was hilly and dry, and we completed this in about 8 hours and all of this at night. Once again, we crossed paths several times with Team Chipesti and The Avengers. At the end of this stage, it was our second night and at this point in time we hadn’t had slept in the race. We decided to get our gear ready for the next MTB leg and sneak 1.5hrs of sleep. The night was warm, the ground felt very comfortable, and a short sleep felt divine.
LEG 7 – MTB 86Km MT MULLIGAN - 6hrs
This leg took was called the Mt Mulligan ride. We were now well and truly in the outback with hot dry conditions and long winding exposed roads. As the roads passed closer to the mountain, we could appreciate the amazing red cliffs and green vegetation at its base. Luckily for us the first main part of this ride was in the early morning, and we could limit our sun exposure because it was warming up fast. We collected the necessary checkpoints along our way and when we needed to we pushed our way up the steepest climbs. By the end of the ride, it was very hot and arriving at the old Thornborough station with the classic white name painted on the roof of the Hotel all we could think about was buying the biggest possible icy cold drink. But it wasn’t to be at this old historic homestead as all the old, retired but very welcoming owner could offer was a ripe banana. (We still had a few mushy ones in our packs!!) Although we didn’t take up the offer on the banana we were very grateful to fill up our water bladders from the homestead water tank. By the end of this stage, it was Day 3 and 11:00am. Our race was going well, and we had no idea where our nearest competitors were so it was time to keep moving and get out of TA before they arrived.
LEG 8 – TREK 60Km BNT/HANN TABLELAND
-THE QUEEN STAGE AND A DANGEROUS SHRUB SNAKEBITE - 16hrs
We knew as soon as we received the maps this leg was going to be the Queen stage. With an estimated fast time of 16 hours and slowest of 26 hours. This stage had a great potential to break many teams. The stage was in the hot dry outback with a myriad of small hills and dry creekbeds.
We all agreed- “Lets focus and get as much of this done in daylight as we can”. We started off with a solid hiking pace and it was bloody hot and dry.
THEN DISASTER (NEARLY) STRUCK
It was only about 2-3 hours in when disaster struck. Rob was navigating out front and setting a cracking pace with Kathryn as always hot on his heels. Gus was a few meters back and Tim was close behind. Suddenly Rob let out a loud cry!! Well not a cry or a scream just a loud Oh Shit!!! We quickly gathered around and inspected an obvious fang like mark on his calf just above his gaiters. We had a cautious look for the snake and discussed how it happened. We hadn’t seen anything, but the snakes out here are the best in the world. Rob was feeling the pain and the bite had caused some swelling and blood. But Kathryn wouldn’t have any of it! “We didn’t see any sign of a snake and we were all so close together. It had to be a twin pronged stick that flicked into his leg”. (We hoped!!) We talked Rob through the incident and finally reached a consensus that it couldn’t have been a snake and applied some Stingose to the site. We were then back on track until to Rob's great surprise the Stingose left a white halo around the marks which sent Rob's heart rate high again. We reassured Rob and after a few minutes our chief Navigator was refocused on the maps once again.
Once we knew Rob was OK, if anything this minor incident gave us a laugh (the rest of us anyway) and really made us focus for the next few hours of the hike. We crossed off the checkpoints and found CP 27 just at last light. Little did we know that this CP would cause major problems for much of the field and cause large time losses for many. The course after CP 27 followed part of the Bicentennial trail and after herding a few 100 confused and upset Brahman cattle and wading a muddy stagnant river crossing in the Upper Mitchell River we were dragging ourselves upwards, pulling on native grasses and shrubs while aiming towards the sky and what felt like the top of the world.
After reaching the top and following the rocky ridgeline and avoiding the wrong spurs for hours we finally found our way down off the mountain on a never ending descent of very grippy rocks and made our way along the road in the darkness of night on a 12k death march. Gus' rear mesh pack pocket and uneaten food had been unknowingly to him taunting the rest of the team. When the not so very authentic packet of Pork Crackling came out even Tim the mostly vegetarian was licking his lips. One last checkpoint in a dark misty cemetery kept us on our toes and woke us up before we stumbled into the TA Mt Molloy. We needed some hearty food and some more sleep. TA came just at the right time.
LEG 9 – MTB 60 Km MT MOLLOY TO BIBOOHRA - 7hrs30mins
After a 40 minute power nap at TA for 3 of us, Gus couldn’t sleep with anticipation of the race ahead so chose to eat more and get the bikes ready for the next stage. (He was going to regret missing this power nap very soon!!)
We headed out on the MTB stage. Gus started falling off the back with tiredness until the No Doze kicked in. Tim and Rob worked well together on the maps as we wound our way through the MTB tracks for what seemed like an eternity. After several hours under the canopy of the trees we finally exited and rode onto 4 WD tracks and rolling hills. We were in and out of micro sleeps (Or were we?) but snapped out of it as we approached the final big hills before the Highway and a Roadhouse which would be a highlight of the race.
When you’re really tired, hot, dehydrated and starving how can you not love huge hot pies, massive bottles of icy cold coke and a good old fashioned icy pole. With a lot of haste, we devoured the pies and headed a short distance through the back roads down to the TA and the Barron River. It was about 12pm and time had started ticking really fast.
LEG 10 – PADDLE 39Km THE MIGHTY BARRON RIVER - 5hrs
It was 11:00am and we hurried down to the Barron rivers edge with our boats and 4L of icy cold Coke for the kayak. Our number one focus was now to beat the Dark Zone. We had supposedly plenty of time left in the day, or did we??
The first few kms of the river were incredibly beautiful. The river was wide and flowing really fast but the most incredible part was the canopy of trees forming over the river with orchids and vines growing from the enormous moss covered limbs. By our own calculations we were cruising at least 11kmh and going to meet the Dark zone with ease. Well so we thought?
The river opened up and the canopy trees cleared, the rapids started to grow in size, but the checkpoints didn’t come easily. We were sure we saw a massive saltwater croc on the bank and convinced ourselves it had escaped from a Croc farm. It was way too big for a freshie!! And when Kathryn and Gus spent some time in the rapids after launching off the wave rock they couldn’t get into the boat fast enough. It was only then that we realized Kathryn’s carbon paddle had snapped and she no longer had a LHS blade.
And then something else happened. We realized we only had 1.5 hours to get off the river and beat the Dark Zone. Oh shit!! If we don’t make the DZ we will be sleeping huddled on a riverbank when we could be finished. That was the moment when Kathryn paddled like a woman possessed and Gus just tried his best to keep up. Tim and Rob chased hard as we all looked around every corner in hope for the giant Bridge and the TA. It took forever as our watches seemed to move faster and faster towards the 6 pm cutoff but then we saw someone and then a Bridge. We were so close and as we arrived with 12 minutes to spare before the Dark Zone commenced, we realized we were only one leg away from the finish.
LEG 11 – TREK 17Km - 4hrs
We could smell the finish line. Our feet were very sore, and it was dark within minutes but we were so close to the Finish line it was a relief. We had beaten the Dark zone and all our competitors were at the very closest, stuck on the side of the river for the night. All we had to do was complete a 17K trek. We started off jogging but that was short lived. We had sore feet and knew no one was chasing us. Oh, what a good feeling. However, the sleep monsters had firmly grabbed hold of Gus. On the hike up away from the river the rainforest trees supposedly had trellised stainless steel cables for the vines and the roads were lined with neatly stacked secondhand chairs. Really??? He was even trying to pick up rocks that looked like some critical gear the team may have dropped.
But some humor and a few quick slaps and we were all back on the same page and marching (No need for running luckily!) on our way to Palm Cove. A few final checkpoints to collect, some laughs and some talk about pizzas and so many beers helped us pass time over the last few KM’s
And then it was there. The Finish Line!!!! Oh what a feeling to win an XPD expedition race. Craig and Louise welcomed us home and across the line to the waiting and very welcome Finishers chairs. We shared the victory with Rob and Kathryn's kids and Rob's parents and Tim’s wife Teagan before falling asleep into a deep slumber.
What a race and what a reward for Team Resicon- Thought Sports. It felt like one of those amazing dreams, or was it?
- To Geocentric and all the amazing volunteers and officials for such an amazing race.
- To our families for allowing us to train, race and recover.
- To all our fellow competitors who took on this fantastic race.
- To all our supporters who tracked, cheered, yelled and supported us throughout the race.