Friday, 27 November 2015

ARWC Pantanal Brazil - Team Mountain Designs Experience – Were we the lucky ones?

As you would be well aware, Team Mountain Designs were out of the AR World Championships before we even reached the first checkpoint.  Although at the time this was devastating for the team, maybe it was a blessing in disguise as what unfolded over the next 7 days in the Pantanal was a gruelling test of survival in extreme conditions were some of the fittest and toughest athletes in the world only just survived. Here is my account of what happened out there…..

Team Mountain Designs
Just a week before we left for Brazil teams were given the course logistics in the final update, and suddenly the course had been extended from 500km to 705km with the ‘mystery leg’ being pack rafting, yet still the lead teams were meant to finish in 5 days with teams given 7 days to complete the course. We were quite relieved that we had arranged to borrow the Alpaca Rafts that Sloshy had used in Alaska. We had received plenty of information about the wild animals we would be likely to encounter such as Parana’s, Alligators, Jaguars, Anacondas, Stingrays and Killer Bees so we knew this was going to be no ordinary race. Being Queenslanders and having handled the heat in either XPD Flinders Ranges and or XPD Townsville we thought we might be more prepared for the heat than most, but nothing other than living in Corumba for a good 6 months before the event could have prepared us for the extreme heat and humidity of the Pantanal.

The Navy Ship
The night before the race we boarded a navy Ship that was to take us to the start it would take 12hrs to get there, and we would leave at 6pm and arrive at 8am with the race set to start at 1pm. Well felt like the longest 24hrs of my life, and I was at least lucky to be on the same ship as my team. (This was not the case for all teams as they separated the males and females, and all the females were on one ship and the males were spread across three ships). As we did not get our maps until minutes before boarding the ship, this meant that some teams were separated and thus some of the girls did not get a change to be involved in the map planning and preparation…..I was lucky I was. Unfortunately I was unable to sleep in the tiny room I was allocated as the air-conditioning was not working, so I ended up on a couch on the lower deck where many others were sprawled across the floor as well. I was glad when we arrived in the morning but had to stay on the ship for another 2hrs until we could leave the ship for the tour of the Jatobazinho School.

Map Planning in the Lounge of the Ship (where Kim slept)
The children from the school proudly gave us a tour of their grounds and buildings and teams were asked to donate books to help fill their library, they had a welcoming ceremony and fed us some of their great traditional foods such as fresh mango, pawpaw, coconuts as well as home-made biscuits, capes and slices. This was fantastic however by this stage I knew that Gary was not feeling good and was sitting under a tree trying to get out of the heat and all I wanted to do is start the race……it seemed like 1pm was never going to arrive…..minutes seemed like hours! At around 11am our kayaks were all laid out and we were able to start getting them ready, due to the high banks on the river the planned lemans start had to the changed to a deep water start. Sloshy, Leo and I tried to get all our gear sorted meanwhile Gary was motionless under the tree….we were hoping he would come good.

The kids who took us on a tour of their school

Gary....trying to focus on the race!
Leg 1 Paddle 50km Jotabazinho School – Paraguay River
So as 1pm approached we and other teams started to take to the water for the start. Shubi the race director stood on the bank of the river with the schoolkids and sounded the horn…….finally we were off and racing……but not for long! It was mayhem on the water, more like dodgem cars with kayaks and paddles clashing as teams tried to paddle upstream against the strong current. Sloshy and I were right up there at the start getting some really good lines, suddenly we realised that Gary and Leo were not on our wash and were in fact nowhere in sight, we pulled over and waited and waited and waited…..then we saw them, Gary looked terrible and was barely paddling. He told us he had nothing and that he was sorry, he was doing his best. We all just said ‘that’s fine we will just cruise, we won’t push hard we’ll just get there’. We stopped a few times in the shady spots but Gary was getting worse, he said he felt like he was going to faint, so this meant we had to stop. So we paddled until we found the first sign of shelter just before the first CP.

Start of the paddle

Kim and Sloshy in action
We pulled up on the side of the bank at what appeared to be a small farm. There were three people there a lady and two young men, they spoke no English so we somehow just had to gesture that we had a sick team mate and we just wanted to rest on the bank in the shade for a while….so that what we did with the dogs, the chicken and the mozzies and little black biting bugs. We sat and watch the remaining teams paddle past……as Gary lay under a tree. Eventually a media speedboat pulled over and asked if we were ok, we said no and if we are still here when the media boat cruises past to send a doctor over. Within the next half hour another boat turned up with the medics on-board and before long Gary was on a drip being diagnosed with ‘High Blood Pressure and High Blood Sugar’ and the doctors basically said he was out and was not fit to continue. So that was our world championship over in less than 3hrs.

Gary receives medical attention

The family we met on the bank of the river
We were picked up and taken by speedboat to the ‘Luxury Boat’ aka ‘The Love Boat’ where Gary would spend the next 5 days. He was placed in a nice air-conditioned room and monitored by the medical staff for the next 24 hrs, meanwhile Sloshy, Leo and I were required to sleep on the deck as there was not a place for us, as they had not expected any teams to retire from the event do early. We were not permitted to continue on the paddle as a three as we had fallen behind and they deemed we would not make the cut-off to the next TA. Lucky for us one of the volunteers ‘Martin’ from NZ took the time to find our start finish bags so at least we had some clothes to put on, and Craig and Louise arranged for us to be able to eat a meal in the restaurant....this was the best food we had had since landing in Brazil. The next morning we got to see Gary and were relieved that he was recovering the medics informed us that his BP & Blood sugar had returned to normal and now he just needed to rest. We ended up having breakfast lunch and dinner on the boat as we waited for teams to arrive from the Trek-Pack raft much later than the estimated fastest times. Gary was about to get kicked off the Luxury boat and sent to a Navy Ship that was following the end of the course – but as he had no food, or access to boxes and had not been well decided to pay for a room on the boat, so there he stayed after negotiating a fee of $2000 real (Brazilian currency).

The TA Reserve and the Luxury Boat
Seagate arrived at around 5pm (this was the time we expected to get there and that was more than 6hrs after the fasted times) they looked shattered and certainly did not rush their transition at all. Sloshy, Leo and I had to wait till 5 teams had left before we were allowed out on the course……so we ended up spending most the night in a shelter sleeping on a concrete floor (Leo actually slept outside with plastic pants and a mozzie net over his face) as athletes from the next 2-8 teams arrived and prepared to get some sleep as everyone was advised ‘NOT to SLEEP on the COURSE’.  So into the TA came Silva, Estonia, Raidlight and Merell, Columbia and a few more teams…..we waited and waited and after Merell had left we were finally allowed to go… was 3am.

Mountains in the background
Leg 4 Trek 68k EBB Reserve to Faz Serra Negra Farm Airstrip.
On our way out we crossed paths with Tecnu and had a chat to Rob Preston, they had not found the track and had to bush bash losing valuable time on the pack-raft. We set off and followed the track to CP9 passing Merell (because we were fresh), refilled water in the creek before trying to find the track that would send us up to CP10. We did not find the track and this was when Leo pulled out the machete for the first time, we made it through some pretty thick jungle and soon could see where we were headed to CP10. 

Leo & the Machete

CP 9 

Knowing that it was going to get hot and we would need plenty of water, we refilled our water again just before the CP. The CP was on hanging on a tent (and was pretty obvious) but we could not see it, and Sloshy was adamant that the CP was unmanned so we continued to scout around all the way up to the highpoint before returning to the tents…..these guys hiked in for 48hrs with their esky. CP 11 was so far in the distance that we could barely see that far….more than 20k…there was no track…..just a rocky grassy series of ridgelines with spectacular views of the Pantanal wetlands. As it started to heat up we started to slow down and suddenly our water levels seemed to be dropping rapidly so we were relieved when we came across a nice little water hole just off Shubi’s track. We refilled and then lay in the water for a bit, and continued on our merry way, passing Godzone (stopped on a highpoint resting) Raidlight and the Japanese media who had trekked in with Seagate the night before…..Raidlight tied hard to stick with us but were suffering in the heat way more than us. 

On our way to CP 10

Kim enjoying the breeze ad the view of the Pantanal

Kim & Sloshy - Cooling down in the waterhole

We cracked a well-deserved COKE at CP 11 and made our way off the ridge towards 12, it was now 4pm and we were hoping to reach 12 before dark….this now seemed impossible as it was more than 8k away. I was struggling bigtime with blisters as my HOKA’s Stinson’s are not great off trail (90% of the trek was off trail) but lucky we took our walking poles as they helped so much with stability throughout this leg. Sloshy was on the map as the main navigator and Leo was supporting, both the boys had altimeters on their watches which helped with some of the decisions as we were looking for the right features to follow. We came down from 11 onto a nice grassy plain where we found some more water before heading up again towards CP 12 as it got dark. 

Sloshy & Leo up high on the ridge

CP 11 in sight!
We could see the lights of the teams we had passed in the distance on top of the ridgelines. We thought we were on the ridge to 12 but when we got to what seemed like the high point the CP was on the other side of a huge gorge, as in the dark we had just not seen the line we were meant to take on the 1:100 000map scale with 40m Contour intervals, lucky it was easy to go down and back around up to the CP. There was a really steep descent off 12 down into the creek which lead to the track into the TA, I had a few big tumbles as did the boys going down here, and at one point hit a rock head first with my AY-UP’s saving me before doing a bit of a somersault gashing my arm on a sharp rock. 

We soon hit the jungle and had some bush bashing to get to the creek, where we stopped and filled up with water again. There was meant to be a track on the other side about 500m away and made our way in the direction for 20mins and found no track…..was it there???? We assumed maybe not and turned back to the creek for another option, this then set us up for a 3hr bush bash along the side of the creek before we stumbled across the track…..which did actually exist. This was really physically and mentally challenging as we were less that 5k from the TA but we were in the thickest jungle you could imagine, Leo forged a path with the machete after Sloshy had tired, and I was hot on his heels checking the direction on my compass the entire way. It was on this section of the trek that we came across a Tarantula and also tiny alligators in the creek, and more bugs and mosquitos that I have ever encountered in my life before…..on with the mozzie net. Finally we stumbled on a track and soon realised it was the one we thought didn’t exist, we were very thankful as if we had not found it we would have been bush bashing for another 4hrs to get to the road to the TA. We stumbled in to find the airstrip and were lured towards the lights of the luxury boat……but the TA was beside the strip in darkness (they turn off the generator at night, so it was in darkness).

The alligator

The tarantula

Here we were greeted by Martin from NZ who was manning the TA and a few other officials as well as Team Columbia who had surged through the field on the trek to arrive at the same time as us. It was now 4am and as we only had 3 people we were not permitted to paddle, so had to wait for daylight and to see if we were allowed to continue. Louise Folkes (who is preparing for a paddle across Bass Strait) was keen to join us for the paddle but was still tucked up in bed on the luxury boat. We jumped in the pool, found some dry clothes and tried to escape the mozzies and get a bit of sleep, we ended up on another concrete floor in Martin’s volunteers room as the designated sleeping area for athletes was infested with mozzies and after what we had just been through we just needed so be free of the biting creatures for a bit.

After a few hours rest and daylight arrived Gary, Craig & Louise walked over to the TA, Gary was prepared for a hike up to CP 12 with Craig and Louise was not sure what we were doing i.e. if we were allowed to paddle or not. It turned out that I had pretty bad cuts on my legs that had started to get really infected, not to mention the blisters, so I had to get some medical assistance and let the cuts at least start to heal. The medics suggested that I don’t get back in the water for a while and see how I go… we spent the day at this TA just sitting around, watching teams stroll in and paddle out. It seemed that most had spent twice the time on the trek that they expected and really struggled with water, and at least 2 members of each team had pretty severe blisters.

Relaxing after the trek

Gear in a mess after the trek

We negotiated to get a lunch at this TA that was provided to teams if they arrived during daylight hours and had our last meal on the luxury boat as we negotiated with Shubi to go back out on the paddle the next day. We then headed back to the TA where we were negotiated a room at the place that was free from mozzies, this came at a cost of 150real pp but at least we had a sleep on a mattress free from mozzies and the aircon was a bonus. Gary arrived at 5am the next day ready to paddle….not many teams had come through the TA overnight and this course was starting to look more epic than ever……we knew that Seagate who had started the TREK more than 24hrs before had not even finished and other teams had barely moved……wow how would the teams even be able to get to the bikes for the back end of the course… was starting to look not only more like a test of survival but an impossible feat to complete the course.

Paddling as the sun rises in the distance
Leg 5 Paddle 60km to Porto Sao Pedro
After getting the okay from TA official to go, Team Mountain Designs was on course again with Gary ready for an enjoyable 8hr or so paddle down the Paraguay River. Gary was starting to be back to his normal self as we enjoyed paddling with the 4km/hr current as the sun rose up over the mountain range in the distance that we had been trekking behind the previous day. The first CP on this leg was a school, so we stopped and had a stretch…..then the second was on the bank of a farm. We also were lucky to spot a big alligator on the river bank on this stretch of the river which was a bit exciting, and heard the roar of some beastly creature but maybe lucky not to see what it actually was. We stopped and started along the way to fill up water and just have a look around on this paddle. I was taking heaps of photos along the way and we just had fun. 

The mountains made the paddle spectacular

Sloshy has a bit of a rest

When we arrived at the TA we were confronted by officials who requested that we hand over our tracker and bibs and wait for a navy ship. Basically they meant that was it… more opportunity to do any of the course at all. We were pretty upset as earlier we had been told that we would be able to go out to the bike course and do that, but as things were unfolding and teams were getting stuck on the trek/pack-raft there is no way they wanted an unranked team out there – with a team mate (Gary) who had the potential to be a liability (because he had already been deemed medically unfit to continue days earlier).  We were a bit upset, by now not because we wanted to continue anyway but just the way that it was handed….we felt like criminals and that we had done something bad by wanting to be on the course of the race that we had entered.

Sloshy - Look at the rash on his back!
 By now we were starting to recognise that the rules of this event had and were continuously changing and what might be okay one day was not the next etc and vice versa. As we sat on the bank of the river watching teams come and go or wake from a sleep and prepare for the Trek, I was suddenly starting to feel an itch on my arms, and they were starting to swell. My hands forearms and biceps were starting to feel and look fat and tight and there was this sort of blister like rash starting to appear, it was quite different to the rash that Sloshy had on his back. A bit concerned I had a chat to the medical staff at the TA and he indicated that the swelling was a form of allergic reaction to the water in the river (which I had jumped in head and all after the paddle to cool down) sunscreen and clothing I was wearing. So I was given two tablets one being an antihistamine and the other and anti-inflammatory of some sort… even though we were not ever racing….it seemed my body was not well suited to these extreme conditions of the Pantanal, so again I was relieved that we were not proceeding on the next leg as what would have happened if I had continued??? Camilla, a Brazilian (who usually races with her husband in TEAM BMC) showed me on the ship where I could have a shower to wash off all that was irritating my skin, previously the officials had said there was no access to showers or toilets and that I had to go in the bush, but with Camilla by my side I just walked on the ship and had a shower….wow it seemed the rules were different for some……the Brazilian’s or anyone who could speak Portuguese. Sloshy had a chat to Shubi at this TA when she arrived and tried to find out what we had done wrong…..and by now it seemed that she had no problem with us at all and that she knew that we were fine to paddle and that there were plenty of kayaks …..unlike what officials at the TA had told us, again, such a contrast!

The mozzie infested TA where we boarded the Navy Ship
We boarded the ship at 7pm as the engines started to fire up, but we did not leave the TA till 10pm, just after the Luxury boat had arrived at the TA. Sloshy Leo and I this time had to sleep in a room with all the other athletes…..males and females all together sharing the same bathroom….again the rules had changed. Up on deck we watched the flag lowering ceremony on the ship and took some photos of the sunset, as we tucked into some race food for dinner. We went into bed early, not because we were tired, but to escape the evening onslaught of mozzies, and at this point we had a visit from Louise Folks following her little hike out and back on the start of the trek leg, saying it was pretty cool as she and Craig got to see heaps of Crocodiles…..big ones! We were told that the final teams that made it to the TA before 10pm were allowed to head off onto the trek/pack-raft/trek leg despite the fact that it would be impossible for them to make the cut-off by 8am the next morning as even Seagate had taken more than 24hrs (we found out later that these teams got lost and had to be airlifted from the course on Saturday…..we were not surprised). Sloshy and I got up again for some fresh air just as the boat was leaving; meanwhile Leo was out to it and in a deep deep sleep. As daylight fell we were arriving back in Corumba and were rather surprised that we were able to leave the ship immediately…..we were pretty glad to be back and to me it felt a little like we were prisoners being released back into civilisation.

The sunset was amazing
Back in Corumba
We were dropped off at the convention centre where we waited for some information from officials….like when might we be able to get our boxes and bikes, as we could see that there was now no chance of us getting to ride some of the bike leg, so no ropes either! Again we were lucky that volunteer Martin was there and he filled us in on what was going on otherwise we would have had no idea. He told us that Seagate were still on the pack-raft and that no other teams had yet even finished the trek….that they had now decided to short course all teams by r Friday as the event was only paying our final night there, so I thought they obviously did not want teams to finish early, did they? Gary was at this stage still on the Luxury Boat heading back to Corumba and we decided to head to the hotel and book in. That night we went to our favourite Pizza place in Corumba and took Craig & Louise with us, so we were getting a bit of a heads up about what was happening logistics wise with teams still out on the course.

On Friday there had been storms and rain, so the temperature had dropped but the bike course had turned into mud so we heard from media staff back at the hotel that teams were now pushing through impassable mud on sections and there were many more tracks out there that what appeared on the map making it difficult. Fast forward through to Saturday morning and still no teams had finished, Seagate were close and a group of teams including Merrel, Raidlight, Godzone had to be airlifted from the end of the pack raft  directly to the start of the bike (partially due to a management decision and athletes protesting about the leg) so from there were short coursed. We went for a little run to the Canoe TA and heard that Seagate and Merrel (short coursed) had finished and we saw Raidlight come in and try to get 4 people into one native canoe, they looked like they were going to sink the thing…..but did make to the finish eventually.

I was at this point really concerned about the teams still out there, how would they get all their gear packed for a Sunday departure, how would they go travelling (flying long haul)  so close to finishing having knowledge about how much individuals swell up after races anyway. So again I was sort of glad that we were not out there….I did not care that we did not get to do the race and in hindsight rather glad that we barely started as we didn’t have to punish our bodies and spend months recovering. We still did not have our gear back and had no idea when it would arrive so we spent the afternoon (boys drinking beer) sharing stories with Rob Preston from Tecnu (who had just finished) Lindsay Raynor (one of the XPD L Platers) who was also an event volunteer who spoke Portuguese and martin who I mentioned earlier. Lindsay was a great help for all the teams as she took it upon herself to liaise with the event officials to find out all the answers to questions; how do we get to the official function, how to get gear back to the hotel and where would the gear be picked up the next morning? It was 4pm and we were leaving at 4am the next day and we still had no bikes and just one box back… I jumped in a truck with Lindsay and went to the convention centre, with her help got all our gear on the truck and back to the hotel…..finally after 3 days of nothing I had something to do! We sorted our gear, jumped on a bus and went to the presentation ceremony, had a taste of the local drink Caipirinha (lime flavoured alcoholic beverage) and watched the finishing teams be recognised and hear Shubi’s version of how the race panned out from her perspective……interesting!

It was time to go home, we woke at 3.30am to get on the 4am bus with about 16 other teams and guess what, 1 bus arrived and no truck for the bikes. Lindsay was onto it and woke Fabiana (the person from the organisation who was in charge of this) and she said ‘just put the bikes on the bus’ obviously Fabi had no idea. Lindsay really pushed hard for something to be done for the teams and lucky for us we got our bikes on first so we here happy but we felt really bad for other teams. It turned out that many athletes did not get their bikes….we were not surprised again…..

So reflecting on the ARWS Pantanal, all I can say is next time I say “why not” I will also have to ask “why would you” and really take the time to make a wise decision on what races to do and what races never to even consider. We do this sport because we love to test ourselves against Mother Nature, see beautiful parts of the world and share this with our best mates, but so much about the event in Brazil just did not have that. Thanks to everyone who had their eyes on Team Mountain Designs before during and after the race, we really appreciated the feedback and comments we got from those who follow what we do……and we will be back racing again soon but choosing more carefully in future what’s best for us.

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