TEAM SCOUTS AUSTRALIA - ECO CHALLENGE FIJI 2019
Updated: Sep 13, 2020
Team Scouts had been on something of a brief hiatus in early 2019 when the news came: the famed and feared Eco-Challenge was getting a reboot! In the two decades since the television series ended, the race’s extreme ruthlessness somehow remained widely known, if not considered legendary, among the more seasoned athletes in adventure racing. Most of us hadn’t seen the series, being only Scout-aged at the time it came out, but for Myall—a 12-year-old 2nd Mortdale Scout who could climb any tree but had never played a sport—those wild races in the mid-90s were the first time he could see himself being competitive at something. And the memory stuck.
Having known Myall since we were Scouts or Venturers, Brett, Ben, Marni and Bernard had heard about Eco-Challenge more than a few times: as we ran toward bases at Dragon Skins (Venturer hiking competitions), while shivering in canyons in the Blue Mountains, and on long drives to camps in the Venturer bus. So, when Myall called the team up last year to tell us Eco was back and to ask us if we were up for applying, we supressed his stories of sleep-deprivation, footrot and jungle infections and agreed. How could we possibly say no to a childhood dream? Myall’s the one who got us into adventure racing as a way to take our Scouting skills into a competitive environment, so stepping up was the right thing to do … right?
When we got the word that Team Scouts Australia had actually been accepted, there was a collective reckoning with what we’d just done. Should a bunch of overgrown Scouts really expect to occupy the same space as some of the world’s top AR teams? Marni had been essentially out of the game for three years. Bernard had been living in Europe for two and was now travelling South America for six months. Ben would try his hand at anything, but his adventure racing credentials only stretched as far as vomiting his way through a 3-hour sprint race a couple of years back and he also had his wife and four young children to consider. And Brett would have to somehow manage to move his wedding date back to be our support crew. On the one hand we didn’t feel ready, but as Ben liked to remind us, ‘Haven’t we been training for this since we were Cubs?’
Getting prepared (like good Scouts)
Eco-Challenge is typically a race of 10-12 days and nights in which you move under your own steam through remote places for about 650 kilometres. Eco’s course-setters also like to throw in about as many disciplines as a decathlon, some tricky navigation, and gnarly terrain designed to get teams to breaking point. We knew it would demand even more credentials and equipment than your average gig running a Jamboree activity, but we’d managed those before, so how hard could the preparation be? Even so, our initial read was that getting to the start line would take some serious focus and finishing Eco would require more adaptability and versatility than a lot of other races and expeditions we’d done—and that’s where our years as Scouts, Venturers and adventurous activity leaders would come into play. At least, that’s what we repeatedly told ourselves.
When we landed we were a bit taken aback by the response we got from the Fijian locals—everyone knew about the race and everywhere we turned, from the airport to the outer suburbs, there were billboards and vehicles emblazoned with ‘World’s Toughest Race’ logos. The enthusiastic community reception made it seem like the whole of Nadi was excited and engaged in the production, but also perhaps that this race was temporarily taking over the place?
The teams included racers from 30 different countries and among the race’s 700-person-strong production team there were people from 27 countries, including more than 200 local crew members and volunteers from all over the world—it was particularly reassuring to see how many from the old Eco community had returned. Seeing so many national flags draped on balconies across the resort made it feel a bit like an Olympic village or world championship—maybe even a World Jamboree? Adventure Racing can be an expensive sport to get into, requiring a lot of equipment, travel, and the kind of remote support and logistics that translate to high race fees, but with the unique financial support that came with the televised series we noticed a bit more equity across the field in terms of equipment and a wider range of ages, abilities and backgrounds on the start line. For all the nerves, we were mostly humbled to be amongst such a special group of competitors and keen to see where we stood.
The pre-race days crawled by slowly with competency checks for roping and sailing, first-aid and mandatory gear sign offs, team photo shoots and the all-important and emergency briefing to make sure we knew which way to hold a flare and how to use the radio. A constant presence throughout all this was an especially smiley Canadian man who somehow seemed to know every team. We soon worked out this was the highly esteemed race director, Kevin Hodder, who with each team’s arrival was clearly buzzing at seeing more than a year’s planning coming to pass, no doubt hoping that at least some of us would see the finish line. Hodder had set the course with race technical director Scott Flavelle in early in 2019, an unforgiving and fairly thankless scouting job of finding possible routes, liaising with communities and landholders (the course went through 120 villages!), and testing out each discipline. These two would have done many more kilometres than we were about to and spent many more days doing it—as teams checked in they could only hope that their time estimates were correct.
The briefing began with a fairly forthright pep talk from Bear Grylls. He proudly divulged that this was Amazon’s biggest ever factual production and followed it up with a confession that he was concerned that no teams would finish! So, no pressure then? In fairness, he was characteristically upbeat, but we also got the sense that there was a lot riding on how we’d all go over the next two weeks. Whatever anxiety Grylls might have reasonably had on the eve of his latest big venture, he seemed genuinely excited and was generous with his time and encouragement of all the teams. As the Chief Ambassador for Scouting, he also didn’t skip a beat when Brett and Ben threw out a left handshake and was adamant that our two decades of friendship through Scouting would get us to the end, which seemed on the money as, frankly, we were hoping so, too. As we got down to race-day eve eve, Hodder also briefed us about safety, reducing our environmental impact, cultural expectations and a bit about each of the regions we were about to encounter. It was now clear the race was going to take us across all kinds of terrain from swamp and jungle to highlands and rockfaces, and that it would be an epic experience whether we reached the end or not.
The course is finally revealed (well, sort of)
After the longest. pre-race. period. ever. we were pleased to head off to the location of the race start, a day’s drive away, where we’d enjoy a welcome ceremony and a pre-race meal together before the first night’s sleep in the team tent—with weight restrictions on the flight we’d had to keep our support gear pretty minimal, so hadn’t really banked on all five of us ever needing to sleep in our four-person-tent at once! After a restless night’s sleep, we got ourselves race ready and made our way to the river. Bear made his trademark helicopter entrance in the adjacent field before jumping up on an outdoor stage and pulling back a large piece of cloth to reveal the course map—a thick red line wasn’t just stretching across Fiji, it was going across, down, back up and then to some islands beyond! We would be covering 671 kilometres, and we needed to do it within 11 days. Gulp. Switching to a sombre tone, Grylls laid down his three rules:
1. Respect the wild, don’t underestimate the distances
2. Embrace the hurt, you’re gonna get blisters. Blisters heal. Get over it.
3. In the World’s Toughest Race: we never leave a team member behind. If one of your team gives up, gets injured, the whole team is out.
Before we had time to dwell on Grylls’ last point, he was asking, ‘Are you ready to do this?!’ Marni joked with the team about the competitor who, in the opening sequence of Eco-Challenge Fiji in 2002, had at this very same moment tried to copy the entire course map down on his arm in permanent marker. Sure, we might have been keeping our cool better than that guy, but did we really know what we were getting into?
The answer is no, we didn’t. Or at least we wouldn’t until we finished each leg. In most adventure races teams receive all the maps in one go at the race briefing (typically the night before), as well as a list of legs with their distances and elevations. You can take time to plan what gear you’ll need when, to think about what legs are going to be the hardest, and consider your time estimates and discuss when you might try to sleep in order to maximise daylight navigation. But in Eco-Challenge, the maps and therefore the disciplines, distances and terrains, were going to be drip-fed across five legs: Ocean; Jungle; River; Highlands; Islands. That meant a different kind of challenge: to take each leg as it came and adjust our pace to whatever discipline we faced in the present, while keeping something in reserve for whatever was to come. As we all raced off to the start line at the rivers’ edge to get just our first set of maps, Marni wondered aloud if that guy with the permanent marker hadn’t actually been onto something…
Vainui vinaka e nomu volau (a wish for a safe journey) / Race Start to Ocean Leg
Bernard and Myall quickly studied the maps and instructions while Ben and Marni waded out to the boat to strap down bags and make sure we had flares, water and food within reach. As the conch shell sounded, 66 TACs released their own team’s tether, and 264 paddles hit water, we reminded each other to keep our cool. We’d drawn a position towards the back of the pack, so our first task was simply to get through the first few kilometres and out of the river mouth without a race-ending collision. Easier said than done.
Within the first minute, top contenders Team New Zealand had capsized and there was an almost impenetrable traffic jam. In the chaos, Gippsland Adventure cut in front of us and we punctured their boat above the waterline. We also noticed they had a few lower holes, and they soon decided to pull over for emergency repairs. Having helped put Australia’s top team in dead last within the first minutes of the race, we were off to a cringeworthy start. We were all on edge and eager to get out onto clear water as soon as we could. Myall set the pace out front, Bernard managed our lines up the back, Ben was on the ‘hut’ counting rotations, and Marni was paddling hard but also becoming ever more verbal about the proximity of every other team’s boat, as if no one else had eyes.
We soon found our rhythm, and before long we were reaching open water and putting up the sail. There wasn’t a lot of wind, but dammit we hadn’t been learning how to rig up a Camakau for nothing! Getting the mast free, raised and secured involved every member of the team as we had to stabilise the boat, get a large bamboo pole into a small hole in the centre of the boat, while tying the guy ropes in place. It took a bit of wrestling, but once we got going we hit a couple of patches of wind and even shunted the sail a few times, tacking and paddling our way over to CP1 by the middle of the day.
The sail might have given us a little nudge on a couple of occasions, but mostly the first day was about paddle power. Pretty quickly, the main thing going through our minds was simply how much we needed to cover up from the scorching sun. It’s the seemingly small decisions in adventure racing that get you: should you be warier of sunburn or overheating? We all made a few adjustments as we went along and worked out how to keep paddling while one team member at a time had a substantial drink and some food.
A few hours in we were navigating around the large reefs marked on our maps. There were a few hairy moments where we came perilously close to impact just below the surface, but gingerly made it out of danger each time. There were boats everywhere in this leg and we mostly managed to concentrate on running our own race, but we strongly remember feeling as if we were standing still next to the very powerful paddlers from Tiki Tour, and happily also when Gippsland Adventure came past us at a cracking pace—it was a great relief to us to see how many places they’d regained from that horror start.
We were ecstatic to reach Ovalau Island around 4pm. When you see someone paddle you think their arms must be tired, but after a full days’ paddling it’s all about cramped legs and aching hips. It was a relief to be off the boat and off our butts, which had been grating back and forth on the narrow wooden planks that served as the Camakau’s seats—we were only eight or so hours in, hadn’t yet reached the jungle, and yet the next-level rashes had already begun! We filled water, stuffed faces, checked in with the maps, and set off towards an ancient volcanic crater.
We reached the jungle track just on dusk. Being on the ocean exposed to the sun had been taxing, but this is where it was going to get real for us: our first experience of the incredibly humid, dense, muddy Fijian jungle. Marni was already a bit overheated and battled an upset stomach on the hike upwards, but it wasn’t of great concern—she’s got a diesel engine so can take a moment to acclimatise, but once she gets going she doesn’t stop for much. The boys took some of Marni’s pack weight, she found her legs again after an hour of climbing, and we were off. No sooner had Marni come good than we came across a half-clothed athlete lying face down on the track up to the peak. We recognised Dan and his team Bend Racing—we were surprised to see such an experienced team struggling early on, but it was also a reminder that we were on an expedition and there’s plenty of time to turn disasters around. In fact, we’d already seen one incredible comeback on the water that day and it wouldn’t be the last.
Looking back now on the race after so much time has passed, it’s hard to place ourselves amongst the field, but we were off the island by 9pm. Ben dove down to get the medallion from the ocean floor somewhere in the early hours and thankfully the tide had dropped so he didn’t have to call on his full 10-metre strategy. The frontrunners had reached the stand-up paddleboards in the evening and we arrived there right on sunrise—not considering ourselves as strong sailors or paddlers, it was exciting to find ourselves positioned up in the early 20s.
Unfortunately for us, it was to be paddling after paddling. Stand-up-paddleboarding (SUPing) is pretty hard going against the current, and we were facing another full day baking in direct sun. We took the opportunity to let our soggy feet get some air—feet are the most critical part of the body to look after in an expedition race, especially a tropical one. After having just paddled on various crafts for a day, a night, and almost another full day without much of a break between, we were thankful to get to the end of the SUP and meet our bike boxes. We saw quite a few teams around us at the transition area, and were most excited to see our Australian friends from Team 2nd Chance. We didn’t waste much time chatting, but it was another reassurance that we’d made good time so far, and were perhaps doing even better than expected. We were also surprised to see Bend Racing come in just after us, given the position we’d last seen Dan in—another clear testament to their paddling skills that they made up serious ground so quickly.
It was refreshing to be on our bikes and ticking over some fast ks on the rolling hills. We had 56kms in front of us and hadn’t been on the bikes for more than ten minutes when a torrential tropical shower hammered down—it would stretch into the night. We were honestly pleased to get some relief from the relentless heat, even if it meant an otherwise flowy single-track section became an unrideable slip ‘n’ slide—if a slip ‘n’ slide was also bordered by barbed wire fencing. Marni seems to find barbed wire in every race she does—usually with her body, though she saw it first this time. Bernard’s navigation was on point, as it had been in the paddling and trekking before, and we got to the final checkpoint before Camp 1 just after 6pm. We were the only team there and excited to continue straight onto camp where we would see Brett and check in for the first of our five mandatory sleeps, but that wasn’t to be. Our checkpoint volunteer informed us that we weren’t allowed to continue on as he was awaiting instructions and there were multiple rescues underway due to the weather. The call came through soon after that the race had been paused.
Whilst happy to not be in the situation some other teams were clearly facing, we’d timed our food and water so that we’d be almost empty by the time we reached camp, so stores were depleted at that stage and we didn’t have much that was still dry to keep ourselves warm. Already cold and hungry, the location of the checkpoint on a narrow riverbed also became of increasing concern as more and more teams banked up behind us. We all tried to rest while periodically moving back from the bulging river’s edge. Eventually, the race organisers decided that it wasn’t safe for a dozen or so teams to spend the night trying to sleep next to a rising river and we got confirmation that we could recommence the river crossing (via local boat) and ride to Camp 1 to wait out the race stoppage. As we’d been first team in, we made sure we were first team out, and got to Camp 1 at Naivucini Village and a delighted Brett just before midnight. We’d stayed well within the top third of the field for the first day and a half and 120 kilometres of paddle-heavy racing—not our strongest discipline—and all agreed we’d try to hold that ground. Of course, none of us knew what was coming beyond the instructions we’d just been handed for leg 2, and we also shared a strong suspicion that the cut-offs would become tighter as the race ran on.
Yadra (good morning) / Camp 1 to Jungle Leg
On day three of our adventure, we woke up uncharacteristically refreshed (six hours of uninterrupted sleep is unheard of in AR!) and eager to get into the canyon section. Our Scouting years have given us a decent level of confidence in canyons and the harder the bouldering, the better it would be for us to get some distance
on the teams who typically trained on tracks and roads. But, as we shuffled down to the totem poles for our allocated restart at 8am, we could suddenly see the dozen or so teams that had come in overnight and would soon be leaving with us. As we stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the start line, it was clear that our lead over a good portion of the mid-pack teams had been completely eaten up by the more than twelve hours we spent mostly in limbo from the evening before. Still, there was nothing to be done but look ahead to the 100 kms we had ahead of us in the jungle leg. There would be swimming, rock-hopping and trekking through nearby Waiga Canyon for 14 kilometres, paddling bamboo rafts for 45 kilometres, and 40 kilometres of hilly mountain-biking before we’d see Camp 2. If we’d broken in at the edges of Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu, in the Ocean leg, the Jungle leg was the artery that would take us deeper into the heart of the landscape that promised denser, higher and more technical terrain—the kind of stuff you have to throw your whole body at. For now, we just had to press on and make sure we all got there in good condition.
As hoped, we made fairly short work of getting into the canyon and enjoyed pushing our way between the narrow walls and through flowing waters to retrieve our second medallion from a large sun-baked rock that marked the final opening out of the canyon. Any time we’d put between us and teams behind was then frittered away fairly quickly in trying to find the exit point from the canyon. It was frustrating at the time as we felt sure we were following a creek that was on the map, but when we came back down to reset we saw a clearly trod path a bit above it. Like a fair bit of the navigation in Eco, we were either overthinking it or perhaps just expecting it to be more difficult than it was. One advantage of watching a race back on television is seeing Team New Zealand appear to take the same creek-line that we did—however, their ability to move through the jungle quickly probably didn’t cause them too much concern, whereas our team backtracked and found more trodden path—it’s just one instance of many where we would love to compare our tracker recordings!
Once we’d made our way through the jungle and out onto the river, it was time to adopt another form of traditional transport: the bilibili. Having made countless rafts with all kinds of random materials in our early Scouting years, we were keen to brush off the knot-work and add bamboo to the list. Even in all our raft building, though, we’d typically managed to locate or fashion a decent paddle. Not this time. Before setting off we were handed a heavy, rigid, 8-metre, 10cm diameter (or thereabouts) bamboo pole each. While we were charmed by the notion of this leg, we were also realistic about our likely pace over the next 45 kilometres. We had a hunch that this leg would be a test of patience more than skill and would have loved to have been wrong. By the time we set out we’d missed the benefit of the flood waters and had a fairly serene river on our hands, albeit with a few small rapids in the middle to make things interesting—as Bern from Team Thunderbolt said, ‘A bunch of sticks lashed together—what could go wrong?’. The bilibilis were hard to steer and required a few running adjustments as we went along, but mostly across the long hours spent sharing a bamboo raft, using our whole bodies to turn over our poles in unison with each other, it became quite the surreal, even meditative experience. Especially when a local on a carved-out canoe approached and sold us some fresh coconuts! As dusk fell some of us resorted to singing to keep the pace up, but without anything to concentrate on it became harder to see ourselves making progress. Thankfully there was the odd team’s headlamp in the distance behind us for added incentive.
45 kilometres finally down, we were relieved to reach the CP and switch to the bikes. We can’t remember too much of that 40km ride through the dark trails towards Camp 2, but our passport notes that we got there at 5:17am and were ‘likely to sleep’. Probably for the best!
Sega na leqa (no worries) / Camp 2 to River leg
The jungle leg had deposited us inland but the long-awaited river leg would take us south through some more remote country. We left camp at 10am and the first part of the 65km bike leg involved a fair climb along unsealed roads, with a river crossing thrown in for good measure. We hit the hills and the first of the dirt tracks within a couple of hours, but what on paper looked to be a decent 6-hour up-and-downer (elevation gained was around 5,000 metres, the equivalent of an Everest basecamp hike) turned out to be one of the hardest slogs in the whole expedition.
Early on, we were surrounded by the teams we’d been seeing for most of the race: Costa Rica, UK Adventures and Ireland AR, but a few hills into the climb the road surface degraded into a thick, sticky mousse of red volcanic clay. Ben’s bike protested immediately with a snapped derailleur, and after some patching up he was left with a single gear. If the track had been dry that might have been enough to see us trailing our pack of teams, but it turned out that the previous night’s rain caused everyone grief. If there’s anywhere to break your bike, then an unrideable leg is the place to do it. After most of the afternoon spent patiently pushing and clearing our gears out with sticks, hoping for some improvement around the next corner, by the evening we’d gotten used to our full-body mud masks and resigned ourselves to the ‘ride’ being double our estimate. By dusk the bikes were seizing up so much that the wheels had long ceased to turn over, which left something like 20 kilometres of the leg as mountainous hike-a-bike, trudging in cleats through slurry with mud-packed bikes across our shoulders. Part of the way through this ordeal we spotted an Eco-Challenge passport on the track and picked it up not knowing who had dropped it. A bit further along we caught up to Team Teenek Racing from Mexico, including our Australian friend Kathryn Moreland, who had joined the team at the last minute as their navigator. They were facing the same tough slog as us, but were delighted when we worked out the passport we’d found was theirs. They hadn’t realised it was gone.
By the time we got to the checkpoint and transitioned off the bike it was midnight. There was apparently a pressure washer that had long since buckled under the strain of 80-or-so bikes, so we spent the good part of 45 minutes cleaning ours in an ice-cold stream before packing them up and getting into some slightly less muddy gear. The dark zone for the 30km whitewater rafting section was soon to lift, so we couldn’t afford to rest and kept moving so we’d be down to the Navua River by 6am. We hit it on the dot, and were really happy with how quickly we got through the rapids—with the help of some excellent steering and captaining by Myall. The high enveloping walls of the Navua River canyon with their trippy water erosion lines from times long gone and improbably high ferns made for by far the most spectacular and lost-world-like landscape of the entire race. It’s lucky that there were decent rapids through that section, though, as we all battled the sleep monsters as soon as the flow gave way to flat water. Ben was sleep-paddling for the majority of the leg—quite a feat on a steamy sunny morning—but at the long middle stage of a race every forward motion is still a win.
We perked up once we were back on our feet and facing 50km of jungle trekking. On the face of it we’d expected a pretty straightforward leg, if a bit of a navigational challenge, but between being given options for guides and horses and the constant low-flying helicopters there was a lot that was outside what constituted normal adventure racing. We all felt strong enough to continue carrying our packs, so we pushed on. As we made our way through villages, over some hills on narrow tracks and across rivers, we made good progress. Bernard was confident with the nav and this all seemed like a good decision until we got to the edge of the last village and the sun went down just as we were looking for the trackhead to get into the long jungle section. We spent well over an hour getting turned around on multiple unmarked tracks and soon realised that there was a reason the instructions mentioned guides and horses—the number of tracks suggested this jungle was going to continually produce a rabbit warren of track options and local knowledge would have been the key to cutting through the noise. We were lucky enough to make it most of the way without guidance, but were grateful to catch up to a few teams in the middle of the night who were also on foot, including the man who literally wrote the book on navigation, Mark Lattanzi from Ireland AR team, who compared notes with Bernard along the way. We also caught up to Hombres de Maiz from Guatemala at one point.
We emerged from the jungle and onto the river just in time for sunrise and a second wind. Skirting the edge of a village, we met May, a local who was interested in guiding our weary souls to Camp 3 in Lutu Village. We were immediately glad for her intimate knowledge of the rivers as there were more crossings than we could have imagined, making the navigation amongst the recently flooded waterways potentially tricky and the decision on where to cross them adding more complexity than our foggy brains could handle at that point. When we got closer to the camp, May cottoned onto the fact that another team had started to follow us and she instructed us wait over to the side of a track for a few minutes. We took a while to work out what she was doing, but even in our zombie state we noticed her glint and a smirk and realised we were forcing the team to overtake us, otherwise known as playing navigational chicken.
Between the 12-hour bike slog and the slow, twisty and sleepy jungle hike through a second night, we were conscious of our dropping pace, but our support crew, Brett, reassured us that we were travelling well. We concentrated on drying out our feet in the little time we had and were relieved that Brett had found us some extra foot drying powder. Between the nappy cream, tea-tree based lubricant, drying powder and having our feet in the baking sun whenever we could, we seemed to get the balance mostly right and avoid infections, even if there were plenty of decent blisters to go around. We attempted our midday sleep under an open gazebo instead of our boiling hot tent (thanks Mad Mayrs!) and heard that Bear had come around to wish us well but that Brett had sent him away because we weren’t to be woken! He did leave us a nice note, though.
Totoka sara vua (very beautiful waterfall) / Camp 3 to Highlands Leg
Getting ourselves organised for the next leg took a fair bit of work. We were going to ascend a 365-metre waterfall, boulder-hop through a canyon, swim for 8 kilometres, then paddleboard for 20kms, following it all up with a steep 40-kilometre climb in the scorching heat of the highlands. By the time we had our neoprene tops for the ice-cold canyon water, harnesses and hardware for climbing, helmets, 4 litres of water, food for two days, and hiking poles, plus the usual warm clothes and first-aid mandatories and some 5-and-a-half-days-old feet beneath it all, we were all feeling the extra weight.
That said, after the short sleep at Camp 3 and finding ourselves at home in the rocky landscape of the canyon, we made good time and enjoyed ourselves. A particular phrase that came to our minds as we made our way to the falls was the Eco-Challenge Founder Mark Burnett’s advice at the start line to ‘make the time too look up’. We knew that the waterfall would be spectacular, but were running the risk of not being able to see it before darkness fell. We dialled up the speed and popped out of the jungle just in time to see a glistening Vua Falls. It was not only a spectacular set of falls and the highest any of us had ever had the chance to stand at the foot of, let alone climb, but also a seriously impressive roping set up with four lines running across a dozen or so pitches all the way to the top. Seeing it in the last moments of sunlight was well worth the hustle.
We made out the familiar face of an Australian checkpoint volunteer, Linda, and while chatting away about how our mates in the three Australian teams in front of us were going we felt for a moment like we were in a race in Australia—the looming falls reminded us we were in EcoChallenge and after refuelling for the long climb we realised we’d better get on with it. Our whole team have climbing qualifications so we were confident to manage our rope changeovers and get it done, but in the lead up Marni had made the mistake of admitting that she hadn’t ever needed to ascend a rope more than about ten metres, so the team generously set up a pulley system in the hall so she could practice. When she realised they’d set it up with the 100-metre rope so that they could keep dropping her down just before she reached the top, she soon wished she hadn’t said anything!
Hooking on at the bottom of the falls was pretty straightforward. The darkness didn’t really concern us as we really just needed to concentrate on where our next steps were going anyway and it wasn’t like we had to make route selections—it would just be a fairly long mental slog without a sense of how far up we were or how high we were when hanging off the rockface. When Marni hooked on at the bottom on the same climbing line as Myall, the safety crew member said that he’d been asked to tell her to look out for the ‘glow worms’ on the way up. Marni was slightly confused by this, not expecting this was really the place for them, but when she got mid-way up the second rope change she saw that Myall had strategically placed some of his prized sour worm lollies in the rockface at various intervals—very welcome incentives!
Once we’d reached the top and retrieved our medallion, there was a fair bit of scrambling, swimming and bouldering to go before we would reach the 8-kilometre swim. In the dark hours of early morning we once again came across the Irish team. We noticed that the team was quite separated out and not their usual cheery selves. There were very large rocks and pools of water to get around and through, so it wasn’t uncommon to find you couldn’t see your team members’ headlamps ahead or behind for minutes at a time, but we’d gradually noticed they weren’t communicating and the gaps between them had gotten quite large. Knowing that cold canyon water wasn’t a place for a team to lose momentum, we decided to turn around and see how they were doing. Myall and Ben went to check in with the two team members at the back and found that they were delirious and therefore a bit non-cooperative at first. Marni and Bernard had found a large dry rock for the entire team to rest on. They were low on supplies so Marni gave them some food and treated some water while Bernard somehow managed to construct a dome-tent-like structure out of two guy ropes, two long sticks of bamboo that he cut with our machete and the Irish team’s mandatory tarp. All this happened quickly in the dark and without much discussion. Once we had the team back together under the tarp, out of their wet clothes and into their mandatory dry gear and bivvy bags, we all assessed what to do next. Some had recovered a bit by then and they were able to see that they had to rest before they could move on to the checkpoint. After about twenty minutes we could see they were calmed down, warming up, and able to communicate more clearly again. We let them know we’d tell the next checkpoint they were resting and that if they didn’t come by in an hour then someone should check in. We would later find out that in their delirium our headlamps had made them think we were fairies—a fittingly Irish kind of sleep monster.
As we reached the end of the roping section the sun rose, just in time for our ice-cold canyon swim! Again, a bit of experience in cold canyon water served us well (yes, even in Sydney the canyon water stays cold!). We wriggled into our neoprene tops, covered our heads up in buffs and hoods, and tried to stick to our plan to ‘just go through the guts of it’ and keep the pace up. Still, it was the kind of cold that made you breathe in short bursts and hope there would be no reason to have to stop. An extra reason not to stop was that we knew Brett wasn’t allowed to leave Camp 3 until we’d been cleared by the medical team at the warming tent, and he had to not only travel a long way to Camp 4, but somehow source parts for Ben’s bike and find time to make all the repairs before we got there. At that point, we were racing for him, too.
Our next leg was SUPing and it started with a solid downwind paddle that gave us all a welcome energy boost. This was essentially the mid-point between the third and fourth legs—since leaving Camp 3 we had completed the river leg and were on our way to the highlands, but there would be no camp until the final one, which remained the SUP and a long hike away. With that bit of excitement and relief to be moving quickly again we probably got a bit overly optimistic that we’d sail straight onto the checkpoint. But Eco-Challenge doesn’t deliver easy wins, and the wide river soon turned to meandering, boggy creeks. That red mud was back. In hindsight, we should have taken it as a warning sign that we were about to hike-a-SUP but persisted in the creeks just a little too long under the false notion that we were supposed to get to the checkpoint via a body of water. A few teams caught up to us as we backtracked through the maze of identical 15-foot-tall creek beds and we decided the only option we hadn’t yet tried was a SUP drag over the high banks and through fields of cow pats on a bearing until we found the CP. After having made it through the canyon relatively unscathed, it was ironically a confusing, muddy SUP leg on agricultural land that called for a mental reset. Just as we were getting ourselves together, Aussie Rescue and a few other teams caught up and we pooled mental energies to get to the CP together.
The morning felt a lot more promising as we hit the road on dawn—we weren’t on fresh legs or feet by any stretch of the imagination, but we had at least been able to clean the mud off and re-dress our various leg wounds and blisters. The highlands hike was going to be a big ask on our already fairly cooked lower limbs, but it was also the last big hurdle before Camp 4, after which it would be ‘all down hill from there’—or so one of the volunteers told us as we set out, and we chose to believe him.
The highlands delivered yet another stunning landscape, but one with only chest-high grasses rather than the usual thick jungle, so the views were limitless. The lack of shade also meant the exposure to the sun was equally limitless and Myall succumbed to a bit of heat exhaustion about two thirds in. Marni was in her groove so took his pack for a while and we made sure he got some extra electrolytes into him. Having gone two-and-a-half days since leaving the previous camp, we were very light on food so at one point sat down for a quick stocktake and redistribution so that we could pace out our calories out for the rest of the day—we were left with basically a gel or two and a fruit bar each, but if we were onto our navigation we’d manage to make it to Camp 4 by sundown.
Myall must have sensed something because he recovered just before we popped up onto an epic ridgeline at the very top of the highlands and we heard a helicopter coming up behind us. So with very little in our bellies but lots of excitement to be in such a bizarre moment in the middle of remote Fiji, we ran down the ridge that would take us all the way to the river below. Not knowing if it was that bit of running or the beginnings of a leg infection, Marni started to feel a constant burning sensation in her legs and they had started to swell, but on a mountain range with no shade there was no point stopping. Besides, they were all close to running out of water.
At the river below they all took a few minutes to recover their legs in the cool water. Marni’s skin had been superficially burned by her sun-baked tights, but that was far preferable to her visions of infected cuts! Bernard had nailed the nav all day, but as the sun was setting the Mexican, Costa Rican, and Guatemalan teams all came barrelling down the river to try to get to the camp before dark. Having been rather depleted of calories and water throughout the day, the team decided that it was still relatively early in the game for a sprint. As much as we would have liked to take a position among the top 20 on the leaderboard that night, we knew the only position that counted was the one at the end of the race. As if to prove our own intuition correct, the initial pressure to keep up with those teams also took us momentarily off the map, and so when it came to heading off the river towards the camp, we turned early and went up a random creek instead. Brett had been told that we were expected to arrive any minute, so he and the crew were surprised when we took an extra half an hour just to get around the river bend. It at least ensured we got a thunderous reception on arrival!
Camp 4 was a beautiful village with traditional huts lining a wide main thoroughfare, which had been thoroughly taken over by team tents. The very welcoming Navua community presented us with garlands as we entered through the totems and we noted how perfect their village looked, especially the rows of large identical thatched huts. We learnt that their buildings had all been ravaged by a cyclone just months before the race and that Eco-Challenge had supported them to rebuild. Like each of the villages we’d been through, there was a vibe of celebration and lots of singing and cheering with each team’s arrival. It felt as though we’d reached a special moment in the race where we could afford a moment to celebrate and start to focus on making a push towards the finish line.
Brett had been very busy in our absence. Amongst travelling the hundreds of kilometres from Camp 3 to Camp 4, he had sourced a derailleur for Ben’s bike and fitted it. He’d also reattached Ben’s dangling gear shifter, albeit with the rather temporary fix of a massive wad of duct tape. While we were relieved to be facing our last leg, Brett was also clearly relieved that he’d been able to do what was needed to get us on our way. We’d already filled our sleep card, so we decided to take only a very brief sleep of an hour or so before we got on our bikes again for the final ‘Islands’ leg.
Moce (goodbye) / Camp 4 to Islands Leg
Getting on our bikes in the middle of the night wasn’t new to us, but the previous eight days were catching up and the sleep monsters were well and truly along for the ride. Considering that most of us weren’t even peddling in straight lines, we should have recognised that our pace had dropped considerably and taken some recovery, but foggy brains and impatience got the better of us here. By the time we’d had more than a few close calls from downhill sleep-riding and Myall started snoozing while chatting through some confusion on the maps, Marni eventually put her foot down and insisted the boys drag their weary bodies into the bush for a 15-minute nap. With the finish line so close, no one had wanted to take their foot off the gas, but it was clear that with the cracks showing amongst the whole team concurrently for the first time, there was no other choice.
Sleep strategy will make or break an expedition race, and it’s surprising how much switching off completely, even for a brief period, allows your body to recharge enough to set out again with a bit more mental clarity. We kept to our 15 minutes, quickly answered our navigation question, and managed to pick up the pace again before reaching the next CP and the short trek just after dawn. Seeing which teams had dropped their bikes and were out on the loop (and noticing those that we must have been ahead of) immediately brought back the competitive edge and our banter quickly returned as we jogged and slid our way down a boggy track for a few kilometres towards a spectacular waterfall. It was a welcome change to be going down a rope instead of up for the first time in the race. We nominated Ben for the quick swim and climb up the rockface to retrieve our Island medallion. All we had to do now, was deliver it to the finish line!
Eager to get on our bikes for what we anticipated to be a long flowing descent to sea level, it was suddenly harder to keep ourselves composed for the boring stuff: reapplying our sunscreen head-to-toe, filling and treating our water, transferring food onto the bike, and treating the now days-old chafing of the nether regions. Ben was suffering from saddle sores by then, and was so focused on tending to his wounds that he almost participated in an interview with the film crew whilst he was applying lube to his crotch—with priorities like that, it’s no wonder we didn’t make the tele!
The leg delivered on some fast-flowing gravel downhill sections, but like the rest of Fiji, the ups between were unforgiving. Pretty soon we were hauling ourselves up 60-degree inclines in 40-degree heat, so that time taken to refuel and prepare had definitely not been wasted. Somehow, after a leg with seemingly more gruelling hills than descents, we made it to the outer villages that would link up to the river, which would take us to the beach and finally out to the islands that the section had nominally promised a day earlier. After eight days of eating the same bars, gels, lollies and jerky on swift rotation, our shop-bought ice blocks tasted like gourmet gelatos.
After a full day in the baking hot sun, we were starting to feel the heat exhaustion set in and once we came down off the range we shade-hopped for a good 10 ks to try to keep our body temperatures under control. We had a SUP ahead of us, and then it was just an outrigger paddle across the ocean to the finish line on Mana Island. Now wasn’t the time to get complacent.
Reaching tarred roads and the first signs of urban life for the first time since we’d set out, we all picked up the pace and reached the transition to our final SUP leg. If we’d learnt anything, it was that every SUP leg was harder than we imagined, but how hard could it be to follow the river out to the sea? After keeping a good pace all day and getting out on the SUP around the time we’d anticipated, we all figured the 6pm cut off to get on the outrigger was within our reach. We could practically smell the ocean from where we were, but again a strong returning tide was determined to make us work for every metre gained, and sent us quickly backwards if we took our eye off the prize for a second. This was the first leg since the waterfall roping section where none of us were able to use our hands to get to our water, let alone replace our calories. After hours of non-stop slogging to make the river mouth, the sun was starting to rapidly close in on the horizon and our deadline—we quickly decided a portage along a beach would be quicker than paddling through the headwind into shore. This was a snap judgement, and the people at the CP obviously had their eyes on the time, too, and were madly waving at us. Our portage very quickly became a sprint with each of us carrying either the noses of two SUPs or their tails. There was something hilarious about us trying desperately to run in time with each other all while wincing at the extra exfoliation of the sand on our raw blistered feet. We hadn’t had to floor it throughout the whole race, and suddenly after more than 650kms we would have to dial our weary legs up into a sprint if we wanted to finish the race that day and not face a dark zone. It’s amazing what you can tell your swollen, infected, blistered and burned-out legs to do when there’s a checkpoint within sight and a finish line just behind it. Ben’s legs must have started to twig to that reality, as they promptly buckled out from under him as soon as he sprinted past the flag, depositing him with a spectacular crash in the sand in front of the entire volunteer and film crew.
After providing everyone at the checkpoint with a few minutes of spectacular race tension, we were set off with a boat filled with cans of softdrink and packets of chips, and paddled away to a round of excited cheers. Our legs were probably going to collapse as soon as we got out of the boat, but it didn’t matter because we were finally paddling to the finish line.
After we’d legged it down the beach, launched the boat, and hauled ourselves out through the breakers into the darkening night, the post-adrenaline slump took over. Marni was keeping pace at the front, Ben was on his usual hutting duty, Bernard was navving while paddling, and Myall was steering us through the swell from the back. The outrigger was much larger than the Camakau, and with four teammates spread across a six-seat boat, communication was a lot more difficult. As soon as the daylight was gone, we knew we were aiming for a distant light on one of the twenty Mamanuca islands, but in the rush to get onto the water before the cut-off, not everyone in the boat knew exactly which light we were heading towards, or even how far we were supposed to be paddling for. Without anything clear to focus on and her teammates now positioned far behind her, Marni was fighting back the nods, repeating song lines over and over to try to stay alert and keep time. Ben was attempting to call changeovers amongst Marni’s sleepy half-strokes, and Bernard and Myall were trying to sort out which of them was confused, as one thought we were headed towards Beachcomber Island and the other towards Etai I. As it turns out, they’re the same place, but the CP volunteer had told Myall ‘Beachcomber’ and Bernard’s map referred to it by the traditional Fijian name, Etai I. All this was confusing enough, but after about an hour of paddling a safety boat approached and informed us that we would have to disembark at Etai I/Beachcomber and remain there for the night. We wouldn’t be getting across the finish line that day after all.
We were quite confused and bleary eyed when we pulled up onshore and the Dubai team came out to meet us. We recognised them as they’d flown into Nadi from Sydney on the same plane as us, but we had no idea what they were doing on an island in the middle of the ocean, dressed like they were on a resort holiday. They’d organised food for us to eat and offered to help tend to our feet and legs, and mentioned that we’d be staying in one of the dorms. For all of us this seemed as though we’d all entered some kind of delirium where the race didn’t exist or it felt like we were doing something against the rules. It wasn’t until we got a radio call from the race officials to tell us that they’d pulled all the teams off the water for the night and that we’d get a restart at 6am, that we let ourselves relax—we’d just been lucky that we’d been close to an island with a resort! It was a very anti-climactic end to the day on which we expected to be crossing the finish line, and felt very much like we were breaking some adventure racing code or tempting fate by sleeping on a proper mattress, but we were amongst three other teams in the same position so we made the most of it, swapped stories, accepted the Dubai team’s generous hospitality and nursing skills (one of the Dubai team had been hit by a car on the very first bike leg and was in hospital, so it turned out they’d been waiting things out on the island), and went to bed. We were sharing a room with our friends from Teenek, the Mexican team, and while all of us set our alarms so we’d be on the water for the restart, not a single person woke up to their alarm in the morning. Just as Ben’s legs had buckled on the sand as soon as they could afford to, our bodies had each gotten the message that the race was over and had started to enter recovery mode—a very difficult place to return from! We woke up before Teenek but were still in a daze when we realised the UK and Costa Rican teams had already left the island at least a half hour before! Not wanting to lose any more positions, we got ready lightning fast and woke up the Mexican team before we left.
While our swollen legs were protesting, our upper bodies were raring to go and we paddled like a well-oiled machine all the way to the second-last checkpoint on Tavua Island. We’d kept ahead of Teenek and could even see the UK team ahead of us—after over a week of racing it was exciting to be pushing right to the end. After a few hours of flat-out paddling, Myall steered us with precision through a floating avenue of Eco-Challenge flags towards a finish line complete with carved totem poles and a wooden stage boasting the now-ubiquitous Eco-Challenge globe logo—though this huge finish line decal was by far the most exciting one to see! We were thrilled to spot the familiar bearded face of our good mate Brett standing at the shore of this otherworldly adventure racing paradise, ready to triumphantly stand on that big Eco-Challenge logo alongside us. Bear was waiting to give us our finishers medals, looking like a proud Scout leader after our first self-directed expedition hike—he’d been following our progress and was glad to see a bunch of Scouts finding their competitive side and standing with such satisfaction at the end. We’d made it across 671 kilometres (not including the detours!) in 210:20:10 hours, covered oceans, rivers, jungles, highlands and islands, and had a great time pushing ourselves and helping each other to take on each of the challenging moments as they came along. We couldn’t have asked for more out of a race or an environment, and the idea that we’d one day get to watch the highlights back as part of Myall’s favourite series was just the icing on a very delicious and hard-earned cake.
Vinaka vaka levu (thank you very much) / Coda
What attracted us to this crazy production was of course the unique personal experience of racing amongst our sport’s most impressive competitors across the incredible landscape of Fiji; more broadly, we were in it to show that a group of friends who grew up through Scouting together can use that modest experience to compete at the ‘World’s Toughest Race’. To simply say we’re not a team of any great sporting pedigree is to downplay the fact that for us, spending time outdoors as Scouts was really the only consistent activity that came close to a sport for us as kids and teenagers. Our experience has taught us that an active lifestyle can be developed in many ways and we don’t always have to be in competition with each other in order to build ‘toughness’. Scouting adventures (and misadventures) have reminded us over and over again that the environment itself is always the toughest opponent you can find, and if you can work out how look after yourself and others within it, then there’s a great sense of freedom that can stay with you right into your adulthood.
While it might be the world’s biggest youth organisation, being a Scout doesn’t come with an age limit. We hope our experiences will help more kids and adults see where Scouting can take them. We aren’t particularly special or talented individuals, but we’ve been incredibly fortunate to learn lots of skills and to get lots of experiences as part of a huge team—the world’s largest community, Scouting. In many ways this adventure was a goal set by some very young Scouts, many years ago, and has only been achieved through the dedication of the many volunteer leaders who imparted their knowledge and wisdom on us. We hope we can return the favour with some of our own advice, so let’s get to it: you don’t have to try to be the ‘toughest’ or even travel far to find your own Eco-Challenge experience—it just takes being prepared, finding your crew, putting one foot in front of the other, and doing your best. If you’re a Scout, you will have heard each of these said to you many times before. And in the words of the Chief Ambassador for World Scouting, and producer of the World’s Toughest Race, Bear Grylls himself, ‘Never give up!’