Peak Adventure Allies
XPD 2021 Race Report
- John Evans
- Wayne Davey
- Kelsey Harvey
- Rick Whitehouse
Our journey to XPD started with a random conversation between John and Andrew Evans (no relation).
‘What do you think about doing XPD? 500km over six days?’
‘Sure,’ said Andrew.
‘Sure,’ said Wayne without hesitation when the same scenario was put to him shortly afterwards.
Great. That’s three out of four! And so began the search for a fourth team member. Fortunately John had remembered a post from XPD race director Craig Bycroft about a female from Qld seeking an XPD team. And so, like a scene reminiscent from an ‘80’s dating show, emails were exchanged and we were put in touch with Kelsey. A couple of tele-conferences and a run around at Explore Gippsland Adventure Race (in frigid conditions) later we had a team.
Four weeks out and training progressing well on most fronts (yes, Wayne – moving house counts as training!) we ran into a minor hiccup – Andrew was unfortunately unable to race. After a moment of minor panic Rick signed up to the expedition on four week’s notice (thanks Rick)! Now we were set. All we need to do was dodge the unpredictable Covid lockdowns (more on that later) and get to Palm Cove in time to start the race.
L-R: Wayne, Rick, Kelsey, John
The first serious pre-race move came on the Thursday the week before the race. In a dimly lit, secluded corner of the Fountain Gate shopping centre two vehicles approached each other and parked. Engines extinguished and lights turned off, two men got out and opened their respective car doors in anticipation of an exchange. Thank God Wayne was driving to Palm Cove (to visit family along the way) – he was able to take three XPD-style trunks full of race gear in his car relieving John of having to book them on a plane!
Pre-race was also a time of picking the brains of some experienced adventure racers. Part of the beauty of the adventure racing community is the willingness of elite racers to share their knowledge and experiences. Without you we would have been lost.
It wasn’t long until it was time to travel. While Wayne was safely in North Queensland, Rick and I were still in Victoria and a further Covid lockdown appeared imminent. Would we be able to get out? As it turned out – yes; by the skin of our teeth. As we sat in the airport on Thursday waiting for our flight word filtered through of a lockdown starting at midnight that night. A barrage of messages were streaming through cyberspace as Victorian racers checked in with each other on their ‘escape status’. All we needed now was to ensure Kelsey could get out of Ipswich where there was also some uncertainty. Thankfully, by Friday afternoon we were all in Palm Beach acclimatising to the heat and humidity. In an effort to trick his brain John kept repeating: ‘Have I told you I love humidity Wayne?’.
Half the battle of XPD is getting the starting line and deciphering the race logistics planner so you can pack all your food and equipment in the right box so you have it available at the right transition area (TA). It’s no small feat and took us the best part of Friday afternoon and Saturday to complete.
Race registration saw us having to complete a navigation check, first aid test, race rule refresher, YB (‘Yellow Brick’) tracker instructions, how to use the safety ropes that would be required on the abseil – and sit through a highly entertaining, yet slightly daunting, presentation of all the North Queensland fauna and flora that could kill, maim or injure us during the race.
A welcome to country and opening briefing down by the beach, followed by a pre-race dinner and all that was left was a nervous sleep before the Sunday lockdown and race start.
Sunday morning arrived. Our gear was packed and pre-race lockdown started. This type of lockdown leaves Covid restrictions for dead. Two hours, more maps than I can count. Routes to plan, distances to calculate, declination lines to draw, descriptions to annotate, deciding what to contact for protection; we soon settled into the pressure cooker atmosphere and slowly digesting the enormity of the journey ahead of us – equal parts trepidation and excitement.
Times up. Boxes have to be weighed and packed, and we have to make our way back to the beach for the start. Two team members to complete the ocean paddle (Rick/John) and two to undertake the coasteer (Kelsey/Wayne) – meeting up again at TA1.
All the checkpoints were on the paddle, and while Rick and John kept relatively cool (including one unintentional, side-on-to-swell, mid-ocean dismount) on a windy and swell-affected paddle, Kelsey and Wayne found no respite from the hot midday sun as they scampered over rocks and shuffled along sandy beaches.
‘Hey Wayne, have I told you I love the humidity?’
Together again at T1, leg 2 was a straight forward out-and-back trekking loop that led us to some great waterfall scenery. As daylight started to ebb away leg 3 was a climb out of the narrow coastal plain towards to the tablelands. While the light was fading the heat and humidity were still taunting us – soon to take their toll.
About half way up the 10km climb Wayne had to pull over, his engine overheating courtesy of the first leg coasteer. Hunched over on the road side, Wayne’s previously ingested peaches did their own ‘out-and-back loop’. With Kelsey wheeling his bike and John carrying his pack we continued to make forward progress – albeit by foot. We knew Wayne would come good, we just need to give him time.
We reached a point where Wayne was (just) ok to get back on his bike, and after a few false starts John and Wayne settled into pattern of towing during the uphills and flats. We clicked off the next few CPs, running into and swapping spots with other teams. We were then presented with nav choice of either going down Bump Rd with its undulations and unknown road quality or take the slightly longer main road route with better roads. Our choice of the main road route paid off as we entered TA3 ahead of one of the teams who we were with but chose the shorter route. And we arrived in time to grab a spot on the 11.00am transition bus – one of our primary early race goals.
Off the bus and with a quick stop in TA4 we were off on the 35km ‘short trek’ around 11.30pm. To date we had been on track with our planned timing. We had pegged this leg at around 15hours; it turned out to be a 24-hour, very hot slog. It started well, where despite some of the marked trails not really being there, we found CP9 and made a start to the difficult CP10. During the early morning we were crossing a dry creek bed when we saw some ‘eyes’ in the creek bed in the distance reflecting in our headlamps. The ever curious Kelsey wanted to know what it was, and with torch blazing approached the ‘creature’. As it turned out it was another team who had pulled off the main track for a sleep. Oops. Sorry folks! It wasn’t long before we were also pulling over on the side of the track (around 4.30am) to bank our first two hours of sleep.
The night shall not deter us
With daylight around all too quickly we started the hunt for CP10. There was no direct route, and as the day quickly heated up we scrambled up and down creeks and hillsides. Eventually we ran into another team and with a combined brains trust agreed on the direction to CP10. When we arrived it was great to see a collection of other teams already there. The next section, was far more straight forward with some further rock scrambling and finally some fire trail to follow to CP11 and the ropes section.
The abseil approach
The inclusion of the abseil here was sheer genius. As we waited for teams in front to make their decent we cooled off in the refreshing water of the upper pond. Then it was our turn to abseil down the waterfall, with the rope set at just the right length to drop you into to the larger, lower water hole at the bottom of the abseil. On a stinking hot day this was a piece of paradise in the middle of the dry and barren outback.
Down we go
Bladders now refilled from the pool at the bottom of the abseil, the way out was via a rope-attached cliff scramble. With helmets, buoyancy vests and climbing harnesses discarded it was back to the trek – with John now on tow. The heat was taking its toll again. CP12 – tick. CP13 – that was going to be more challenging as darkness fell. Once again we ran into another team and shared nav strategies – eventually finding the flag further up the hill than expected. Trek done…aside from the 7km journey back to TA. As we followed the path below the electricity lines, lack of sleep started playing with our brains, first with Kelsey momentarily thinking we had gone 7km in the wrong direction and then with us contemplating whether we had gone too far and were in the out of bounds area on the other side of the TA. As it turned out we were close enough to TA to now take the main road back to our next stop. It was now 11.30pm. It had been an unforgiving, physical 24 hours.
Hot and dry hiking
It was a short and fitful sleep in TA5 before a 3.30am start on the Mitchell River paddle. In reality the start of the paddle was a euphemism for paddle, get out, drag the boat over rocks, get back in, paddle, get out and lift the boat over a fallen tree, get back in – rinse and repeat. The first few kilometres took several hours before we hit the Mitchell proper and, in the early morning sun, made good headway through various rapids and stiller sections of the river. Alas, unlike other teams, we didn’t see any freshwater crocodiles. We were thankful that helmets had now become compulsory for this leg as there were plenty of fallen trees and low hanging branches to limbo under that could leave a sizable dent in your head if care was not taken.
While most of the rapids were fun to navigate, the river was littered with sweeper and strainers (fallen trees and objects – above and below water) waiting to catch us out. One particular rapid saw both boats get caught up in thick fallen branches. Kelsey was knocked out of our boat with a ‘thunk’ into a branch and John was pinned against a tree. Thankfully we both were able to escape safely, yet it was a timely reminder of the power of the river.
At some point of the race it was expected that the course would demand a ‘sacrifice’ – it’s hard to go through six days and 500km without something going wrong. For us that sacrifice was to the river gods. Around the same time as Kelsey and John were ejected, Rick sacrificed half his paddle to the river (turned out he wasn’t the only one!). It was great teamwork between Rick and Wayne to finish the paddle with only 3 paddle blades.
Again, it was great to see other teams at TA5 as we prepped for the MTB/Trek ‘Gold’ leg – a series of eight CPs around Hurricane Station where teams collected small bags of dirt they would later use to pan for gold. Highlights of this leg included a golden sunrise at CP M3, Kelsey stepping on a snake of unidentified species and John finding a speck of gold from his bag of dirt.
Sunrise at CPM3
This leg also spawned the theory that, when approached, Brahmin cows always run left to right across the road; they don’t escape left into the bush if they are already on the left, and if they are on the right they don’t cross to the left. This theory was borne out in every livestock encounter – go figure. We are accepting contributions to our scientific paper from other teams ☺.
Back at TA it was great to again interact with other teams – although we were disheartened to hear that two members of Team Woohoo had been placed in Covid quarantine as a result of them being on the same plane as a passenger who later tested positive. That’s a harsh way to have your race ended.
Fed and watered, and with another creek crossing to get back to the main trail, we kicked off the 86km bike leg. While other teams had been baking under the outback sun on the bike leg, we had endured the sun mostly on our trekking legs, this meant most of this ride (and all our rides) was in the dusk and dark. While we missed the daytime scenery, the escarpment silhouetted by the sunset was stunning. We ran into Warrior Women at the first water point then saw Mountain Designs Wild Women, who had had a major bike mechanical, at the cemetery CP. Approaching midnight we slowly pedalled into the Kingborough TA – complete with shower (though I don’t recall any of us using it!). TA was crowded, with many teams still waiting on their bike boxes from early afternoon.
We were now at a point where we needed to strategically miss selected CPs if we were to be a chance to stay on the full course. We laid out the five maps that comprised the 60km trek (holy cow it was long) hoping to see a short way through…but the course setters were ahead of us. There was no short cut to be had! Regardless, we committed to going forward as a team to get the best result we could. No shortcuts: The 60km trek maps laid out In the early dawn we set out on the long trek. What a journey it was. From old mining machinery remains to CPs located on ‘dodgy’ saddles (looking at you CP25) to the increasing frequency of GastroStop dosing, the trek had it all. Caught between CP26 and the notorious CP27 as last light approached, Kelsey put on the afterburners and the three blokes did our best to keep up as we sought to get as far along as we could in difficult terrain before darkness fell.
From speaking to other teams and reading race reports, several teams were challenged by CP27. For us time was starting to become a factor and water was also starting to run low. After a robust team discussion with differing but equally valid views, John made the final call to use the YB around 4.00am to get assistance for CP27. As it turned out, we were only 500m due south of the CP.
We had taken a brief sleep on the hillside around midnight – a break which provided another race highlight. As we were all in various stages of slumber Kelsey sat bold upright exclaiming: ‘My God, I have lost the maps’. To which Rick, now awake, calmly replied – ‘It’s okay, I’ve got a second set’. And with that, Kelsey’s sleep persona was satisfied, and she went back to sleep.
The race was now on, not only on to find the two elevated CPs on the Slaty range, but more urgently to find water. The sun continued to be unrelenting; the unseasonal heat increasing our need for fluids, while our hydration bladders bordered on empty. It was rumoured there was water in the Mitchell River, which we had to cross before climbing to CP28 and CP29.
We cut across some parched scrub on a direct course to the river. It was a long 45 minutes or so. As we shuffled down the bank into the riverbed we looked up and down the water course. Nothing but dust. Not a puddle. Not a sign of mud. Nothing. ‘Oh shit!’ we thought collectively. We sat down and took stock. John was out. Wayne and Rick had a few hundred mL each and Kelsey a bit more than that. There was no turning back, and there were still many hours of trekking ahead in the suffocating heat.
With no alternative but to forge ahead we climbed out of the water course on our planned route to climb the ridge ahead. We had only hiked a few minutes before Wayne cried out. He had spied a somewhat dodgy water hole. Not clear – but not black like some we had seen. This was it – we filled our bladders and added extra sterilisation tablets (and more electrolytes to kill the taste). The relief was palpable. Spirits rose (as much as the temperature would allow) and we forged on. It was only another few minutes before we stumbled upon the real Mitchell River. The barren water course from 10 minutes ago had only been a creek. Indeed, there were large pools of water here, but we were already loaded up and we kept going.
The climb up the ridge was both beautiful and brutal. We were thankful for all the teams that had come before us, creating a clear trail for us to follow (and scatter the snakes we were sure lurked in the long grass). Indeed, we had two snake sightings along the way. Views were stunning, and when the breeze picked it brought brief but welcome relief.
Which snake number is this?
Down the other side it was now a straight 10ish kilometres along the road to the next TA. The sun was setting and while our feet were causing us grief it was good to know that while we were not going to be able to continue the full course, completing the short course was a certainty (barring any mishap).
The climb was worth the views
So, the five of us travelled down the road to another cemetery CP (what’s with the death theme?). Yes – there were five in the team. Our sleep deprived brains had convinced us there was someone else with us – and he was christened ‘Jimmy’. Indeed, Jimmy had been with us for a while now and was an integral member of the team. And – here’s where it gets spooky – as we approached Mount Molloy cemetery in the darkness of the bush early evening, we had to find a CP that was located at the gravestone of one James Venture Mulligan. Jimmy was with us indeed!
Why did the coastal taipan cross the road?
With our feet well and truly trashed, the last couple of km into TA8 seemed interminable, but we arrived knowing we had one bike leg ahead of us. We were going to finish XPD!
It was great to again run into the Mountain Designs Wild Women, who had just returned from a quick dinner at the local café and highly recommended we make the same stop. As we were exchanging stories Eibhlin looked at me (John) and said ‘you look like you need a hug’ – and proceeded to embrace me. For me this is quintessentially what the adventure racing community is about.
Bike assembled, clothes changed, packs…well….packed, we hopped on our bikes in search of the café. Real food was going to be a treat. Except, by the time we got there the café was closed. Damn.This was the one expedition race experience we would miss out on – pigging out at a local eatery. Alas – a reason to return.
Committed to have a meal before the final bike leg, we returned to TA and dug out some of our trusty Radix and Back Country freeze dried dinner; even doing a bit of flavour bartering. A hot meal accompanied by a bottle of Coke (the pub was open) and we were ready to go, heading back in part along the roads that had brought us here many days before.
It was a weary ride through the night, requiring a 15-minute power nap in order to prevent us falling off our bikes. We were close. So close. But not close enough. One final test of mental stamina and pain threshold endurance. While the full course teams had to run/hike down the steep track that led from the plantation to the coast, we had to hike-a-bike/occasionally ride down the same track. The warm glow of expectant achievement fading under screaming feet that just wanted to stop. Classic adventure racing course setting!
It felt surreal riding back around urban life. Streetlights. Traffic lights. Cars. Houses. The streets were empty – after all is was approaching 5.00am. For close to six days we had lived in our own bubble, giving scant thought to the world outside the race – to Covid and lockdowns.
The last two CPs safely clicked off, we rode back to Race HQ. After five days and 20 hours of racing (and eight snake encounters) we reached the finish line and were greeted by race director Louise. Wow. What a moment. We did it. Nine legs and 479km after we left the Palm Cove beach on an epic journey of individual self discovery, learning how to support each other and what it took to make it through as a team, we were XPD finishers.
As we sat under the finish arch, champagne, and pizza in hand, it was hard to comprehend the enormity of the achievement for a team of expedition race novices. It felt good. A mid-race social media post summed it up nicely: ‘They weren't the fastest team on the course, but their navigation was tidy and their pace steady. It was a good performance when other teams around them skipped checkpoints.’
We made it!
The finish line was made even sweeter having others there to greet us at such an unsociable hour: Nathan (Kelsey’s partner) and Liz Dornom and Shelley Bambrook who had been monitoring our final journey through the race tracker and checking their clocks to ensure they didn’t miss us. Thank you, guys – it meant a lot that you were there.
As an inexperienced team we are very grateful to the many people who helped us make it to the start line: Jarad Kohlar, Rob Preston, Liz Dornom, Bern Dornom, Shelley Bambrook, Myall Quint, Gus Rodwell, Kathryn Morland, Josh Street (for fixing Kelsey’s bike on the night before the race), all the crew at Peak Adventure Paddle Squad for their support.
Special mention to Andrew Evans who was part of our original XPD but several weeks out was unable to make it. More adventures to come Andy.
I don’t think this will be our last.