Team Merrell successfully defended their Expedition Africa adventure racing title, with an impressive win, finishing nearly 11hrs ahead of the nearest rivals, Team Red Ants. After 65 hours of racing – and just 3 hours sleep – Team Merrell crossed the finish line at the race headquarters in Port Alfred at 11.40pm on Wednesday the 9th May.
The second edition of Expedition Africa, now part of the World Adventure Racing Series, was set in the picturesque Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. Race organiser, Stephan Muller said, “the beauty of the surroundings is in its rawness and provides some really challenging terrain that would certainly test the 13 teams who started”. The range of stages included: a few arduous treks along empty beaches and through dense river valley’s; some long undulating mountain biking sections; estuarine and river kayaking; and a big abseil off an 80-meter high railroad bridge.
The race began at first light on Monday the 7th at the toposcope in Bathurst, the highest viewpoint affording the competitors a convenient 360 degree view of the 500km race route ahead. Team Merrell, under the experienced navigation of captain Graham ‘Tweet’ Bird showed their class as South Africa’s premier adventure racing team by assuming an early lead with some shrewd navigation. A decision to take a hidden hiking path saw them rapidly gain 20 minutes on Team Red Ants by the first transition and it was to be the last time Team Merrell came close to any of the competition throughout the 500km race. The lead continued to stretch with each leg of the race, especially the kayak sections where Team Merrell dominated on the water. These sections also provided some special memories, with team member Donovan ‘Tiny’ Sims, who was racing in his local province, commenting there were a few “once in a lifetime” experiences getting up and close with elephants browsing at the river’s edge as they powered past. The Team worked hard to widen the gap in the first half of the race, as Team Merrell’s late replacement, Craig ‘lightie’ Carter-Brown explained, “we wanted to get out of sight of our competitors and thus out of mind”.
12 hours into the race and Team Merrell had already completed four of the thirteen legs. A rapid midnight transition at the Bushman’s river mouth, saw the team get onto their bikes for the first time. Team Merrell’s female powerhouse, Tatum “Hobbit” Prins remarked that the bike legs ‘went really well’ allowing a consistent pace and for Team Merrell to further extend their lead. By the midway 5hr compulsory stop, reached at 10.23am on Tuesday the team had 250km under their belt and a convincing 6hr lead. With rested legs and full stomachs the Team set off at dusk on the longest mountain bike leg of the race, which took them 128km from the inland game reserves, across the historical Ciskei region of South Africa and back down to the coast. Riding under full moon conditions the Team arrived at Hamburg in just over 9hrs for the final kayak, having cemented their lead to almost 8hrs. Team Merrell set off at sunrise on Wednesday for the penultimate leg, a grueling 60km trek consisting of long beach sections and technical navigation through dense thicket vegetation. More, the ‘sunshine coast’ was living up to it’s name as temperatures soared on the trek in the unforgiving thorny valleys. After 12 hours on their feet Team Merrell clocked into the final transition, blistered but focused with the finish in sight. An undulating final 47km mountain bike under a full moon saw them complete the last stage in under three hours to a hero’s welcome for the superb victory. Team Merrell’s captain ‘Tweet’ humbly reminisced at the finish line that the ‘true heroes’ were the back marker teams who like Team Merrell were pushing themselves to their limits but with many more hours and days on the course.
Team Merrell’s victory at Expedition Africa secures them a place at the Adventure Racing World Championships later this year in France, where they have the chance to try improve on last year’s 7th placing.