We arrived in Fiji five days before the race began and stayed at a hotel resort on the west side of the main island. There were some scheduled events (skills training, Camakau demonstrations, team photos, and the opening banquet), but we had lots of time to chat with other teams and dial in our equipment. I was intimidated by the caliber of the other teams. Veteran adventure racers, ultramarathoners, triathletes…) It was hard to hang on to the hard-won confidence my team had built together, but we just followed our to-do list and tried not to think too hard about the race ahead. For an introduction to our team, check out this article.
9/9 – Drive to Camp Start
We woke up early and drove to Drabuta Village, the SE side of the main island. We were some of the first to arrive and got our camp set up, front and center. We had a few hours to ourselves, and during this time, Mark Burnett came around and talked to each of the teams. He was friendly and encouraging. I appreciated the personal touch.
That evening, we had the opening ceremonies. The local tribe along with several members of the Fijian government formally welcomed us with a traditional kava ceremony, dancing, and a feast. We all went to bed early, despite knowing that we wouldn’t sleep. As with any big race or adventure, we were grateful for the alarm clock so we didn’t have to pretend to be sleeping anymore, except Katie, she can sleep anytime, anywhere.
9/10 – Race start
We woke up at 4:15am and got ready, not knowing what the initial discipline would be. The teams gathered and we walked in a long procession for 30min, 5-6 people wide, along gravel and dirt roads in the dark. As the first light began to creep onto the horizon, the organizers had us stop and wait near a large field.
Once the sun came up, we were led through the field up to a podium half-encircled by wooden flagpoles. There was a large board, concealed by canvas on the stage, where we waited for what we then knew would be the ceremonial race start. Eventually Bear arrived and talked to the group without the cameras rolling. The sea of competitors mulled around, some applying sunscreen, repacking, or just anxiously chatting. Everyone was scared, but we wanted to get on with it.
When the filming began, there were drones buzzing about, and a helicopter flying in low to catch the scene of Bear unveiling the course map for the first time. It was then that we learned we’d be traversing the entire main Island of Fiji from SE to NW, and that we’d be starting on the river in traditional Fijian sailing outrigger canoes called Camakus (pronounced Thamakaus).
We received our first Expedition Guidebook and maps spanning the distance to Camp 1. The cutoff time to reach Camp 1 was just over two and a half days away.
When the teams were staged, the conch horn blared and the water erupted as 264 paddles took their first strokes. As you might imagine, there was a good bit of jostling as the 66 boats took off together. Two teams capsized in the first minute, but recovered quickly.
In a few minutes, everyone had room to paddle and we settled into an easy paddling pace for the 9km distance to the ocean, where we’d be allowed to lift sails.
Once we reached the ocean, we were disappointed to find very little wind. Checkpoint 1 was roughly 18 miles away and we’d hoped to sail most of that. We set the sail anyway, positioning it so we could still paddle, and tried to enjoy the next few hours of calm, windless seas in the oppressive heat.
Our team reached CP1, where we had a short break and got our first signature in the Eco Challenge Passport, which would provide proof that we actually made it to every checkpoint. At that point the place we were in was somewhere in the low 40s, but feeling great. On the next stretch, we were actually able to catch some wind which was a huge treat. The boats we used were made especially for the race and sailed remarkably well, although sailing an outrigger canoe is very different from a small sailboat, especially when sailing upwind.
Upon reaching CP2, we got busy plotting the course for the first hiking section on our map. There were several other teams there and we all took off just before sunset. I hadn’t known what the dynamic would feel like when traveling with/next to other teams, but most teams were very friendly and happy to discuss the route. The other teams in this section of the pack would become familiar faces over the next 11 days. Team True North, Khukuri Warriors, Team Endure, The Mad Mayrs, and a few others would play leapfrog with us throughout the race.
The Hike on Ovalau Island
The first part of the hike was easy. We traveled along a gravel road, chatting with nearby teams, but once we got into the jungle the hiking became more difficult. It was still on a trail, but it was steep, and there were small red roots that were especially slippery. It was impossible to stay cool. Despite it being night, the temps were over 80°f with high humidity and there was no breeze in the thick forest. We had an exhausted, slaphappy energy at this point, and we didn’t get lost. All in all it was a pretty great hike.
Checkpoint 4 was at the summit of the hike and we stopped for some foot care. The photographers were taking pictures of everyone’s feet, and this is where my first appearance in the show happened (while I was powdering my feet). I think this was where I realized that, no matter how hard we tried, our feet would just be wet for the entire race. That turned out to be true.
On the hike back down, the adrenaline began to wear off and we got sleepy for the first time (another thing that would be constant for the next 10 days). Rather than sleep, we got back into the boat and took off toward the first medallion. There was no moon, but the stars were bright and navigating wasn’t difficult at first, but clouds rolled in and the darkness became suffocating. Aside from a few small lights from other boats, the only thing we could see was the glow of sea sponges and bioluminesce in the wake of our paddle strokes. At one point, I was hallucinating that we were paddling along with a brick wall just feet from the side of our boat. I remember reaching out to touch it. Obviously there wasn’t anything there.
We decided to pull up on the nearest island, take a 30 minute nap, and wait for enough light to get our bearings. The first light of dawn came and we found that the next checkpoint was just around the corner, not 200 yards away.
9/11 – Day 2
Diving for the first medallion was quick and I felt re-energized from the quick dip in the ocean. We could see a storm system in the far distance, so sailed/paddled back to the main island as quickly as possible. The next CP is where we traded our sailing canoe for stand up paddle boards. As with the previous transition point, there were many teams there, and everyone was struggling with low energy. There was a group of locals playing guitar and singing, but I was too tired to enjoy it. Team Mad Mayrs was kind enough to give me a packet of instant coffee which really saved me. Pumping up our SUP boards in the heat (it was really really hot) was torture, but we moved quickly, wanting to get away from the ocean before the storm came in.
This SUP section seemed to go on forever. At one point, the sky opened up and poured rain for over an hour. Even with rain coats on, we were just soaked through. As the sun set, I became increasingly worried that we’d taken a wrong turn somewhere, but we eventually came to the mountain bike transition in the village of Sote. The village chief led us to an 8×8 barge that crossed the river leading to the next CP where we’d transition to mountain bikes. There, we were informed that the course had been closed due to the heavy rainfall and they’d let us know when we could continue, but that it wouldn’t be before 6AM the next morning.
We ended up sleeping in a house with 16 other racers, all spread out over the floor. Most rural houses in Fiji have a similar layout. There is a main room, with little or no furniture, a kitchen off the side, a covered porch, and a toilet in the back. People gather in the main room, sitting on the floor, and everyone is welcome. We did our best to be courteous guests, although we had wet clothes hanging all over the porch
Despite having not slept for 36hrs, sleep did not come easily. I remember laying on the hard floor with only a space blanket wide awake for hours.
9/12 – Day 3
At 6AM, they let us continue the race and we took off on our mountain bikes, headed for Camp 1. There is very little flat terrain in Fiji. It mostly consists of short, steep hills, which makes for challenging biking. On the steeper hills, we’d get off and walk our bikes. More than one time, I couldn’t unclip from my pedals fast enough and would just fall over at a standstill. If you’ve ever done it, you know how much it hurts your body and your pride.
In the middle of the bike section, there was a small river crossing and on either side of the river was a long stretch of “hike-a-bike”. This is a friendly enough term that adventure racers use to describe terrain where you have to push or carry your bike. This particular section was thick mud on steep hills. It was very slow going and we helped each other wherever we could, but by the end of it we were spent and filthy.
Shortly after the mud, we got back on a dirt road and entered a village to a hero’s greeting. The locals gave us fresh coconut water and had tubs of water so we could rinse our feet and bikes. I must have shaken 50 or more hands, most of them excited children. It was incredible, but we couldn’t stay to enjoy it as the cutoff time was only a few hours away. The remainder of the bike was fairly simple, with one more river crossing by boat.
We arrived at Camp 1 just 45 minutes before the cutoff and were greeted by Charley (our TAC, team assistant crew). I remember the relief on his face when we rolled in. We proceeded to eat everything in sight and bliss out in the shade of our tent awning. Honestly, I don’t remember how long we stayed there, but I do remember laying in the river for a while, unmoving, wondering what the hell I’d gotten myself into.
Please feel free to leave a comment with any questions. And stay tuned for part 2 (Camp 1 to Camp 2)