Terra Incognita, 5 days non-stop, 500km race (2006)

Some friends have been asking what exactly an adventure race is, so I’m putting up an account of a race my buddy Kong (Naval Diving Unit – think Singapore’s answer to the Navy SEALS) and myself did in Croatia in 2006.

Written by: Kong Eu Yen

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Race Start: 20 Sep 06, 0915hr

The racers were filled with anxiety at the start line after an hour’s bus ride from the race accommodation to an unmarked trail head backed by the Velebit mountains. Aah, the early morning starts, butterflies in stomach and restless anticipation of highly charged competitors in the dark.

When race director Simun Cimerman blew the whistle to signal the start of Terra Incognita 2006, the 24 teams surged past the imaginary start line for a 7km trail run up to the rock outcrop that would see teams performing a 100m abseil to the bottom.

Our team settled into the middle of the pack, behind 10 teams and maintaining a steady pace all the way to the top. The climb was short but steep and the view was breathtaking. There was a queue at the top as there was only one abseil lane so we had a 90 minute wait at the top of rock. Smartly, we found a place sheltered from the wind and sun so we comfortably recharged and refuelled for the 60km biking stage ahead of us. Also chatted with the French teams that were behind us.

Rappel

The rappel was quick and easy, as all rappels should be as long as equipment is set up safely. The organizers had gotten some very competent riggers to set up the descending lines with multiple safeties and the whole set-up couldn’t look safer. We looped the dynamic cords into our figure-of-eight descenders and slid down the vertical rock face. The friction generated made the ropes burn and I was careful not to touch the descender lest I got burnt. Still, once when my neck strayed too close, I got love bites from the rope as a reminder.

60km Biking: 20 Sep 1230-1730hr

Once we hit bottom, we slide off the ropes and proceeded to run downhill for a 200m descend down a grassy scree slope and a short run along a dirt road to our waiting mountain bikes. As only our bikes were transported to the checkpoint and our race trunks were not  present, we had earlier taped our biking cleats to our bike frames. Tearing the securing duct tape off, we changed to our cleats before jumping on our steeds for the 60km biking leg.

The first part of the bike leg was about 20km of biking on both sealed and unsealed roads. On hindsight, this was the easy part, we rode in each other’s slipstream towards the mountain range. Midway through, Lien’s bike showed symptoms of something amiss, he was feeling a considerable amount of grinding while pedalling his cranks and we stopped at a junction to investigate the cause. Upon close inspection, we realised that one of the securing bolts on his rear suspension axle had come loose and was pressing against the innermost front chainring. Thus, the considerable amount of friction and grinding he was feeling. We took 10 minutes to identify the problem and screw the bolt back into place securely. By this time, one team had overtaken us. Nevertheless, we were glad that we could troubleshoot and rectify the problem relatively quickly as it could have resulted in critical failure if left unsolved – especially in the later technical downhill sections.

The entrance to the mountain range began with a long uphill ascend up a macadam road. He race director had earlier warned us not to stray off the designated course for this section as there were still active minefields left over from the Yugoslav war. Sure enough, as we cycled up the hill, we passed by signboards that warned of minefields. More poignantly, there were roadside memorials to fathers and sons who were killed on those roads during the war. It was a grim reminder of the rich and troubled history of this beautiful country – one that many Croatians are happy to see the back off.

Midway up the hill, Lien took my running shoes from my pack to lighten my load as my back was aching terribly. Gritting my teeth and trying not to look at the odometer and guess how much more climbing we had to do, I was relieved when we finally hit the top of the hill and the race officials marking the race passport directed us onto the single track through the forest and downhill!

Speeding through the gentle downhill, we were making good progress until I skidded while rounding a tight right downhill. My rear tire slipped on the loose gravel track and the bike slipped away from under me. Thankfully, my fall off the bike did not leave me with serious injury as I rolled off during the fall. So I only sustained a bruised left knee and right buttock – injuries that fortunately did not adversely affect the rest of my race.

So I got up, re-composed myself and we were off again. The last part of the bike leg was also the most treacherous and difficult. Considering that it was almost all downhill, the difficulty was unexpected but the dangers were frighteningly real. We commenced by having to push our bikes up a long and steep rocky hill and most of the cyclists except the best could ride up. After a laborious climb, we mounted our bikes for what we thought would be an easy ride downhill and to the first transition area at the start of the river kayak. How deceived we were!

The downhill was not only long and curving, which was fine by us. More ominously, the path was not loose gravel or dirt, it was just rocks – fist and head sized rocks made up the cycling trail while large boulders with razor sharp edges perched on one side waiting for us to lose control of our steeds and slam into them. On the opposite side of the trail, a steep drop off populated by similar boulders all the way down awaited anyone foolish enough to tackle them. Literally trapped between a rock and a hard place, we made downhill as fast as our guts and confidence would take us – which was not as fast as some of the other more fearless and peerless riders. I even dismounted and walked some stretches when I doubted my ability to reach the next curve without seriously hurting myself.

[Lien’s note: That was literally the most scary episode of my biking life – I was almost out of control in that first stretch, and if I had lost it then, I would have been a tangled wreck at the bottom of the slope. It was probably only 30s, but it felt like much longer]

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Biking section before the real scary bits! 

When we did ride, it was the most strenuous downhill cycling I had done. As the incline was steep, speed built up quickly. In order to make a controlled descent, I had my brakes half on all the way down. The incessant and extreme pounding that the rocks gave us exhausted our upper bodies – our forearms and shoulders trembled from muscle fatigue after the rocky downhill section. Past the last rock and back onto tarmac, we made the last 15km to the river transition area fairly quickly.

35km Kayak:  20-21 Sep, 1730-0230hr

Reaching the kayak transition area as one of the last few teams, we made the change to our kayaking gear quickly and were on our way to catch as much sunlight as possible before sunset. This kayak leg was consisted of a river section before an open sea section. The first part of the kayak down river was smooth and easy, punctuated by a few grade one and two rapids.

There were two waterfall sections where we had to walk down the rocks while the race officials pushed the rigid plastic kayaks down the waterfalls for us to receive and carry on below. There were also two large drops which we took in the kayaks – one an exhilarating 2m drop that was the start of a series of 4 rapids. The other was a 3m waterfall drop that was the highlight of the kayak leg. As we went down the drop, the

kayak’s nose pointed vertically downwards, leaving me standing upright on top of Lien as we crashed into the churning rapids below. When the kayak hit the bottom after a few moments when time seemed to slow, it bounced upward, spitting both

Kayak of us into the chilly water for the first

 

time. Despite getting wet, it was well worth taking the waterfall in the kayak instead of walking it down. On hindsight, we would have done it no different!

 

 

We hit the midway point of the river kayak at the bridge just after sunset. We disembarked to refill our water bladders for the remainder of our journey through the dark night. Chatting with the race officials while we refilled our water from a drinks stall, we were reminded of the excellent atmosphere that permeates every adventure race we have taken part in. One where competition is secondary and the spirit of adventure is the primary driver.

We continued our kayak in the murky night, tucked in between towering canyon walls on either side. The surreal canyons finally gave way to a wide expanse of darkness as we emerged into the Adriatic Sea. Our next stop was the beach front of Hotel Alan – our race accommodation. We kayaked through the Velebit Channel, passing under two bridges before we hit the coast where the hotel was located. We took a short break here, with a photo stop. Something strangely reassuring about being on solid ground. In the middle of the night – it was surreal how calm and beautiful it all was – a situation that would soon change.

Kayak2

As there were numerous small islands that were not reflected in the relatively small scale map we were given to navigate with, we stopped to ask a local fisherman the directions in German which I spoke. Not only did we give us good directions, he even offered us a very welcome slug of red wine on a cold, dark night in the middle of the Velebit Channel!

[Lien’s note: Just think – 3am, in the middle of the calm sea, trying to speak with a kindly gentleman and drinking red-wine. Great memory!]

After another half of hour of paddling, we finally saw the rooftop of Alan hotel with its bright neon signboard standing out in the dark clear night. Another hour of paddling finally brought us to the rocky shoal in front of the hotel where we hauled our kayak ashore and moved as quickly as possible to get out of the chilly wind. At this point, we were three hours behind the race leaders. The transition area was on the driveway in front of the hotel entrance so it was actually a luxury since there was shelter from the wind, fluorescent lighting and plenty of civilisation all around.

We took our first warm meal of the race – life-saving Mountain House freeze dried food that Lien lovingly prepared. We took a longer than expected half an hour to get out of our sticky wet clothes and settle down in toasty dry clothes to eat (far too long on hindsight). We ate quickly and got to bed for an hour so that we could set off before sunrise. We got up at 0430hr and pushed off along the tarmac road to the Velebit mountain range for the 30km trekking leg, with three teams behind us still resting at the transition area.

30km Trek: 21 Sep, 0430-2330hr

Lien was half asleep as we walked along the 2km along the tarmac road to the trail head at the mountain range. Our first introduction to the infamous rocks of Croatia started abruptly once we hit the trail. We entered a canyon and were clambering over rocks the entire morning as we quickly ascended the mountain range. We hit the first check point at the entrance of a cave without difficulty. Unfortunately, we missed an important turn-off that led up a hill, walking on instead into the ravine. The valley ravine we walked on gave way to streams and before long we were walking in an ankle deep stream. Lien surmised that we probably made a mistake after comparing the hill features and slopes that towered around us. We backtracked for an hour and located the elusive turn off that had evaded us.

[Lien’s note: I fell asleep and walked off the trail and fell onto the soft slope beneath. This was just a short 1m drop, but if I had done it much further on, it was a very steep and at least a 2storey high drop; definitely one with physically damaging consequences!]

Trek2

We stopped to wring our socks dry before making the steep ascend up the hill into a forest trail. Before long we were on a ridge line overlooking the same ravine we were trudging through earlier. Looking at the route traced out on our map, we would be  pending the rest of the day walking along ridge lines and making a circuitous route to almost the same location where we started.

 

 

At first, 30km didn’t seem long to us, and we expected to finish our trek comfortably before nightfall. But we had underestimated both the terrain and the difficulty of navigation in these parts. The terrain was dominated by rock features everywhere and any climbing was laborious and treacherous. Rocks were also strewn all over the land so we couldn’t walk much faster without risking sprains and strains to our lower limbs. We were totally unfamiliar with this kind of terrain.

 

Secondly, navigation for the trekking legs was by following the trails in the national park reflected on the maps given to us. The problem with this was that the trails were poorly maintained and marked at certain stretches, forcing us to search for us to search for the correct markers before we could proceed further. We had to be careful not to follow the wrong markers too – which we did on a number of occasions. Therefore, navigation was not straight forward and we lost a few hours to navigational errors. Sometimes, trails we were on simply disappeared and we had to backtrack to retrace our routes a couple of times in order to find the correct trails. Among the many summits we hit that day was the highest point in the locality, Vaganski point at 1737m. As we trekked along the ridges, we walked along treacherous scree slopes that went kilometres downhill into vast gravity bowls where many boulders from the rock dominated landscape found their way into. Any slip would have been catastrophic. We entered the last part of this trekking leg in the evening, and before we were walking through forest trails towards our transition area by the light of our headlamps. Lien was again sleepwalking the last part as we neared the transition area and we hauled our asses in at 2330hr into the car park at the trail head of Parklenica Starigrad.

 

Trek Lost

 

 

 

Here, we found out we were the last team on the course at this stage. But, by now, the Italians had pulled out due to cramps, the Austrians due to illness and two Belgian teams had decided to forego the next 60km trekking leg and instead continue on to the 90km bike stage after that. So technically, we were no longer the last team for this race by virtue of having come this far!

By now, the third day of the race had begun and we still had another 60km trek, a 90km bike stage and a 60km trek/kayak leg to the finish. Daunting indeed! This ‘short’ race was turning out to be quite a long drawn affair for us!

We had our second major meal of the race, tucking heartily into our well deserved, warm rations which went a long way towards restoring both strength and more importantly spirit. The race officials were extremely helpful and made sure all our needs were attended to – they offered to buy water for us, even chocolates! But top most on our minds was a good sleep for a couple of hours. So we found a nice spot behind a rock wall sheltered from the constant gust from the mountains, spread out our ThermaRests, tucked into our Nikko sleeping bags and slept like lords for two hours.

Up we got at 0200hr, ready to push off again for the penultimate 60km trek. Our last 30km one had cost us 19hours, we didn’t dare to think how long this leg would take us. We were told by a race official that this leg would have less mountainous and more rolling terrain. Holding on to this scrap of hope, we pushed off into the night.

60km Trek:  22 Sep, 0230hr – 23 Sep, 1430hr

We climbed back up the range we had come down from the previous leg before heading West parallel to the Velebit mountain range. After an entire morning of walking along forest trails, during which we lost precious time after a couple of wrong turns saw us walk in circles at times, we finally descended into a valley plain and emerged out of the mountains in early afternoon on 22nd Sep.

We tried to move faster along the flat valley plain but soon we were held up trying to locate a right fork that existed on the map but not on the ground. After an hour of backtracking and searching for the marker, we finally realised it was a wooden stake planted into a pile of rocks 50m off our trail. The wooden stake had fallen over, therefore we were unable to sight it earlier.

An hour later, the trail faded and disappeared again, with not a marker in sight. This time, we decided to navigate by topographical features instead. We were running out of time as we intended to hit the mountain hut which was the only source of water along this trek before sunset. Our navigational decision was vindicated when we crossed the trail again an hour later and we were back on track!

However, our joy was to be short-lived, as we entered the mountain range again. Climbing over treacherous rock hills again, we wondered if we would find the mountain hut before our water stocks ran out. Here, we made one of our biggest navigational errors and descended 50m into a gravity bowl, a treacherous drop where any slip would be fatal. We found a cave at the bottom of the bowl but there was no exit there. After we climbed all the way out of there again, we realised that the trail markings had misled us. Continuing on, we knew better than to discourage ourselves.

When we finally reached the mountain hut in the evening, we felt relief beyond words as we were mentally exhausted, running low on food and water and physically spent. We opened up our last packet of cheese-sticks and drank to our heart’s content before topping up all our water bladders for the long night now ahead of us. The water source was an underground well and we had to operate a manual pump to pump the fresh water up to the surface. Water never tasted so good!

We pushed on in the dusk light back into the mountain range. Our next checkpoint was Panos – a summit with a military installation.

We knew the next night phase would not be easy as we already had so much difficulty in the day. As night fell and the light of headlamps became increasingly brighter, we realised that the markers were actually easier to see in the night as the white paint reflected the light from our headlamps. So there were stretches where we were running through the forest trails to make up for lost time.

As we climbed higher and higher in search of Panos, the wind was feeling and sounding like a giant air conditioner! It came in cyclic gusts and became increasingly stronger as our altitude increased. Little did we know that we would be painfully re-acquainted with this wind phenomenon called the Bora later in the race. When we finally hit the macadam road that led to Panos after climbing over a ridge, we were overjoyed! We hit Panos at midnight on 22 Sep, we have been trekking for almost 24 hours non-stop and only had three hours of sleep as we moved into the fourth day of the race. We punched our passport at the gates of Panos and soaked in the view of the distant lights of civilisation sparkling magically below us.

[Lien’s note: Echoes of the cold war – a radar or monitoring station ensconced at the very top of a lonely hill, and as we turned the corner and saw the forbidding gates, and the orange sodium light – we wondered at what silent vigil and interests this silent sentinel had served; now just a check-point on our adventure tourism maps]

Once we left Panos and turned the corner on the macadam road, the Bora hit us like a blast! We wouldn’t even walk in a straight line or read our maps, anything in our hands would have been away! The wind must have been at least 50 knots! We ran back around the corner we just turned to get out of the wind and read our map before running back into the wind and off the ridge on to a trail to make it to another mountain hut that was our next check point.

The Bora  Source: http://www.wikipedia.com)

The area where some of the strongest bora winds occur is the Velebit mountain range in Croatia. This seaside mountain chain, spanning 145 kilometers, represents a huge weather and climatic divide between the sharp continental climate of the interior, characterized by significant day/night temperature differences throughout the year, and the Adriatic coast, with a Mediterranean climate. Bora occurs because these two divided masses tend to equalize. Sailing can be extremely dangerous for an unexperienced navigator in the Velebit channel because the wind can start suddenly on a clear and calm day and result in major problems, frequently also affecting road traffic. Near the towns of Senj, Karlobag and the southern portal of the Sv. Rok Tunnel in Croatia, it can reach speeds of up to 220 kilometers per hour. On 15 March 2006 the speed of a gust on the Pag Bridge was measured at 235 kilometres per hour.

We descended into the trails and by the time we were along the side of a scree hill that marked the last stretch before the mountain hut, it was already dawn. This short stretch of a few kilometres was the most dangerous stretch of our trek. We were on the seaward side of a 45-degree scree slope heading west. To our left was the Velebit Channel and its many long islands, and to our right, the scree slope stretched all the way up into the darkness where the ridge line probably was. One slip and we would have been seriously injured.

As we threaded carefully along the slope, sleep deprivation was beginning to hit us. We started walking haphazardly and sleepwalking. To keep ourselves alive, we decided to stop for a short while among the shrubs on the slope to catch a rest. On hindsight, it was a crazy idea to try to sleep on an exposed slope with the Bora on our backs and the sea in front of us! We wedged our asses between the rocks and anchored our feet against the shrubs to prevent being blown off. And just like that, Lien and I snuggled up close to each other shoulder to shoulder and slept. Less than ten minutes later, I was awoken by the unbearable cold wind and pestered Lien to start moving again, even though we had planned to rest half an hour.

So we pushed on along the mountain side, soaking in the breath-taking view of the Velebit channel that awaited us far below. When we finally entered forests again, it was a huge relief. The mountain hut was a welcome relief and the bunks inside were very tempting, even with large bull blocking our way. But we decided that we were way behind and had to push on. So we took the last of our chocolate bars as a morale booster and pushed off for the final checkpoint at the ski-resort hotel at the bottom of the mountain range.

We descended a majestic slope into the forests to make it to the ski-resort after another entire morning of forest trails. We reached the resort at 1430H on 23rd Sep, the fourth day of the race. The race organisers were relieved to see us – by now the last team on the course! They told us we would not have time to complete the race in its entirety and asked us if we would rather do the next 90km bike leg or the last leg of the race – the kayak cum trek. We chose the latter as my bike saddle was faulty and we hoped to still cross the finish line even though it was a shortened course.

60km Kayak cum Trek: 23 Sep, 1700hr – 24 Sep 0300hr

Arriving at the town of Karlobag on the coast of the Velebit Channel, we cooked up a final meal and re-packed our gear for the final phase of the race. There would be no more water points along this final part of the race course so we topped up all our water to the brim. As we had to trek with anything we brought for the kayak, we schemed on how we could minimize the weight of our packs. Out went the heavyweight kayak tops and bottoms that would keep us warm – we wanted to move as fast as we could so we didn’t want to carry extra weight on the trek.

It was 1700hr when we finally packed our gear, ate and were ready to push off. We paddled with the setting sun behind us. A big black stray dog that had befriended us at the pier chased our kayak along the coast as we paddled away – barking and whining at our departure. As advised by the race organizers, we kept to the near side northern coast until we reached the crossing point to paddle across the Velebit Channel to get to the far side of the island where Check Point 24 was located.

By the time we reached the crossing point, it was dusk and we pointed our hardtop kayak south-west to paddle across the Velebit Channel. Once we left the safe shelter of the coastline, the wind picked up immensely. It came from behind us, where the Velebit mountain range was. The Bora was about to humble us. The waters became white foam as the 50 knot wind whipped it up. Waves were one to two meters high, swamping our kayak easily. Fortunately, we were on an open hardtop that was self-bailing, otherwise we would have capsized. We were blown straight across the channel faster than we had expected. In fact, the wind was so strong that we had to turn around and head back the way we came to prevent our kayak from being smashed against the coast. The coast line along the channel was dominated by steep sharp rock faces so there was no where we could safely beach up to get out of the Bura.

Lien and I never paddled so hard ever before, our lives were now literally in our own hands. The channel was unlighted and there was no traffic at all so if we had capsized, the results would have been catastrophic. As I was the rear man in the kayak and therefore the coxswain, I told Lien to just keep paddling and leave the navigation to me. We struggled to get back across the channel to the island where CP 24 was supposed to be. At the same time, we had to be careful not to get too close to the shore or we would have been smashed into the sharp rocks by the waves!

Unfortunately, we were unable to locate the blinking red light that marked CP24. There were plenty of red lights along the coast but each one we investigated turned out to be wrong. By now, we were both mentally exhausted from the exertions of keeping alive. My helmet was blown away by the wind and now lost. Physically, we were both suffering from exposure due to the unrelenting cold wind that kept assaulting us. We were actually happier to keep moving because it was warmer to do so than to stop and rest.

[Lien’s note: It felt like the movie Speed – we had to keep paddling, so that the kayak nose would point into the wind or we would have capsized. Along the way, we took a rest on a tiny tiny rock outcrop that was half the size of the kayak, and we were getting hypothermic. Many people have experienced single moments of terror, when they fall into a crevasse, or their parachute fails to open, but this was the first time I had experienced a sustained multi-hour sense of impending potential mortality.]

By now, it was midnight and we were still unable to locate CP24. What we thought was a four hour kayak was now turning out to be a nightmare with potentially fatal consequences. So, in the interest of safety, we decided to kayak to the closest indication of civilisation we could see and find shelter ashore to rest for the night. The race did not matter anymore, survival was more important. Moreover, it was too late now to even make it to the finish line.

And so at 0300hr on 24 Sep, Team SART ended its first foray into Croatia on the shores of Pag. Sleeping tightly together in an abandoned wooden hut along the coast, Lien and I linked up with the race organisers the next morning and we were bussed back to the Hotel Alan to await the rest of the teams that were starting to stream across the finish line. Like Jekyll and Hyde, the water in the morning was clear and flat, like glass. Beautiful sun shining in the sky. What a difference.

Hut

Conclusion

Even though SART was unable to cross the finish line, we were glad to have gained invaluable experience on Terra Incognita. In all disciplines – trekking, biking and kayaking, we gained invaluable and priceless insight and experience. We never gave up until the end and we flew the Singapore flag proudly. Less than half the field (11 out of 24) managed to complete this arduous race through some of the toughest terrain on Earth. None of the disciplines were easy and it was our greatest adventure by far! Based on our finish position and time, SART was ranked 15 out of 24 teams. Lien and I have made a promise to ourselves that we will return to finish Terra Incognita one day! Mark our words!

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