Video plus photo gallery: Seagate close in on Expedition Africa victory

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By Lisa de Speville

New Zealand team Seagate are on the final cycle leg of Expedition Africa and could finish the 500-kilometre journey by noon on Wednesday.

Tecnu and Silva are not far from them but Seagate has rested more and should progress better on this 230km cycle leg.

But nothing in this sport is ever guaranteed.

I’ve been out of touch with the front teams for more than a day but I did ask race organiser Heidi Muller about them.

She commented on Seagate‘s hurried calm in transition. They move efficiently with each person knowing their roles and doing what needs to be done. They move swiftly, getting in and out of transition like no other.

Tecnu and Haglofs Silva are similar and little time is wasted in transition.

Veronica Bravo in Painted Wolf has been taking strain and to get through to the end with assistance and support from her teammates is going to be a matter of survival.

She is strong and she has taken the physical punishment of this course and fast pace of her team without complaint.

Merrell Adventure Addicts and Cyanosis seem to be sucking up the wear-and-tear to keep moving swiftly.

I arrived at T5 as Olympus were leaving to start the trek. I only saw Alex Wagner and Tim Deane.

Alex, their navigator, is looking quite sleepy and he’s fighting the sleep monsters. He said they’d probably sleep out for a bit (on Tuesday).

We’re waiting for Cinnober, the next team on the way. The team is on the water and heading for T5.

We don’t expect to see them before 05h00 (Wednesday).

Face injury

On Day One, Laura de Haast (Castle Lite) had a nasty fall on the abseil when she lost her balance and swung into the rocks, bashing her face. Coming out of the canyon she was looking far better than we expected. “It healed amazingly fast,” she said.

Field medicine

One of the guys in Bad Medicine, not Mark Human, received a bad cut to the flesh near the ankle either during Sunday night or on Monday morning. Mark, an orthopaedic surgeon, requested suturing equipment so that he could stitch up his teammate.
This has been successfully done (on Tuesday morning, I think). More than this I don’t know. They have hooked up with Luna Chicks.

Overslept

“We made such a mistake last night,” says Steve Burnett from Rustproof. “We slept for nine hours in the canyon. It was meant to be five. It was too long.” They had a decent sleep and made it through the canyon in good time. They didn’t stop to sleep in T3.

Five-hour error

Sportotal made a big mistake getting to Magwa Falls. They took a path from Mboyti that looked like it went to CP17. But it didn’t. They wasted five hours trying to get through on what seems to be a foot path. They had to turn around and take the main road, which everyone has done.

THE CANYON

My day began at 02h00, after a 50-minute sleep, when I headed down to the canyon exit with Swedish photographer Martin Westerstrand as well as the Australian journo Angela Pownall and photographer Mogans Johansen.

We’d concocted a plan during the night to head down there to intercept Cinnober (Sweden) and Havacrack (Australia). Martin and Mogans wanted to rig a two-flash synchronised setup to perfectly illuminate the teams.

Tracking showed the teams to be near the exit but as we’d learned during Monday, near can mean anything from one to three hours away!

We were really surprised that the canyon wasn’t even half as cold as we’d expected. As I’d only slept for 50 minutes, I curled up on the ground to nap. After two hours I was cold, but not unbearably so.

All teams that slept in the canyon during the night said that they slept pretty well. Very fortunate. Last night I had images of hypothermic teams crawling out of the canyon.

It proved to be two hours before Cinnober emerged. Flashes popped, photos were taken and I joined Martin in walking with his team to the transition. Havacrack were a bit back and, according to Cinnober, were not moving very fast.

Ida Svensson confirmed that the situation down there, in terms of cold, wasn’t as bad as we expected. The canyon has large boulders and some pools high up in the first few hundred metres.

It improves from there. “We had one swim,” she says. “We put on dry clothes and after that priority one was not to get wet.” They exited the canyon around 4am (Tuesday) and were dry (except feet) and warm.

Throughout the morning, teams made it through the canyon and to T3 at Mboyti River Lodge. Here’s the thing… By Tuesday afternoon teams were still only getting to the canyon; that’s almost 30 hours AFTER the first team, Seagate, emerged on Monday morning.

Thus, the only discipline that these teams have done since Sunday afternoon is to hike. That’s at least 40 hours for many of the teams and around 60 hours (and counting) for the handful of teams still in the canyon.

By mid-morning (Wednesday) there should be no more teams down there, and the winning team could be very nearly finished this challenging 500-odd kilometre course.

FEET

If you, like me, have a keen interest in the mechanics of blister formation and the prevention and treatment thereof, then T3 was the place to be today (Tuesday).

Last night, the foot situation already seemed dire. Teams approaching the canyon as darkness fell were hobbling considerably on feet that were blistered and tenderised after more than 24 hours of trekking. To go into the canyon with these feet… This was clearly a situation that would go from bad to worse.

Black Diamond made the call in advance of sunset to bed down in the sheltered tea plantation above the canyon for the gorge. This was a decision easily made because of the condition of their feet – trench foot for both Ryan and Nici van Niekerk and some serious blisters for Leon Pieters; James Lea-Cox’s feet were tender but in good shape.

At the time the team felt despondent seeing the headlamps of teams passing by. Many of these teams didn’t advance much ahead because many slept down in the canyon for anything from a few to as much as nine hours.

As the day unfolded there was a very clear distinction between teams that went through and those that stopped for the night in the condition of their feet.

The non-stop teams

White, pasty, swollen skin under the soles of the feet was common – typical of having had wet feet for way too many hours. Large blisters under the forefoot, below the big toe were prominent. And the little toes… I call it ‘sock effect’.

The skin around the little toe – especially the bottom and sides – detaches completely and looks like it could just be pulled off the toe like a sock off a foot. The skin on their feet was literally coming off.

Even worse, underneath the skin would be a raw, incredible painful layer of flesh.

The medics spent the day without break, treating pained racers and doing their best to disinfect, dry and patch feet sufficiently that they could be walked on.

The overnighters

By mid-afternoon the, teams coming in were in decidedly better shape. Remember that trench foot photo from yesterday (Team Black Diamond)? Gone! The overnight rest did the trick.

Most racers had sore, tender feet and they were certainly not immune to blisters but we weren’t seeing as much of the whitened, plastic-like skin of the morning. Detached, whitened skin… that’s not good especially if you have to walk on it, which teams will have to do after T5.

For the most part long cycle legs can be dealt with but when your feet are bad… Racers would probably prefer to eat glass rather than feel like they’re walking on it with each step.

I’m curious as to whether the state of feet at T3 could be a predictor of success in Leg 8 (40km hike; it took Seagate 12 hours – mostly in daylight) and whether overnighters will gain places on the teams that pushed through.

The only flaw in my theory is that teams are four people and any severe foot issues will determine how fast the team is able to move.

See the full leaderboard at http://www.kineticgear.org/leaderboard/

Follow the teams via live tracking at http://www.kineticgear.org/gps-tracking/

Photos by Bruce Viaene and Andreas Strand

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