Relatively Good travel karma this time around, with my midday flight to Jhb giving me a few quiet hours in the VIP lounge. Can’t say the same for Tweet and the Adventure addicts though. They have been dogged by trouble on their mission to compete at Bimbache Extrem; first Hanno’s passport did not make it through the gauntlet of bureaucracy that is home affairs, and he had to be replaced by Mark Collins, and now Tatum’s connecting flight from Cape Town has been delayed. As I board my flight to Frankfurt and onwards to Madrid, I actually have no idea whether they will even make it to Spain.
My flight is OK – window seat, 2 movies (Max Payne totally appealed) and 3 or 4 hours sleep. Fuck, don’t know why the hostesses even try to wake me up for breakfast at three in the morning? So ja, get to Frankfurt at around 06h00, and have to bear the full brunt of German grumpiness. I mean, mein Gott, how dare I stand in the wrong queue and spoil Mister Immigration’s day? We have a bit of a shouting match, but I decide discretion is the better part of valour and back off when he goes purple in the face.
In Madrid I meet up with Corina, a girl from Romana and we decide to head to Segovia. I’ve got two days before Bimbache starts and want to see the old Roman cities of Salamanca and Segovia, with their World Heritage sites situated to the north of Madrid. So we take a train – after a bottle of rioja and some Serrano jamon, and slip slide north along the rails bisecting plains of olive trees and arid scrub. I’ve not planned much ahead, so accommodation and everything else will have to unfold as is its wont …
So, when you’re in Madrid, you have to do the jamon and rioja thing, which is what I do. There’s a brash and trashy workman’s café on the station at Chamartin and the Serrano ham is not too bad. We sip on a bottle of rioja red, waiting for the Segovia train and at midday, zoom through to this amazing old city. It is quick and painless to find accommodation in the shadows of the 2000 year old Roman aqueduct, and within half an hour I am traipsing around the steep cobbled roads of the picturesque little village.
Everything is mind-blowingly old and the imposing aqueduct with its perfect stone arches bisects the old fortifications dominating the town centre. Churches and cathedrals spike their turrets and towers skywards and you can but imagine how overpowering the Catholic faith must have been here in ancient days.
I indulge in some delicious pata-negra and a cheap but damn delicious tempranillo, waiting for the evening sun to fade out. The light, a mixture of neon and tungsten, spilling from doorways and spotlights, combine with the last flicker of day to douse Segovia in fantastical hues. Around midnight I finally fall into bed, literally pigged out on jamon and pass out peacefully to the sounds of the couple in the room above screwing their hearts out until they eventually peak in loud, raucous Spanish.
Sabado in Castilla, so nothing opens or stirs before 10h00. So I take it easy, checking emails, packing shit and just generally getting my bearings. It takes a day or two to get into travel mode, I find, and Segovia was a good taste. It is however slap-bang on the tourist radar, and would be good to get a little bit off the beaten track.
An agricultural festival in Valseca roves the perfect foil. The “Garbanzo de Valseca” is a celebration of the harvesting of sorts, and very much aimed at locals only. The only way to get there is by taxi and the locals are very much amused by our presence, but try as we might, it seems impossible to find any sort of pension for the night. So the only way to go is to dump our bags in the square at a table, order a beer and see what develops.
A traditional band marches in to an upbeat little ditty and I am soon co-opted as their official photographer, with strict instructions to email them all the photos. Then the excitement dies down again and I pass the time drinking Mahou 5-star beer from dinky little 20cl bottles. It feels a bit like a play-play piss-up especially when we’re joined at the table by an octogenarian local couple in their full-on farming kit.
The conversation is not easy, as my Spanish absolutely sucks these days, but they do join us for a glass or two of rioja, and I figure out that he is retired and used to work within the Valseca farming community. It is not evident at first, but once you negotiate your way beyond the language and cultural differences, the similarities with my Afrikaner farming parents and their boerse conservatism hit home hard. There is the same reserved friendliness, good manners, steely earthiness and that uncanny “unchangeability” one finds in westernized, farming villages right around the globe.
The festival is at its peak around 16h00 when I decide it is time to continue my trek north into the Castilla region. I’ve got to be in Leon to meet Tweet around midday and I want to get the travelling out of the way to leave some time for sight-seeing in the morning. It is also time to go solo again, so I head to the Segovia station on my own to trip to Leon via the city of Palencia. Should be interesting as I’m only getting to Leon around 23h00.
With the last of winter’s snow on the Cordillera peaks fast-forwarding past the windows, I get some time to read up about Segovia’s history. This UNESCO World Heritage city, also known as the “Stone Ship” because of the Alcazar castle’s distinctive profile, was originally conquered by the Romans during the 1st century. The decline of the empire saw the Moors invading and they enforced Arab domination until 1088, when Alfonso VI, the King of Castile, triumphed to establish the
Trastámaras Royal Court. The city lost its pre-eminence during an uprising against the powerful King Carlos I, but continued to prosper thanks to the growth of firstly of the textile industry and then the Bourbon monarchs.
The aqueduct itself is unarguably the most impressive of all the sights visitors to Segovia will encounter. Built in the first century, the 30 m high arches use no mortar, with opposing forces between the massive granite blocks making it one of the most incredible feats of engineering I’ve ever personally gawked at. The Cathedral on Plaza Mayor is also impressive, it dates back to 1525 and revels in Gothic splendour, replete with a 90m tower, pinnacles, buttresses, apses and snarling gargoyles. It must have scared the living shit out of those 16th century peasants …
Let me tell you, the city of Leon is the absolute shits. If you can term architecture exuberant in any city it is here, where Gaudi and Gothic and early Romanesque facades and turrets and colonnades and arches soar above narrow, cobbled alleys and plazas. I’m no city boy, but this is the closest any European city has ever come to giving me a hard-on. Figuratively speaking, of course.
I spent the night in a posata run by a mustachioed Castilian matriarch, and was told in no uncertain terms that I was to wipe my feet on the mat before getting into bed. Which I did, as you do not fuck with a grandmother with that much testosterone where I come from.
I’m up early (for Spain, anyway, where no one stirs before 09h00, it seems) to tramp along the plazas and back-streets of Leon, allowing the combined history of more than a thousand years to slowly soak into my psyche. The inner city, bisected by the River Bernesqa grew upon the site of Hispania’s fortified Roman garrisons. Over the centuries, it has weathered both Barbarian and Muslim invasions, eventually blossoming with the emergence of the Spanish monarchy and nobility here in the north-west of the country.
I do the expected tourist thing passing by the classically Gothic Leon cathedral with its more than 1800m2 of stained glass windows. There is also the Romanesque church of San Isidoro and the magnificent Casa de Botines, regarded by many as one of the Catalan architect’s Gaudi’s most mature expressions of talent.
I really get my kick, however, by watching Leon shrugging off the lethargy of Saturday night. Hikers and backpackers, here on their pilgrimage along the world famous Santiago de Compostella, are the first to stir. They take to the streets swathed in technical garments and armed with trekking poles and hydration packs, they tramp along with a far-away look in their eyes.
The old guard of Leon follow in their measured footsteps, tottering along and leaning on walking sticks, looking for a tranquil resting place to soak up the sun ad maybe feed some pigeons. Next come the parents and their revved up toddlers, the workmen, early-bird tourists and, finally, red-eyed revelers looking decidedly worse for wear. There’s a chess tournament on the plaza Mayor and I watch for a while as the earnest young Spaniards become a study in focus and concentration.
By 11-ish, signal kicks in from my stomach area announcing it is brunch time, and I park off at the first likely street café for café con leche and tosta. Then Tweet, Tatum, Mark and André arrive and we morph breakfast into lunch by adding a few beers and some wine. It’s great to see the team again and we joke around as we head up to the start line in Vegacervera.
It is a hive of activity here, with around 100 racers readying themselves for the 5-day expedition. Kit must be checked and packed into barrels as the race is unsupported, bikes and skates are fine-tuned, performance food is separated for various team members and there is a definite frisson of excitement. I finally head to bed after sending out team pix and a media release; it’s gonna be a while before I can bank some sleep again.
Race day. Always exciting, always with a few little mishaps and snot klaps. Stage 1 is an in-line leg with an insanely steep altitude gain of more than 380m over 9km. Most of the ascent is in the last 4km and I’m pleased I do not have to get my skates on. McCain starts right at the back, but fares a lot better than expected. In fact, they pass me in the middle of the field grinning like maniacs and shouting “We’re not last!?”
The transition at the top near the caves of Valporquero goes like lightning, and McCain bangs into the hike in the Top 10, way better than expected. I follow the teams into the dramatic limestone peaks, tracking them amidst the tussocks and rocks of the Picos, nabbing shots amidst the swirling mist. It is chilly, probably around 8 or 9 degrees, but once the sun burns through, the temperature picks up sufficiently to shed the Cape Storm technical gear.
Four hours of hiking later and we’re descending into the belly of the earth itself, tramping along the well-lit tourist route into the expansive network of caves. As media, we have to halt within this wonder-world of stalactites and stalagmites, but the athletes continue for another two kilometers and have to twice duck into the underground river in order to make it out into daylight again.
After grubbing a few photos, I rush back out of the cave and rabbit down the steep pass to reach the guys as they exit at a waterfall abseil in a narrow gorge. To get there, we must ford a thigh-deep and fast-flowing mountain river, and then hop from rock to rock up the gorge. It is truly beautiful in there, with green light hazing in through the overhead foliage, but I do not see the racers taking any time out as they hustle through at high speed. I make it back to the transition just in time to see McCain saddling up for their first mountain biking leg. “This is going to hell”, says Mark as they pedal out, all looking rather grim.
An except from my Race News email follows –
Hola from Boca de Heurango, somewhere in the wham-bam beautiful Castilla region of Spain. Absolutely gorgeous first day at RBE, with McCain Adventure Addicts kicking off their campaign for a Top 5 position at Bimbache with a solid performance.
Teams gathered at the starting line in Vegacervera at 09h00, and immediately battled into the high ranges along a 9km in-line skating section with more than 300m altitude gain. ‘We’re not last!’, was the first thing Tatum shouted as they bladed past my photo position on the course; McCain only lost 11min on the leaders Team Multisport from Finland, reaching the top in the Top 10.
They continued pushing hard on the 4hr trek that followed, moving up into 7th place before reaching the 2.5km subterranean river for the caving stage. Massive caverns and an underground river posed no problem, and we rushed around to meet them again as they abseiled down a waterfall into a remote kloof. Consensus from all team members we’re that they “felt good and that there wasn’t a huge amount of pressure on them”.
Mark did not look forward to the following 50km-plus MTB stage, but seemed in excellent form as the team bombed a narrow downhill section to pass me with him iin the lead. That was about 4 hours ago and they are now somewhere along the flat-water paddle stage. (Presumably in 6th place, which is the position they were in on the MTB stage).
The Fins are still leading the race, with Team Vibram Sport2000 (France), Explore (Sweden), Buff Thermocool (Spain) and WTF*(Spain) in front of the Adventure Addicts. Weather is good overall, although the temperature in the high peaks have dropped into single figures on occasion. Morning mist, blue skies, and 14 hours of daylight make for damn good racing conditions.
Personally I am coping well (if anybody actually cares out there). A few good hikes and heaps of Serrano jamon, plus the occasional cerveza, is keeping this old boertjie ticking over. Also getting at least 4 hours a night sleep, so can’t complain, thank you very much.
The rest of the day is a blur as we race around the Catilla countryside in a vain attempt to get shots of the teams, but I’m not complaining. Rural Spain is bewitchingly “bonita” and with more space than I ever could have imagined. The dolomite crags tower high over ancient villages, their peaks dramatically dusted with the remaining snows of the season. The pueblos and barouellas – themselves often seem deserted, except for ancient folk hoeing their gardens or shuffling along quiet streets to the tap-tap-tap of their walking sticks.
Our eventual destination is Boca de Huerganos, a sizeable village gracing the shores of a spectacular lake near to Rianto, a popular resort town here in Castilla. I only finish up on the images and media update around 02h00 but did have a damn good venao stew (local venison) and this, together with a robust local rioja, is a damn sight better than any of the teams can claim right now.
Day Two and there is no slacking of the pace. Again, I include my race email for the day …
Day 2 at Bimbache, and it feels like Day 37 … if it wasn’t for the magic mushrooms and the massage senhoritas, I have no idea how I would have coped.
The good news is that McCain Adventure Addicts are doing well. Damn well, in fact, as the have moved up into 4th position, and I have yet to see any of them throw up. Even Mark is looking on top form, and enjoying sharing the navigation with Tweet. (Tweet’s disturbing tendency to pull down his shorts and wave his pink bits about are becoming a problem, however, and I am trying to procure the services of a local psychiatrist).
‘These has been the hardest mountain biking legs of my life’, is how Mark described yesterday’s two MTB legs. ‘We basically had to push the bikes uphill for an hour, and would then lose all the altitude we’ve gained in the next 8-10min’, Gie-Man continued. Personally I think they’re becoming soft, and should harden the (insert own word here) up.
Even I have to concede that their two paddling legs were superb though. After reaching the Transition at Boca la Huergano together with Team Explore this morning, McCain took charge during the paddling leg to pull nearly an hour clear of the Swedes. Mikael and his team did get trapped under a tree trunk over the river on which I was perching, but I know nothing, Mister Faulty.
Tatum thought the rafting was ‘divine’, and I can only but agree. Stunning water-flow along the Rio Esla, with aquamarine water, emerald-green riverine vegetation, historic towns and seductive beauties throwing red roses from the bridges every time Tweet dropped his trousers. La vida in Castilla is muy buen!
I hiked a short stage with the team earlier tonight (it only gets dark around 21h30), but the four of them will probably be out for another 4 hours before coming back into transition for their compulsory sleep. I will of course be roughing it too, as I have been unable to secure a pedicurist to attend to my toenails tomorrow morning. But enough already about me and MY problems.
At present the leader board looks like this -: MultiSport (Finland) is in the lead by nearly 2 hours, with Vibram Sport 2000 (France) and Buff Thermocool (Spain) close together in 2nd and 3rd place. McCain Adventure Addicts (good old RS of A) is a further two hours back, with Explore (Sweden) 5th, an hour behind them. In with a chance for a Top 5 is the Aussies Blackheart, but it does not help that they stop every time an attractive woolly farm animal is spotted along the race route.
And with those happy words, I hand you back to the very capable Lisa (Applause). Note to self – tomorrow it would be good to limit the amount of cervecas during the report writing stages.
Day 2: McCain now in 5th
Jacques Marais, 10h15: Information from Bimbache race organisation is that McCain has moved up into 5th place. Jacques is waiting for them to come off the MTB leg and on to the lake paddle from Boca la Huergano. Then they abseil down the dam wall and then raft on Rio Esla, which is grade 2-3.
McCain 4th off the water
Jacques, 17h00: McCain now in 4th position! Reached kayak transition with Explore Sweden, but have stretched that lead to nearly an hour over paddle and rafting leg so far. Will finish raft around 19h00 SA time, then huge night hike and 4hrs compulsory sleep. Tatum says they were falling asleep on the lake, so they really need this rest. Tweet was pulling his pants down at the locals so hallucinations may be setting in!
The team seems in good spirits but it is obvious that Mark is taking strain during the biking stages. When they’re on foot though, he is as strong as an ox and key at helping with the route finding.
The natural environment around Boca de Huergano is breathtaking. I shoot Finland as they paddle through the dawn mists on the lake, tow orange kayaks drifting away upon an ethereal expanse of water stretching away towards the distance. After the rafting leg, I get to join McCain on another mountain slog (theirs not mine) as I head back after the first checkpoint to go and update the website and download more images.
Race email …
08h30: Buenos dias, Africanos dos Sul. Hot-off-the-press news is that McCain is currently having some shuteye in the transition at Boca de los Huerganos, following a killer 10hr hike. The Fins were the only ones able to do most of the hike in daylight, and gained massive advantage, extending their lead over Vibram (France) and Buff Thermocool, whom they now lead by respectively 4 and 5 hours.
McCain Adventure Addicts stuck to their guns in the dark, but are still trailing Buff by two hours, with Team Explore now 1.5 hours behind the SA foursome. The Aussies (Blackheart) are still to reach the compulsory sleep area this morning. McCain will leave on in-line skates just after 10h00 and blade for an hour, and I will then follow them on a 10hr hike into snow and ice territory in three of the Picos’ higher-lying ‘bumps’.
Expect the next update by some time late tonight 😉 … And by the way, the team really appreciate those SMSs – keep sending them through to (083) 444 5369, and I will pass them on to the team.
News laaaaaattteee at night on Day 3 (Wednesday):
Some days are tough, even for us tough-as-nails types. I started off the morning taking a meticulous compass bearing and, after a short and sweaty sojourn in the hotel laundry, managed to adjust my direction in order to make it to my favourite chair in the eastern corner of the Hotel de La Reina in Boca de Huerganos.
My coffee was in exactly the right place with the spoon on the left hand side of the cup angled at 42.6 degrees, which is how I (obviously) require it to be. And I was happy. That is, until I tasted my brew, and realised they had poured the 3/4 sachet sugar in, but forgot to stir it. Stern words were spoken, and I then missioned into action, speaking to hotel staff and the odd Bimbache volunteer to get updates on what was happening in the field.
The media manager suggested I write the rest of this report from the perspective of someone who had actually spotted the team in the field, and I thought this quite a clever ploy. So, ignore the previous paragraphs and, for a moment, suspend your disbelief and actually imagine me following the teams into the high peaks on today’s mega-trek.
Of course, I first had to endure the spectacle of the team negotiating 10 kays on in-line skates while humming the ‘Macho Man’ tune from the Village People soundtrack. Cruel and inhuman punishment, I know, especially when the Gie-Man thrusts his nether region outwards like an Italian Stallion on every stroke. Or step, I suppose sounds better.
From the transition, I slogged out ahead of them to meet them a few kays into the mountains near the 2540m limestone peak towering above Guardano de Aribbas, a tiny village set on a gorgeous, jade-water river. (Buy your property here now – it is bound to explode once the rest of the world pulls in).
We then descended along late-Spring snow fields, with the team in excellent spirits. Mark and Tatum were especially vocal, talking all types of rubbish during the running/skidding descent, while Tweet stared at the horizon with a far-away look in his eyes. A chance encounter with an Estonian orienteering girl injected new life into Gie-Man, who picked up the pace and had to be loaded with 3 back-packs in order to slow him down.
After 3 checkpoints, I met up with my car to zip around to CP38 to get late afternoon shots of the team in a different location. My following 3hr hike up the snowy ridges was hectic, so I have no idea how the Adventure Addicts could handle the pace for triple the time, and after two days of flat-out racing. They are truly hammering along, doing 6-8 kays an hour in ma-se-harra terrain, and all I can say is RESPEK.
Unfortunately my timing was kak and, even though I could see the team on a distant ridge, it was impossible to catch up to them. All seems to be going well though, and I hope to catch up with them around dawn just after their 5hr MTB stage. Once this is done, they will have maximum 10 hours to go before they finish; I estimate at around 5PM tomorrow afternoon.
Right now the Boys and Girl are tired. I have been passing on your messages from the AR community, and they truly appreciate your SMSes and emails. Thanks also to Lisa for all the updates and coordination from her side – it is appreciated by all concerned. If McCain can hang in there for another day, they may be able to catch Buff Thermocool, who they now trail by only an hour. The Fins (Multisport) and Vibram Sport 2000 (France) are still ahead by around 5hrs and 2hrs respectively, and Explore (Sweden) lags by 90min.
And so it unfolds. Jacques Marais, signing out from the Hotel Bar, Boca de Huerganos, Spain. And if anyone’s seen my plastic blow-up sheep, please SMS me on (083) 444 5369.
What stood out today was two superb hikes with the McCain foursome. The first is a steep hour-long climb to the base of a menacing dolomite tower. I meet the Adventure Addicts here and then bomb down the opposite side through the snowfields, skidding and bounding through the white powder. By midday, we reach a tiny village by the name of Guardiñeros, and I wait here to connect with the car before circling around to catch up with the leaders again.
This time it is a monster ascent. The racers are doing a twelve hour traverse of half a dozen high peaks, with the tallest of these topping out at nearly two and a half thousand metres. Elo, a racer from Estonia whose team has pulled out, joins us as we trek through tall stands of heather, following a steep footpath into the alpine zone. Here we slog into scree slopes, snowfields and tussocks of tough grass with endless views of the Pico de Europas skylining in the blue haze.
I miss the team at CP30 – I later found out they only came through three hours later than they had predicted – but do bump into two mountain antelope on the way down. I have no idea what they are, but they’re as big as fallow deer and they bound effortlessly down the slope before disappearing into the dense brush of one of a hundred valleys gracing these gorgeous mountains.
The Fins finished the race today, steaming over the line at around 10h00, a good 5 hours in front of their nearest competitors. Team Explore from Sweden, finish Bimbache Extrem 2009 at 17h00. After an early hike with the Adventure Addicts, I do a quick run through the Orienteering Stage, a score-format course with 15 checkpoints. This gives me a good idea where photos with McCain will work, and now it is just a matter of willing Tweet, Tatum, André and Mark across the finish line.
They come off the paddle, freezing and as close to hypothermia as one can be without requiring hospitalization. Tatum and Tweet are just about in full-body shutdown, while Mark vacillates between rigor mortis and uncontrolled shivering. It is only 3kms into the O-leg that they begin to thaw and can once again function on a level approaching normality. I stick with them on the course until Checkpoint 10 and then duck into Aguilar de Campoo, where they will eventually be done with this bitch of a Bimbache,.
It is another two hours before I finally see their head torches bobbing through the streets and onto Plaza Mayor, the village square where they finish here in Aguilar. The four are elated and emotional as they ascend the steps of the cathedral before abseiling from the tower for the final rush of this amazing race. It took them nearly 87 hours, and they claim a well-deserved 4th place behind Multi-Sport (Finland), Team Explore (Sweden) and Vibram Sport 2000 (France). The Aussie team (Blackheart) claims the 5th position.
Some of the race SMSes follow.
21.05.09 – Day 4: McCain still on the water
18h45: “Going slower than expected. The team has just started the paddle now; they really have to dig deep on these final two legs. The wind on the lake is strong too, so the paddle may take them 3hrs instead of the initially expected 2hrs. They could finish could as late as
23h00 tonight. I feel for them.” – Jacques
21.05.09 – Day 4: On the way to the finish
21h45: “Been on orienteering leg with McCain for 90-minutes. Now we’re on the way to the finish – ETA 22h30! Lots of smiles now after nearly freezing on the paddle leg.” – Jacques
21.05.09 – Day 4: FINISHED!
23h37: “They are crossing the line right now! McCain is home free and happy, with massive blisters, tired muscles and more pain or ecstasy than most people can begin to imagine. They have completed Bimbache Extrem in just on 86hrs and should be proud as hell of their achievement.” – Jacques
OK, so I’m surely getting a bit long in the tooth. By 02h00 this morning I had enough of the jazz trio at the Bimbache afterparty and snuck off to bed. Good thing though, as the team decided to go huge, leaving me to drive them back to Madrid. This wasn’t without incident, but we made it through along a slightly scenic and roundabout route.
I was meeting up with Karyn for a bit of catch-up here in Madrid, and therefore headed to the swanky hotel she booked as soon as McCain had settled in. She was only due at 21h00 though, so I had a bit of a walk-around this amazing city. When she finally made it through we did a proper Spanish meal, with tortillas and croquettas and jioja at 01h00! And when I finally hit the bed it was with a vengeance.