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Eco-Challenge 1997 : Australia

Eco-Challenge 1997 : Australia

14 August 1997
Tough land is perfect place for a tough race - by Dan Morrison

Eco-ChallengeIts river estuaries are inhabited by amphibious monsters that weigh a ton and can swallow a man whole. Within its dense jungles live the 11 most deadly serpents on the planet. Its spiders pack venom that can be nearly fatal. There are birds over 6 feet tall with a kick that can quickly disembowel a full-grown human. Along its reef swim creatures with toxin many times more lethal than a king cobra's. And if all that weren't enough to worry about, there are trees with sap so poisonous it can kill or maim.

Does this sound like a great place to hold an athletic contest or what?

The Eco-Challenge Adventure Race, now in its fourth year, will begin just before sundown on the 11th of August somewhere near Cairns, Australia. As always, the exact course remains a secret, but the general area offers hints of what the 50 teams of competitors can expect, the words "moist green hell" come quickly to mind.

Australia is the sixth largest country in the world, about the size of the contiguous United States, with a population of 18 million. It is modern and progressive. There was a time not long ago, however, that Australia was considered the end of the world by all but the indigenous Aborigine population, who had lived there quite happily, thank you very much, for at least 50 thousand years.

The first explorers of the world's oldest continent (a 3,500-million-year-old fossil, the oldest life-form fossil ever found, was discovered in a rock in Australia) weren't all that impressed. Known as The Golden Province of Beach, Terra Australius Incognita, or Lochac, among other names, the land mass was probably visited by Chinese merchants as early as the 13th century; it is only some 300 miles from Australia to Timor, and Chinese sandalwood cutters could have easily made the trip. Arab sailors may also have visited Australia on their trips to Indonesia in the 1400s.

The first European known to have made landfall on Australia was the explorer William Jansz in 1606. Failing to find spices, gold, or silver on the west coast of what is now Cape York Peninsula, and after losing several of his men in a violent confrontation with the locals, Jansz sailed off in disgust, recording in his journal that there was "no good to be done there."

When Captain James Cook arrived along Australia's east coast in 1770, he wasn't exactly in a good mood either. One of his three ships, the Endeavor, had run aground on an offshore reef (its anchor can be seen in a museum in Cooktown) leading Cook to give landmarks such names as Cape Tribulation, Cape Sorrow, and Mount Misery.

The two botanists along on Cook's voyage were having a grand time, however, collecting in one week more new species of plant, bird, and animals than anyone had ever done before or since in a bay Cook originally called Stingray Harbour. Impressed with his naturalists' good fortune, he renamed the area, just south of present day Sydney, Botany Bay.

If the area wasn't seen to be fit for much else, the British decided it would serve quite well as a penal colony, and the first 750 convicts, along with 250 other passengers, arrived at Port Jackson, now Sydney, in May of 1787 in a fleet of 11 small ships.

Two years later Captain Bligh passed by the continent and named several of the outlying islands. Bligh, whose brutality led to the mutiny on the Bounty, was in a rowboat on his way back to England, still considered one of the most impressive feats of survival at sea in the annals of sailing. Bligh later returned to Australia after being appointed governor of New South Wales. Neither his luck nor his demeanor had been changed much by the Bounty experience, and he was deposed in yet another mutiny, this time in 1808.

Tough history. Tough country. Perfect place for the Eco-Challenge.

RaftingPreviously held in New England, Utah, and last year in British Columbia, this year's Eco-Challenge Adventure Race is significantly different. Members of both gender are still required on each team, but the teams have been reduced from five members to just four. In addition, this year's event was by invitation only, with three teams earning the right to compete during a preliminary race held in California.

This year a cash prize will be awarded to the top five teams, from $25,000 to the first team to cross the finish line down to $5,000 to the fifth team.

The most interesting change in this year's event, however, is that it is a true expedition race, with no outside support or transition areas for the competitors. Gear will be dropped at pre-arranged locations along the course, and the competitors must survive on their own in the wilderness for 11 days and nights.

As race founder Mark Burnett notes, "Please be aware that Eco-Challenge is a real expedition with inherent dangers. This year, those inherent dangers are as much from wildlife as they are from the usual dangers like falling off your horse, overturning your raft, or falling from a rock face." Ah, wildlife. As in pretty-damn-dangerous wildlife.

As always, the event will be multi-discipline: horseback riding. whitewater rafting, kayaking, canyoneering, climbing, trekking, and mountain biking. The course originally had a section of caving through lava tubes, but an air-borne disease (leptospirosis) was discovered in the caves, and that discipline was mercifully dropped.

The equestrian leg of the race has one horse for each competitor, unlike the ride-and-run arrangement of previous races.

During the rafting section, the teams will run Class IV whitewater, and each raft will carry a local guide. The whitewater is considered so technical that two throw bags are required per raft, and there are dark zones, during which the competitors must beach the raft and wait for the morning's early light.

The kayaks will be inflatable Sevylor Marine Kayaks, 12 feet long, weighing just under 30 pounds. Vulnerable to punctures and rips, the kayaks will have to be portaged long distances where the rivers disappear underground.

The mountain biking sections have been described ominously as "extensive."

Rope CrossingCompetitors will negotiate long vertical rappels during the canyoneering and ropes section of the course, will swim with their gear through deep water to reach fixed ropes on which they will ascend through waterfalls, and will be subjected to the one of Burnett's obsessions: long Tyrolean traverses.

Trekking through the outback will take extraordinary orienteering skills, as there are no terrain features by which to triangulate, and the overhead vegetation canopy acts as an opaque cover.

Teams will be required to kayak in the open seas and will be subjected to trade winds that can reach 30 knots. Open water navigation will be necessary to locate gear and checkpoints.

In a nutshell, this year's race looks to be much more skill-oriented and seriously more physically demanding than the previous events. The question on every team's collective mind, of course, as they pore over maps of the region, is where the hell is the course going to run?

Good question.

The event begins somewhere near the town of Cairns (pronounced "cans"), in North Queensland, the "Sunshine State," and Australia's second largest, with 1,727,200 square kilometers. Queensland boasts 220 national parks. Cairns, with a population of just 64,500, is the gateway to those parks.

It is complete speculation at this point as to where the course will run (not to mention complete folly; Burnett's enjoyment of obsfucation borders on dementia) but there are a couple of likely areas.

From Mossman through Cairns and on up to Cape Tribulation and Cooktown lies the world's oldest rainforest. One hundred million years old, this patch of verdant real estate is 90 million years older than its counterpart in the Amazon. It is a veritable treasure trove of Australia's natural wonders. One-fifth of all of Australia's bird species, one-third of its marsupials, two-fifths of its plant species, one-fourth of its reptiles, and one-third of its frogs can be found here. The course might run north out of Cairns, through the Daintree National Park, along the coastal region through the Cape Tribulation National Park, north into the Cedar Bay National Park and then offshore toward the Great Barrier Reef.

How tough is the wilderness north of Cairns? In 1848, Edmund Kennedy, a government surveyor, led a group of 13 men in an attempt to travel overland to the top of Cape York Peninsula. At the end of the expedition, only an Aborigine servant named Jacky Jacky arrived at the destination alive. Sounds like a great place to send 50 team adventure racers.

But maybe not.

Perhaps the course will run south, out of Cairns and down into the Bellenden Ker National Park, across the summit of Mount Bartle Frere, at 1,657 meters the highest point in Queensland, through the outback bush of the Atherton Tableland, down the roaring whitewater of the either the Johnstone or Tully rivers to the town of Tully — with 4,400 millimeters of rain each year the wettest spot in Australia — then offshore to Dunk Island.

And then again, maybe not.

On the day before the race begins, on August 10, the entire course will be revealed to competitors and media alike, the first time the entire route has ever been given before the starting gun.

To most competitors, the actual course may not be all that important at this point. You still have to survive once the race begins, and that may not be easy.

Among the world's 21 most deadly venomous snakes, 11 are endemic to Queensland, and six of the next 10 are also found in Queensland's rainforests. The taipan's bite is 300 times more toxic than a cobra's. A 33-foot-long python was captured near Cairns recently. And the bite of the local red-back spider will send you to the hospital, or worse.

In the thick forests the competitors will encounter the Gympie vine, a plant that injects silica spines into your flesh. This has been described as being similar to "a blow-torch being applied to your flesh." One remedy used by wood-cutters in the past was to pour kerosene on the affected area, then burn that top layer of skin off. A type of cedar tree found in the area releases a cyanide spray when cut, which can be fatal if inhaled. The Semecarpus australiensis — or Tar Tree — has toxic sap that produces blisters on contact, and can blind if rubbed into the eyes.

The casowary, which grows taller than 6 feet, can disembowel and kill with one kick of its powerful clawed foot.

Queensland is home to two crocodiles, the relatively harmless Johnston's Crocodile (Crocodylus johnsoni) which the locals call "freshies" or "lizards." Growing to lengths of 10 feet, the Australian Freshwater Crocodile is normally harmless and avoids people, unless a mother feels her nest is threatened. Queensland's other crocodile, however, is the thing of nightmares.

The Indopacific Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) or Saltwater Crocodile, can grow to lengths in excess of 23 feet and weigh as much as a ton. It is a true man-eater. And, despite its name, it is occasionally found far inland in freshwater rivers and lakes. It is the most feared of all crocodiles in the world. When describing its diet, one book notes, "Large animals eat whatever they want." And their dining habits are horrific.

After seizing its prey in its powerful jaws, the croc pulls its victim underwater and disorients it with the infamous "death roll." Then the crocodile returns to the surface to thrash its meal into more bite-sized portions. It is not unusual at the site of a saltwater crocodile kill to find body parts and clothing hanging in overhead branches of trees.

Not to worry. Burnett says the course will avoid areas where saltwater crocodiles frequent. He hopes. However, the original course has reportedly already been altered and moved from one river location due to the abundance of crocs in the area.

The natural dangers don't end at Queensland's coastline, either. Competitors will kayak in the open sea, and will approach the Great Barrier Reef, which stretches some 1,250 miles and consists of over 2,000 separate coral reefs. Here you can find the conus textile shell, with 21 protective darts, each one with enough venom to kill 300 people. Or you can amuse yourself by watching one of the 32 species of venomous sea snakes swim by. The sting of the box jelly-fish is fatal, as is the bite, although rare, of the blue-ringed octopus. Sharks? Yeah, got those too.

Back in 1770, when Captain Cook spent seven weeks in the mangrove estuary of what is present-day Cooktown, just north of Cairns, repairing his ship the Endeavor after it had run aground on a reef, he became acquainted with the locals, the Gug-Yalangi people. Of this indigenous population he wrote, "the Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life." Despite Australia's unforgiving landscape, the Gug-Yalangi people lived in harmony with their environment.

It is a life lesson well worth taking to heart by this year's 200 Eco-Challenge competitors.

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