The inaugural X Lakes Summer took place on 17 December 2012: what an amazing race — the route surpassed all my expectations, and the organisation was incredible. I cannot recommend this race enough: if you do not think you can do it solo, form a relay team which makes it very manageable. If you are not the greatest paddler, get someone to paddle in a K2 or a double surfski so that you can enjoy the whole route as a team entry.
Some key points:
- You need a dedicated second! For an end-to-end event like this logistics count and it’s worth trying to keep things simple. Leanne did an amazing job of looking after me, and potentially saved my day…
- You need a plan for the weed on Leg 2 — I will be pushing the organisers to allow a choice of boats for individual legs. Not even a weed deflector on your ski will help here
- That being said, unless you are confident in a K1, use a ski on the remaining paddle legs unless the water is glass
- Leg 5 is long and fairly tough, and you need to take enough water
- Check a map (see my Garmin track) and make sure you know where to go on Knysna Lagoon! Paddling this ahead of the time is recommended.
We arrived in Wilderness in time for a quick pasta at the awesome restaurant, Pomodoro, before heading to camp at Fairy Knowe Backpackers. A 05h00 start allowed us to strike camp, have coffee and instant oats, drop my ski at T2 in Wilderness, and then head through to George to the start.
We were not able to make the registration, so I registered before the race on Monday morning. The process was supremely organised, and even included little laminated route guide for the paddle legs complete with a clip to attach it to your PFD, as well as stickers to identify seconding vehicles.
After a short race briefing, the small field was ready to go at 07h00…
Leg 1: MTB Saasveld to Wilderness
The race started with a fast downhill exit from Saasveld and onto the old road that leads from George to Knysna. It drops down into at least 2 decent valleys before bringing you down a steep descent to the bank of the Touw River where you head through a pedestrian gate onto the grassy banks of the river and T1. It’s worth dropping your boat here on the way to the start to save time and take pressure off your second!
Leg 2: Paddle Wilderness to Island Lake
T1 was on the grassy bank of the Touw River just before it reaches Wilderness Beach above the N2. Getting into the boat was easy, and off we headed up the picturesque Touw River, winding past sleepy holiday homes and The Fairy Knowe Hotel.
Passing Ebb and Flow Rest Camp — and some bemused campers enjoying early morning coffee — you take a sharp right into The Serpentine, which is a pretty narrow and windy channel linking the Touw River to Island Lake. Here weed became a real problem, and I had to jump out of the boat and flip it over to clear weed out of the rudder. You are in a reed-lined channel and you are unable to get to the bank to do this. The water was less than chest deep each time I did this. As the channel reaches the lake you take a sharp left to T2. The boat take-out is super-easy on a sandy beach leading onto the grass.
Leg 3: MTB Island Lake to Pine Lake Marina
This section was flat and really fast. The dirt road was dry and dusty, and pretty corrugated all the way. The road leads you into Pine Lake Marina and onto a short tar section with some sharp corners. There were plenty of marshals directing traffic and pointing the way. Onto the grassy bank of the lake, out of cycling kit and into PFD and peak and into the boat, once again with an easy entry point at a sandy, shallow beach.
Leg 4: Paddle Pine Lake Marina to Hoogekraal
The paddle started with a welcome downwind section with a nice little chop running directly across the Swartvlei lake to the river on the far side. I stopped about halfway across the lake to assist a lady who had come out of her K1 and could not get back in. I jumped out of my ski to help her. A ski-boat came along to assist as well. When I got back on my ski, my paddle was nowhere to be found! Thinking it had sunk (!), I continued with the unfortunate K1’ers paddle — she was not interested in continuing the race.
The final section of this leg is up the Hoogekraal River which meanders through the most beautiful rural scenery on the Garden Route. The river is easy to follow, just make sure you do not take a right in the Karatara River which is on the right soon after you have left the Swartvlei.
Arriving at the Hoogekraal low-water bridge I headed to shore at the right-hand corner. This was the only boat exit that required a little care as you came alongside the drift: it is a little tricky to get out here and it’s best to get your second to help you with your boat.
Leg 5: MTB Hoogekraal to Old Drift
By this stage of the day, it was pretty hot. After the relative coolness of the paddle leg, I wanted to head off on the 40km cycle with only two 600ml water bottles. Leanne managed to persuade me to take my Camelbak which she had filled with ice water: this pretty much saved my race as I finished all the liquid I took (more than 2 litres).
The route now heads out of transition up the dirt road to where it meets the tar road and heads up a long hill to the intersection where you take a right onto the old George-Knysna road again just before it reaches Karatara. You pass Karatara on your left, and cycle through the Karatara Pass and the Homtini Pass which are both back on a good dirt road.
After reaching Rheenendal the road levels out a bit and is tarred before you finally head off the Rheenendal Road as the route takes a left onto Phantom Pass which then means a good dirt road all the way downhill to Old Drift and T5. There are some sharp bends and the road is not closed to traffic (I only passed one car).
Leg 6: Paddle Old Drift to Thesen Island
And good news: the K1 lady and the ski-boat man managed to find my paddle! It appears that the paddle did not drift as fast as the boats.
I took a quick swim at Old Drift to cool down and then re-applied sunblock before grabbing my boat for another easy launch onto the Knysna River. There was a light headwind as we headed down the river and under the Red Bridge.
After passing under the White Bridge I realised that my preconceived notion of the layout of the lagoon was pretty flawed: I guess I was expecting the channel to follow along the shore next to the N2. This is really not the case as you can see on the Garmin track, and you need to head out across the lagoon in the general direction of Belvidere on the far bank. I did land on the various mud banks where I tried to cut corners. It would definitely be worth pre-paddling this section in preparation, or at least a good look on Google maps.
After passing under the rail bridge we headed out through the moored yachts to Thesen Island which was visible across the water. The finish line was in the very impressive and quite beautiful Thesen Island Marina where I was helped out of my boat and onto the jetty to enjoy my Strawberry Recoverite, and then an ice-cold Mitchell’s Draft!
So, considering the paddling legs combined would total 3 times the furthest I have ever paddled, and I had no idea what 3 consecutive MTB / paddle brick sessions would do to my body, I had very little idea of how long the race would take. Calculated by simply taking my racing speed over those distances, with no consideration for terrain or total distance, I had reckoned on a minimum of 7 hours. I was specifically trying to see if I could maintain a 10km/h boat speed, which I think I might have achieved on Leg 2 had I been in a K1, thereby avoiding the weed problem, and possibly also in Leg 4 if I had not stopped to help out, and lost my paddle!
|Leg 1: MTB||T1||Leg 2: Paddle||T2||Leg 3: MTB||T3||Leg 4: Paddle||T4||Leg 5: MTB||T5||Leg 6: Paddle||Total|
|1st Male team||04:50:13|
|1st Mixed team||04:56:04|
|Danie Leonard (1st solo)||05:16:35|
|Jeannie Bomford-Dreyer (1st female solo)||05:32:29|
The splits are not all accurate: as usual, I had some difficulty in hitting buttons. I know for instance that T5 should actually include the first 5 minutes of Leg 6.
I was 38 out of 48 overall, and 15 out of the 18 solo competitors (including 2 DNFs). I got chicked by the only two female solo competitors, Jeannie and Lezandre.
If this race grows, and I have no doubt it will, there will have to be some clever solutions to congestion at transitions, particularly at T4 at Hoogekraal. I also think that competitors should be able to switch boats between paddle legs as I believe it will not only lead to more enjoyable racing, but it will encourage less experienced paddlers to make better boat choices (not using a K1 on Legs 4 and 6 if they are choppy).
That being said, first event or not, Chain Gang Events put on a brilliantly organised event which gets full marks from me for amongst other things the choice of route: all I can say is “Wow, I am totally blown away” — I lived in Knysna for two years and never got to see as much as I did on the course; organisation: slick, impeccably planned and seamlessly executed; general vibe and friendliness of organisers and participants in keeping with a first-class Garden Route holiday!
As I have been outspoken about sporting events in National Parks, I would like to point out here that parts of this race take place in the Wilderness Section of the Garden Route National Park, and that I believe that Chain Gang Events and SANParks have in this instance proven that with the right planning and commitment, this can happen with great success.
So now I think it’s time to let the cat out of the bag, Chain Gang: what is the plan for X Lakes Winter?