Words: Hugo du Plessis & Juan Botes | Photos: Pauline Decroix & Guillaume Pelletier
It all started with a call from my friend Hugo, “Check your email – you will not believe it!” I did as ordered and at first did not understANd one word of it. Only after reading the email three times did I realise that Hugo and I had been invited to the first Nunavik Adventure Challenge International, to take place near the village of Kangiqsualujjuaq, in Canada, from 25 to 28 March. I couldn't contain myself and as for Hugo, whose normal state is close to exploding, it was closer to lift-off. Then reality sank in and we started scrambling for sponsors and kit, as nothing we had would be remotely sufficient for the -25 degrees conditions we were about to face. Luckily Cape Union Mart and SpecSavers came to our rescue and supplied us with some awesome kit. However, we soon realised that we would still have to buy most of what we needed in Canada, where the clothing was more suited to the extreme weather conditions.
I have some snow experience (snowboarding and a little bit of skiing), while Hugo has none. No problem, our fitness would just have to make up for the technical skills we were lacking. As our departure date drew closer we tried to fit in as much training as possible, including the Argus. However, the day before the Argus disaster struck. Hugo's appendix had become infected and he was unable to race. He had emergency key-hole surgery, thus preventing any cuts through his abdominal muscles, and according to the doctor he would be race ready within eight days!
We met up at OR Tambo Airport on 20 March, ready for our great trek north. Hugo told me about his first skiing lesson on a dry-slope and how knackered he was after 90 minutes - the race brief states there's around six to eight hours of skiing each day, for three days! Finally we boarded and our marathon flight began with eight hours to Heathrow, seven hours to Toronto and then four hours to Montreal. We would only depart for Nunavik, a six-hour flight, two days later. We stayed in a small hotel in downtown Montreal and used the time to purchase the remaining equipment needed. Top of the list was sleeping bags to keep us as cozy as one can be in the freezing temperatures.
On the day of departure to the village of Kangiqsualujjuaq (try to pronounce it without swearing) we met up with our international competitors, and this was when the real shock kicked in. They were all sponsored by renowned arctic gear suppliers and talking about skins and racing ski lengths (all foreign to us at the time). The jackets they wore made them look like Michelin tyre men, whereas ours looked like we were on our way to a windy Port Elizabeth. Nevertheless, being South African and with our sunny personalities we soon made lots of friends, and hoped they would feel sorry for us and therefore underestimate our chances. After 'weighing in' and completing the medical questionnaire we were on our way and there was no turning back.
When we landed at Kangiqsualujjuaq, Hugo and I couldn’t wait to get out of the plane as we'd had enough of flying and the snow beckoned. Racing out, we were almost knocked backwards when the cold hit us like a physical blow in the face. We were way out of our comfort zone and needed to adapt fast! The locals welcomed us and some of them made their concern known that we were not adequately dressed for these conditions. I think this made an impression as Pablo and Luca from the Italian team, who became our best friends during the adventure race, lent each of us a brand new set of proper arctic gloves; you can't believe the difference they made! We were then transported to our hotel, some of us by car - lucky me - and some by open sled towed by a snowmobile - unlucky Hugo!
That evening, the community welcomed us with a wonderful show of traditional dancing and drums at their community centre. We also received our race numbers and the good news that an instructor would go through the finer points of cross-country skiing and show us what a skin is and how it is used, the following day.
On the morning of the Prologue we had our first skiing lesson from Jediet. Wobbly posture, sweating forehead and nervous smiles. Relax! After the lesson we were skiing and feeling comfortable (more or less). The Prologue was tremendous fun and with almost the entire village taking part, the mass start was quite a sight. We started off with skis, but after the first six kilometres we were burning so much energy that we decided to try out the snow shoes. It was 'love at first sight'! Suddenly we could move forward without feeling like we were exerting two hours of energy for every 15 minutes of gain. After the day's racing we were a lot more confident and would rather finish the race in last position than not at all.
As we left the village the more experienced teams started moving away from us and we were totally on our own for long stretches. Finding ourselves alone made the great open spaces expand in our field of vision and concentration lapses happened often. Sometimes the sound of our walking sticks sounded like bear growls and we found ourselves looking around often. Moving along at a steady pace we crossed ice-blue lakes and steep, tough, snow-covered terrain and experienced a small blizzard that limited our view for parts of the route. The second last checkpoint of the day included a 150m abseil that proved all the more challenging in deep, soft, powder snow that obscured the rock face in certain places. We completed the first race day and were placed in a good position, as some teams had missed checkpoints and another team went astray – fortunately good communication and race control brought them back safely. The night we ate Batik (it's like flattened pizza with raisins) served with warm tea and slept in a traditional Inuit tent, with a warm stove and real caribou fur covering the cold floor.
With our biltong sticks as race food, we were motivated to complete the race and started off well. The terrain was getting more challenging, but we felt strong throughout the day. We almost did an additional (cancelled) checkpoint, which the organisers had informed most of the racers about but not us. A marshal was sent out to rectify this, and it turns out that we were the only team to have read the instructions correctly. A polar bear was spotted, with the help of a village elder, and great video clips were made of this special moment.
The finish was an emotional experience for us as we carried the South African flag over the line. Completing the race has given us a real understanding of the immenseness of this race and conditions we had just overcome.
Says Hugo, "This is a race of dreams and taking it slow makes it ALL the more memorable, with time to stop for some photos and video clips."
Prize-giving was a huge celebration and we were treated to all things traditional; dances, food, clothing and speeches! As South African representatives, we had the opportunity to present a gift, a beautiful carving with the Big 5, to the village elder, to thank the people of Kangiqsualujjuaq for their incredible support and friendship, which had surpassed our expectations and left us with a warm feeling of acceptance from the region.
Says Juan, "The organisers, village folk, international racers and the experience as a whole made me feel so proud to be part of this race. It was hard to say good bye to all the great friends we made, and I hope to be part of this amazing race in the future."
This race would not have been possible without the involvement of a number of people, so thank you to the event organisers for inviting us; our South African sponsors Cape Union Mart, SpecSavers and Spidertech for helping us out with gear and equipment on such short notice; the people of Kangiqsualujjuaq for their warm hospitality; the racers for their friendship; and our families for their unwavering support. Well done to the race organisers,Endurance Aventure for making this such an unforgettable experience!
• 3-day stage race with a Prologue on Day 1
• Teams of 2 (Mixed, Men, Women)
• Pros and amateurs compete on the same race course
• 10 selected teams plus more than
• 50 young people racing in the Prologue
• Backcountry cross-country skiing
• Winter trail running
• Ropes and mountaineering
• Backcountry snowboarding
1 Spin Sports et Plein Air (Canada)
2 Out There (USA)
3 Endurance-Mag (France)
4 Pedini-Iret (Italy)
5 Salomon Bobkittens (Canada)
6 Team Pacalula (Italy)
7 Team Nunavik Kangiqsualujjuaq (Canada)
8 Team South Africa (South Africa)
9 Pedini-Nunavik (Italy/Canada)
10 Ukiuk (Canada)