I raced the original Eco-Challenge Fiji in 2002. We were an average team that accomplished amazing things. 81 teams started the race and by the time we crossed the line only 23 made it to the Finish in one way or another, with only a few completing the whole course. Our team finished everything but the last island stage. Completing the short course, almost all of the race course, we placed 19th. How did we do it? Well, we had a few things going for us and we learned a few things over the 9 days, 13hrs, 08 min. I’d like to share them with everyone headed to the Eco Challenge Fiji 2019, as I am friends with most of you, having raced with you or filmed you over the last 17 years on all 7 continents...
1. THE JUNGLE IS COLD
It’s the tropics, and every kind of houseplant on steroids grows there, the water is warm, the rain is warm and the dry side of the island is insanely hot. So why did I end up rescuing a team member from an opposing team, from hypothermia? Thermodynamics. Your body temperature is 37°C (98.6F). The air temperature is about 26.6°C (80F) at night. You’ve either been half submerged in a river all day packrafting, or it’s rained part of the day which means you’ll spend the evening fully saturated as you absorb all of the foliage moisture. Water is a great heat conductor so it’s going to try and balance the equation between your body and the air temperature, and the delta is not in your favor. Spend enough time out there slightly dehydrated, undernourished and fighting bacterial infections and your body is going to give up heat faster than you can get calories in. As soon as you stop moving you’ll drop into hypothermia on a balmy night in Fiji. We saw this more than once, and as I mentioned we had to rescue an advanced case of hypothermia kneeling in the mud at about 3 AM in the morning. Stay hydrated and keep moving.
2. THE LOCALS AREN’T ALWAYS HELPFUL
The locals are going to want to help you as you get deep into the jungle. Many of them will follow you for a long time. You’re just plain strange looking and they think you’re crazy...which you are. The mountain people are very proud, which leads to problems with well intentioned advice on navigation. They will invite you to sleep in their houses, share food with you, always want to carry your stuff- Don’t let them carry your kit. You’re racing and that’s your responsibility. Accept the quick nap in the huts. They will even put a blanket over you. Remember, it’s cold up there. Share in their food, but with a little caution. I loved the boiled cassava root with salt and couldn’t get enough of it, and yes I ate the fish. I shared a bowl of fish one night with a great Brazilian racer about mid race. He later succumbed to brain encephalitis, I didn’t. One afternoon along a river I shared a can of tuna with a local who was rolling up a cute parasitic Guinea Worm on a stick as the worm came out of a huge boil on his calf. I don’t want to sound cavalier, but hey, you’re in their world now and there's a lot a crap that can take you down. Most of it you can’t see and won’t know until much later. Just be careful.
You would think that an indigenous population living in the mountains of Fiji for a millenia would know the place like the back of their hand. This isn’t the case, but they won’t tell you. Trust your navigation and your map. We were lazy one afternoon and asked a local guy the best way up a mountain and to the other side. He began to point to our map and the mountain and seemed very legit and confident. He even lead us for a few kilometers, then followed us. Eventually I asked him a navigation question halfway up the flank of the mountain. His answer, “I’ve never been here before.” It was literally the mountain out the back of his village. He explained there has never been a reason for anyone to go up there and we will be the first people to ever go up the mountain. I asked him why he said he knew the way. His reply, “You wanted me to know the way.” He followed us for a while and then he disappeared into thin air, never to be seen again, while I hurried up with a quick resection in dense jungle canopy and the evening light failed to pitch black. Don’t get lazy, stay on your navigation.
You are going to hack your way through Fiji, literally. The jungle is constantly growing and it sends out vines everywhere to ensnare you like a spider web. Follow the creeks, hog trails, or strait through the jungle, you’re going to want everyone on the team to have a machete. Start your arm workout now. Hacking through the jungle is not only exhausting, it is an art form to do it efficiently. Your edge is going to go dull fast, bring a couple small flat metal files so you can keep an edge. Swing at an angle and mind your legs and your other arm. (Watch our How To Machete video for more info) Have a lanyard on your machete and keep it around your wrist bring gloves! ...not so much to protect you from blisters, rather, as you hack away at the jungle which runs your machete hand through the foliage and then you reach out with your opposite hand to pull the foliage out of the way.... jungle plants are full of thorns, barbs edges and hooks and every one of them is going to give you micro lacerations on your hands, even if you have gloves. But, gloves will help. These micro lacerations will become infected within about 8 hours. Remember in the jungle you’re in a giant bacterial incubator. In about 10-15 hours your hands will turn red swell and you will barely be able to make a fist or grip your machete. Bring several tubes of Bactroban triple antibiotic cream. This will do the trick in a few hours and you’ll be almost good as new. Oh, that lanyard around your wrist, it’s going to rub and get infected to, but keep it on. You’ll eventually get fatigued or infected hands and drop your machete. You don’t want it flying into one of your teammates or yourself.
4. TRADE ITEMS ARE HELPFUL
Bring a few small, light items that you can give away to the locals. We gave away a few pocket knives and other useful trinkets in exchange for food and a couple times, shelter. You can bring Fijian money, but we found they’d rather have your cool stuff. We were very impressed by one native following us for about a day in his bare feet. He went on about being proud of his ability to walk the jungle on his one inch of callus and told us how to develop tough feet ourselves. We thought it was quite impressive. Towards the end of the day he began negotiating for our shoes. We asked why. He replied, “I have very strong feet but wearing shoes is better.” We didn’t end up giving him our shoes, but we did leave him with one of our machetes which he was immensely thankful for. If you get in a pinch or just want to be a nice traveler through someone else's land, leave something with them.
5. THE DRY SIDE IS VERY DRY
We were so sick of being soaked in the jungle. We were festering with bacterial infections, our clothes were rotting, we constantly battled jungle rot on our feet and the navigation was insane under the jungle canopy. The difference between the dry side and jungle side is like night and day. We burst out of the jungle into dry arid and rocky grasslands. The navigation became easier, but we were soon sweltering and running out of water fast. There aren’t a lot of water sources in the jungle or dry side. The sun is intense and will cook you fast, make sure you packed a brimmed hat. Begin rationing your water and don’t strip off your clothes! You want to keep the insects off you and you don’t want a sunburn.
6. YOUR COMPASS WILL WORK THERE
Fiji is in the Southern Hemisphere. I used to teach navigation at the REI flagship store, but I’m not going to get into navigation here. That’s for another time, and if two of you on your team aren’t already expert navigators of land and sea, maybe you should sit this race out. We were just fine navigating through Fiji with a “global compass”. For convenience we did buy Southern Hemisphere deck top compasses for our kayaks so we could paddle and navigate hands free. Have more than one compass for the kayaks and for land.
7. NOTHING’S DANGEROUS, EXCEPT...
Fiji is pretty much a benign set of islands. There aren’t any poisonous insects, spiders, snakes. There aren’t any predators of any kind. The plants cut you but are pretty much non poisonous. Of course don’t eat them. However…. Fiji is a dangerous place! It’s a giant volcanic rock with a couple feet of mud on it, so fall, and you’re likely to brain yourself. We were headed up a river one afternoon with several teams bottlenecking there and bam! A guy on another team took a header on the jungle rocks and brained himself to such an extent he had to be helicoptered out, which took a day I heard. The wild boars are mean as shit and will stand their ground and even charge you. We followed their furrows as trails in the jungle and heard them often. We even witnessed a native jump one and yes, hog tie it for dinner. The water’s nice, except for the coral, which is razor sharp and the coral snakes, which are the deadliest in the world. But, don’t mind the coral snakes, I’ve swam with them several times and they tend to ignore you. Just don’t bump into them. The locals are rather nice, but sometimes they want your stuff. We ran into one guy who tried to hijack us on a remote jungle trail. We showed him our machetes and essentially said, F**k off and it was all good. The most dangerous thing about Fiji is what you can’t see; bacteria and parasites.
8. EVERYTHING IS TRYING TO DIGEST YOU
Walking into the jungle is like walking into a living stomach. You don’t have to worry about much, however it will eventually dawn on you you’re slowly digested. Really, everything is trying to break down your body into digestive juices. Bacteria and parasites abound! It goes without saying you’re racing and trying to spend as little time in this place as possible, but most of you will have to endure the long haul. Treat wounds immediately. Stop to dry and treat your feet often. Jungle rot is a bacterial infection. Treat your water. Then, pretty much cross your fingers, because you will be getting water from some unholy sources, ingesting water and mud from the rivers, your hands and just about everywhere else. Mud is everywhere. I ended up taking a 5 horse pill regime for the lymphatic bacteria causing Elephentitus, Leptospirosis was prevalent, my brother (also racing) was hospitalized with Dengue fever, I contracted an unknown flesh eating skin bacteria on my forehead, and as mentioned, one racer contracted brain encephalitis. Needless to say, I had a full arsenal of immunizations before arriving, and still made several trips to the University of Washington Tropical Disease department, spent 3 weeks on the couch and dropped from 220 lbs to 185 lbs. So, be prepared for some recovery time, to say the least.
9. YOUR FEET ARE EVERYTHING
Let’s go back to jungle rot. I can’t say enough, take the time to treat your feet in this environment. It slowed us down, but it is also the main reason we finished at all. This is a race where 81 solid teams started and 23 crossed the finish line. Most didn’t make it due to jungle rot and the inability to walk. One very fast team up at the pointy end of the race literally raced right out of their feet. Their feet rotted right off! Not kidding the soles of their feet peeled right of and they were in so much pain they had to be placed on a morphine drip for days. They weren’t an anomaly. We used a product that’s no longer made, Hydropel, a hydrophobic grease really. It was amazing, but you still had to stop, clean your feet, dry them out and then reapply the Hydropel.
10. WHEN IT RAINS, IT MUDS
As mentioned, Fiji is a giant rock with foliage in various states of decomposition, also known as mud. This isn’t your run of the mill jungle mud either. This is mountain bike brake clogging, snot slick, literally everywhere, sticky baby poo mud when it rains, and it will rain. It’s going to get everywhere from your mouth, food, crotch and anything else you can imagine. It was so bad one night, rather than ride a perfectly good dirt road, we had to push our bikes through the mud, which was so laborious, it became more efficient to carry our bikes on the road. That was frustrating. The jungle is steep and the mud is dangerous. I can’t begin to describe the number of times one of us fell backwards, careened into a tree or slid down the side of a mountain. I honestly felt adventure racing in Fiji would be a lot safer if I just wore my helmet 24/7, which I ended up doing. That’s how much we fell down trekking.
11. JUNGLE NAVIGATION, WILD BOARS, AND EVERYONE'S LOST BUT YOU
Navigation is tricky. Everything looks the same during the day, and night is incredibly dark. Be very good at getting your macro navigation dialed at dusk and make sure your an expert micro navigator once night falls. Once you’ve made a mistake, you won’t get a second chance until the morning. We were headed through the “LOST WORLD” section of the race. Dense jungle, creeks, drainages, mountains, and then night fell upon us. We were headed to a CP where we would get our second set of maps. As we were headed up the creek in the direction I deemed correct to intercept the CP a group of 5 teams were coming towards us with headlamps. This was not an out and back, so one of us was wrong, and both of us knew it. As we met I realized the teams were some of the top teams in the race. Wow! What’s going on here?! They proceeded to tell us we were coming from the wrong direction and we should get our maps at the CP ahead and turn around. That went against all my navigation and gut. But, it’s hard to argue with top teams. However, we stayed our course. Turns out they had navigated a complete circle back on themselves and were headed out the same creek they came in on 10 hours earlier! Several were later medivaced out. We continued on and made it out of that jungle section after two days of hard trekking! In mostly the correct direction.
A few other navigational items. If you can find hog ruts going your way, take them. They are deep and muddy but an easier way to go. Don’t be afraid of the hogs. You have a machete. Use it. Remember, earlier I said hack at an angle with your machete? Well everyone is doing that and you can find out if you’re following someone or going backwards on their trail by the angle of the cut on the vines and branches. The cut will generally point in the direction of the traveller. Laminate your maps! Everything in Fiji rots and disintegrates. The maps are massive, but having them laminated and folded up creates easy access. If your maps are easy to access, you won’t get lazy and will stay on top of your navigation. Know how to resection to “find yourself.” Know your currents and tides for sea kayaking. We studied them, and the weather before arriving.
12. BILIBILI AND THE CASE FOR ROPE
We were required to make a BiliBili (bamboo pole raft) for a river section. Therefore had parachute cordage with us. I would bring some anyways. If you do arrive at a river that will be easier than jungle trekking and still on your navigational route, you might want to fashion a quick bamboo raft to pole your way up or down river. It’s fast and easy to make. The key is to understand part of it is going to be submerged, so be prepared to be wet. This is more a floating surface than a canoe. I’d also bring a throw rope or always have it with you, even if not required. You will have to negotiate many rivers and creeks as well as micro cliffs. It’s faster to just cross the rivers and a throw rope can either be safety or a fixed line to cross. Same goes for micro cliffs. Just drop over them with the ropes rather than spend the time finding a route around.
13. NOTHING BURNS AND TREES AREN’T FOR HAMMOCKS
So, let’s say you are in a survival situation, although racing in Fiji is a constant survival situation. But, let’s say something really goes wrong, or you come upon another team that’s hypothermic and you need to get some heat going. I tried to make a quick fire with my emergency kit to help out a racer in trouble. This does not work. Did I mention everything in the jungle is saturated and rotting, including you, the plants and the trees? I am rather proficient at survival fires and the jungle wasn’t having it. I tried and tried, but nothing would burn. The best I created was a short smoky smolder. I even tried to use a rescue flare. Nope. You’re not going to make a fire on the wet side of Fiji, in the mud. You ask why I didn’t start with the classic, get the person in my hammock and transfer body heat method? I did, and immediately pulled both trees down on top of me. Jungle trees are basically columns of water with bark around them and a shallow root base. I was crashing down trees with a 6 inch diameter! Bring a hammock however. You don’t want to curl up in that mud. Not because of bugs, because it’s saturated. The bugs will find you no matter where you are. I woke up after a one hour nap and found a 10 inch giant millipede curled up around my neck. They are harmless, but it will have you wondering what will join you next time.
So I’ve spent most of this blog telling you that you will be saturated with water, floating in water, swimming in water, sleeping in water, however, you will run out of water to drink. Water in Fiji is in the ground and only comes out of the ground in the drainages. Which you might not see for half a day or more. Treat water every chance you get. We bought a filter and it was a life saver, as we pulled water out of some places you wouldn’t drink even if treated. If you run low on water, you have a few options if your savvy. Most of the thick vines contain water. Hack a few and pure water will come, well, dripping out. My favorite trick is timber bamboo, which you will see a lot of. Bamboo is a grass and divided into nodes. With your machete hack a small cut about 4 inches up from a node. Get a piece of grass and pull the center out making a straw. Stick it in your bamboo cut, like a straw and suck. You get about 0.5-1.0 cups of purified water. Best policy, carry more water than you think you’ll need, because you’ll need it, especially on the dry side.
15. PERMETHRIN, LOOSE CLOTHES AND THEN THROW THEM AWAY
Oh man it smells so bad, but your option is Dengue Fever, (break bone disease). We treated everything with Permethrin and were happy for it. The smell is with you the entire race. Treat the clothes before you arrive in Fiji. You have to wash it into the fabric. It really works. We kept the mosquitoes at bay for most of the race. However, the combination of Permethrin and Fiji mud will never leave the clothes. We threw everything away. You couldn’t wash out the smell or the stains. Really, the combination of smells has stayed with me to this day. I can take a breath right now and smell Eco-Challenge Fiji.
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Fiji was the toughest adventure race to date and every race since then has been compared to it. If you’re headed to Fiji and would like to know more about my experience as a racer or would like me to elaborate on the above topics, just drop me a line on social media. I never tire of talking about this experience. Make sure to SUBSCRIBE to our channel for other great adventure racing videos from around the world: www.youtube.com/thecrew1iOpen