Camp Endeavour Borneo

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I don’t know if I was having one of those moments, a small midlife crisis or something, but I found my mind wandering. I was semi-committed to going to New Zealand for the Tarawera Ultra Marathon when I came across an advert for the Maverick Camp Endeavour in Borneo. I’ve always wanted to see the Orangutans and love the work the Maverick team do, so I got thinking… Besides, the two week adventure was just a few weeks after Tarawera so I convinced myself that it made sense to give life the middle finger and swan off to the other side of the world for 6 weeks. So I signed up.

Leading up to the trip everything was easy. Ben, Justin and the Maverick team do a great job at organising all their events and this was no different. I had everything I needed and plenty of assurances all would be looked after. They weren’t wrong. Even with the Covid-19 outbreak and mass hysteria that swallowed the world, everything was exactly as promised. Better even!

The basis of the trip was an 10 day adventure with an option to stay on two additional days for the Borneo Ultra Trail Marathon race. Each day was part of a packed itinerary full of running, yoga, adventures, culture, snorkelling and seeing the land. We were fully catered for in terms of accommodation, food, transport and activities. Essentially I just needed to turn up and follow instructions – something I was ready to do after a month of travelling and making decisions for myself! It was one of the best experiences of my life and went a little something like this…

Day 0

I stopped by Bali on my way to Borneo (from New Zealand) and arrived late on the Friday night. As I exited the quiet arrivals hall a driver walked in with the ‘Maverick – Camp Endeavour’ sign and I was soon whisked to the Downbelow Lodge in Kota Kinabalu downtown. The Downbelow Lodge being the mainland base of ‘Adventures in Borneo’, Maverick’s Collaboration partner in Borneo run by Joanne and Richard. As the first arrival, I had the room to myself for the night.

The next morning I woke easily, refreshed and headed out in search of food. I’d identified a few local landmarks to go and visit including the Atkinson clock tower, Signal Hill Observatory, and the local food and Handicraft markets. On my journey I’d take in a breakfast stop in the highly recommended Nook cafe (a breakfast of Waffles with fruit and the biggest yogurt bowl with more fruit and muesli!). Heading back to the Lodge for midday I stopped by several shopping malls, mainly just to cool down in the air conditioning! It was scorching out there!

A number of others had arrived. And I first met Carl who I’d be sharing a triple room with for the trip. It wasn’t long before we found out we live just a few minutes away from each other in Crystal Palace! After another trip to the mall for lunch, a few of us met up and went out for a short run along coast. We covered approximately 5km as we began to get to know each other, speculate on the week ahead and swear at the blistering heat and humidity. I laughed to myself that only runners would turn up to a running trip and add more runs to the itinerary! This wouldn’t be the last either…

That evening we went for a ‘welcome’ meal in a nearby restaurant and got to meet Joanne and Richard and some more of the team who’d look after us for the week, including Jess who was our guide and local trail running hero. Later that night a few more of the group arrived including Jake, who was also the Photographer for the trip, and the last addition to our trip room – Spenny. Our Maverick rep and all round legend of the running community (I first met Spenny in the UTMB after party in 2018 after I’d completed the CCC and he the TDS. There was this giant of a man, drunk from a day of celebrating his achievements and slurring every word that came out of his mouth). After chatting for a while we hit the sack as it was an early start the next day as the adventures would begin!

Day 1

The next morning we were up early for breakfast in the lodge and a boat transfer to Gaya island. Here we’d enjoy a run on Gaya island and the opportunity for snorkelling and diving before staying overnight on Manukan island. Upon arrival we met the final two members of the group (Alex and Tiff) who’d arrived earlier and headed to Gaya ready. As we walked the Long Island pier to the beach, Richard gave us all a thoughtful welcome and quick speech to set the scene for the week. The key message he delivered (besides the essential health and safety advice) was to enjoy. Enjoy ourselves as we were here to experience Borneo and find our own way to take it all in. They’d flex to our needs and desires for the duration and look after us. All we had to do was focus on doing what works best for us. I liked this message. He also warned us against the risk of wasp nests and the two venomous snakes we might encounter. We all laughed nervously.

Jess led us off on the run, flanked by our other guides Mira, Roger and Stanley. The trails of Gaya were well marked and it was clear where to run (although comically we all missed a turn and finished the run slightly short!). The run was tough. Just 7 km covered in total but by 2km I was drenched. I Don’t think I’ve ever sweat so much in my life. I looked like I’d just emerged from the sea with my shorts and t-shirt sticking to my skin like clingfilm. The humidity was a whole new experience for me (and I’ve run in quite a few humid places!). For the first time I realised how tough a 100km will be in these conditions. Oh yes, as part of the trip we had the option to sign up to race at the BUTM (Borneo Ultra Trail Marathon) and I’d opted for the 100km race. I immediately started questioning if I could consistently run 10km in 3 hours out here and make it back to the finish in time to fly home (the cut off was 4pm and my flight was at 7pm)! Besides the humidity, the terrain was quite technical with tree roots throughout the trails and leaves covering the trip hazards. Masses of huge and crispy leaves crunching under our feet. The incline to the highest point on the island was tough, Despite it only being about 300m. The downs were surprisingly slow due to the challenging terrain. As we arrived back at the dive site we sat in the warmth of the sea, basking in paradise whilst our hosts prepared lunch. Above us Joanne pointed out the various species of bird including the White Hornbill birds gliding through the blue sky.

Just before lunch the team welcomed us more formally and gave a full briefing of the week ahead including the many options we can tailor as a group or individuals. They explained where we’d run, where we’d stay, rough timings and schedules for the week and whom to ask for help. Every base was covered and it was clear this was going to be a smoothly run adventure! Before we tucked into a huge lunch of curried dishes and rice, another surprise and gift from Joanne – beautifully handmade brass bracelets from our guide Jess – “Perfectly Imperfect”. Engraved with the words “Trust your Kolumpa” (Kolumpa translating to “shoes” in her Tribe’s language). A special gift with words of wisdom that are unique to us all on the trip to cherish.

After lunch we transferred to the nearby Manukan island for our overnight stay in resort. After checking in we were whisked straight back to Gaya island for a snorkelling session. There was word of whale sharks in the area and we went in search for them. Sadly we didn’t see them, but the Joanne and some of the team did as they left us after snorkelling to head home for the night. We did however see a variety of fish and sea turtles!

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Jake is as good at underwater photography as he is on dry land!

Later that evening we enjoyed yoga on the beach, as the sunset, led by the delightful Lily. This was my first yoga experience and what a way to sample it!! She released our senses with a variety of essential oils and calmly talked us through the poses with the biggest and friendliest of smiles you can imagine. It was then time for dinner and we were all relaxed and exhausted in equal measures. This was only day 1 of 10!

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Yoga with Lily. My first Yoga experience, not a bad place to try it out!

Day 2

The next morning, a few of us woke up early to catch the sunrise. The benefit of having a professional photographer with us in Maverick’s very own master of the lens – Jake. Sadly it was overcast but were able to enjoy an additional short run along the length of the island and back. An enjoyable and sweaty way to start the day. The outward trail to the ‘sunset’ point was mostly slabs and stones with the return through the forest being a short climb and then descending back to hotel on some forest trails. I joined Carl and Spencer in cooling off in the sea and getting plenty of stings from the jelly fish! We were wide awake now!

We followed up with a breakfast of champions and I ate everything I could find. Cereal, toast, fruit, pancakes, yoghurt and lots and lots of coffee. After breakfast we snorkelled again, this time off the neighbouring Sulung Island. Here the coral was more vibrant and colourful. Baby reef sharks could be seen in the shallow waters as well as few rather large jellyfish. Knackered, I spent most of the time clinging to the floaty ring! After Lunch at the resort we then headed back to mainland and checked back into to Downbelow Lodge. That evening we ventured out for a run to Tanjung Aru beach to see the sunset.

For the run we were joined by Jess’ sister Narna along with an additional film crew in tow (filming a documentary on the sisters). We ran the along the busy main roads and cycle path to the beach. From there we turned and ran back along the beach where we had plenty of photos and stopped at the beachside market to enjoy a fresh coconut as the sunset. That evening we headed out for dinner and drinks to a Mexican restaurant where the food was fantastic. The next day we’d begin our journey into the mainland of Borneo…

 

Day 3

We woke to breakfast in the lodge once more before we Loaded into the buses and drove to Kiulu for the next adventure. We arrived at the Kiulu Farmstay – Where we’d spend the night camping in a facility built by the local community and volunteers. We were greeted with what I thought was the best food from the trip so far – A combination of banana hearts, chicken, potato, papaya and local greens with chilli along with rice wrapped in banana leaf. All grown/produced on the Farmstay which was a cooperation from 13 nearby villages. We took the opportunity to capture a few photos with the drone whilst we digested lunch before heading out on the next run – A 10km with 400m of elevation that would take us to a waterfall deep in the jungle.

As we left the farmstay we ran up through a village to the beginning of the trail. We crossed over the first of many basic bridges built of wire and wood. Very, very wobbly. We climbed and ran some dirt tracks before running along the river and some wild and rocky trails. The smells were vivid, we weren’t sure what it was but it smelt like coriander to us. 

We then ran a short out and back with a ‘fruity’ climb to the waterfall. We took the local advice to dip in the water to cool off in the cold (but not icy) water. It was incredible. Instantly our temperatures were regulated and we were just as wet in the water as we were before we entered!

We ran back to the farm stay and jumped straight into the river there too so we could cool off again before we enjoyed another sunset evening yoga session with Lily alongside the river. This session involving more essential oils and massage techniques. All very relaxing but we were subjected to lots of bites from insects as the sun sent down!

Dinner that evening was another wild spread with fresh river fish, chicken and lots of veg added to the feast. Of course more rice was included. The Farmstay manager  introduced his son to us and also brought out the infamous rice wine we’d heard so much about. It’s is a wine produced from local fermented rice. Whilst we waited then for the wine to be prepared (after the rice produced, which involves harvesting the rice that is then washed, supplemented with a local yeast (specific to the village), and left to ferment, water is added and 10 minutes or so later the alcohol seaps into the water to produce the wine) he told folklore stories. Stories of forbidden love, of tragedy and stories about the Head Hunter tribes (yep – exactly as it sounds!). We then sang a traditional song and drank the rice wine as we each introduced ourselves to him. We ended the night sitting by the campfire and chatting away under the blanket of stars in the clear nightsky.

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Story time!

Day 4

Today was the early wake up as we’d head for the longest and most challenging run of the trip – a 30km-ish point-to-point run. We’d negotiated a slightly later start and a 5:30 breakfast that consisted of donuts, cake and noodles. With the run starting later at 9am, our bags would be transported to the village of Lobong Lobong where we’d be based for the next two days. Given the difficulty of this run, Richard and Joanne had arranged for a number of water stops along the way. We were still advised to carry 2 ltrs or water and it was estimated that the run could take between 6 and 9 hours to complete. Briefed up by Richard we set off and said our goodbyes to the Farmstay whilst some of the group opted out of the run and instead went on a rafting adventure and would meet us at the end of the run.

We started out from the Farmstay and ran along road with a slight incline. I was conscious of the challenge ahead so started out conservatively with a slow plod slightly behind the group. We crossed many wobbly suspension bridges and wound down by the river. The route followed this approach and terrain as we passed through a number of small villages and paddy fields. At one point, as we ran, a few buffalos ran ahead and it looked as if the front runners were chasing them. After about 10km we approached the team and the first water stop that was prepared for us. Here we guzzled back the fresh goodness and reloaded ready to continue the adventure.

Next up was a short 3km section to the second water stop but this was a gravel path climb. Up and up for 3km in the blistering heat of the morning we climbed about 600m. Brutal. We were thankful for the next water stop so soon along with the unobstructed view of mount Kinabalu to enjoy whilst we tried to regain our composure.

Sent back on our journey, from here we next headed into the jungle and along a ridge line. It was a narrow single track, both rocky and on a camber. Not the easiest to run along, but the views from the ridge were spectacular. It soon transitioned into a very steep downhill. Very slidey with banana leaves and bamboo leaves covering the floor and making it particularly slippy on top of the loose dirt. We were falling all over the place. At the bottom we rested in a river stream and cooled off in the fresh jungle water the way the locals do – fully submerged.

The climb back out was very steep, steeper than the downhill even as we climbed about 450m in just a mile. It went on and on and we made slow but steady progress as we climbed through the humid jungle before descending once more. Eventually, after about 23km (cumulative), we emerged from the jungle and had another water stop with the team to rest and refill our water. From here the ‘gradual climb’ to Pekan Nabalu would take us the final 10km to our finish point in the village. Only it wasn’t ‘gradual’ it was a consistently steep 400m climb with some additional descents thrown in for fun.

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Having a breather

A few hours later, in the blistering afternoon sun we finished in the town with beer and food. 32km covered with 2500m of elevation completed. It took almost 8 hours and was without doubt one of the hardest 30km runs I’d ever done. Once more my mind wandered to the 100km BUTM as I wondered what on Earth I’d signed up too. My rational thoughts kept reminding me that whilst it was over triple the distance, it was only double the elevation…

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Think I was happy to see a planned water stop

That evening we made the short journey to the Tanak Nabalu homestay in the near by village of Lobong Lobong. The villagers were so welcoming and we had a huge dinner of rice, vegetables and curried meats prepared for us along with piles of fresh fruit. Afterwards Jess had us all getting arty and hand carving soft wood boards (which she uses to print t-shirts), all while drinking copious amounts of rice wine.

Day 5

After a long run the day before we slept well (also probably helped by not camping again!). We woke to breakfast on our respective home stays and ours was an absolute feast. There were mounds of noodles and rice and eggs as well as banana bread and fruit. It was then straight off to the village hall for some morning yoga with Lily which was a somewhat painful but great stretch out.

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Absolute scenes on the climb to Pineapple Ridge

Following the yoga we set out on our next run – a 14km run along three ‘Pineapple Ridge’. So called because pineapples grow along the ridgeway. Obvious! Setting off just before midday it was incredibly hot and sweaty. Dry earth terrain with big steep climbs from the beginning saw us lunging upwards as we began the 750m climb. We stopped briefly along the way for photos as mount Kinabalu popped up with no clouds as we ran along the ridgeline. Naturally we put Jake to good use here! Further up we stopped at some villager huts for a break from the sun and a quick regroup. We ran the last 2km into the village to receive great views into the valley and back across to Pekan Nabalu on the distance ridge opposite.

‘Big Mike’ our host for lunch treated us to plenty of fresh juicy pineapples, Rose milk and another delicious spread of local food before it was then time to run back to the homestay and complete the loop by running along the village roads back down the valley. These were roads that initially were very steep down hills on sealed roads before the road disappeared and became gravel tracks and eventually un-pathed trails. Pineapples continued to line the side of the track with the mountains completing the idyllic background for our run. We crossed the rickety suspension bridge and made our way back into the home stay village.

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Post run fuelling on Rice Wine

Upon our arrival all the homestay hosts were waiting for us and we were treated to rice wine and banana frittas. Soon word crept out that in the house I was staying there was also banana bread. Turns out our host was a cook which explains us being constantly spoilt with food. She was so so generous. This particular rice wine was strong. The strongest yet that we’d tried. Two bamboo cups of the stuff and I was feeling pissed. I wasn’t alone. Some of the others went and found some beer and we met a few local characters whilst we enjoyed them – Like local ‘shop’ keepers and the very, very old lady walking up the street with a bamboo walking stick who went out of her way to come into the garden (not easy for her to open the gate!) and shake all our hands and say hello, despite her lack of English.

That evening we joined another group for a ‘cultural display’ by some of the villagers in the town hall after we were treated to yet another feast of amazing foods (spotting the theme of the trip yet?). The rice wine was coming thick and fast now. Debbie bought beer for us all and then we watched and listened as the locals played the gongs and danced a traditional village dance. We had the opportunity to try the gongs and dancing ourselves. Much to everyone’s amusement.

I left early that night when it was all over. The wine had gone to my head and I left the others chatting away and doing more arts and crafts (bracelet weaving) led by Jess. Tomorrow we’d wake to yoga before beginning the long journey (5hr) to Sepilok on the East coast of Borneo.

Day 6

We rose to another morning yoga session with Lily in the village playing fields with the cows surrounding us with their curiosity whilst the sunrise behind Mount Kinabalu theatrically took place. The tough stretches worked our achy bodies and plenty of groans accompanied the morning (not just from me this time!).

We dashed back to the homestay for brekkie and to pack before we loaded into the vans. It was a five hour journey (with a lunch stop at a market) which followed and we drove along some roads that were very windy and very bumpy. It was a tough journey. We eventually arrived at the Sepilok Jungle Resort after 5pm and were all so glad to escape the mini bus.

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Happy to have a spoon I guess?!

We headed straight into the pool with beers and chilled. Today was the first of two non-running days and we were ready to relax. It was lush. That evening, for dinner I had chicken nuggets. They weren’t so lush!

Day 7

Today was a day I’d been particularly looking forward too. In the morning we’d visit the orangutan rehabilitation centre where orangutans are reared, cared for and released back into the wild. I fucking love monkeys and orangutans. We started with a little video on the centre and I was welling up watching and learning about the work the volunteers do. We then headed out to the observation platform to watch the morning ‘feeding time’. The gibbons knew what to expect and started gathering on mass and crowding out the young orangutans. As the basket of food was delivered, carnage followed. Orangutans and gibbons descending like the rain, gathering up the bananas, melons, leaves and bamboo sticks. Fighting and hoarding was inevitable. There was even a little breakfast sexy time amongst the gibbons

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After feeding time we went over to the outside nursery where we could watch the younger, and newer, orangutans play. There were plenty of comedy moments as they played together, swinging around the nursery and wrestling each other. After we said goodbye to the Oranutangs we popped next door to visit the Sunbears. Whilst there we also saw a viper hiding out in one of the trees along the walkway!

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Mr Viper

Following some lunch the afternoon couldn’t have been any more different. Whilst some of the group were whisked off for an additional river cruise excursion, we took a trip to the city of Sandakan where we visited the Sandakan war memorial which charts the Japanese torture of British and Australian pows during the Second World War as well as the death marches (260km) where prisoners were led on foot Ranau. This was a chapter of history I never knew about. All very sad and thought provoking.

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Sandakan Views

After that we visited a Buddhist peace temple (Puu Jih Shih). It had some great views over the town of Sandakan and the sea. Finally we went to a local food market. It was your typical Asian food market. Nothing special from a tourist perspective. I bought a couple of ice creams including a uni-cornetto which was fucking ace!

Upon returning to Sepilok a few of us went for yet another off-itinerary run to stretch our achy legs. Over dinner we laughed and joked over the memories we’d made from the trip so far. It was clear we were having an incredible time!

Day 8

Back on the road today as we made the very bumpy journey back west to Sinurambi. As it was two days prior, the ride was painful and slow. Slightly more tolerable though as four of the group had departed on the additional day trip and another 4 had opted to fly west instead. So at least the bus wasn’t as crowded or as stuffy this time round!!

We arrived at the property just after 4pm. Wow. By far the best place we’d stayed. Rose and Terry’s B&B was high up in the mountains with stunning views over the surrounding mountains, Kota Kinabalu and the cluster of islands we’d visited at the start of the trip. The house was spectacular. We didn’t get long to start enjoying though as we headed straight out for a quick run before yoga by the pool watching the sunset from high up in the mountains.

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Mother fucker! That was steep!

The run was short (less than 5km) but immediately steep. Quite possibly the steepest road I’d ever run on (it hit >40% gradient in some parts!). We then left the road and headed into the jungle. Up and down we bobbed before reaching the waterfall that didn’t exist. The lack of rain meant it was completely dried up. So we bounced back up through the lively forest to complete a loop. The Forest was alive with the sound of wildlife. Noisy crickets screeching and making sounds that seemed to lie about their size. As we found our way back to the road we had to run back down the steep road and within seconds the soles of my feet were on fire! I dived straight. Into the pool as we returned to the B&B.

Now we were all reunited with the day trippers arriving back, Lily then took as through a yoga session over looking the city as the sunset in front of us. This session was hilarious as we performed ‘couples’ movements in pairs. As the sunset we all relaxed with smiles on our faces listening to the dulcet tones and jokes that Lily made as she taught. 

Rose then treated us to the best meal of the trip. No rice or noodles in sight. We enjoyed crispy pork, potatoes, fresh veg and salad as well as stuffed pumpkins and amazing soup with sweet corn and vegan banana cake and vegan ice-cream for desert. Dinner was also a celebration as today was Jess’ birthday. What a good end to the day.

Day 9

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Reunited for a run

An early-ish wake up call with brekkie at 7am as, before 9am, we were out and heading up to the salt trails. A trail so called as villagers and tribes used to travel the paths to trade items for salt. We were back in head hunter territory now. It was a fairly short but difficult run with 15km and 1300m covered. The climbs we were now getting used too – steep and rooty. There were a few sections that were good for brief spells of running but overall it was a another run were the sweat was instantaneous and we were soaked through. Sadly no rivers or streams to cool off in this time. Just 3 huts along the way that provided an opportunity to rest from the sun.

Back for a quick dip in the pool followed by another marvellous lunch from Rose and Terry. The rest of the afternoon was relaxing before one final yoga session with Lily overlooking Sabah once more before dinner and beers by the pool.

Day 10

The final day and sadly all that remained was a final meal with Rose and Terry before a midday transfer back to the Downbelow Lodge and sleep before the Borneo Ultra Trail Marathon (BUTM) where we all ran races from 30km to 100km. I ran the 100km starting at 6am on the Saturday and finishing at 6am on the Sunday. After the race it was back home for some sleep and a shower before 12 hours later I was heading home…

 

 

Reflecting…

The trip really was a fantastic way to acclimatise to the heat and humidity of Sabah. I sincerely doubt I would have completed the BUTM race if I did my usual approach of turning up a day or two before the run and having a short trip. Getting familiar with the trails and climate in advance was a huge benefit.

In hindsight, we were incredibly fortunate, for many reasons. Firstly, as the first edition of the Camp Endeavour with Adventures in Borneo, I think we were spoilt rotten. The trip represented insane value for money and we were treated like royalty the whole time. Whilst some of the group opted to ‘upgrade’ various hotels and transport options, this was in no way a reflection on the offering of the tour. As a group of runners on a running adventure, the basic package was pure luxury for expectations and what we paid.

Secondly, the day after the last of the group flew home, the Sabah was locked down amid the Covid-19 pandemic. We were incredibly fortunate to have this wonderful trip and opportunity with no issues. We were able to complete the full itinerary including the races at BUTM which has probably been one of the last international running events that has taken place this year. For all of us to make it safely to Borneo, enjoy ourselves and return home safely in these difficult times is surely a reason to be thankful! 

The friendliness of the people of Borneo was special. Everywhere we went, everyone we met were so welcoming and intrigued to meet and interact with us. We were always greeted with smiles and laughter, and of course rice wine!

With the ongoing uncertainty for the coming months, spare a thought for the small businesses who will be impacted by the economic climate and whose livelihoods are thrown into doubt as cities around the globe lock down. There are many, but to me right now writing this both Maverick Race and Adventures in Borneo are dear to me. They rely on social gatherings and events. So support them where you can – buy a race entry/ trip with them, use their shops and commerce sites, buy vouchers to be redeemed in the future when all becomes stable and help them be here still when that day comes.

 

Thanks to…

  • Maverick Race. Ben, Justin and the team have done a great job with all their events and this was my first experience of an overseas adventure with them. I’m grateful for this opportunity and thankful for their organisation and making it all so easy for me!

 

  • Adventures in Borneo. Joanne and Richard are fantastic. They are the operation behind Camp Endeavour: Adventures in Borneo and without them it wouldn’t have been feasible never mind possible. The incredible amount of work they sunk into making this happen showed. As I mentioned before, we were spoilt, this wan’t your run of the mill running trip. I don’t think it would have been possible to be in better hands. Their team in the office, the guides, drivers and all those who supported us, thank you too! We made many new friends on this adventure.

 

  • Lulu – Our ever present tour rep for Adventures in Borneo. You probably did more running than we did as you tracked after us all and ensured everything ran smoothly. The first one up, the last one to bed. The first one to the table, the last to eat. Your generosity was unheralded!

 

  • Jess, Mira, Roger, Stanley – our trusty trail guides. Keeping us on track, on time and smiling throughout the runs. Your advice was welcomed and laughter and zest for the trails infectious!

 

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Lily with her infectious smile and laughter
  • Lily – Our beautiful Yoga instructor. It was so challenging for me (to even sit on my knees!) but your patience and instruction was a virtue, your smile brighter than the sunrise and your jokes and sense of humour made everything so much easier!

 

  • To all our hosts from the Farmstay, Homestays, hotels and Rose & Terry. Thank you for welcoming us into your homes and spoiling us with your hospitality!

 

  • To all the others on the trip – thanks for the laughter, the stories, the beers, the piss taking, the memories. I don’t think a better bunch of strangers could be found. Thanks for the friendship. Until we meet again…

 

  • Jake. Thanks for the pictures. They are alright they are! 😉 One talented man right there! Go check him out. Taking pictures is an art, running kms everyday chasing runners around the jungle to take pictures is next level!  (and if you didn’t clock it, all but a few of the pictures here are his work! All credit to that man for his eagle eye and skills behind the camera)

 

 

 

Chasing Pounamu

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The Toki pounamu for finishers of the Tarawera 100 mile endurance event

‘Chasing Pounamu’ is a short documentary about one runner’s quest to complete the Tarawera 100 mile endurance run. Runners completing the event are gifted a Pounamu – a local Maori gemstone made into a necklace. It’s a heart warming and emotional watch (you can find it on YouTube). One I watched a few weeks before I headed out on my own quest to ‘chase the pounamu’…

Last year, when Kirsty left the UK to return to New Zealand, a few of us said we’d come and visit sometime. Little did I realise a few months later I’d be signing up to my first 100 miler in New Zealand. 100 miles was never on my to do list. However, over the past 12 months my running distances had been slowly creeping up and 100 miles suddenly became the next logical step. Although It wasn’t until I was on the sign-up page for the Tarawera Ultra Marathon (TUM) that the decision was made as, unlike the other events at TUM, the ‘miler’ finishers are gifted with a pounamu. I signed up immediately.

Fast forward some 8 months later and we are reunited with Kirsty in Rotorua. Like many events I didn’t feel as ready as I could or should be. Especially for tackling my first 100 mile event. A recurring pain in my ankle/shin had kept me from running for the whole of January (with the exception of the Maverick race in Amberley). My mind was focused though. No way was I not starting. No way was I not finishing. No way would I be leaving without that Pounamu! For weeks my mind had been consumed by the race. I’m not sure why. Maybe because of the costs. Maybe the extent of the adventure I was embarking on for 6 weeks. Maybe because I was nervous. Either way it helped me to focus and visualise on the end goal. I was determined and would be relying more than ever before on the experience I’ve accumulated from running ultras…

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Trail Maggots

The day before the race we went to the Maori Powhiri at Te Puia. A traditional welcoming ceremony which welcomed the runners to the event and officially opened it. With talks from the race founder, Maori leaders and the town Mayor as well as singing and dancing it ended with a hongi – a significant expression performed by rubbing noses. It was , to a ‘Westerner’ unusually special. I’ve never felt so at home at an event before. The runners were told that we were now part of their community. Their family. That together we’d see success in the event. It was all rather touching. We then went and registered and collected our bibs (and do the weigh in for medical reasons). This was the quickest of processes as we’d already passed our mandatory gear checks – the event had a unique collaboration with Macpac (an outdoors retail chain) where you could visit any store in the days leading up to the event, do the mandatory gear check in store and receive a signed certificate to present at registration instead of taking your kit with you. This made the whole process so much slicker, how any of it is actually governed come race day I do not know though! The afternoon involved some relaxing in the heated hotel pool and then as much sleep as I could possibly get!

It was time. After a few hours sleep I found myself creeping around in the dark at 2am. The 3 others in the room were still sleeping, squeezing in an extra hour for the later start of their 100km race. Final preparations and checks completed and it was time to leave, just as it started to hammer down with rain. Hugs and high fives all round. Andy kindly drove me to the start back in Te Puia and Jorge, being the ever generous and supportive friend he is, came along too. We rocked up in a very empty car park. Jorge sported Adrian, the man at the centre of ‘chasing Pounamu’ and I followed him inside the cultural centre to the start line right up by the active Pohutu geyser – Pohutu happens to be the largest active geyser in the southern hemisphere and erupts once or twice every hour, sometimes reaching heights of 30 metres!) which was erupting magnificently in the darkness. The start line was covered in the spray and mist from the sulphur activity. I sat on the hot rocks nearby and waited patiently. I did one final ‘body check’ and mentally confirmed all was good – nothing but the normal few amber warnings flagged up. I was as ready as I could be.

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The Pohutu Geyser in Te Puia at the Start of the miler

As the MC started to welcome the runners and brief us on the journey ahead we congregated behind the start line. Our welcome climaxed in a traditional Maori Haka and traditional singing. With Pohutu erupting behind us it was a truly surreal and magical moment as the race director and crowd of supporters counted us down and sent us off on our challenge…

For a moment I was overwhelmed as I crossed that start line. To cheers and applause I realised this is the moment of races I like most. A sense of awe from the crowd. Respect and appreciation as they spur on loved ones, family, strangers. There’s no competition, only encouragement. the beginning of an epic challenge and adventure, however it turns out. At this moment I feel invincible. I smiled and clapped back, as I always do. I wish this feeling would last more than a few seconds!

We ran through Te Puia and very quickly found the trails as we made the first 13km to the first aid station. The first set of paths were hard and dusty. Uneven but nice to run. They led us into the first of many forest tracks we’d run this day. It was still raining but as we entered the Redwood forest the rain was but a light mist/spray that was cooling in the humid morning. The head torches lit the way as we traced the winding paths through the woodlands. The pack of just under 300 runners was already beginning to spread and I found myself following a group of maybe six runners keeping pace together. Before I knew it a sign screamed out at us “aid station 200m ahead”. Little did I know how much I’d look forward to these signs later in the day!

Leaving the aid station we were immediately back into the forests. These paths were different though. More single tracks. The floor littered with roots. A few times I tripped but thankfully never fell. Areas of steps provided extra challenges in this part as we navigated the trails in complete darkness due to the thick foliage and cover. The smells were incredible and so vibrant and I was smiling as I wound my way through moew twisty tracks. Another aid station came and went and I then found myself running alongside the Green Lake. The sun was starting to rise and the paths navigated ran alongside the lake as the sun began to glisten and reflect off the water. The trails were undulating with little stretches of running broken up by short climbs. We burst out of the forests and ran a section along a sealed road. Cones marked the way and signs encouraging the runners to keep inside the cones. I felt the road. It was dull and tedious after the trails before it. Thankfully though the Buried Village soon appeared. The third aid station and one of historical importance – a heritage site persevering a village buried under rock, ash and mud following the eruption of Mt Tarawera.

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Green Lake

Inside the Buried Village the atmosphere was electric. Loads of supporters welcoming the runners in to the aid station and a lady on a mega phone cracking the jokes and encouraging everyone on. I had some jam and Nutella sandwiches made for me by the volunteers and cracked on to the next section which would be the second longest stretch between aid stations with about 15km until I reached Isthmus. I did stop very quickly for a picture at the view point and then again to take off my arm warmers and pack them and the head torch away.

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Lake Tarawera

This section was by far my favourite part of the race. The Buried Village was beautiful and the trails undulating along the rock face. Fauna surrounded us and we were soon presented with incredible views across lake Tarawera as the sun continued to glisten and reflect off the water. The paths then opened up as we reached the lake. The soft grassy trails which followed the contours of the lake were a joy to run on. As we closed in on Isthmus I noticed some odd signs warning of zombies and that ‘any zombies chasing humans would be shot on sight’. It took me a while before I realised the it was a sign for the aid station and that all the aid stations were themed. This one for a Zombie apocalypse. I thought it was a great way to raise a few smiles and provide entertainment.

A bunch of runners came in after me and I didn’t hang around too long. It was just over a km until I’d reach the ferry crossing to get to the other side of the lake Rerewhakaaitu. I didn’t want to end up in a queue for the boat so I stepped on it a little. As I arrived at the jetty there was sadly no boat waiting for me. Two ladies, Sue and Femi sat waiting with mocktails. The volunteer was preparing juice and ice mocktails for the runners and they were an absolute treat. I picked one up, clinked glasses and sat down to joined them. As we waited he explained there had been an issue with one of the two boats. By the time it arrived 12 of us shuffled onboard to get to the other side. A few minutes later as we unboarded the runners fled off into the distance and running through the private farm roads. We then hit a long road on a gradual incline. I briefly chatted to sue as she ran a steady pace running to heart rate. She gradually pulled away as I was adamant I was walking it all. I didn’t want to burn out so soon!

The road continued for about 5km before we reached the next station at Rerewhakaaitu. It was still morning but getting very hot now. I took advantage and lathered up with the suncream available at the aid station before hitting the road again. And that is what it was. More road. More tarmac gradually climbing as far as my eyes could see into the distance. I hiked on. I was amazed by the persistence of runners who ran it all. The farmer themed aid station of Okahu broke up the road briefly but more was to come. By the time we left the road I think we must have covered somewhere between 10-15km. It was soul destroying. The return to the trail was most welcomed.

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A small section of the seemingly never ending road

The trails were now long and wide gravel tracks worn over time by vehicles. Again the paths were undulating with gentle inclines and down hills alternating. A good section for running and getting into the flow again. That was until towards the end of the section where a climb of about 200m was lurking. As we reached the top and the aid station at Wihapi the volunteers apologised for the hill. I laughed and said it was easier than the road. It certainly was for me! 

From here the wide gravel paths continued. Only down hill. The longest section of downhill on the route and I thought it was as soul destroying as the road. Why? Because it was so straight. You could just see the path continue into the distance and never ending. Mentally I found it tough to keep moving at pace. Somewhere around here I’d started talking to another runner – Thomas. We’d been leap-frogging each other for a while and had settled into a comparable pace. He seemed fine with it when I kept pointing ahead and indicating where and when I’d start walking or running. Puhipuhi was the next destination and one that marked where the route would join with that of the 100km runners. Those runners would be well passed by now though having started 3hours after the miler and having just 20km to run to get to the same aid station. Hopefully that would mean the trails would be quieter for me for the rest of the day. The volunteers offered me plenty of ‘crippies’ and ‘lollies’ as well as the option to lay in their paddling pool. I declined the later but did discover Mountain Dew. Something I’ve never tried before. I thought it was ace, even though it is probable a chemical concoction I do not want to know more about! As I drank the Mountain Dew, it was the first moment that it dawned on me how far the race was. 80km in and we were only half way there. Halfway! Shiiit. That thought would linger for a long time.

Chatting away to Thomas I completely zoned out on the way to Tiktoki. I remember the trails were still long and wide but now more grassy and more dirt like rather than gravel. Some woman also joined with us for a short while. She was memorable because she was completely soaked (somewhere she’d gone for a dip in the lake!) and because she shared insight and knowledge as the was her second time. She encouraged us to reach Hhumphries before dark as that section was technical. She vanished before we reached Tiktoki and was no where to be seen when we arrived. As we sat and ate at the aid station we chatted with several other runners. One explained he was done with the sweat food and a volunteer overheard and brought out bacon and egg pie. Woooah. This was great. Back on it now! 10km until the 100km mark and a key milestone in my race because (1) I’d mentally split it into 3 x 50 kms. I knew if I got to 150km I’d finish. So 2/3 of the race would have been completed when I reached the Outlet. (2) it was where my drop bag was located. So time for a longer rest and mid-race maintenance. For me this means a wet wipe shower, change of socks, t-shirt and shoes. Reapply Squirrels Nut Butter to prevent chafe. Swap out and refill my nutrition stash and dump any unnecessary items. This time I got rid of the Gopro, sunglasses and running belt (used to carry my phone but I was no longer in the mood for photos so in the backpack it went!). Before I reached the Outlet though it was more windy forest trails. The highlight of which was a section running along one of the clearest rivers I’ve ever seen. Somewhere hidden here is the Tarawera Falls. You could hear it for a long time before we reached it. The water was gushing out of the mountain through many holes. We took a moment to enjoy the view before continuing.

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Tarawera falls. A magnificent sight!

As I was going through my drop bag routine I told Thomas to crack on. I was going to be here for a while and didn’t want him waiting for me longer than he was prepared for. As is the case with these races you often see people again at different stages. We wished each other well and I got stuck into some more hot noodles. I was all about the hot savoury food now! Loads of runners came and went in my time at Outlet. But when I left I was born again!

The next section was the technical bit to Humphries bay running alongside the northern side of lake Tarawera. Crazy to think I’d been looking across the lake to this area maybe ten hours ago after I left the Buried Village! It was Only about 7km and I was feeling rejuvenated so I ran. I ran well. I passed maybe ten runners on this section as I leaped and bounced around the roots and lunged up the rocks and powered through. It was fucking humid too. As the day started to end the humidity In the forest increased. My fresh kit was quickly as wet and stinky as the stuff I’d changed out of. Despite the running it took a while. A good 1.5 hours for such a short distance before I emerged into the scout base of Humphries bay. Here I persuaded a volunteer to make me a cheese toasty using the volunteers sandwich maker. She wasn’t too eager but how can you say no to someone running a 100 miles?!

Leaving Humphries it was a similar story as I made my way towards Okatania. More forest paths. Less technical thankfully but still many roots and fallen trees to climb or duck under. The legs didn’t appreciate those lunges now! It was still very bright as the sun set over the lake but as soon as you turned back into the ‘bush’ it was pitch black. The headlamp had to come out. It felt odd as I could look up and see the light beyond the foliage. It just wasn’t reaching the ground. I found Thomas again and we carried on into the darkness for the several km remaining of this section, which felt so much longer.

I lost him once more at the Okatania aid station. This one was pumping. Okatania, with its circus theme, was a hive of activity. Not only was it another drop bag and support aid station, but it was where miler runners could have a pacer join them for the last marathon. Yep. Three back to back marathons done, one remaining. I sat down with some soup and more egg and bacon pie and a woman started talking to me. She was waiting for her husband and was asking how it’s going and if she could get me anything. So kind. I was sorted though. Warm belly and more fluids taken on board as well as a third water bottle filled up – the next section was 16km. I’d been drinking a litre between aid stations and despite it now being night, the humidity, length of the next section and the imminent climb meant I should be wise and prepared. I had noticed that despite all the fluids I was still not fully hydrated though after all this time and it did bother me a little and was on my mind.

Stocked up I set off to make the climb. Maybe a little over 500m lay ahead. This didn’t phase me and I was ready for a good walk. I’d also picked up my poles at the 100km mark ready for a lot of walking. After bringing them all this way I at least needed to make some use of them. So out they came. And off to the Blue Lake I marched.

It was a lonely old climb. I thought I’d see groups of people encouraged by their pacers storming past me but it never happened. What did surprise me though was that on the climb I began overtaking some 100km runners. I didn’t think I’d catch the ck end of this event. They were in high spirits though and with each one I passed we congratulated each other’s efforts and called bullshit to the climb and pains. As I broke the back of the climb the descent began. It was runnable. Single track easy underfoot. I ran on. After a few km though the ran became a hobble. Whilst I’d been blocking out the pains in my legs (particularly my ankle/shin pain and my destroyed quads) I couldn’t block out the pain in my left foot. The sole was raw. A blister for sure on the padding. Pressure was rather uncomfortable but there was no choice but to keep moving forward. The slow progress then began to make me tired and I was wobbling a little for sure.

Before the Blue Lake there was another section. Coming out of the long trails from Oktania we reached the aid station at Millar road. A smallish aid station but one busy with volunteers. I asked for warm food but there was none. They did have coffee though. I needed it. The long walk had made me sleepy. I needed a kick. I sat down with more jam sandwiches, a cheese scone and some ‘chippies’ whilst I drank the coffee. I noticed runners coming in and either layering up or being wrapped in blankets as they sat. Mmhhh. I realised it was cold. I took my arm warmers back out. It wasn’t cold by UK standards but I was beginning to shake a little.

As I left Millar road I walked with another guy. We talked a bit but I forgot his name. I was spaced out now. I overheard a volunteer tell another runner about long sections of road and another 1.5km of technical forest tracks. As we walked the first part of the road the pain was too much for me to fully engage in conversation. I also kept needing to pee. So I’d dropped back from the runner before we reached the technical part. In the bush it was so dark. The paths were windy with twists and turns. I kept having to stop and look which way I was going. My head torch died and I needed to change the battery to see (thankfully it died in a small clearing in the bush and the moonlight was enough to see in my bag for the spare). The bush was spectacular in the dark. But I was getting sleepy. So very sleepy.

Eventually we left the forest behind and emerged onto a road. Back at Blue Lake. To my right was the aid station, lit up a few hundred meters away. To my left, arrows and cones marking the path. Ah. Shit, I forgot we had to do a loop of the lake first. About 4km. We ran this as a group a few days before in the opposite direction. I at least knew what to expect. But this wouldn’t mean I’d enjoy it. 4km hobbling took a long long time. 

I rocked up 2 hours later than estimated at the Blue Lake aid station and I only had one thing on my mind… “is there a medic or someone who can treat a blister for me?”. Thankfully there was. A running coach went to work and gasped when my sock came off. “We need to drain that one!” Much to the shock of the volunteers who’d gathered round. It was probably about the size of a watch face on the padding of my sole. I drank more coffee whilst she went to work and then taped it up to relieve the pressure. Immediately I felt better and that I could hobble a little faster at least. I thanked them and set off on my way. As I left the aid station Jorge, Kirsty and Andy were there to cheer me on. I find this level of support and friendship incredible – after running all day, 100km for 14-18 hours with minimal sleep they still put others first over their recovery needs. It’s so generous. A short chat and I was back moving. 15km to go via the Redwoods back to town…

From Blue Lake to Redwoods was a tough 9km stint. It started with some twisty gradual climbs on loose gravel paths. Any thoughts I had on running were gone again. The loose rocks ached the raw skin on my feet. As we continued we ventured back into the forest trails. This time surrounded by the huge redwoods all around. My watch kept beeping as it lost signal. The darkness was pure. Above us a super moon shining bright in the sky. Towards the end of the section we climbed again. I passed more runners from the 100km and a few milers on the climb too. Each one questioning when it would end. Each one with a different understanding of how long the final section through town would be, it ranged from 2km to 9km. Naturally I hoped for the former! As we levelled out the town lights were visible in the distance. Like all ultras though I questioned how far further this last stretch would be and when we’d descend to town level and how/where we we going. It looked so far. What goes up must come down though and soon we did. Rapidly. Steps. Heaps of them. Deep earth packed Steps with un-level wooden breakers. I limped down them all eventually reaching a road and volunteers each egging me on the final few hundred m. I arrived at the Redwoods aid station to be treated by a Mexican day of the dead party. The sun beginning to rise and two familiar faces – Paul, the founder of the Tarawera race (who welcomed us at the Powhiri) and a gentleman I’d seen many times throughout the day supporting his wife. He chatted to me each time. He’s had just 5 hours sleep in the last two days and looked exhausted now. I assured him his wife Billie was just behind me. They pushed me on for the last stretch with encouragement. It was close to 7km to go. Damn. I wanted more coffee but there wasn’t any. I was no reliant on the rising sun to bring some life back into me and keep the eyes open as I left the aid station

 

Into finish now. 7km. 2 hours. It was happening for sure. Even if I slowed down further the sub 30 ‘Western States’ qualifier would be achieved. I believed more than ever before. A few runners ran past me. They clearly believed too. We followed some park paths for a little while before hitting the geothermal valley  area. Woah. Besides being hit in the face with the heat and sulphur smell, it was beautiful. Natural rocky landscape steaming from vents. I expected to run through the main streets of town. Long straight blocks of buildings. Nope. We’d loop through parks and wooden walkways surrounding the thermal areas all the way to the lake. It made it far more manageable. I plodded on. Billie and her husband ran past. It was about 7am. The sun was shinning. I reached the last sign saying 200 m to the finish. There were a group of people standing and clapping. I stopped to talk. We joked about running the last bit. The only bit that matters. A few moments later I started again. The plod became faster. I was shuffling now. The crowd gathered at the finish line began to cheer. The MC announced me as I entered the finishers area. I shuffled over the line with a beaming smile. I didn’t know what to do and the first words that came out to a volunteer were “where do I sit down?” I was so spaced out. Exhausted. A lady came over and apologetically encouraged me to come and get my gift, the Pounamu. Yes!!! A table was laid out. There were loads of Pounamu in boxes on display like a jewellery shop. They were massive. Far bigger than I expected. Each one different. Different colours. Different shades. She explained the purpose, the shape and meaning and significance of the ‘Toki’ design. She explained that we were to choose our own. It was personal. It took me a while but with a little help I found my Pounamu. The dark green jade called to me. She put it round my neck. I asked her to get a finish line photo. A videographer took pictures and filmed and asked if he could have a few words. Before she left the lady asked me if I wanted a hug, “fucking right I do” and at that moment I felt the sense of achievement and closure from the race. As the videographer asked me questions I realised how spaced I was. I’ve no idea what I answered. I was led in to the recovery zone to be weighed – we were weighed at check in and on finishing to check we were medically ok. They advised they were looking for a weight loss/gain within a 4kg tolerance to ensure we hadn’t taken in too much or too little liquid. I’d lost about 1.5kg. Perfect he said, go get some food and relax in the recovery area. As I went in I saw Femi from the boat ride some 14 hours earlier?! Then Jorge, Andy and Arlene arrived. They’d seen me finish as they were parking. They helped feed me and get me home. They updated me on everyone else’s races and achievements.

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Crossing that finish line as a 100 mile finisher!

Final thoughts

  • Milers are hard. It’s a long ass way
  • I once again broke it into thirds. The first 50km was a breeze. The middle dragged on and on and the final was a slog. The realisation at 80km that it was only half way was horrible.
  • The generosity of friends. Tracking and following, supporting. Its incredible at the best of times. Its another level of generosity when they do it after running 100km themselves!
  • The sheer size of operation – around 690 volunteers and 150 permanent staff. 200 kms of trails across private land, public land, Government land and tribal land. There is a huge amount of organisation to such a successful event.
  • The generosity of the event. There was something very psecial in the Powhiri welcome. I’ve never experienced that before. Also starting in a cultural site and the Haka at the start. Incredible. The amount we got out of it too with entrance to cultural/heritage sites such as Te Puia and the Brried Village, the race swag, the support throughout the race and the huge pounamu. The expensive race entry was fully justified this time!
  • It takes a lot of coffee for me to get going when I’m tired.
  • The morning is a very special time when running. The light from the sun is powering and what goes before it is soon forgotten when the day breaks.
  • Rotorua is special. It has so much. Tens of lakes. Woods and forests such as the Redwoods. Mount Tarawera and the geothermal valley. Any one of those alone would make it special, Rotorua has them all!
  • The pounamu. A medal I’ll wear for sure.
  • I’m a miler man now.
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With the choosen Pounamu