And they say Australia is inhospitable!
This year I was lucky enough to travel to Latvia to compete in the World Rogaining Championships, along with nearly a thousand others. At the closing ceremony of the previous World Championships, held near Alice Springs in Australia, I recall the Latvian representative finishing her spiel by stating this Rogaine would be ‘spinifex free.’ While that might have been true this Rogaine definitely challenged my vision of Europe as a landscape defined by open, rolling green countryside!
At this rogaine Australia was the sixth most represented country with a healthy 30 participants. Unsurprisingly, Latvia dominated the field with 409 participants followed by Russia with 165. I was competing with Murray Pinnock.
The event was held in Rēzekne National Park in the south east part of the country. Upon arrival the night before the competition, we were treated to Latvian folk music and discovered that a catering company was providing beer on tap! A display was also set up to familiarise us with the plethora of hazardous flora in the region. In particular we were to look out for a tall plant called ‘hogweed’ which causes the skin to blister upon contact with its sap. Additionally we were to avoid ticks as they carry a number of diseases in this region including Lyme disease. The bears however were harmless!
On the morning of the big day we awoke to extremely heavy rain and the campsite soon became awash with mud. At 9am we balanced umbrellas as we diligently queued for the map handout. The map itself was exceptionally detailed and was dotted with small farmsteads encircled by (supposedly) open farmland. It was much closer to an orienteering map than a standard rogaine map. Looking at the map revealed the extent of the marshland and rivers that define this region. The course area alone included 193 lakes and ponds!
In addition to the standard compulsory equipment, this rogaine also required us to carry our passports in case we should become so geographically misplaced that we wander over the nearby Russian border, or encounter any Russian border police. The top teams in this event were carrying GPS devices that relayed their position back to the hash house and then onto the web. All other teams also had their scores broadcast as they passed set recording points. This was highly successful in making this notoriously spectator unfriendly sport enjoyable to watch.
As it approached noon the weather cleared to reveal an exceptionally sunny, humid day. At midday we set off in a huge crowd. As usual, we travelled to the first few checkpoints in an ant-trail but soon lost the crowds. I was not entirely sure what to expect of the Latvian landscape but the name of one Australian team, ‘Flatvia,’ was quite appropriate. While the landscape was not steep, off-track progress was very slow due to the thickness of the undergrowth. I had made the poor decision of wearing standard Australian rogaining kit of shorts, t-shirt and gaiters. I very quickly regretted this decision once I was breaking a trail through head high nettles. You could easily tell the Australians from the Europeans, the Australians wearing broad-brimmed hats and loose fitting clothing in comparison to European lycra.
Shortly we realized that many of the marked river ‘crossings’ were in fact large beaver dams. They proved remarkably stable considering the hundreds of feet that crossed them in the space of a few short hours. But the marshlands and swamp were impossible to avoid. Within two hours of the start we were in shin-high mud. The particular dampness of this Rogaine led to worse than usual blister problems among competitors. While Murray and I avoided blisters, there were a large number of early withdrawals for this reason. The marshes also led to huge mosquito problems.
Our first few hours went well until we made the costly error of overshooting a control, hitting an unmarked trail and becoming totally disorientated. We lost considerable time here and for a while I had terrible visions of us wandering off into Belarus. Unlike an Australian event, I had truly no idea where I was in the broader context of the region! It also proved challenging adapting to reading a map in a landscape where I had no familiarity. Unlike an Australian rogaine, all the marked rivers had water and there was scarcely a gully to be seen!
Eventually we hit a major road and re-orientated ourselves. The next control involved crossing more than 2 kilometers through a supposedly open ‘field.’ In reality this field was like many others in the region, largely overgrown and the marked road was little more than a narrow foot-track through head high vegetation. The population of Latvia is in decline and this is most marked in rural areas where many farms are abandoned and the fields have been left to wildflowers and nettles.
As it became dark and the competition progressed, navigation became easier. The soft soil quickly developed defined foot tracks that were easy to follow. This very much suited running teams who were already in their element on the flat terrain.
It was interesting to be competing in an area that was not ‘wilderness’ in the Australian sense as it meant that the event had points of cultural interest, like drawing murky water from a well at a marked waterpoint! Around midnight we had the eerie experience of stumbling out of the forest onto a large soviet-era apartment block. It was totally abandoned and stood on the outskirts of a tiny village. Later, at 2am we were confused as we watched bright lights travel at foot-pace towards us. As it came closer, we realized in fact it was a man leading a large horse on the road, being guided by a car. I’ll never know why it was necessary to walk a horse at such an hour.
Locals had been informed that the event was taking place so most of the farm dogs were locked away but it was still nerve-racking to cross farms in the dark to unfriendly barking. The locals themselves seemed understandably perplexed by the hordes of muddy sports-wear clad foreigners ducking in and out of forest and across their farms.
As the sun rose in the morning the temperature increased exponentially. Like many rogaines, the final hour was defined by a slog along a road. We finished on 187 points, placing ourselves 76 out of 156 mixed open teams and fifth in the mixed juniors. We had walked 74km in total. Considering this was our first overseas event, we were pleased with our respectable result. We had scratches, stings and sore knees to show for it and spent the next few days recuperating in the beautiful capital city of Riga.