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Tasman Peninsula (Prince Roy)

The world's most spectacular race course?


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10th December 2011

Day two of the Swisse Mark Webber Challenge and Will Gray wonders how competitors can concentrate

Just metres above the towering sea stack, known locally as the Totem Pole, a helicopter with a very brave Scottish cameraman buzzed back and forward capturing the scene, as 25 kayaks navigated their way around the spectacular coastline.

It was day two of the Swisse Mark Webber Tasmania Challenge. We were offshore on the Tasman Peninsula, bobbing over the waves in the comfort of our tourist boat, while competitors paddled around the picturesque Fortescue Bay.

Mark Webber, the F1 driver and adventurer who created this great charity multisport event, put on a good show on day one to claim third in the standings with team-mate Guy Andrews. The only competitive action he got after that was the banter in the Freycinet Lodge hotel, as his F1 schedule forced him back to the UK, via a black-tie awards ceremony in India.

“Not big on them, mate,” he said, as he prepared to leave the Tasmanian wilderness, clearly more at home in racing lycra than a dickey bow. As he left, I mentioned that he might be more disappointed to be leaving right now, given this spectacular part of the globe is currently at its absolute best.

“Tassie, mate,” he agreed. “You can’t beat it – and jeez, you guys are going to have a wild time if this keeps going.”

He was not wrong.

After a sizzling first day around the Freycinet National Park, the race headed south for day two. With an early 4am start, everyone looked bleary-eyed as they travelled almost three hours south to the next flagship location on the Tasmanian tourist trail.

Here, we watched with dropped jaws, as a TV crew put in some spectacular adrenaline flying, to capture the racers on their way past the impressive pitted rocky shoreline, en-route to a surprise 100m swim to shore.

Ahead of them lay 17km of biking through State Forest, the same distance kayaking through sparkling coastal bays, and more than 30km of hiking and running around the stunning coastline. For some adventure travellers, that may sound like the perfect combination for a five-day tour of the peninsula – but for the Challenge competitors it was all in their travel schedule just for one day.

As the slower teams raced around the coast, we set off for Port Arthur Historic Site. Here, the lead competitors battled with a rather unique, high-speed ‘pub quiz’. They chased around the former penal settlement, in search of clues to solve questions about its history.

The buildings on this coastal site include the imposing waterside Penitentiary, and the exhibits within them tell the story of the thousands of men, women and children convicts who had been sent to ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ and were housed there on reoffending.

Prisoners were initially punished by ‘cat o’nine tails’ flogging then subsequently through psychological means including The Separate Prison and Isolation Cell. The site, first settled in 1830, was closed in 1877 and its 47 years of dark but enlightening history make it one of Tasmania’s top tourist destinations.

Whether the competitors learned much about all that history or not, they were soon on their way to kayak past the Isle of the Dead, where many of the former prisoners are buried. After that it was on to Safety Cove – with just a quick 8km run left to take them to the finish, just outside Remarkable Caves.

And it was here, on the remote coastline, where we encountered the most spectacular view of the day – but we had to work for it ourselves.

After a gentle forest trail, our media group climbed steadily up a steep sand dune in 24-degree heat – which, in Tasmania (ozone layer hole to thank), feels like 30. There, we discovered a pristine white beach that looked like it had not been touched for years, gently being lapped by deep blue water.

If I were a competitor, I would have found it hard not to take a dip in the tempting waters. But for them, the sole aim was to get to the end – which all did, some taking the shortest distance and others picking up optional checkpoints to gain time credits along the way.

For some, victory comes above all else, and lead racer Mark Hinter, a Hobart-based Brit, admitted, “I wish we could stop a bit more, to look at all this amazing scenery!”

But for many this great adventure is not about the competition, it’s about the camaraderie. There was plenty of that as everyone threw out the back-slaps and high-fives across the line, before piling into vehicles for the journey to Gordon campsite – departure point for the next day’s adventures on Bruny Island.

Hope to see you there…

Swisse Mark Webber ChallengeEstablished in 2006, the Mark Webber Challenge Foundation was created to umbrella all of Mark Webber’s philanthropic activities. Past beneficiaries have included TLC for Kids, Brainwave and the Cancer Council Tasmania’s Cancer Plus and the Save the Tasmanian Devil Appeal.

To follow the race live visit: www.markwebbertasmaniachallenge.com or join the twitter stream SMWebberTasChlg

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