Breaking the cycle of GI cancer statistics

A team of seven adventurers recently returned from cycling 360kms over 6 days, through extreme heat, mud and rough terrain as part of the Cambodia Gutsy Challenge. The team raised over $51,100 to support the AGITG Innovation Fund, to find better treatments for people living with GI cancer.

Associate Professor Chris Karapetis, an AGITG member and leading medical oncologist, proudly participated and said:chris-with-bike-temple

“I had an incredible experience and made some lifelong friends. I absolutely encourage others to take on this kind of challenge. Not only will you undergo a deeply personally satisfying experience, but you will make new and innovative research possible – research that could save the life of someone you love.”

The Cambodia Gutsy Challenge

On October 16, seven excited but nervous cyclists met at Sydney International Airport. They were about to embark on a 360km cycle across Cambodia, in support of the GI Cancer Institute and in memory of their loved ones.

In the months beforehand, the team worked hard and raised over $51,100, so the journey was deeply personal for many of the team.

Day 1

We arrived at our accommodation the previous evening and had a brief glimpse of Siem Reap in the evening during the drive from the airport, as our guides explained the challenges ahead.  After pondering the insane traffic, the extreme heat and humidity, and the fact that we would be riding on the right hand side of the road instead of the left, we managed to get some sleep.

Everyone woke early, mentally preparing for the day ahead. Our guides ensured our bikes were the right size and in good working order. They then led us through a stretching routine and we learned some all- important hand signals to indicate stopping, turning, slowing down or pointing out potholes.

The traffic in Cambodia has to be seen to be believed. There are cars, mopeds, tuk-tuks, cyclists, dogs, people and pretty much no rules. Some mopeds will carry four – five people, including a toddler standing up at the front. Riding down the wrong side of the road is also common. Horns are honking everywhere, yet somehow everyone manages to weave around each other and work their way through, with the occasional mishap. This was our introduction to cycling in Cambodia! See more here: https://youtu.be/GnPeRVeHkKY

Once out of town, we turned onto dirt roads to head to our first stop – the temple of Bayon. This incredible temple has 200 carved faces and was built in the 13th century.

muddy-road

Soon we are back on our bikes.There is some sliding around in the mud before we arrive at the next temple, called Ta Prohm, also known as the Tomb Raider Temple. With its massive trees growing through and around the ruins, we wish we had more time for discovering, but we still have one more temple to visit – Angkor Wat, the seventh wonder of the world.

We cycle through more mud, dirt and heat and by now we are not as pretty as when we started out in the morning. We have also lost a water bottle and a pair of sunglasses and one of us also lost their stomach contents, but we have not lost our determination or our sense of humour.

We cycle back through the Siem Reap traffic chaos and some rain. Our aim for the day was 30kms but we end up cycling 43kms. We’ve survived day one!

Day 2

Everyone is up and ready to go the next day. After a good breakfast, we jump on our bikes for more traffic negotiation. After cycling on the tarmac for a few kms, we travel through rice fields and villages. Little children run out to wave and say hello and cows grudgingly let us pass.

We encounter some serious mud and each take a turn navigating the deep, slippery mess.  Everyone skids at the same spot. Gillian takes a small tumble, amid much laughing. A kindly local woman insists that Gillian come inside her tiny home and wash the mud from her legs. We are humbled by this kindness.bikes-with-cows

During a short visit to the temples known as Rolous Group, we are stunned to find that these temples were used to house guns and that more local people were murdered here during the Pol Pot era than at the Killing Fields. The temple seems so peaceful, that it is hard to comprehend.

We cycle another 15kms to a lake called Tonle Sap. We take a boat ride to see the floating villages. Communities here live right on the water in tiny houseboats and there are also floating schools and stores.  Once back on land, we cycle back to town. We’ve cycled 50kms today and we are tired, hot and muddy but pleased to have achieved our goal.

Day 3

Today is the last time we will be negotiating Siem Reap traffic. As we depart, we see a small collision between moped riders, but both dust themselves off and continue riding without further altercation.

We are heading north-west, to a charming town called Battambang, known for its French colonial architecture.
Today is another 50km ride through rice fields, water buffalo, cows and red dirt roads, full of potholes and puddles. This is no scenic cycle where you can let your mind wander and enjoy the view – you need to concentrate the entire way to stay on the bike.

Again, the heat and humidity is overwhelming and we stop every 15kms to get our breath back and enjoy some ridiculous sweating. The sunblock drips off as fast as we can apply it and we are drinking water non-stop. We all have sore behinds despite the padded pants.

bamboo-trainOnce we reach 50kms, we are thrilled to jump in the support van. It’s air-conditioned!! We travel the remaining 120kms to Battambang in style. We then take a ride on the local style of transport called the Bamboo train – a flat bamboo platform with a small engine that bangs and clatters along uneven tracks.

Day 4

It’s a bit of a struggle to get our aching bums on to the bike seats this morning and we have a longer ride today – 65kms in all. We’re heading south to a town called Pursat.

Today is tough. Many of the roads are impassable due to weather conditions, such as flooding or broken bridges, so we find ourselves having to turn around and travel back over the same roads. The roads today are incredibly rocky and every bone in our bodies is shaking and jarred, kilometre after kilometre and all with no shade.tough-cycle

The team does an excellent job of not complaining and just getting the job done but it’s a quiet ride. We make more unscheduled stops as the heat is again overwhelming – 39 degrees and 97% humidity. Everyone does a great job of looking out for each other and calling out if anyone is feeling unwell. We are so pleased to reach the hotel and high five each other for accomplishing a difficult day of riding.

Day 5

We’re cycling from Pursat to Kampong Chnang today. After the previous day, we were not sure what the conditions would be like and we were all feeling muscles that we didn’t know we had. It was a little cooler – only 37 degrees! – but we left the rocky roads behind and cycled on dirt roads with lots of shady areas. There were many herds of water buffalo and hundreds of children running out and waving.old-man

We met a local man who is 81 and still cycling. He wishes us good health and a long life. With the life expectancy in Cambodia averaging 66 yrs, his wish for us has already come true for him.

Day 6

Today was to be the longest and the final day of cycling. We would cycle 75km towards Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. Everyone was in good spirits but also preparing for the challenge ahead.

We managed the first 60kms as we had done on other days. For the last 15kms, we rode down a long, straight, hot, busy tarmac road, with traffic roaring past, huge trucks and a storm brewing on our right. The storm was creating a very strong headwind that made our final push a real struggle.

We finally turned into a temple that was our final destination. There were tears and hugs as we thought of our loved ones that were no longer with us. I was so proud of the whole team for this amazing result. We had done it!cambodia-team-jumping

To donate to support GI cancer research,  go to www.gicancer.org.au and donate online. Or call 1 300 666 769

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The GI Cancer Institute acknowledges the support of Specialised Therapeutics Australia for their sponsorship of participant Tiffany Cherry

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yg5QcclRu-U
See the team navigate the terrain.

To see interviews with each of the participants, visit our Facebook page.

Feeling inspired? The GI Cancer Institute is holding an 83km trek along the Larapinta Trail from 5 -11 August 2017. Be quick as places are limited! Find out more at gicancer.org.au/larapinta