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Now in its 16th year, the Absa Cape Epic is the pinnacle of mountain bike stage racing. It attracts the highest profile professional athletes and the most competitive of amateurs, who over eight days duke it out across the stunning Western Cape province of South Africa. After completing The Pioneer in the Epic Series, CyclingTips competed at this year’s Absa Cape Epic to see what makes it so special and the crown jewel of cross-country mountain bike competition.
Words: Wade Wallace | Video: Phil Golston | Photography supplied by Sportograf and Cape Epic (Dwayne Senior, Xavier Briel, Sam Clark, Justin Coomber, Greg Beadle, Shaun Roy, Nick Muzik)
Nothing about Cape Epic is easy. It’s not even guaranteed that you’ll get in, such is the demand for entries. It’s not cheap. It’s not flat. It’s extremely competitive, and it’s not convenient for anyone outside of South Africa. But if any of those things were easy, it wouldn’t be the amazing adventure that it is.
As living mountain bike legend José Hermida (Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodríguez’s Cape Epic partner) told me at the end of the race: “Everybody says to be a [road] cyclist you have to finish the Tour de France. So to be a mountain biker, you need to finish the Cape Epic.”
Myself and my good mate Alby ‘The People’s Champ’ Iacuone competed in another Epic Series race in New Zealand called The Pioneer back in December and we were hooked on the team format of this type of event. The Pioneer was difficult indeed, but it was also one of the most enjoyable experiences we’ve ever had on a bike. It had everything – incredible trails, stunning landscapes, welcoming community, great food, entertainment after the races, and so much more. The multi-day format that moved around the country made it feel like a true adventure, and the two-person team element meant that you were sharing it with someone.
After an experience like that, it was impossible not to want more and see what the next step looked like. This journey is what drew us to South Africa only three months later.
We spent four days ahead of the Cape Epic prologue in the beautiful university town of Stellenbosch, only a short drive away from Cape Town. The trails there are incredible, the landscapes are stunning, and the town is always buzzing.
As we drove from Cape Town to Stellenbosch, it didn’t take long for us to understand that South Africa was a complicated country that we would not get a chance to properly experience. There was an abrupt shift from first world living standards to third world settlements during our drive to Stellenbosch, giving just a glimpse of what we’d be sheltered from in the bubble of the race over the next week.
The contrast was striking – we were so wrapped up in the race and myopically focused on trivial problems like tyre selection, jersey weight and wifi access, and meanwhile, such deep social problems were just a stone’s throw away. The rich man’s privilege of travelling across the world for self-induced hardship on $6,000 bikes is something that’s not lost on me – but that’s not the story you’re here for, nor the story I’m qualified to tell.
After a few days of getting over jetlag, testing our equipment, finding our legs, and seeing the sights in Stellenbosch we picked up our motorhome and travelled to Cape Town University to pre-ride the prologue course, check-in to the event, sort out logistics, and get one last proper sleep and shower in a hotel before things began to hurt.
Cape Town University is an absolutely beautiful campus, complete with a backdrop of Table Mountain offering pristine mountain bike trails right on its doorstep. This was the first we’d see of the race village and even though we’d later find that this would only be a tiny version of it, we began to understand the enormity of the event and what it means to many in South Africa. So many people we bumped into knew exactly what the Cape Epic was and were impressed by our participation in it. The race would be broadcast live every day, reported on in mainstream news, and seemed to bring its own energy into the parts of Cape Town we visited. Both Alby and I have competed in races with a higher level of competition before, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever competed in a race with such a unique profile before.
We made it to the opening prologue that morning with lots of time to spare. Both Alby and I were chomping at the bit to get this thing started and the sooner we had our race numbers on, the more it felt like the journey was about to begin. I haven’t felt this heightened anticipation for a race in quite a long time and it’s a wonderful familiar feeling that I missed, reminding me of lining up at my first ever race. As much as I wanted to savour that feeling knowing that I might not get it back again for a long time to come, I also wanted to get the start out of the way and settle in to the unknown adventure that lay ahead.
Disaster nearly strikes
On our way to warm up, barely 50m away from our motorhome, disaster struck. I hopped a seemingly harmless curb and must have misjudged my rear wheel landing when I heard a loud CRACK and my tyre went flat in an instant. A closer look revealed that the rim had cracked near the valve stem. One minute we had an hour to spare, the next minute I would be running around trying to figure out how I was going to get another wheel! And did I bring a spare wheelset? Of course not – it didn’t even cross my mind!
Fortunately the team that parked next to us offered to lend me one of his spare wheels if we couldn’t find a solution, and my stress level went from 11 to 5 in an instant. Our videographer, Phil, brought his enduro bike and I didn’t think that there would be a hope in hell that it would fit. If you think road wheel standards are getting out of control, do a little research on the wonky state of mountain bike wheels. Out of everything that could have gone wrong – rim size, rotor size, axle size, cassette alignment, tyre width, boost or no boost (whatever that is) – Phil’s wheel miraculously fit like a glove. That damn wheel weighed about 4kg, but I wasn’t going to be picky at this point.
After days of hot temperatures and dusty trails, the prologue would offer misty, cool and tacky trail conditions. We weren’t complaining, although after an Australian summer full of long intentional training rides in 38C, we had half-hoped to have a weather advantage over our northern hemisphere rivals. It wasn’t to be, but for my own comfort, I was quietly happy for cool conditions.
We lined up at the start ramp for the prologue, a course that would take us approximately an hour to ride, lined with amazing crowds and a palpable energy. Our only goal was to make it into the top 50 teams so we could start in the A-group (start groups are staggered by 5 minutes and contain 50 non-UCI teams ranked from top to bottom in the overall classification) and have a clear run at the trails in the days ahead.
Up to this point, it was an unknown whether Alby and I would match up in terms of fitness and ability. We were well suited for each other during the Pioneer, but at that time Alby was just getting acquainted with mountain biking and his skills and fitness had gone up exponentially since then. I wasn’t overly confident in my form and hadn’t really tested myself, but had worked closely with my coach, Mark Fenner, putting my trust in him and the process. It certainly worked a treat for the Pioneer.
As expected, Alby was flying and had me in the hurtbox straight out of the gates. Typically Alby’s back problems meant that he had to warm into things, and this caught me off-guard.
The course seemed to go by in a flash thanks to big crowds cheering us on and the pace Alby was setting.
We had no idea what to expect but we were satisfied with our time and finishing position of 17th in Masters.
But wait…We didn’t make A-Group start???
Far out… not a bad start, but we just missed it by three places. Well, at least my bike was clean…
Our time: 56:59
For the sake of comparison against us mere mortals, the winning times of each of the overall category winners were:
Nino Schurter / Lars Forster (UCI Men): 43:41
Annika Langvad / Anna van der Breggen (Women): 51:44
Sebastian Stark / Lara Stark (Mixed): 54:01
Joaquim Rodriguez / Jose Hermida (Masters): 48:46
Bart Brentjens / Abraao Azevedo (Grand Masters): 53:06
That evening I began the task of trying to procure a new rear wheel without getting ripped off. I asked my local South African mate and fixer Kevin ‘Benky’ Benkenstein (check out his adventure bike tours here) for a recommendation and he set me up with JP from Re-cycles bike shop who were in the race tech village and took good care of me. Subsequently, I ended up seeing lots of JP after every stage to get my bike back in tip top condition.
Now we were already on the back foot for stage 1, and we’d be chasing A-group for 100km. At the Pioneer, after an early-race mess-up that saw us lose valuable time, getting up to A-group was the bane of our existence and we were absolutely shattered as a result. Our mission for the day was clear: to get up into A group, just to prove we could. We weren’t even thinking about stage 2.
Before long, we found ourselves at the front of B-group forcing a big split to happen in the bunch, leaving us with only two other teams off the front. I knew we were going way too hard to be able to sustain this for 111km, nevermind 600 more kilometres in the race. But we were committed, optimistic, and perhaps slightly naïve.
After racing our guts out for three hours, I noticed that I had a slow leak in my front tyre. I left it for as long as I could but eventually had to stop to try to repair it. There was no sign of where the leak was coming from nor any sign of sealant leaking, so the quickest gamble was pumping the tyre back up. Our two companion teams rode off on us, and in an instant we lost all the time we’d fought so hard to gain. But that’s racing. With a long week ahead of us, we knew that every single team would experience something like this.
We continued on and the tyre kept leaking, forcing us to eventually stop for a proper repair, putting a tube in. Once again, another five minutes lost, and we were now deep in the middle of the field. Adding insult to injury, I got stung by a wasp on the ear. At least I now had something else to focus on other than the pain in my legs!
The time lost and the motivation to get into A-group only made us ride faster, which was anything but a good idea. 111km on a MTB is a long ride at full gas, and with about 20km remaining I began to experience that familiar sensation of ‘hitting the wall’, ‘the bonk’, ‘hunger flat’ – whatever you call it, you know what I’m talking about. Not only that, but my adductors were beginning to cramp and we still had an hour of riding to go. Thankfully, Alby took mercy on me and eased off. Left to my own devices, I would have been lying on the ground like a starfish until a helicopter came to retrieve me.
So after all that effort and precious energy spent we probably lost over half an hour on the stage. It could very well have been the toughest day I’ve ever experienced on a bike and we had nothing to show for it.
But then this magical text message came through:
We made it to A-group!
Our time: 5:33
Nino Schurter / Lars Forster (UCI Men): 4:24
Annika Langvad / Anna van der Breggen (Women): 5:09
Sebastian Stark / Lara Stark (Mixed): 5:21
Joaquim Rodriguez / Jose Hermida (Masters): 4:45
Bart Brentjens / Abraao Azevedo (Grand Masters): 5:09
As cocky as we were to feel like we had earned and deserved our start in A-group, the bravado quickly wore off as we meekly lined up at the back of the bunch. We were now in new territory and had no idea where we fit in.
The first 15km or so of stage 2 was the same as stage 1, so we knew what was coming up and knew how fast we could go. But as complete newbies do, we decided it would be a good idea to ride in the front group with team Rodriguez / Hermida and Dekker / Tjallingii, thinking we were worthy of winning a Grand Tour and staying with these guys. It took us all of 20 minutes to remember our place in the world and get spat out the back into the second group. Alby could have stayed with them, but I had to put my foot down and get sensible about our pacing in a race that had six days left. Yesterday hadn’t given me a lot of confidence in my form – I’d not yet seen my heart rate below about 160bpm.
We turned it down a couple notches from 11 to 8, taking our time to remember little things like stopping for food and water for 30 seconds. Now in a road race, this approach would never work, but in a mountain bike race it actually worked quite well. We soon found ourselves picking our way back through teams who’d passed us earlier and catching up to guys who were in the Tour de France bunch who were paying the price of being as enthusiastic as we once were.
This was going to be a long long week and fortunately it was this early on where riding our own race proved to be an effective strategy. In fact, it barely mattered if we were in start group A or F. It would have been the same result either way.
Damn…Start Group A. This is gonna hurt again.
Our time: 4:30
Nino Schurter / Lars Forster (UCI Men): 3:37
Annika Langvad / Anna van der Breggen (Women): 4:18
Sebastian Stark / Lara Stark (Mixed): 4:23
Joaquim Rodriguez / Jose Hermida (Masters): 4hrs
Bart Brentjens / Abraao Azevedo (Grand Masters): 4:11
A few patterns and habits had started to emerge by this point. Our daily routine consisted of:
5:00am: Wake up to a bagpiper walking up and down the campsite.
5:01am: Get into the toilet before anyone else.
5:15am: Drink the first of three cups of coffee. Pro tip – bring your own Aeropress and beans.
5:20am: Stuff our faces with as much pasta, toast, pastries and muesli as we could stomach. This was heaven for the first two days, but by stage 3 I didn’t want to eat a bite of it.
6:00am: Start thinking about pumping up tyres, lubing chain, pinning on race numbers, and everything I should have done the night before but was too buggered to do.
6:30am: FaceTime the family.
7:00am: Make our way to the start gates (this is the point we wished we were in the 7:45am, F-Group).
7:05am: full body lactate burn for the next 4-6 hours.
Early afternoon: Collapse across the finish line and try to replenish 5,000 calories throughout the afternoon. Thanks to Woolworths for some amazing post-race real food.
3:00pm: 45-minute massage which I always topped up with another 45 minutes. This was the part of the day that I dreamt of and that got me through the stage.
4:30pm: Eat more, chill out in the chill-out zone, inevitably have a nap in a public place.
6pm: Eat dinner like it was our last meal on this planet.
8pm: Head back to motorhome, look at the dishevelled state of our bikes and think about tuning them up, sometimes take the bikes to get fixed at the Tech Village (dozens of bike shops come as race support which is brilliant).
8:30pm: lights out.
Even though Stage 3 was one of the toughest on paper, reaching the highest point of the race with 2,800m of climbing over 107km, it still didn’t earn the title of the Queen Stage. This was daunting, knowing what we had already been through and what was coming up. There was a massive 9km climb at 10% (the notorious Groenlandberg) that lasted more than an hour near the beginning but that blow was softened by some of the most incredible scenery and views we had seen in South Africa so far.
Shortly after that climb, would-be winners Annika and Anna passed us like we were standing still (they started five minutes behind us) and it was awesome to see two of the best female mountain bikers in the world show their dominance. We tried staying with them for a few kilometres, but it proved to be no less ambitious than keeping up with Joaquim Rodriguez.
One team whose ambition caught up with them quickly was the team we raced against in Stage 1 who were absolutely on fire a couple days earlier. We caught up and rode with them for a little while before we rode off just like they rode off on us two stages earlier.
For the second day in a row we caught up with Alessandro Petacchi and Francesco Chicchi (who started five minutes ahead of us in the UCI men’s group) which gave us a false sense of our place in the cycling world. They may have been the only two in the entire race using hardtails and were clearly struggling with that decision. But when two hubbards like us passed them, they certainly weren’t about to be dropped easily … until they were shaken backwards a couple descents later. This is the only time I’ll ever be able to say that I beat Petacchi and Chicchi in a race, so I’m taking this opportunity to get it on the record. Good thing there were no sprint stages …
A while later we came across Erik Dekker at a feedzone — he had a broken Di2 cable and was waiting around for it to get fixed. Dekker and his partner Maarten Tjallingii (ex-Rabobank, podium at Paris-Roubaix) were usually on the podium in Masters after each stage and looked like they were having fun. Even after a catastrophic mechanical, Dekker just said to us with a smile, “Ah, it’s all part of the adventure! You never know what’ll happen each day.”
It wasn’t long until both of them came past us like a freight train at 50km/hr, throwing our egos back into place.
What also threw our egos back into place was the rocky descents that hammered the bikes. It’s like running coarse and fine sandpaper over the bike. Sand, gravel, water and massive stones absolutely trashed the suspension, shook our eyeballs out, and made our forearms scream. Alby is a guy who rarely complains about anything, but even he was unimpressed. “Wade, I’m not enjoying this,” was said more than once that day.
Stage 3 was a long day and it took its toll on us. After learning our lesson on the previous days, we both had ridden well within ourselves and saved something for the end. We took a cue from our course profile sticker that there was a feedzone at 10km to go. Once we hit the feedzone and had a can of coke, we turned on the gas and rode flat out for the finish. Hell, we nearly caught Dekker! But when we hit another feedzone 30 minutes later (i.e. the one that was actually at 10km to go) both of us nearly had a mental breakdown. Alby was convinced that we were lost and had taken a wrong turn, which made no sense but that was the state we were in.
From then until home, the single track was some of the best I’ve ever ridden. Too bad that I don’t remember much of it — I was just wishing it all away and wanting to get home.
Thirteenth on the stage — we were starting to look consistent. And best of all, we could have a sleep-in the following day.
Our time: 5:45
Nino Schurter / Lars Forster (UCI Men): 4:36
Annika Langvad / Anna van der Breggen (Women): 5:23
Sebastian Stark / Lara Stark (Mixed): 5:42
Joaquim Rodriguez / Jose Hermida (Masters): 5:03
Bart Brentjens / Abraao Azevedo (Grand Masters): 5:15
I’d been looking forward to this day since stage 1. During training we never did mountain bike rides much more than 40km long and we were totally smashed after that, but only 43km and 1,000m of climbing seemed like a rest day compared to what we had just endured. Also, a nice late start time of 8:20am meant we got over 10 hours of sleep!
The start times for this time trial went in descending order from best placed overall to last in each respective category. This meant that for the first time we truly knew who we were racing against in our Masters category. Every other stage the starts were based on overall classification, so we were mixed in with all other categories except for UCI Women and Men (who were easy to spot) and we didn’t really know who we needed to worry about.
This made the stage particularly hard. It was a case of chasing the group ahead of us as hard as we could, while always looking over our shoulders to see if the teams behind were gaining on us. For every moment of that 45km we rode as hard as we could. After we finished it felt like the stage was only a blip in time, but I swayed between loving and loathing every moment of that two hours.
Once again, 13th.
Our time: 2:05
Nino Schurter / Lars Forster (UCI Men): 1:38
Annika Langvad / Anna van der Breggen (Women): 2:02
Sebastian Stark / Lara Stark (Mixed): 2:06
Joaquim Rodriguez / Jose Hermida (Masters): 1:57
Bart Brentjens / Abraao Azevedo (Grand Masters): 1:53
Fortunately there was lots of time to recover and enjoy what felt like a day off. The following day’s Queen Stage was hyped up by the organisers and seasoned competitors and at this point we couldn’t process how we were going to race 100km with 2,850m of climbing … and then back that up with two more days of racing.
We’ve all heard the cliché interview response at the Tour de France: “I’m just going to take it day by day and not think ahead of that…” I’ve now had a glimpse into the truth of that mindset.
Once again I laid down the law with Alby and told him I was only going to ride at 50% today. Of course I needed to account for the fact that there’s a 30% difference in Alby’s 50% and my 50%, so I still ended up riding at 80%. That suited me just fine and we rode almost like it was a rest day.
The legs were fine, but built-up exhaustion was evident after I crashed twice going relatively slowly through some nice loamy singletrack – once over a bamboo bush that I snapped in half and nearly impaled me (luckily it only pierced through my jersey — the bibs and base layer kept my skin intact).
The third crash, however, felt like it could have ended my race. Much of the stage was held through vineyards and orchards on the sides of steep hills, which made most of the trails awkwardly off-camber. After a quick descent I made a hard right turn on a sloped corner with kitty litter thrown all over it and came down like a bag of potatoes.
It was one of those crashes that happens so quickly there’s no reaction time quick enough to save it and I lay on the ground curled up doing a full body inventory from wiggling my toes to my eyebrows. The gravel rash was one thing, but the contusion on my hip immediately swelled up through my lycra, just like you see on cartoons. After clearing myself for head injuries I got up, brushed myself off, and continued riding so I wouldn’t stiffen up.
I had been conserving energy for the final 25km but this crash limited me to a pathetic limp. I had nothing and Alby was nursing me home. Even those Italian hardtailers Petacchi and Chicchi caught and dropped us on the final run.
Stage result: 16th.
Enthusiasm level: 1/10. Winning.
Our time: 5:36
Nino Schurter / Lars Forster (UCI Men): 4:19
Annika Langvad / Anna van der Breggen (Women): 5:20
Sebastian Stark / Lara Stark (Mixed): 5:27
Joaquim Rodriguez / Jose Hermida (Masters): 4:51
Bart Brentjens / Abraao Azevedo (Grand Masters): 4:54
Even though we were absolutely exhausted, falling into a proper sleep was getting harder to manage. Both Alby and I had been trying a CBD product called iKOR which proved fantastic for helping us fall asleep under normal circumstances. But in the final days of the race, the daily stress and heightened caffeine levels saw us turn to sleeping tablets to get to sleep.
It was at this point that seemingly everyone was visibly shattered and the race village looked like the aftermath of a battleground. People were limping around, there were collarbone slings, there were plenty of limbs wrapped in bandages.
Alby and I woke up and went to breakfast as usual but when I sat down at the table Alby looked like death warmed up. He looked like that every morning until he had his coffee and I had a chuckle at his expense … but when he didn’t laugh back, I knew something was wrong.
Alby left breakfast early without eating anything. I found him curled up on his bed in all the clothes he had with the heater blasting. Still he was shivering and unable to move. This was bad.
He couldn’t breathe and had excruciating back pain that he’d never felt before. Alby is as tough as they come, so this wasn’t a good sign. We made the call to take him to the medical tent.
At the medical tent they diagnosed it as a possible kidney infection, saying that he needed to go to the hospital.
Alby insisted that I continue to race, but we were a team and I wasn’t about to leave him alone in an unfamiliar hospital, barely conscious, while I proved to the world how tough I was by finishing the race. It wasn’t about that. Our race was over, and the next adventure was about to start.
Some paracetamol was all it took to bring Alby’s fever down and get him looking halfway normal again. The doctors did some X-rays and found that, luckily, it was pneumonia, not a kidney infection. It wasn’t ideal, but he would start to feel better after some antibiotics and some rest. Most importantly he wouldn’t need to stay in hospital for a few days.
We checked-out of the hospital a few hours later and went for our first proper ‘second breakfast’ in a week, which felt like heaven. Alby’s appetite wasn’t up to scratch yet, so that meant I ate two massive omelettes which didn’t even fill me up.
Alby slept the entire day while I selfishly took both his massage booking and mine, and ate his meal rations. After that a bunch of us watched Milan-San Remo from a tiny computer screen as Freire and Petacchi sat in the vicinity. Between them they won the race four times. I wanted to track them down to ask about their memories of the race, but it wasn’t until the final day that I got the chance to chat to them about it.
From my perspective, this was the best day I had the entire trip.
I contemplated starting the final stage as a solo rider but I knew Alby would be disappointed and feeling like he let the team down. When I thought ahead I would have felt empty and horrible finishing on my own when the whole point of this was to finish as a team. Alby waited for me this week when I was struggling and I would do the same. Start as a team, finish as a team.
Watching all the riders cross the finish line was quite something. Everyone who came across the finish line — from Grand Tour and Spring Classics winners, to World Champions, to mountain bike legends, and all the way down to us weekend warriors — shared the same level of accomplishment, emotion and enthusiasm for completing the Cape Epic. Not a single one of them did it easy. What other event does that happen in?! Not many…
Seeing the elation and exhaustion on the faces of the finishers was something I didn’t think I’d miss, but I wanted that more than ever after seeing it. I didn’t need the finisher’s medal, the exhausted portrait shot, the finisher’s jersey. I wanted the feeling that would stay with me for a lifetime, and for it to be a shared experience with one of my best mates. That would have erased all those low moments in an instant.
We will be back one day. However, life experience has taught me that an adventure like this is about savouring the journey, not the finish line. Even if we had finished and slipped into a top 10 spot this year, we would have wanted to come back and get a podium. There’s always unfinished business in this sport and enough is never enough. It’s important to cherish the memories you have.
Before I committed to the Cape Epic I made a deal with myself. The deal was that I would not let myself get obsessed with this and it would not interfere with my family or work. I would work my training in around my life in such a way that my family would barely notice it, and I’d have enough energy to get through my work day. I knew that I couldn’t do this alone and left to my own devices, I’d get far too carried away. Therefore I enlisted the help of Mark Fenner of FTP Training to coach me. Mark did a brilliant job at structuring my training around the limitations of my life, holding me back from myself, adding specificity around the demands of the event, and timing/periodising my fitness to perfection.
Here’s what a typical week looked like:
Zwift had a Cape Epic workout series designed by 5-time Absa Cape Epic Champion, Annika Langvad. Unfortunately the sessions didn’t suit my timezone, but the workouts were very close to what my coach prescribed anyway.
My daily commutes were a necessary part of my day (it would take me 45mins to drive to work anyway) and I would be doing these regardless, but they added up and were good active recovery. I would often be frothing to get my Wednesday World Championships bunch ride in, but Fenner held me back and I’m glad he did, otherwise my other sessions would have suffered. Looking back it was the right thing to do.
Note that this type of training program was right for me at my fitness level, life situation, strengths and weaknesses. I spoke to others about their training and everyone’s would be drastically different.
A race like the Cape Epic is one of the most rewarding and enjoyable adventures any cyclist can have. Expert mountain bike skills are not required, but you’ll need to be proficient, and you’ll need to be fit. Here are a few things we learned over the course of our preparation and during the event itself:
The Epic Series is a portfolio of mountain bike stage races, conceived to cultivate a community of like-minded mountain bikers and offer amazing locations that inspire a true sense of adventure.
The Absa Cape Epic is the pinnacle, and two (so far) week-long races lie in the ‘second tier’ – The Pioneer and Swiss Epic. Three shorter and more manageable events make up the next tier – Reef to Reef, Port to Port and Cape to Cape, all in Australia. All five are Epic Series Qualifier races to the Absa Cape Epic.
Thank you to the Cape Epic organisers for inviting us to this magnificent race and giving us a reason to visit this magical country.
Find out more here.