We left Bernie’s white Ford Escort at Hella Hella with the Porters, and drove round to Deepdale in my white Ford Cortina. Linda Grewar (who became a notable paddler herself – she later won the Fish river marathon mixed doubles with Bernie!) then drove my car back to Durban. ‘Seconds’! ‘Helpers’ ‘Chauffeurs’! What would we do without those wonderful volunteers? It was winter on a low, clear Umkomaas and we set off happy as larks. Or otters. In our Perception plastic kayaks imported by Greg Bennett in his Paddlers Paradise daze.
We put in at the Deepdale railway bridge and drifted downstream, portaged around the waterfall – Well, you’d have heard a dull thud if you tried to shoot it at that level! It was a glorious afternoon, warm and clear with hardly a breeze. We paddled at my pace which meant this was a two-day trip, lots of drifting, lots of chat with my mate Bernie ‘The Jet’ Garcin, frequent stops, carrying back and shooting the bigger drops again. We stopped early, to camp while there was still light to cook by.
How low can you go!
The night was as cold as a banker’s heart and I was in my sleeping bag straight after grub. Not so The Jet who first had to go through an elaborate foot-washing ritual in the freezing dark. A long night on the hard ground, and off early next morning. We didn’t know how far we had to go. We knew some guys had done it in a day, so we weren’t too worried and kept to my usual blistering (!) pace. Bernie had stood on the podium in mixed doubles results in his day, so was no slouch. But he knew me and was resigned to (hopefully quite enjoyed?) my drift-and-gaze-in-awesome-wonder pace.
The rock gardens we’d heard about in Longdrop Rapid were wonderful. You’d drop into a little ‘room’ and find the outlet and then drop down into another, huge boulders all around you. We decided this would be very hairy in high water!
Dropping into a ‘room’:
Bernie got wedged here. I made to rush back to free him, but he shouted “No! Wait! First take a picture!”
We paddled that whole sunny day with a leisurely lunch stop. As it started to get dark we quickened the pace, Bernie deciding we needed to get a move on. But night started falling before we got anywhere we recognised. Then we shot a weir we knew was not far upstream of the Hella Hella bridge and a nasty piece of rusty iron sticking out flashed past at eye height. We decided Whoa! time to call a halt. Bernie is not really a runner, and I knew the Porters well, so we decided I’d run to the farmhouse and drive back as close as I could get in his off-road Escort.
At the Porter farmhouse Barry & Lyn gave me a beer (‘forced a beer on me’ I explained to Bernie when he said “What took you so long?”). Driving back along the track down into the valley, a couple guys on horseback kicked their mounts into acceleration, just beating me onto the narrow path down to the river, so they had the benefit of my headlights to light up the way. Halfway down into the valley a fella on foot leaned in my window (it was slow going) and asked if HE could hitch a ride. “Sure” I said and THEY hopped in: Two guys, two dogs and a huge sack of maize meal in the Jet’s two-door Escort! Ahem, I’m sure Bernie won’t mind chaps, I said to no-one in particular.
I stopped with the headlights on the two kayaks, lying cockpit to cockpit. No sign of Bernie. I got out and a head popped up, yellow helmet still firmly on his head. He had wedged himself between the boats. As he blinked in the headlights I saw his eyes widen as a guy in a trench coat got out of the passenger door. Then another. Then a mangy dog. Then another rangy dog with a curled tail. His mouth dropped when the two guys reached back into the car and hauled out a heavy sack. He said nothing. That’s Bernie.
We loaded and set off for Durban. After a while Bernie had to talk: Did I know he was surrounded by dogs growling the whole time I was gone? and what took me so long? and was I aware his car smelt of dog?
But he forgave me. He always did. He was a really good mate Bernie and I was very sorry when he buggered off to Aussie (not because of the dogs or anything, mind).