Berg River Freeze

“Please tell him not to. He’ll never make it”.

That’s what Jacques de Rauville told my business partner when he heard I was going to do the Berg River Canoe Marathon. He had come across me one evening on the Bay and I’d asked which way to go, it being my first time out there and the lights and the reflections were confusing. “Follow me” said Jacques, and off he went, but within 50m I was 49m behind him. He waited and told me “Left at the third green buoy” or whatever he said. When he passed me again on his way back and I obviously hadn’t made enough headway, he thought whatever he thought that made him tell his optometrist Mike Lello “tell him not to attempt the Berg”.

Jacques was right, but luckily for me Chris Logan got hold of me and took me for a marathon training session on the ‘Toti lagoon one day which got my mind around sitting on a hard seat for hours on end. Chris was a great taskmaster. We stopped only ONCE – for lunch (chocolate and a coke).

The night before the first day in Paarl they pointed out a shed where we could sleep. Cold hard concrete floor. Winter in the Cape. Luckily I had brought along a brand-new inflatable mattress and a pump that plugged into my white 2,0l GL Cortina’s cigarette lighter socket. So I plugged in and went for a beer. *BANG* I heard in the background as we stood around talking shit and wondered vaguely what that was. A few more beers later we retired to sleep and I thought “So that ‘s what that bang was” – a huge rip in my now-useless brand-new no-longer-inflatable mattress, so I slept on the concrete, good practice for a chill that was going to enter my bones and then my marrow over the next four days.

The first day was cold and miserable, but the second day on the ’83 Berg made it seem like a balmy breeze. That second day was one of the longest days of my life! As the vrou cries it was the shortest day, but a howling gale and horizontal freezing rain driving right into your teeth made it last forever. Icy waves continuously sloshing over the cockpit rim onto your splashcover. It was the day Gerrie died – the first paddler ever to drown on an official race day. I saw him, right near the back of the field where I was and looking even colder than me. He wasn’t wearing a life jacket. It wasn’t macho to wear a life jacket and I admit that I wore my T-shirt over mine to make it less conspicuous and I told myself I was wearing it mainly as a windbreaker. Fools that we were. Kids: Never paddle without a life jacket.

1983 Berg Canoe (1)

I saw Gerrie’s boat nose-down with the rudder waving in the wind, caught in the flooded trees and I wondered where he was, as both banks were far away and not easy to reach being tree-lined and the trees underwater. Very worrying, but no way I could do anything heroic in that freezing strong current, so I paddled on to hear that night that he was missing. His body was only found days later.

Rested after sleeping in a farm loft and after devouring a whole chicken each, washed down with KWV wine and sherry supplied by the sponsors, we braced ourselves for the third – and longest – day . . . . Which turned into the easiest day as the wind had died and the sun shone brightly on us, making for a really pleasant day which seemed half as long, even though it was 70km compared to that LO-ONG second day’s 49km! At the start about ten Kingfisher paddlers bunched together in our black T-shirts: Alli Peter, Greg Bennett, Jacques de Rauville, Bernie Garcin, Dave Gillmer, who else? I hopped on to their wave and within 50m I was 49m behind. I watched the flock of black T-shirts disappear into the distance. I was used to that.

By the fourth day I was getting fit and could paddle for quite a while without resting on my paddle and admiring the scenery. I paddled with a lady paddler for a while, focused for once. Busting for a leak, I didn’t want to lose the tug, so eventually let go and relieved myself in my boat. Aah! Bliss! But never again! I had to stop to empty the boat before the finish anyway (the smell!) so no point in not stopping to have a leak rather. Not that there will be a next time! Charlie’s Rule of Certifiability states clearly “Doing the Berg more than once is certifiable”. And while Charles Mason may have done 50 Umkos he has done only one Berg.

Greyling Viljoen won the race in 16hrs 7mins; I took 24hrs 24mins; 225 maniacs finished the race (I spose I was about 224th?); I was cold deep into my marrow. The Velddrift hotel bed that night was bliss with all my clothes on and the bedclothes from both beds piled on top of me. In Cape Town the next day I bought clothes I couldn’t wear again until I went skiing in Austria years later. Brrrr!! Yussis! Nooit!

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