“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 (a chocolate bar 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, with the pump still purring faithfully away pumping air uselessly into the atmosphere. 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 windy and miserable, but the second day on the ’83 Berg made it seem like a balmy day with a light breeze. That second day was one of the longest days of my life! As the vrou cries it was the shortest day, a mere 49km. Yes, those Cape nutters call 49km a short 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. Gerrie Rossouw. 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.
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.
That night a bunch of paddlers pulled out. Fuck this they said with infinite good sense. Standing in the rain with water pouring down his impressive moustache my mate Greg Jamfomf Bennett made a pact with the elements: He would paddle the next day IF – and only if – the day dawned bright, sunny and windless. He was actually speaking in code, saying, ‘Fuck this I’m going home to Durban where ‘winter’ is just an amusing joke not a serious thing like it is here.’ He and Allie were then rescued and taken out of the rain to a farmer’s luxury home where about six of them were each given their own room and bathroom! Bloody unfair luxury, giving them an advantage and allowing them to beat me in the race!
Contented after devouring a whole chicken each, washed down with KWV wine and sherry supplied by the sponsors, us poor nogschleppers climbed up into the loft on the riverbank and slept on the hard floor. Here I have to confess Greyling Viljoen also slept in the loft and he won the race, which weakens my tale of hardship somewhat.
A good kip later, 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 49km second day. Before the start Capies were seen writhing on the ground, gasping, unable to breathe. They usually breathe by simply facing the wind and don’t have diaphragm muscles. So a windless day is an unknown phenomenon to those weirdos. At the start about ten Kingfisher paddlers bunched together in our black T-shirts: Alli Peter, Jacques de Rauville, Herve de Rauville, Bernie Garcin, Dave Gillmer, who else? Greg Bennett. He was also there, to his own amazement. 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.
That night we welcomed the last finisher after dark. Read about Ian Myers here.
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 and probably 24 seconds; 225 maniacs finished the race. I guess I was 224th? I was cold deep into my marrow. My spinal column was an icicle, a stalactite. The Velddrift hotel bed that night was bliss. I wore all my clothes and piled the bedclothes from both beds 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!
Thirty six years later I got an email:
12 Nov 2019 – Hi Koos, I am sorry to address you on such familiar terms because I have never met you. However, there is something sad that will always connect us and that is the death of the love of my life, Gerrie Rossouw. If you have any photographs with him in it, from the 14 of July 1983 or before, I would appreciate you sending them to my email. I am South African, but I’ve been living in Portugal for the past 33yrs. I will continue reading your Vrystaat Confessions. Thank you for having written about Gerrie. I have kept him alive in my memory all this time. Not a day has passed where I don’t think of him. Unfortunately, I have never had closure. Maybe now I will. Eileen
I replied with the little I know and gave her Giel, the Berg RIver’s historian’s address. Hopefully he’ll have more info for Eileen.
vrou cries – or as crows fly
Jamfomf – he who is all mustache and no cattle; or Allie’s name for Greg
nogschleppers – the important bulk of the field without whom the race would not look so picturesque, nor deliver as much drama; OK, and also, ‘also-rans’
Brrrr!! Yussis! Nooit! – coldest I’ve been; damn; never again