Greeff took the pic, cutting off the nose of the Lincoln to make sure he got my elbow in. The Lincoln is loaded and ready to take us to paddle the Ocoee River in Tennessee after a night at Dave Jones’ house in Atlanta. Dave is a military man, a dentist and an international paddler. We were there cos Chris Greeff is a military man, a dentist and an international paddler. Weirdos like that tend to stick together.
Here’s Herve on all fours studying my map of the rapids of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Willem van Riet left of Herve with the ducktail is telling us about the moerse rapids he went through that day.
Here is Hervie again, red cap left back, in the Swim Team, much as he tried to earnestly explain why his swim didn’t actually count as a swim! Competitive swine, our Herve!
. . and here he stands dead centre with the faded red cap at the end of our 360km 12-day trip through the Canyon:
My last supper with Herve was positively biblical: He arrived in a cloud of holy blue smoke in a hundred year old chariot – a faded yellow Merc diesel with four million miles on the clock. Nice car, Herve, I said. ‘Hey! Think of the money I save’, said he. He brought four quarts of beer and six bottles of ‘communion wine’ which he called his ‘quota wine’. I thought, ‘quota for the night!?’ but it turned out he owned shares in a Western Cape wine farm and – just like they did with their workers – he get some of his pay in liquid form. Suddenly I thought through the blur that I understood ‘liquidity.’
We had gathered together, dearly beloved, to write down Herve’s tales of the Umko canoe marathon. As the evening progressed I would say ‘but Herve, wasn’t that the Dusi?’ Oh, Yes! We’re talking Umko, hey? But Herve, wasn’t that the Berg? Oh, Yes! We’re talking Umko, hey? But Herve, wasn’t that the Breede? Oh, Yes! The Crocodile? Oh, Yes! But you didn’t saw your boat in half to get it on a plane to go to Umko, did you, Herve? Oh, Yes! We’re talking Umko, hey?
We laughed for seven and a half hours. We talked of the hardship of owning property in England – Herve’s a farmer, things are very hard, you don’t understand. Then he left after midnight in a cloud of holy blue smoke in a hundred year old chariot – a faded yellow Merc diesel with four million miles on the clock.
Getting into Botswana’s Okavango Delta can be awfully expensive.
A cheaper way is to fly in to Oddballs Palm Island Luxury Lodge, get on a mokoro and disappear off into the wild with a guide who – unlike you – knows where he’s going and what he’s doing. In 1993 Aitch and I did just that, spending a night at Oddballs, where you are given a little dome tent to pitch on the hard-baked earth under the palm trees.
You get visitors:
The name is ironic, see (“contrary to what is expected, and typically causing wry amusement because of this” – I made a quick check; don’t want to get ‘ironic’ wrong). While in camp you stock up on the meagre supplies available in their shop, like potatoes and onions; a tent, a braai grid; add it to the 10kg you’re allowed to bring in on the high-wing Cessna 206’s and you’re away! 10kg doesn’t go far when you’re a books, binocs and spotting scope junkie!
The next morning we pushed off in our gentles S-shaped tree trunk mokoro to enjoy six nights out on the water in the care of a wonderful man named Thaba Kamanakao. He rigged up the seats so they were really comfy, the backrests enabling you to fall asleep at times!
Thaba said we could choose where we wanted to camp – anywhere. Soon after lunch we saw a magnificent Jackalberry tree on an island and said ‘there!’ – my guess is he knew that! We set up camp – our tent and two deckchairs and a ready-made campfire spot which he’d likely used many times before. The rest of the day was given to lurking, loafing, listening, lazing. Thaba set his gill nets, gathered firewood, pitched his smaller tent and set his chair at the fire. We were all quiet most of the time, listening and loving as night fell. After we’d eaten we sat talking and listening some more. Then Thaba played his mbira – his ‘thumb harp’ – and sang to us; I’ll never forget his introduction as we switched on our tape recorder: ‘My name is Thaba; Thaba Kamanakao; Kamanakao is surname;‘
We chose not to move camp each day, electing to sleep three nights under a Jackalberry and three nights under an African Mangosteen, both giving welcome shade and birdlife. We had little food, but Thaba provided us with the fish he caught in his gill net each night.
I ate the barbel and he and Aitch the bream. Lucky me, it was delicious! He also loved barbel, but his lifestyle advisor – a sangoma? a shaman? a nutritionist? – had told him he wasn’t allowed it! So a myth robbed a man of a tasty and useful source of protein. The first night we were joined by newly-qualified Pommy doctors Louise and Richard and their guide “BT.”
When we moved camp from the camp Aitch named Jackalberry Camp, to her new chosen Mangosteen or Squirrel Camp, we decided we needed a bath on the way, so Thaba took us to a stunning clear lagoon, carefully checked for big things that could bite and then stood guard on the mokoro while we swam and rinsed – no soap, please! Anyone going to this beautiful inland delta: Pack some small swimming goggles and an underwater camera if you can. The clarity of that water is awesome.
Squirrel Camp nights were again spent cooking and sitting around the fire; talking and listening to Thaba playing his mbira and singing;
Days were spent birding the camp, hiking the island and an daily foray in the mokoro. Once we we were ‘moved off’ by an impatient ele, Aitch getting mildly reprimanded for turning round to get a fuzzy picture as we retreated. Another time Thaba – scouting ahead – spooked a herd of buffalo, who thundered in a tight mass towards us. We climbed the nearby termite mound – Thaba had told us to stay next to or on it – and they thundered all around us;
We would sally out daily on short mokoro trips,
Back before the sun got too high so we could loaf in our shady camp, where the squirrels and birds kept us entertained for hours. Six lazy, wonderful, awesome days.
One night a herd of eles moved in and we lay listening to their tummy rumbles. We kept dead quiet and just peered at them in the moonlight through the tent flap, as they had a little baby with them and we didn’t want to upset mama.
Then we headed back reluctantly for a last night at Oddballs. Warm showers under the open sky; cold beer & gin’n’tonics on the deck, ice tinkling in the glass; watching spotted-necked otters in the lagoon, lounging in comfy chairs. Topped off that evening by a big hearty hot meal prepared for us and plonked onto a table on the deck. We ate watching the sunset turn the water red.
And suddenly it dawned on us that, even though we did have to pitch our own tent again, Oddballs really IS a Luxury Lodge!
I only paddled the actual race once (1983 Hella Hella to Goodenough’s) but I was lazy and slow and the long days with cut-off times didn’t suit! Getting-a-move-on is not my forte.
So I used my tripping excuse to volunteer for sweep duties. We would paddle ahead of the start at Hella Hella bridge in our ‘tupperware’ craft and wait below No.1 rapid. Soon the river would be filled with flotsam, jetsam and bobbing heads. We would pull boats, paddles and paddlers to the side separately or altogether. It had not yet dawned on SA canoeing that maybe helmets and lifejackets would be a good idea for the Umko! That came later (a bit like the story that ballboxes came to cricket 100yrs before helmets).
Once the last paddler had passed us (or pulled out) we would drift on slowly to No.8 rapid about 17km downstream of No.1, leaning back looking up at the magnificent scenery. Now that’s more my style. On the way we would do more salvage and rescue.
These pics were in the 1988 program, taken during the 1987 race. So I didn’t see them: I was in the USA on honeymoon.
After the big floods there were rescue operations on the Umgeni and we went to help, ferrying people cut off from their homes or work across the swollen Umgeni. They hung onto us and we ferry-glided across. My big old Perception Quest was like a freighter, so one trip I ferried a person and a sack of mealie meal across!
Bernie Garcin (Bernie and the Jets), Doug Retief (Doug the Thief), Dave Walker (Lang Dawid) and me at Fig Tree Sandbank campsite, one of the planet’s most beautiful spots.
Three plastic (or ‘tupperware’) Perception Dancers and one Quest in 1984 and 1985 – we went both years. In those early days old-timers would still mock plastics, saying ‘tupperware keeps turkeys fresh’ but we knew the joy of not having to schlep fibreglass patch kits along and just smiled!
At the time Greg Bennett was sponsoring and competing in, a motorised rubber duck race down the Tugela (sacrilege!!). In ’84 he had Jerome Truran as crew, in ’85 Rip Kirby. We used Greg’s bakkie to get to Ngubevu. Who fetched us at Jamieson’s Bridge?
On one of the trips bare-breasted maidens flashed us. We saw a Landrover parked on a hill on the left bank, then saw some swimmers in the river, who ducked down as they saw us. As we passed two of the girls popped up their lily-white tits to huge approval. They were like this except the water was brown. And they had no cozzies on:
Four-man Hole was soon after that and I crowded into a Bernie-occupied eddy straight after the drop and punched the nose of my Quest into his ribs. Being Bernie he didn’t even wince, but I knew it had hurt.
The current swept us past them, but the mammaries lingered on.
Overnight at the duck race camp the sponsors Lion Lager thought we were competitors so their beautiful beer hostesses liberally plied us with ale. OK, lager. When they ran out I rummaged in the boats and found wine papsaks we used for flotation and squeezed out the dregs. Karen the gorgeous, voluptuous newspaper reporter (remember the days when they wrote stuff on paper?) covering the event for The Natal Mercury held out her glass and as I dispensed I gave her the patter: “A good wine. Not a great wine, but a good wine, with a delicate bouquet”. She shook her mug impatiently and said endearingly “I know fuckall about flowers, I’m in it for the alcohol,” and I fell deeply in love. My kinda dreamboat lady in shape and attitude. She was like . .
Dave too, was smitten as one of the comely lager hostesses joined him in his laager and treated him to sincere sleeping bag hospitality above and beyond the call of duty, ending the session with a farewell flash of delightful décolletage as she kissed him goodbye in the morning.
As we drifted downstream we sang:
The landlord had a daughter fair – parlez vous
The landlord had a daughter fair – parlez vous
The landlord had a daughter fair
Lily-white tits and golden hair
Inky Pinky parlez vous
We sang to the resident goats: I ain’t afraid of no goats
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
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! Deepdale or Bald Ibis Falls. 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.
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 twilight. 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’s legs are a lot shorter than mine, 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 (‘um, 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 track down to the river, so they had the benefit of my headlights to light up the way, and Bernie had the benefit of my taking longer to get to him.
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).
1990 saw the completion of Inanda Dam on the Umgeni River. As always, a dam profoundly changes the river and the valley. Yet another river tamed to serve our insatiable thirst. Drown a valley to water lawns. It also changed the Dusi Canoe Marathon, inundating the Day Two sandbanks and creating a 10km flatwater haul to the new overnight stop at Msinsi Resort.
For old times sake I wanted to go down that section before it got flooded, so I took all my boats and borrowed a few more and invited a few non-paddling friends – my partners and optometry friends – to accompany me. For me a nostalgic trip, for most of them a first look at a section of the Dusi course.
We launched all the craft at a low level bridge and started laughing: They didn’t float, they just plopped onto the sand under a millimetre of water. Talk about LOW water! We dragged the boats the length of the dam-to-be to take out about where Msinsi campsite is now, hardly getting our shoelaces wet. About 6km, Sheila said.
For me a lovely walk in the river bed, for them, I suspect, a bit of a pointless mission – and certainly not the ‘paddle’ I had enticed them into! I think they enjoyed it anyway. They did enjoy teasing me! Mike & Yvonne Lello, Pete Stoute, Geoff Kay, sister Sheila. And then some tag-along kids who lived in the valley.
An idea of ‘Before & After’: (better pics needed!)
Dams destroy biodiversity. You lose a lot to waterski.