After a long gap from paddling I decided to relaunch my river paddling career, striking fear into the heart of all contenders.
I would need a boat. Being a cheapskate I searched far and wide, high and low and I found one far and low. In PMB dorp. A certain gentleman in fibreglass, Hugh ‘user-friendly’ Raw had one for sale at a bargain price. His glowing description of the craft made me know this was the boat with which to relaunch – OK, launch – my competitive career in river paddling.
At Hugh’s place he showed me the boat and it did indeed look pristine. I went to pick it up and load it on my kombi’s roofrack, but Hugh held me back with a firm, ‘NO. Let me have that done for you!’ Customer service, I thought. User-friendly. So I watched as he got his two biggest workers to load the boat for me, which they did with ease. Big, strapping lads.
On the way back to Durban the kombi seemed to be struggling. I had to gear down on the hills, never had that before. Strong headwind, I thought.
The boat stayed there till Thursday, the big day. The first day of my relaunched paddling life. The dice on the Umgeni river outside my Club, Kingfisher. And then I understood. Getting the boat down off my roofrack took a Herculean effort. When I plopped it into the water the Umgeni rose two inches.
I can say this: Rands-per-Kg I got the best bargain from Hugh ‘user-friendly’ Raw of that century.
While I was contemplating thus, Ernie yelled at me through his megaphone and the water exploded around me. What the hell!? All these fools around me suddenly went berserk, water was flying everywhere. It took a few minutes before calm returned and I was sitting bobbing on the disturbed surface. This tranquility was again ruined by Ernie yelling through that same damned megaphone: ‘Swanie what are you waiting for!?’
Jeesh! I headed off after the flotilla disappearing in the distance and after twenty or thirty strokes it suddenly came to back to me in a blinding flash of realisation: I knew why I had stopped paddling. It’s damned hard work.
I am a paid-up member of the Flat Paddle Society. Owner and boat-maker at Pope’s Canoe Centre, Owen Hemingway was alarmed that I even existed in the year 2016 and earnestly (more of ‘earnest’ later) explained to me how much more efficient a wing paddle is than a flat blade, demonstrating with a teaspoon under a flowing tap. It was remarkable. I could see clearly that the spoon shape exerts much more force on the water with less wasted energy.
The reason he was concerned for my well-being was I had bought a plastic boat from him, a lovely Detox, second-hand but like new. I now wanted him to make me a left feather flat-blade paddle and Owen assumed I wanted it for forward motion. He didn’t let me explain that I rely entirely on the current for forward motion and my paddle is only for balance and – occasionally – to roll back up into the sunlight again if I’ve flopped over.
This is why I never entered any sprint races. They’re held on flat water and if the wind had been against me I’d have drifted backwards at the gun.
** Ernest Hemingway – NOT **
Speaking of Hemingways, the famous Ernest could write . .
. . but Owen didn’t inherit any of his genes. My pleas for Umko stories always elicited an enthusiastic ‘yes!’ but nothing forthcame. Only when I visited him in person did the excited stories and anecdotes, gossip and insider skinner as only a 30-times Umko paddler could know it, pour forth enthusiastically. But in writing? Not so much.
All of this reminds me I still haven’t fetched my left feather flat paddle from him.
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.
I was an Umkomaas Canoe Marathon Official once. Kakhuis Field Marshall for the start of one Umko. Appointed by the uber-command of KCC, it was my job to reduce the toilet-paper-in-the-bush syndrome around the start near the Hella Hella bridge. I had relayed farmer Barry Porter’s unhappiness at the phenomenon to the heavies, they were of course aware of the issue, so they roped me in to help solve it!
Lines of green mobile flush toilets were stationed at the start, and for kilometres before the bridge, starting up at the bend that drops you down into the valley proper, I lined the road with large neat signs exhorting paddlers to “Go Now”, “Use the toilets as soon as you get to the start,” “Avoid the rush,” “Don’t do it in the bush,” and other thoughtful and helpful suggestions.
Mindful of Umko Master Charlie Mason’s wise and thoughtful maxim, “There’s no better laxative than a full Umkomaas” my signs got more urgent the nearer you got to the bridge.
But I was handicapped. – Firstly, my request for a suitable uniform and hat befitting my high station had been turned down. – Secondly, my request to have full access to the public address system was denied. Would Billie-Boy Barron hand me the microphone? No.
I was going to thoughtfully say: “Attention please! Aandag asseblief! Especially you Vaalies and Dabulamanzi ous: KAK NOU!!” I know for a fact that Meyer Steyn – most Umko finishes of anyone ever, while based inland – would have appreciated the reminder . .
Barry said to me later, he thought that year was the least mess he had seen in recent times! Making the local farmers happy is a big part of the success of river races, so I was very chuffed! Of course, if they’d given me free reign to wear the right uniform and exercise my full powers it would have been even better . .
We hired a Lincoln Continental Town Car in Atlanta and put roofracks on. Dave the dentist and US paddler put us up for the night before we headed North. Chris Greeff, kayaking legend & trip organiser; Herve de Rauville, kayaking legend; two non-paddlers, Jurie the cameraman, Steve Fourie and me.
And off we went to the Ocoee River in Tennessee. Which was completely empty. Not low. Empty.
Then they turned on the tap at noon and we could paddle (most of the time, the full flow gets diverted to generate power! How criminal is that!!)
Here’s a description of the short stretch of river we paddled:
The Middle Ocoee The Middle Ocoee is the portion of whitewater, on this stretch of water, paddlers and rafting enthusiasts, have been paddling for decades. Beginning at Rogers Branch and just over 5 miles long, this class 3-4 section of whitewater is an adrenaline junkies dream, crammed with waves and holes.
Entrance rapid gives you whitewater from the get-go. As soon as you launch onto the middle Ocoee you are in a class 4 rapid, paddling through waves and dropping ledges. It’s a fun and exciting way to begin your trip. Broken Nose begins with a large S-shaped wave. Swirling water behind it will send you to a series of ledges. This is a great place for pictures, so smile. Next, Slice and Dice: two widely spaced ledges, fun to drop, especially the second ledge. If done correctly, you can get a great surf here “on the fly”. An interesting and humorous set of rock formations highlights the rapid, Moon Chute. After making your way behind the elephant shaped rock, do some 360’s in front of “sweet-cheeks,” then drop through the chute and over the ledge at the bottom. Double Suck, an appropriately named rapid, where a good-sized ledge drops you into two hydraulics. Paddle hard or you might catch another surf here. Double Trouble, which is more ominous in name than in structure, is a set of three large waves, which will have everybody yelling. This is another great photo spot. You won’t find an easier, more fun rapid. Next is Flipper (No, it’s not named after the dolphin). Here, a great ledge drop puts you into a diagonal wave. Hit this wave with a right hand angle and enjoy the ride, or angle left to eddy out. Then enjoy one of the best surfs on the river. Table saw was originally named for a giant saw-blade shaped wave in the middle of it. The rock forming the wave was moved during a flood several years ago, making this one of the most exciting rapids on the Middle Ocoee. The big waves in this one will make the boat buck like a bronco. At Diamond Splitter, point your boat upstream and ferry it between two rocks. Once there get a couple of 360’s in before dropping through the chute and into the hydraulic.
Slingshot is where most of the water in the river is pushed through a narrow space, making a deep channel with a very swift current. To make this one a little more interesting, see how many 360’s you can complete from top to bottom. Cat’s Pajamas start with a couple of good ledges, with nice hydraulics. After those, it will look as though you are paddling toward a big dry rock, but keep going. At the last second, there will be a big splash and you will be pushed clear. Hell’s Hole is the biggest wave on the river. Start this one in the middle of the river, drifting right. Just above the wave, start paddling! When you crest this 7-8 ft. wave, you will drop into a large hydraulic. Stay focused because just downstream are the last two ledges known as . .
Powerhouse. Drop these ledges just right of center for a great ride. Once through Powerhouse, collect yourself and take out at Caney Creek.
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.
1972: I was obsessed with the Dusi Canoe Marathon and had been training for it. A lonely pursuit when you’re in the Free State and there’s no canoe club and few have even heard of such malligheid. Planning was more advanced that I’d remembered. here are my notes on things to do – written on about 30 November 1971! I even knew I must phone Ernie Pearce and ask ‘How does a Vrystater enter your race?’
Then my boat got stolen in December, so come January I hitch-hiked to PMB with schoolmate Jean Roux to watch the start. We then bummed a ride with some paddler’s second, sleeping in the open on the riverbank.
I had been following the van Riet brothers’ winning streak closely, but that year a fella named Graeme Pope-Ellis teamed up with Eric Clarke to win his first Dusi on a full river.
222 paddlers each paid R3,60 to enter the race.
In Durban we walked from the Blue Lagoon finish to South Beach, where we spent the night on the sand. The next night the cops kicked us off the beach and we spent a night on the red polish stoep of the Point Road police station. Noisy! Rough!
1976: I drove down from JHB with Louis van Reenen with two boats on his blue VW’s roofrack. We tossed a coin, he won, I took my white Limfy off the rack, and I drove in the mud, while he paddled his brand-new red Hai closed-cockpit white water boat, and often swam next to it! It First time he’d ever been on a river. Emmerentia Dam had been his only training ground. He swam miles and drank gallons of the river in the flood-level Dusi and Umgeni! But he was one tough character and he finished! Graeme Pope-Ellis and Peter Peacock won – their second win as a team, Pope’s fifth, equaling Gordie Rowe and Harry Fisher’s five wins..
I finally get into a new Limfy and do the race. I’m one of 1020 paddlers – the first time that the entry had broken through the 1000 barrier. I’m in a black Kingfisher Canoe Club T-shirt paddling a red and white Limfy from Gordie Rowe and Rick Whitton. Gordie made my boat “light but strong” – in-joke! On the water at the start I spot Louis – he’s back for more! His second Dusi, my first. A very low river. Louis swam his first; he was about to run his second.
— Mainstay cane spirits took over as the title sponsor. Pope-Ellis and Cornish beat the Biggs brothers to give “The Pope” his tenth win –
— Is the Pope a Canoeist?!
This time Greg Bennett’s brother Roland seconds us and we live in the lap of luxury the first night: Cold beer and hot food at Dusi Bridge. Then he loses focus. Then we look after ourselves.
For the first time paddlers were allowed to go home to their Mommies overnight. We thought that was a terrible development, so tried to drink for those who weren’t there. Apparently a new rule made paddling round Burma Road compulsory that year. A low river.
Sheila seconds me. In theory. I’m in a white Sabre, which reminds me how Arthur ‘Toekoe’ Egerton called his Sabre ‘Excalibur’ – “King Arthur” see?
I pitch the tent after finding Sheila in the beer tent, I cook the food and I pack the car! If she was ‘seconding’ me, I spose I was ‘firsting’ her? As always with Sheila though, she made it lots of fun and I met more people than I would have!
Pope-Ellis was beaten by John Edmonds on a low river. Women were allowed to race in K1’s for the first time – as long as they were accompanied by a male paddler! Marlene Boshoff was the first woman to finish the race in a single, accompanied by Martin Lowenstein, beating her twin sister Jenny Bentel.
Hansa sponsored 1987, bringing bigger media exposure and the entry numbers picked up again. Pope-Ellis broke the K1 record by beating John Edmonds to claim his 13th title. In a monstrous injustice and swindle we are not met by bikini-clad Hansa girls as we finish – they only came later! I paddled a white Sella.
A thought: All four my Dusis were booze-sponsored! *hic*
The official records show me having completed seven Dusis but I have only done four, and nogschlepped on two. The three phantom ones I probably paid and entered, meaning to do them, but life got in the way. Probably 1986, 1988 and 1989.
In my mind I imagine the NCC / Dusi boys asking ‘Did we lose Swanie under a rock?’ ‘Nah, he probably finished. Mark him down as finished, then we don’t have to go looking for him.’
As a schoolboy I was keen on kayaking and was tickled by a cartoon depicting a kayak on dry land trailing a dust plume with the caption Kalahari Canoe Club! I kept that on my wall for years. Kayak’ing in the desert was just a joke, right!?
In January 2010 we got to the Kalahari to hear the Nhabe River was flowing strongly into Lake Ngami and Aitch’s twin sis Janet and boyfriend Duncan had organised us kayaks! Hey! Maybe you really could kayak the Kalahari!
A reconnaissance trip to the area with GPS found us a put-in place where we could launch – no easy task as this Kalahari “desert” was knee-deep and chest-deep in green grass after the good rains. We returned the next day with two vehicles, four yellow plastic expedition kayaks and lunch, and set off on the beautiful river, flowing nicely between overhanging trees. It was my idea of Paradise! Green green everywhere, with plants, flowers, grasses and birds all putting on a spectacular show.
everything was green –
Five Giant Eagle Owls peering down at us blinking their pink eyelids from one thorn tree – that was special! As was a big green snake, I guessed over 2m long that came towards me on the bank as I drifted towards it. I was amazed it kept coming. When my kayak’s prow beached it still came on up to about a metre away, grabbed a small shrub in its mouth and only then beat a hasty retreat. A Kalahari Vegetarian Viper? I was thinking till I heard a loud hiss and saw the big flap-necked chameleon he had caught (together with some leaves) in his mouth. I had missed seeing a chameleon in that tiny green shrub! My guess is he was an Angolan Green Snake.
Another memorable sight was rounding a bend and seeing four cows drinking: One all-black, one all-brown, one all-white and one all-tan. They looked so striking against the lush new green backdrop that we remembered the camera but we had drifted past in the current and by the time we paddled back against the current they had dispersed. Here’s the white one:
Lunchtime we ate on the bank sitting on the kayaks. I remember hardboiled eggs and very tasty sarmies, thanks Jan!!
The girls then turned back as the paddling would be much slower against the current while Duncan and I headed on, determined to get into Lake Ngami.
And we did. How spectacular! The trees fell back and the sky opened up and huge reed beds stretched in every direction. Fish eagles cried, ducks scattered before us and herons and cormorants and waders were all over the place. At first we were still in a channel, but after another kilometre or so we could branch into other channels and lagoons out of the main current. We felt like David Livingstone in 1849. Sort of. Better.
Way too soon we had to turn back to get back upstream to the girls and the vehicles.
This is a trip crying out for a multi-day one-way expedition with seconds collecting you at a take-out point on the lakeshore. To do it though, you have to be free to leave at short notice on those rare occasions when the river is up. Or else you’ll be reviving the oldKalahari Canoe Club – with plumes of dust!
April 1986: Disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station in the Ukraine.
September 1986: Disaster in the Gillmer’s old kombi near Cradock en route to the Fish.
The trouble started with Black Label beer and Ship Sherry. I had wanted to buy a bottle of Old Brown, but I had fallen amongst thieves and my chairman was in the bottle store with me. “No man Swanie”, said Allie Peter, “Buy Ship Sherry. Then you can get TWO bottles”. Who was I to argue? He was a Kingfisher heavy, he was a Eesin Kayp local and I was blissfully unaware that this decision would not turn out to be in my medium-term best interests.
The night at Gattie’s place was a lot of fun and I clearly remember that clever feeling as I decanted more Ship Sherry into my bottle of Black Label. There was an aura of invincibility at one stage, but eventually – as happened too often in my youth – I looked around mid-sentence and found I was lonely. There was no-one else still vertical. I had no more friends. I dutifully (why does one DO this!?) downed the last of my blend and found a floor to lie down on.
Very soon after this I heard a loud noise. It sounded like someone was slitting the throat of Gattie’s prize bull. I knew vaguely that it was actually me and the loudness was due to the porcelain bowl echoing my distress. Gattie came to check, but seeing that it wasn’t one of his bulls protesting lustily, went back to bed.
Very soon after this it was morning. I was fine, but on the way to the race in the light blue Gillmer bus there was a low rumbling and some inner turmoil and I considerately thought to warn the inhabitants of the kombi of the pending gaseous pollutant. “Open the windows! There’s been a Chernobyl-like disaster” I shouted. They looked at me uncomprehendingly for half a second. And then the green cloud hit their nostrils, and they understood.
The hardest part of the Fish River canoe marathon – by far – was keeping my upchuck behind my tonsils on the dam we were cruelly forced to navigate before we were allowed to start the real paddling. Once on the river all was hunky dory and I ambled downstream in my white Sabre at my usual blistering pace (equal to the current) with frequent stops to stretch my legs or tie my shoelaces.
That night I ignored Allie’s advice and stuck to plain Black Label. Much safer.
So I’m teaching TomTom to make sealed exits from his new Fluid kayak in our pool. As a prelude to learning to eskimo roll. He was a bit nervous when upside-down in his lessons, so I want him to wear a diving mask and relax as he looks around and orients himself.
Long chats about how cold the water is and much procrastination, but we finally have the shortie wetsuit and the splashcover on and he steps into the boat.
Step into the middle and sit right down, boetie, I instruct him, get your centre of gravity low as soon as possible.
So he stands more erect. You look like you’re about to make a speech, I say.
“I would like all to know that if I die I want my will given to my Dad”, he pronounces solemnly, standing even more upright in the boat. “And also to my big sister Jess, and I also want people to know I didn’t want to die”.
Sit down, you goat! You’re such a drama queen.
He sits, hosing himself and it’s a few minutes before we both stop laughing and can get to the next stage.
SO: I’ll flip you now; Sit tight, brace yourself in the boat; Look at me underwater; Give a thumbs up; Look at the water surface; Only THEN pull the splashy release handle, put your knees together and slowly emerge from the boat. Slide, don’t kick. Then swim to the top; OK?
“Dad, you’ve got man-boobs!” he says, triggering another round of helpless laughter as we proceed nowhere fast . . .
But he did it. Three times. Whattastar.
Afterwards we showered under the hot outdoor shower, so its no longer a complete white elephant and goes to prove I was right: You NEED a hot outdoor shower.
When I paddled the Berg river marathon in 1983, that crazy 200km (‘241km Pete!’ Giel van Deventer reminds me. He’s the Berg historian) ffreezing fflatwater ffoolishness, the oldest oke in the race was Ole man Myers (ancient: 60 if he was a day). He lost his boat one night when the waters rose (he’d left it too close to the bank). Next day he had to find it downstream and take it back to the start – and so arrived at that leg’s finish VERY late – even after me.
When word came to the camp that he was arriving we all gathered on the bank to welcome him.
He paddled up in the dark singing:
“Roamin’ in the gloamin’ by the bonny banks of Clyde . .“