Finally! I paddled on moving water for the first time this century. I had often thought about it, I mentioned it a few times (I’m good at the talking side of things); I even bought a new boat in anticipation, years ago. Then yesterday, finally, I dipped my little toe into the nicely-flowing water of the wonderful Umkomaas river.
I was going to paddle with four other guys. Between the five of us we have about 371 years of life experience and 171 Umko canoe marathons; the “1” being mine.
I was going to paddle / drift the 12km with three of them, but Jess joined me and I didn’t want to leave her alone, so Charles, Hugh and Rob set off from Nyala Pans camp below the old No.8 rapid on their sit-on kayaks, while Chris, Ron (Hugh’s side-kick from PMB) and I drove to the takeout point at Josephines bridge.
I’ve often pooh-poohed the concept of ‘muscle memory.’ It’s your brain that remembers, I’d growl. But yesterday my muscles remembered that I hadn’t done any training for decades; and they remembered that paddling upstream is hard work and they don’t like it. Downstream was wonderful; whattapleasure drifting on the current. Brought back many happy memories.
Johan August Wahlberg (1810 – 1856) was another Swedish naturalist and explorer. He traveled in southern Africa between 1838 and 1856, especially in Natal and South West Africa, sending thousands of natural history specimens back to Sweden.
The journals of his travels are generally brief and objective (and I haven’t been able to find them yet! So I know little about him, even though his name is honoured in many species – moths, lizards, birds, plants, etc), and his portrayal of people he met is usually reliable and unprejudiced.
Wahlberg is commemorated in Wahlberg’s Eagle, Wahlberg’s epauletted fruit bat and the beautiful little bush squeaker frog Arthroleptis wahlbergi. That’s my pic on top of one of the little squeakers; fully grown, he’s the size of your top finger digit. This one lives in our garden in Westville.
‘Sport’ in those days consisted of shooting as much as possible for the tally, the ‘bag.’ These pale chaps ran amuck, trying to score a century, even though cricket was only 240 years old in 1838.
His diary in Natal: 23 August – near Umgeni river: (shot) 1 Ichneumon taenianotus (a mongoose); 1 Boschbock; 1 red-buck (red duiker?); 1 birds.
‘I was so intent on the bucks that the fall of darkness took me (by) surprise. I lost the path and so entangled myself in the thickets that I sure that I should have to pass the night in the woods. I shot six alarm-shots. I was glad to hear them answered by regular salvos from the village. Flayed the boschbock and left the carcase in the wood.’
31 August – near Umkamas river: ‘Continued hunting hippopotamus; no luck. In the evening, accompanied only by one Hottentot Bastard we came sufficiently near to hippopotamus. Two bullets went whistling at the same moment, and found their mark in the head of a young sea-cow. She came to the surface several times, spouting blood high in the air. An adult now appeared; once again our shots sounded as one; it showed the whole of its body above water, dived, a strong furrow appeared in the water, moved rapidly towards the shore, and soon the whole body of the monster was visible above the surface, in form and attitude like a gigantic pig. With incredible swiftness it hurled itself once more into the stream, and rose several times in succession, each time spouting blood. Darkness fell and we were forced to return.’
1st September – ‘We looked in vain for the hippopotamus.’
2nd – ‘Saw numerous buffalo but was unable to get near them. Clouds of locusts darken the sky. We go further afield to a smaller stream.’
3rd – ‘Lying in wait for the buffalo. Hear them approaching at full gallop through the bushes. Climb an acacia. Give the first bull a bullet, which makes him fall back upon his hind-quarters. He gets to his legs again and escapes.’
Well, at least this time Africa got its revenge! Wahlberg was killed by a wounded elephant while exploring along the Thamalakane river about 10 km northwest of Maun just south of the Okavango Delta in today´s Botswana.
Linda Grewar was a Kingfisher paddler from back around 1990. She and Bernie Garcin paddled really well – a number of mixed doubles podium finishes on the Dusi, Fish and Umzimkulu. Then she buzzed off ‘overseas’.
In May 2016 Bernie gave me Linda’s address, so I wrote to her:
Hey Linda! – LONG time no hear! Meantime I have freely been using your name in vain in the Umko book we put together for this year’s 50th running of the marathon and for a story on an Umko trip Bernie and I did where you helped us out with driving. MOONS ago!
Last I heard you were out East teaching English, now I hear you’re in England. I’m glad, as in my considered opinion, a lot of Englishmen could do with being taught English proper!
Me I’m raising kids at my age, they’re 18 and 14 now.
I haven’t paddled for ages, but I have bought a new boat (no logic involved; actually, keep it secret, I’m planning a big comeback). Be careful when you look at the pics of me and Bernie with my new boat – you may get a fright!
Saw Greg Bennett yesterday. He’s well. Thanks to the Umko book project I have seen or spoken to a lot of the old paddling guys in the last year that I hadn’t seen for ages. Allie Peter, Mike Frizelle, Ernie Alder and various other maniacs are currently trudging south down the whole Wild Coast. Three to four weeks from the bottom end of Natal, ending in East London or Kei River or somewhere down there in Darkest Eastern Cape.
Fill me in on your movements since – when? – about 1990!?
Cheers now – Love to you – Pete Swanie
Linda replied:Hi Pete – So good to hear from you after so long. Yes, I was out East, in Taiwan. I then also taught English in Slovakia and Czech Republic before ending up here in the UK. I live in Esher, Surrey and was teaching fairly close by, in Surbiton. As Karen probably told you, I was diagnosed with stage four cancer in January- one hell of a surprise, as you can imagine. So far, I have had a course of radiotherapy and have had four sessions of chemo. Obviously I have not been able to work since I have been ill and things are quite hard financially.
Is it possible to buy hard copies of the Umko book? My brother is keen to get one and he can buy me one at the same time! Those days are but a distant memory now . . . All the best – Love, Linda
Me: Dammit. Dammit! What a bliksem! Bloody cancer! Good luck with your treatment. Hope it goes well.
May 2018 – Bernie contacted me to tell me Linda had passed away.
Dammit. Bloody cancer.
Between 28 and 30 September 1987, the central and southern part of Natal were ravaged by floods that were amongst the most devastating to have occurred in South Africa. The main cause was an intense “cut-off” low pressure system off-shore which co-incided with a Spring high tide. Destruction of property was catastrophic, nearly 400 people died and about 50 000 were left homeless. Damage to agriculture, communications, infrastructure and property amounted to R400 million (report: De Villiers et al, 1994).
The Mgeni and Mvoti rivers had flood duration periods of up to 24 hours and this caused dramatic erosion. In the Mgeni the island near the mouth was totally removed and scour of generally about 2m took place. In the Mvoti the river channel, normally 35m, widened to about 900m. Large quantities of sediment were deposited over the flood plain. Many bridges were washed away. The greatest disruption to humans was caused by the destruction of the Mdloti and Tugela river bridges on the N2 highway (report: Badenhorst et al. 1989).
I think people should write down their stories. In particular I thought Charles Mason should write his as he has paddled one particular crazy-ass canoe marathon every summer for fifty years in a row! Insanity like that should be noted and recorded for posterity. Psychologists should be looking into it.
I mean he won the Dusi twice, paddled one Berg – and coined the now well-known law “Anyone Doing The Berg More Than Once Is Certifiable”; Started, then won the very first Umko; Paddled all the other races and multi-day marathons, sailed to Seychelles and wrecked the yacht on the beach, got a 1st-class degree, married a lovely lady and raised two sons. And some other stuff. But notably, amazingly and astonishingly, he made the Umkomaas River Canoe Marathon – the most feared of all South Africa’s river races – his own.
Here he is doing what some paddlers call ‘Taming the Umko.’ He’s in front wearing the yellow helmet:
Ah! There it is, a pale yellow helmet:
So I said ‘Listen, you should write your story. Your kids may not read it but your grandkids will.’ So Charles said/asked ‘Ja?’ in that quizzical, half-serious half-amused way of his and suggested we meet for tea at Rosie’s Tearoom. Which made me think it was actually now quite urgent that his story get written. Charles Mason thinking ‘meet for a drink’ meant ‘meet at Rosie’s Tearoom’ got me worried. He was obviously getting old. The project had taken on some real urgency.
At Rosie’s doiley-covered tea table his very first sentence was ‘You Know Peter, this is Quite Opportune. Next Year is the Fiftieth Umko,’ and promptly turned the focus away from himself and on to the iconic race which he had been instrumental in reconnoitering, starting, winning, keeping going and participating in. Did I mention every single one of them for fifty one years IN-A-ROW? He broke his boat and walked out in one of them, so fifty finishes in fifty one starts.
So the book title changed from Charlie Mason Fuckin WildWater Endurance SuperHero to ‘UMKO 50 years‘ and he became the font of Umko knowledge and wisdom and proofreader extraordinaire. So although I am responsible for all mistakes, I didn’t really know what I was doing, so we should actually blame him. Except we can’t – he didn’t get to proofread everything. Damn.
So we wrote a book, me and Charlie. Charles in longhand! On paper made from gumtrees by both Sappi and Mondi. He made a copy typist out of me. No wonder I made some mistakes. I took typing as a matric subject in Apache Oklahoma in 1973 and peaked at a blistering nineteen words a minute with ten mistakes. Also, while Charles has done fifty, and ten other okes have done over thirty, with 42 and 39 finishes being the next craziest after Charles, this half of the author-duo had done one. ONE. One Umko. So I did need some help in knowing what I was on about.
In my defence, I wrote the bloody thing cos it NEEDED DOING. Somebody had to do this! Anyway, between Charles and I we’ve done 51 Umkos and experience like that is not to be sneezed at.
The way we did it was to ask all paddlers who have ever paddled the Umko to send in their stories. Then we asked them again. And again. The emptiness of my inbox was deafening. An American paddling scribe – and paddling scribes are, in Charlie’s own description of rarity, As Rare As Rocking Horse Shit – wrote ‘paddlers are notoriously lax at recording their adventures.’ Correct. Bill Barron used to say ‘ka-rreck.’
So I had to go out like a roving reporter and fetch the stories that were not being sent in.
With Paul Chalupsky it was coffee in Durban North. After a wary start and quite a few questions, the floodgates opened. Five hours later I left with notes scribbled in my notebook, on the till slip, and on my phone. When I wrote him seeking clarity I got the usual ‘I’m not-so-email’ response. Thank goodness his new wife jumped in and sent clarifications and some lovely new tales.
With Herve de Rauville it was two quarts of beer and two bottles of quota red wine from his estate in the winelands. He’s not anti-quotas, our Herve. Seven hours later we had done the Umko plenty times with much steering back away from the inevitable topic if you’re talking to SA paddlers: The Dusi!
I nailed down Pete Peacock by going to PMB and meeting him at Owen Hemingway’s Pope’s Canoe Centre. Owen himself was a fountain of info and scandal! At that stage I was relieved to meet a paddler with verbal diarrhoea, instead of the communicative constipation I had been experiencing! While I pumped him for Umko info he sold me a boat. A beautiful orange plastic Fluid Detox. I must paddle it one day.
Like many, Kenny Reynolds agreed absolutely that he would write. Every time I saw him at KCC he would FOR SURE be sending me some stories. Soon. But it was only when I was with him scribbling in longhand that I got any scandal. Same with Ballie Roets and Tony Botes. I had to go to Crusaders – the drinking club with a canoeing problem – clubhouse for their tales. It looked like a bowling club. No?
I began to think this was a multi-year project for a patient, persistent saint, of which I am none of the above. Then a breakthrough! Some ancient pre-rinderpest okes had been forced to learn email from being in Australia. So Robbie Stewart and Rory Lynsky sent stirring tales. Their endeavours were re-doubled when a Viking character entered the fray and goaded them into having to defend their honour. Now we were cooking thanks to Rowan Rasmussen! Ally Maynard had to set the record straight, Porky Paul got his secretary to write, Rob Bourne-Lange had Leslye fire off his missives. Geoff Caruth was slow, but he has written a lot about the Umko over many years, so I could plunder his early writings, scanning the old Umko programs, then editing the OCR errors, then copy and paste.
Now the accusations started flying thick and fast. Especially thick. Everyone was the hero of their story and the furious howls of ‘That’s MY story you’re telling!‘ got the creative juices flowing. The introduction now needed the caution ‘Please take all the stories with a hefty pinch of iodised cerebos.’ The reason for the hyperbole, of course, is the river itself. The palpable fear before a race causes great excitement and nervousness – and garrulous relief afterwards. Charles summed it up pithily many years ago with another famous truth: ‘There’s No Better Laxative Than A Full Umkomaas!‘
Kingfisher heavies contributed aplenty. From the outset the project had the backing of the club. Travis Wilkinson, Terry Drummond and Ross Poacher helped out. Rob Davey actually saw that the idea became a reality. We all spoke and wrote; Rob brought the money in. Ernie Alder didn’t say no, but fokol forthcame until I met him at Circus Circus for a lengthy meal when his floodgates opened. He was no typist, our Ernie.
Rumblings from behind the boerewors curtain erupted and colourful lava spewed forth once Bruce Clarke, Brian Longley, Meyer Steyn and Colin Wilson started lying singing. These interlopers regard the Umko as their own and some Umkos there have actually been more Vaalies than modest, well-behaved paddlers! We may in fact need to look at the Donald Trump solution to keeping them out with a wall at van Reenen. Spoiling a good story with the truth is not their style. Swims which had been Natal-long became epic swims lasting ‘months underwater,’ and even this was topped by ‘eons holding my breath.’ Nicknames are a big thing in the hinterland, so I liked that and tried to get nicknames for as many paddlers as I could. Hopefully a few guys were annoyed at seeing their worst, most forgettable name in print. I decided from the outset not to censor any submissions. Customary Paddling Language was used as spoken, but even I chose not to put some unsavoury nicknames in the book!
I wanted recognition for the ladies who have quietly and without fuss done what us okes did. Much serious shaking of male heads kept the ladies out for years, in the sure knowledge that no woman could – and then, OK, should – ever do a race as challenging as ‘our Umko’ and anyway, out of the kindness of our hearts we shouldn’t let them into our remote valley. For their own good. Also, how would they possibly handle having to sleep in the big marquee with all the guys? By telling better fart jokes than the guys, it turned out. As far as I could tell, Colleen Whitton was the first lady to paddle in an Umko and Marlene Boshoff and sis Jenny were the first to finish one without a male in the boat. They were followed in random order by Antje Manfroni, Patricia Stannard, Lorna Oliver, Debbie Whitton-Germiquet, Diana Rietz. What’s more they wrote good stories and sent them in on time and electronically. Thanks ladies!
The breakthrough with the ladies came via Hugh Raw. His terrific MCP stories (he wrote of paddling with TWO ladies and making them carry the boat) needed responding to and challenging. And the ladies did just that.
Back and forth, checking and re-checking. Re-writing causes layout headaches, all well handled by Rob Davey and Jon Ivins, paddler, photographer and book putter-together-er. All the while badgering okes to send in their stories, with mixed success. To their credit every one of the paddlers I phoned cheerfully agreed to send their tale. Then they didn’t. Amazingly, some okes can win the race multiple times but writing a story defeats them. If I had a story about them, especially if controversial, I would send that to them and that often elicited a response, but not always. At least Robbie Herreveld was a great help with the results. He kept records and helped us complete the list of winners.
The proofs arrived! We checked through half-size black-and-white proofs then the full-size, full-colour proofs:
Then the books themselves arrived, happy day! Just in time for the race, where Rob Davey handed them out to paddlers in 2016’s goodie bags! They were pretty well received, I thought, warts and all!
The UMKO 50 years – The Story Of A River Race And The People Who Made It Happen can be read here. Don’t tell me of any errors, thank you! Actually, do. We’ll build your bulldust into UMKO 60 years.
Talking about ‘fuck’ – I read a wonderful book ‘Duzi Fever’ by an entertaining old bugger Rob Gouldie who did the 1955 Dusi. I once heard him give a hilarious talk at Kingfisher. He told a lo-ong story of hardship, paddling, dragging canoes, breaking boats, chopping one up and stuffing it into the other, lunch breaks and – eventually – settling down for the night in the darkness on their own after a long and stressful day – ‘we were at sewerage farm!’ That brought the house down, as usually one passes sewerage farm within an hour of the start!
Rob Gouldie has since shuffled off down his final rapid.
On portaging on the Duzi – “Negotiating barbed wire fences was a ball ache second to none . . . you had to pry open the strands so your partner could squeeze himself and the the canoe through without hooking his nuts“.
Winning the Dusi one year his partner “blew” and said “Rob, I’m fucked, can I just trail my paddle behind me and pretend I’m steering?”
He asked for leave from his job at a bank to do the Dusi and his manager refused. He writes: “I never knew how important I was as a junior clerk and felt quite proud that the bank would grind to a halt without my services”. Anyway he went AWOL, wrote a letter of resignation “should the shit hit the fan”. It did. He expressed great relief at no longer working for them.
On the race his partner “developed a severe chafe due to sand in his underpants” so he threw away his pants and underpants and “went Beau Brummel”. When they got to Umfula Trading Store the owner kicked him out. His wife was serving in the shop and Rob thinks the owner “was upset that she might be able to compare notes”. After Rob explained and his partner demonstrated, the owner took pity on his partner and gave him a roll of plaster “to wrap around the emaciated-looking Percy”.
In shooting a rapid: ” . . where we nearly saw our rings . . “
They were lying second one Dusi, 44mins behind the leaders who were “obviously cocksure of their lead, not knowing we had caught up to them and could almost smell their farts”.
On a trip down the Umkomaas he bought and drank way too many raspberry-flavoured milk drinks at a remote valley trading store, got bilious . . . and “hurled the most spectacular pink cat”. His mate caught the moment on film:
And on in that vein. I thoroughly enjoyed it! My kind of book! I was delighted to read his full and free use of ‘English as she is spoken on riverbanks’ and determined not to censor Customary Paddling Language in the Umko 50 book. Someone proofreading suggested I use f___ or f__k instead of fuck. Not.
On the banks of the beautiful Umkomaas river at what the Porters used to call ‘The A-frame’ campsite. The A-frame washed away in the 1987 floods, heading downstream and maybe out the mouth, into the Indian Ocean and off to Australia.
Leopard and otter footprints; A tiny little dead shrew – what kind? dwarf?;
A magic lunch on the rocks next to a pool in the river below a little rapid.
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!
From:pete swanepoel home Sent: 16 December 2014 To: Allie Peter; Greg Bennett; Doug Retief; Subject: Deepdale – Hella Hella
Hey Allie, Greg & Doug I just posted this story about an Umko trip with BernieJamludi The Jet. Thought you might like to check it out:
Cheers – Pete PS: I’m licenced to scribble:
Great, and a very personal story to be shared with the “old boys”.
Pete, I have now worked out what you MUST do and that is start putting together an anecdotal account of the famous canoe stories from way back then. We would have to do a chapter on the Tarka Canoe Club and some of the other trips, the Whisky canyon episode etc. etc.
You will have to be the scribe and we can then get the fellows together with a small supply of cold tea in order to refresh memories — remember ‘n man praat altyd die waarheid na ‘n paar doppe !!
Well, ex-Chairman Allie Peter started a small seed growing; in March 2015 ex-Chairman Charles Mason and I sat down to write the Umko 50 years book. We finished it just before the fiftieth Umko in March 2016, where Rob Davey handed out 300 copies to all who took part in that memorable race.
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).