1. CooNoo Days

In canoeing, as with most sports, you get those who are real athletes, those who have the genes, the grit and the determination to compete to win; and then you get the more recreational type of paddlers; those who are simply there for the experience, those who we call the ‘Fish ‘n Chips’. Such people typically require different sets of grit and determination. Where the Racing Snakes might take 3 hours to complete a stage, the Fish ‘n Chip Trippers need to have the resolve to survive 5hours plus, out in the mid-day heat. Then, when they get in, they will need to spend another few hours fixing their boats, whereas the racers will have this done for them by their sponsors and will be re­­­­­covering at a comfortable house or hotel, on a couch, with a saline drip. Meanwhile, the Fish ‘n Chips people will be sweating in the valley campsite, rehydrating with more Hansa than necessary. Then they still need to be able to drink long into the night in order to be sufficiently carbo-loaded and ready to tackle the river the next day. It’s not easy being either a Fish ‘n Chipper or a Racing Snake, but I do believe that the Trippers have more fun and ultimately get more out of our little sport. I say this because I am one of those Trippers, one whose fraternal twin brother was once a renowned Racing Snake; so this is a long tale with lots of actualities; it’s the story of my life centred around a near 50-year paddling affair, shared with a myriad of amazing people where some were playing to win, while others of us were winning in play.

Looking back through photo albums and reading my dad’s diaries it seems that I first sat in canoe with my brother in 1967 at the age of 3 when on holiday at my mother’s family holiday house on the Kariega River at Kenton. Although we lived in what was then called Rhodesia, we went there for a few holidays before our teen years, and I would like to believe that something ‘stuck’ inside of us way back then.  

Kenton on Sea 1966
Signs of the times. The family holiday house was on prime real estate – sadly it was sold

As a twin I grew up sharing almost everything with my brother Neil; from bedrooms to birthday presents, and it was our dad; ‘Pops’ who truly got us into paddling when he gave us a canoe for our 11th birthday. When we were little, we couldn’t pronounce one-another’s names, so I (Clive) became Coo while Neil became Noo; and yes, that birthday present, our first canoe was called the CooNoo.

The CooNoo back in the day in what was then Rhodesia

The CooNoo was not new, nor sleek, nor shiny. Instead, she was a second-hand, heavy, dull green tub; but for us this was the best present ever in that she represented something new; fun, adventure and excitement. The fact that we didn’t have paddles was no deterrent; we simply made our own out of broomsticks and plywood with lavish coatings of varnish to make them ‘waterproof.’ Pops did most of the carpentry work for us, he even stencilled ‘CooNoo’ on the blades; and that’s how we started out.

Canoeing and the CooNoo went on to become an integral part of our lives and as we moved from junior school to high school to University and beyond; our friends all knew us as Coo and Noo, the twins with the CooNoo. We still have the CooNoo; they made things to last in those days and although she should probably be a flowerpot now, she lives quietly near the waters-edge of the Vaal Dam, where Noo has a holiday house, but we should get her back on the water again…

Having lost our mom to cancer we turned 10, we had been shipped off to boarding school at Godfrey Huggins in the small town of Marandellas where we joined the local Scout Troop and were very fortunate to be taken under the wing of the local Priest and Scout Master, John Thornhill. In August of 1975 John took us on our first trip: a two-day 35km expedition on the Hunyani River (now known as the Manyame River), a tributary of the mighty Zambesi. We started from the bridge on the Beatrice Road, paddling and portaging down river, sleeping out overnight under the stars on some unsuspecting farmers land before paddling across Lake McIlwaine.

Coo and Noo in the CooNoo

In hindsight it would seem that we didn’t plan very well as we did the trip at the end of winter when the river was low which meant much portaging; CooNoo type canoes are not light, we were carrying our own provisions for two days, plus we were little kids. Looking at the photos, we clearly made our paddles way too long, but look at how happy we were!

We earnt our coveted Boy Scout Canoeing Badges that weekend and did a couple trips to Lake Mac’ with Alan Spencer and John Thornhill later that year. Tragically, John was murdered on his family farm near Marondera in the early 1990’s. 

For our high school years, we ended up going further afield to Umtali Boys High, but when home we would go out to the lake or paddle on our local river, the Gwebi with family friends; Dave Tattam, the Fryers and the Dawes. Somewhere along the line we got another similar (red) canoe, but there was only ever one CooNoo.

Neil and Clive, Jenny, Pops and Neil – all at Lake Mac and Clive and Neil checking out a local river

Our Umtali Boy’s days were full of all the normal school team sports; as boarders this was the best way of keeping occupied and staying far away from the bullies back at the hostel, but along the way we also got involved in cycling, and I need to share this fact now because I have a few paddling friends who love having a go at those they like to call “Lycra Clad Wombats.”

As Zimbo’s if you wanted anything half decent, you had to go ‘Down South’ to buy it, and I mean anything; we bought everything from chocolates to tinned fish, tackies to denim jeans, electronic goods to bicycles, on shopping trips to South Africa. When Neil and I turned 16, we hitchhiked from Harare to Pietersburg, camped there for a night and returned home with what we had set out for, one prized pair of Lee jeans each; we thought we were so cool wearing those, but I digress.

Later that year we went ‘Down South’ with Pops and Jenny to buy some groceries and racing bikes for Coo and Noo. In the end we both got brand new shiny blue Raleigh 12 speeds from a cycle shop in Louis Trichardt; they were beautiful. Our travel plans were to return home via the Tshipse Hot Springs and then camp a few nights at Lake Kyle to visit the Ruins of Great Zimbabwe. With this Pops decided that we should put our new bikes to use and ride them to Tshipse. We looked at a map, saw it was 150km, said no problem and set off at sunrise the next day.

If you have never been, Louis Trichardt lies at the foot of the densely forested Soutpansberg Mountain range; it’s a beautiful trip by car but tough if you are a boy on a bike as the climb to the top is a steep 700meters. The descent was fantastically fast and fun, but it was also scary going through the Wyllie’s Poort Tunnels on a bike. The first is 275metres, the second 450metres in length and when big trucks are bearing down on you in the dark all one can do is grip the handlebars really tight and hope. We didn’t have lights, or reflectors, or helmets, or cleated cycling shoes; we didn’t even have water bottles and we certainly didn’t have lycra cycling kit; in truth we didn’t really have a clue, but we did get to Tshipse before Pops and Jenny who had gone shopping for camping supplies.

Camping at Lake Kyle and visiting Zimbabwe Ruins

Back at school we started a cycling club, and for a few months we rode at the ‘modern velodrome’ in Umtali, a steeply banked concrete oval track that was lots of fun. At the end of the year, 5 of us undertook to cycle 280kilomters from Umtali to Harare. I blew (stupidly, I had become a smoker) just outside of Harare and put my bike on the back of a bakkie, but Neil rode all the way home, on principle. A year later he then rode around Zimbabwe; I had been put off long distance cycling and didn’t go on that trip, but fortunately our paddling remained more fun and I guess that’s what kept us interested.

Clive and Neil awheel

In those days in Zimbabwe, we could get our driver’s license at age 16, so it wasn’t long before we were off on our own camping trips at Lake Mac, experimenting with alcohol and girls. I thought drinking, smoking and roughing it made me look ‘cool’ – like the Marlboro Man. One of our more memorable trips was with Dave Tattam, when some other schoolboys camping next to us let our tent down. He decided we should beat them up, shouted “cover me, I’m going in” and rushed off swinging punches in anger; but Noo and I didn’t follow him; something he has never forgotten.

The Hunyani River and Lake Mac

We were 17 when we did our first river race, the Mashonaland Championships on the Hunyani; organised by Pops. Neil and I were in the good old CooNoo and while there were only 5 or 6 other boats, they were all in a different league. They were sleek, they were light; they had small cockpits made to take splash covers and they had fancy rudder steering systems. Importantly the competition also had proper paddles with lightweight aluminium shafts and fibre glass blades; all imported at great cost from South Africa. It seemed we were learning; we were now making our wooden paddles with feathered blades, but they were clearly still way too long; nothing like the real things. 

Coo & Noo in the CooNoo
Our first race

In 1982, Pops was part of a small group including Laurie Watermeyer and Geoff Austin who formed the Mvurachena Canoe Club; Shona for ‘White Water’. There were only about 10 (water white) members so the less said here the better, but it legitimised and gave us a sense of being. Pops designed the club logo and even had club t-shirts made for us to paddle in.

1982 also marked our A level and final year at Umtali Boys High. I never did like school and at 16 tried to join the South African Navy, the British Navy and even the likes of Safmarine, but fortunately, none would have me. When I was 17; I thought I would leave school to become a miner and during a school holiday I spent 5 days at the Evander Gold Mine; 3 underground and 2 writing tests. I very quickly learnt that school was way easier than the sometimes freezing cold then sweltering hot conditions underground. Waking at 04h30 for a massive breakfast, then being laden with boots, jackets, hard hat, lamp, battery pack and lunch before going down the shafts was not my idea of a good life, so when it came to the tests, many of which were multiple choice I tried my level best to get the answers wrong. When they asked, would you A: Prefer to lie in bed a read poetry or, B: Crawl into a dark and muddy shaft to drill and lay demolition charges, I answered A and happily went back to school knowing that my application would be rejected; but I still really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.

That Christmas we got our first real river canoe, a tired old whitewater boat called a Chindi that had come from Jo’burg. To us, this was fantastic, a proper boat. It even came with two spray decks! A few months after this Neil got a somewhat fresher Javelin K1, and a real paddle with white fiberglass blades; we were now starting to get fancy.

No Paddle necessary
Hand rolling on the pool at home
Pungwe River
Neil on the Pungwe River
Pungwe River Zimbabwe
Neil on the Garesi River

Where I had no idea what to do with my life, Neil somehow knew that he wanted to be a geophysicist; we had travelled from Harare all the way to Cape Town to check out various different South African Universities for him and he decided that Wits had the best Geological Faculty, so in 1983, while most Zimbabweans preferred the likes of Pietermaritzburg or Rhodes University, he chose to go to big bad Johannesburg.

I stayed at home, but I had to do something and took the first thing that came along when a friend of Pops’ found me a job in Bulawayo as a Learner Meat Inspector at the Cold Storage Commission that served Zimbabwe’s then legendary beef industry. I left Harare, moved into a digs with strangers and cycled some 25km to work on my Raleigh where I then donned my ‘whites’ – white boots, white overalls and white cap. Mornings were for studies, afternoons were for practical’s; mostly spent learning to cut for examination and classification purposes with extremely sharp knives. I discovered that livestock can smell death, they knew that once in the runs something was amiss, but somehow this didn’t make me become a vegetarian. However; I saw so much tapeworm and fluke, that to this day I have never eaten liver. Anyway, after just two weeks the powers that be told me to pack my bags and leave; I was not a Zimbabwean citizen and had no right to be employed by or educated at a quasi-government institution. So, I moved back home, grateful to still have all my fingers – most of my peers had had lost at least a tip, if not more.

Over Easter of 1983 Pops helped organize and stage the inaugural Pungwe Descent; Zimbabwe’s first ‘real international river race’, in that it was sponsored by Shell and BP, for whom Pops worked for 30 years, advertised in South Africa and attended by several good South African paddlers including Geoff Austin (JCC), Laurie and Brenda Watermeyer (Dabs), Mark Bolton (Umz) and Mark Igoe (MVC).

Pungwe River Zimbabwe
The Pungwe

Neil was busy studying at Wits, so I was the only junior paddler and won the category (in the old Chindi with my homemade wooden paddle) although the write up in SA CANEWS reported that Roy Evans (Pops) won in 4hours 30minutes. I was even wearing club colours. As the only person to successfully shoot this testing rapid in that first race it became known (to all 10 of us) as Clive’s Gap.

Pungwe River Zimbabwe
Clive’s Gap

Thinking about it now, we were clearly very ignorant, or fearless, or stupid – make that a combination of all of the above. We paddled down rivers blindly, not knowing what might be around the corner, not knowing whether we could or would make the next obstacle, not knowing that we should have first scouted the river. I guess I was lucky in that I started out in a stable whitewater boat and made all the big rapids (of which there were several) without a swim or worse. Talking about ignorant and stupid, looking at all the old pics, I also see that no one wore hats or life jackets back then. As they say, ignorance is (or was) bliss.

That same Easter ’84 weekend school friends Andre (Swannie) Swanepoel, Gavin (Ernie) Welsted and Glen (Ruman) Roelfosz arrived in Harare from Pietermaritzburg Varsity and someone suggested I go back with them, so I ended up packing a bag, saying goodbye to Pops and leaving home to look for work in South Africa. My plan was to go to Durban as I quite liked the idea of living at the sea, but I never got past Pietermaritzburg.

Ruman was staying in a peculiar hostel called Jan Richter with an eclectic mix of naughty young students and grave old pensioners; he convinced me to stay a week there and look for a job. I bought a local newspaper, the Natal Witness, saw a position for a Trainee Bottle Store Manager, applied and started work one day later. My employees were the Payne’s who owned the Royal Hotel on Loop Street, and I worked for their son Mike who ran the Royal Hotel Off-sales; further away on the corner of Echo and Orthman Roads, a stone throw from the Msunduzi. It was in a dodgy part of town way back then, but Mike was well respected as the best Vintner in town, so it was a very busy store. My wages were R370 a month plus lots of free alcohol and so I ended up renting a room at Jan Richter and buying a secondhand Suzuki ER 125.

Jan Richter Days

Mike Payne and all the reps who visited the bottle store insisted we knew what we were selling, so we tested pretty much everything. I also had to know what I was talking about in terms of wine and became quite proficient when I earned a Diploma in Wine Studies through the Cape Wine Academy. Somehow though, I never fell in love with wine and after leaving the off sales in January of 1984, I seldom drank wine again and now I never do.

Jan Richter was lots of fun but sadly I got told to leave after just three months as we weren’t supposed to have either alcohol or girls in our rooms. I ended up moving into a house with a strange couple (he was pencil thin, she was obese) who worked for the railways and lived on Bulwer Street (not great); but the rent was cheap, and the food was good, so I stayed.  While I was busy working, the likes Swannie, Ernie, Jonno and Ruman were supposedly studying; but they did very little. As much as I disliked the idea of going back to ‘school’, they were having lots of fun and I thought that if they could be university material, I could too. I asked Pops if he would sponsor my studies, thankfully he said yes, and I applied to study Commerce at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg. After their exams they all went home, but I stayed on to work over the busy Christmas period and earn some more money.

In December of 1983 Christmas Day was on a Sunday and so I had the Sunday and Monday off. On Saturday afternoon after closing up the shop, I hopped onto my Suzuki and rode down to the North Coast with a plan to camp at the Salt Rock Caravan Park; but arrived to find it full. Pops, Neil and I had stayed in Salt Rock the year before (at the same time when Swannie and his family were also there; in a way more upmarket home, that of Penny Ray Coelen) so I thought I knew the place and would find somewhere to stay. Alas no; so in the end I slept in the basement garage of the apartments where we had previously stayed, spending Christmas Eve and Christmas Day alone. Unfortunately, I drank too much (Rum and Cassis, a blackcurrant liqueur, liberated from work) and passed out on the beach on Christmas Day. I woke with a face that had literally been blistered by the sun and couldn’t wait for darkness and the cool of the underground garage. It was a long night and painful ride back to Pietermaritzburg the next day without a helmet visor to protect my weeping face and when I got back; I went to the movies to sit alone in a cool, dark space. The movie was War Games (with Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy); it was very good and easily the best part of my Christmas that year.

When I resigned from the bottle store in January, I didn’t get a bonus because they said I hadn’t worked a full year, but still I spoilt myself and bought a brand-new paddle made by Mark Jamieson from Canoe Sport. They sold fancy ‘Swallow’s’ – plastic kayaks the likes of which I had never seen before; but all I could afford was a paddle, which cost me R68. I proudly took it home for a short holiday, knowing that Pops had organised a trip to the Pungwe River for Neil and I before going off to University.

Pungwe River Zimbabwe
Pungwe River Zimbabwe

7 comments

  1. Love the Blog, Coo ♥️ . And yes… crazy days if you think of how you all hurtled down the rivers with no scouting, old boats and minimum safety gear. You guys are legends.

    Liked by 1 person

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