2. Varsity Days

Orientation Week at Pietermaritzburg University was a big thing. Lots of parties and lots of alcohol, with a smattering of girls. And then there was a day where all the different clubs tried to entice us to join up with them. Well, most clubs wanted as many first years as they could get, except it seemed to me, the Canoe Club. When I went to join up there were three people manning the Natal University Canoe Club (NUCC) table. A fellow by the name of Colin (Copper) Simpkins with vast amounts of unruly red hair, another fellow by the name of Richard (Starsky) Star with lots of wispy thin, stark white hair and an attractive olive skinned, dark haired, foreign girl; Rosie Bonafide, who I never got to know.   

Copper did all the speaking, quizzing me about why I wanted to paddle and what experience I had. When I spoke about Mvurachena Canoe Club and the likes of the Hunyani and Pungwe Rivers he laughed, called me a “Bloody Zimboon” and told me to bugger off. This warm, natural charm of his has never worn off. Anyway, I signed up but truth to tell, I never really felt like a part of NUCC.

In my first year at varsity, my first race in my new club colours was actually back in Zimbabwe on the Pungwe River. We again stayed at the Katiyo Tea Estate Club which marked the finish point, tripping on the Saturday and then racing on the Sunday. According to Pops’ diaries and the photos, I paddled in Neil’s Javelin (with my new paddle) while Neil used a club Sabre. I completed the 35km’s in just under 3 hours, Neil in 3h30. This was the only canoe race where I beat Neil.

Pungwe River Zimbabwe
Pungwe River Zimbabwe
Pungwe River Zimbabwe

That year the CooNoo had two trips to the Zambesi River in the same month – one with Pops who was camping with friends at the Ncube Camp in Mana Pools – and another with Ruman, Storker, Neil and I to Chirundu during our June vacation. On that particular trip we had floated down stream and then found that the current was too strong to paddle back upriver so we were busy carrying the CooNoo back to our makeshift camp when we were charged by a hippo. We dropped the old tub and ran for our lives, and then retrieved her the next day.

Mana Pools
Mana Pools
Chirundu
Chirundu
Chirundu

Back then, if we camped with Pops we were at least in tents and inside a recognised game reserve, but when we went on our own, we simply drove to Chirundu and then went downriver for several kilometres where we would ‘make camp’. We slept on a groundsheet, under the stars inside a circle of smouldering dung to keep nocturnal predators (lions and hyenas) away – not clever at all.

Having joined NUCC my goal was to do what I believed to be South Africa’s premier canoe race – the Dusi Canoe Marathon. What I didn’t know was A: I had to qualify, and B: I needed to train if I was going to finish the race. What I did know was that I had to get a decent river boat. My neighbour in William ‘O Brien Residence, Russell Hampsom (already a Dusi man), convinced me that a Rapier K1 made and sold by his uncle Hugh Raw, was the boat I needed and as luck would have it, he had one waiting for me. My first race in that boat was the Jock Classens Memorial, a race that started on Albert Falls Dam and had a nasty portage around the dam wall before a fun paddle down to Baines Drift.  

In October of 1984 Queen came to South Africa and we had to see them so Swannie, Ruman, Jonno and I went up to Jo’burg for this. Neil and I borrowed Jenny and Adrian’s bakkie with the plan being to drive to the Sun City Superbowl (with Jonno), sleep overnight in the bakkie and drive back the next day. We had a proper party and got to see Queen live, which was out this world. We were very lucky we went to the opening show on the Friday night because after this Freddie Mercury lost his voice and the rest of the shows were cancelled. We were even more fortunate in that we got back to Jo’burg alive.

Neil needed to be back on Saturday morning to work, so we left Sun City before sunrise. I am not sure why I was the driver, but I was. Neil was asleep in the passenger seat, Jonno was asleep on mattresses in the back, under a canopy. I too fell asleep, left the road and rolled the bakkie. Seat belts were not a thing in those days, especially not in a 1970’s import from Zimbabwe. Neil went through the windscreen, elbow first and twenty years later he was still removing small pieces of glass. We found Jono lying in the dirt about 100meters away from us. He didn’t have a scratch on him; nor did I. We took the radio and the steering wheel but couldn’t sell the wreck; a year later when we went to see Rod Stewart it was still there, untouched. That was an expensive exercise in that Jenny and Adrian were not insured and as the driver it fell on me to pay Jenny and Adrian back. Unbelievably, this didn’t stop me from driving (or paddling) under the influence; I was still that young and that dumb…

We got lucky to see Queen live – and luckier still to get home alive

After writing year-end exams, with the plan to do the Vaal Marathon with Neil, I got a vac job selling dinner sets in Johannesburg. I still had my little Suzuki 125, so I rode up to Bedfordview over two days camping overnight night on Van Reenen’s Pass before staying with Jenny and Adrian, despite me not being very popular having written off their only vehicle. Back in 1984 the Dowse Aluminium Vaal Kayak Marathon was long; 120km long over two days. We did half of day 2 with only one blade of a paddle to help out Frank Soll who was racing for a podium place with Ralph Teulings and had broken his in Benoude Boude, some 30km before the end near Parys. Neil did most the work with the one decent paddle, I was in the back and paddled every second stoke with the broken one.

After doing the Vaal (I still have that T-shirt) I needed another qualifier and my plan was to do the Natbolt 50 Miler, in order to see the day’s 2 and 3 of the Dusi. The journey up to Bedfordview had been way too much for my little Suzuki 125 so I hitchhiked down from Jo’burg to Maritzburg for the 50 Miler, organised a lift to the race with a kind NUCC guy by the name of Clive Potter and then did the race without a second or a place stay. I gave my kit bag to the timekeepers to get it to the end and slept under the stars at the overnight stop. Camping at the riverside was common back then, but most people were properly organised with cars, seconds, tents and camp beds; luxuries I didn’t have. Talking luxuries, what I do remember was that someone had bought a generator and a TV to the valley campsite and we watched Gerrie Coetzee fight Greg Page, live at Sun City. Gerrie lost in the 8th round.

Anyways, I finished the race and a friend who knew I was doing it asked his father who was travelling from Durban to Jo’burg to take me back that Sunday afternoon. He kindly picked me at Blue Lagoon and off we went, leaving Clive Potter to take my boat back to Maritzburg. Shortly after Heidelberg my friend’s dad told me he was taking the next offramp, the R23 to go to his home in Benoni; that he was tired and couldn’t go the longer way-round on the N3 past Bedfordview. That was that, and he dropped me off at the offramp in the middle of nowhere as dusk was falling. I had a small kit bag, my paddle and no chance of hitching a lift in the dark of night; so I walked a few hundred meters from the highway and made a bed in the grass, grateful that I had some cigarettes, bleak that I had no food or water; but it had been a long two days on the river, so I slept soundly. I hitched into Bedfordview the next morning without my prized Adidas tracksuit that was stolen while I was sleeping. To this day I still can’t believe he left me there like that.

Back in Jo’burg I learnt that I was a terrible door-to-door salesman, that I really didn’t enjoy selling fancy dinner sets to people who couldn’t afford nor needed them. I was very happy when my manager suggested I leave, so home to Harare I went for Christmas with Pops and Neil.

In January of 1985 Neil and I moved into my very dirty new digs in Maritzburg to prepare for what would be our first attempts at the Dusi Canoe Marathon. I had my new Rapier while Neil had a Sella, and most importantly, we had seconds: Dave Saint and Jonno Payne, although we did fail to advise them we needed water more than beer or cigarettes when on the river. Back then there was no Camps Drift and we started in Alexandra Park. Neil and I were both in H batch, but after that I never saw him again as he moved up to B batch while I went backwards. I lost my water early in day one and made the mistake of drinking from the river – as we did when on the Pungwe. It was a hot, low year, plus day 2 was particularly tough in that the Inanda Dam was not yet constructed. If you have ever complained about the slog across the tepid pea green soup of Inanda; think again. The dam has actually made things far easier in that there are no more maze-like channels to get lost in or sandy shallows to get stuck on, plus the day is now shorter as all the meandering river twists and turns are now submerged and no longer. But as Andre Hawarden said in his 1989 write up; the real beauty of the riverbanks is forever lost.

Once again, we were sleeping under the stars at the overnight stops, but after day two I spent most of my night on a portaloo. This was my first experience of the dreaded Dusi Guts. Having done 50Miler I knew that day 3 held lots of fun, but by the time I got to Burma Road I was literally coming stone last, and not in a good state of mind. When an official told me that he had air-conditioning in his car and he was going to go through to the finish at Blue Lagoon I was sold and bailed, swearing never to go back to the dirty, deplorable Dusi again. I think Neil just missed the Top 50 and a Silver medal.

1985 was a defining year for the Dusi. This was the first year that ladies were allowed to race in singles (although they had to be accompanied by a male paddler); Marlene Boshoff won in 15hours 35, over 5hours behind the men’s winner and 113th overall. Also, new rules were introduced separating K1’s and K2’s after seeding mayhem during the 1984 start. With this the likes of Graeme Pope-Ellis and Tim Cornish had controversially entered as both 2 singles and a double, waiting to see what the water conditions would be like. It was to be the lowest year since 1969, and the slowest winning time since 1974 with John Edmonds taking his first podium from the Pope who had elected to paddle in a single given the low conditions. As a result, 1985 was recognised as a K1 year and in 1986 the Dusi was promoted as a K2 race; since then the alternate K1 vs K2 years have been as prominent as the traditional Comrades ‘Up’ vs ‘Down’ years. 1985 also saw the introduction of new rules that included compulsory paddling sections (yes, compulsory paddling sections) after too much portaging had been done in too many different places over previous years. Many of these previously portaged sections are now under water, somewhere below the Inanda Dam, a 12 km stretch that would later help Neil write his name into Dusi history.

1985 also marked my first attempt at the Umkomaas Canoe Marathon. I was lured to the ‘Umko’ by the idea of 130km of big water from Hella Hella to Goodenough’s Weir with only one recognized portage, a waterfall. Back then I was a ‘Winston Man’ (a smoker) meaning I didn’t enjoy Dusi’s portaging plus I thought that I could handle big water, so Umko sounded as though it was made for me. I teamed up with Neil who had been there the year before but this created logistical issues in that he was at Wits and I was at Maritzburg, so we never did train together. We bought an old Foxbat for the princely sum of R150 and spent as much again on glass and resin to make it super strong. She got us to the end of day 1, some 70kms downstream at Riverside, and to what made the Umko truly special – the overnight stop. Imagine over 400 guys (and a few girls) all together in one makeshift campsite where the major sponsor was Hansa. What a party.

Umkomaas marathon
Top Sport TV coverage. Mpompomani Rapid

On day 2 we scored some great TV coverage at Mpompomani, a rapid that made No1 look tame, portaged the Waterfall, made it through Whirlpool and Gulley but eventually our old Foxbat crumbled at No Name and we had to walk and swim the last 10km’s to the finish at Goodenoughs Weir. Initially we tried to take the boat out (after having broken it into 2 separate pieces) but in the end we gave up, taking out the cables, seats and pumps. By the time we got there the officials had left, so we were not credited with a finish or a medal; but we did get a t-shirt.  Fortunately the Witsies waited for us and we made it to the prize giving at the Umkomaas Town Hall. There they/we claimed about 10 lucky draw ‘wins’ from the race sponsor Hansa (where each ‘win’ was a case of Hansa) but the eventually they caught on to the fact that we were simply saying “Yes, that’s Me” when no-one else put up their hand to claim the prize. With that we had a lot of beer for the trip home but the problem with too much beer is that sooner or later you have to relieve yourself. The driver of the bus, Captain Verkerk was adamant that he was not stopping, but eventually we convinced him that I was not a Witsie and needed to get off in Maritzburg; much to the relief of the everyone.

Talking about sponsorships and branded T-shirts, 1985 was the first year that South African Breweries and Hansa sponsored a major canoe race – the Umkomaas. Sadly I have lost that specific shirt, but I still have many others Hansa shirts and vests, including those from the epic ‘86, ‘87 and ‘88 Umko years. Hansa then also became the title sponsor of the Dusi Canoe Marathon from 1987 to 1993 and with their backing canoeing then got a lot of TV and radio coverage that did an enormous amount to put our little sport on the map. These were Apartheid days, there was no international sport, so events like the Dusi and Comrades were major highlights on the South African sporting calendar, worthy of TV coverage, despite the expense of requiring helicopters to film the race.

Here, the late Peter (Pod) Mc McLoughlin and his SAB team need to be recognised and thanked for their support. Much later in my life, in 2004 when I was working in advertising at Net#work BBDO, we pitched on the Hansa business. The two main Brewery guys in the room were Pod who was then Marketing Director and Alistair (Ali) Hewitt who was the Marketing Manager on Hansa, industry leaders who knew I was paddler. Anyway, after the presentation Pod asked me why we hadn’t mentioned canoeing or the Dusi once; it was more of a joke than anything as the real Hansa volumes were never with us paddlers (plus the Dusi was not as racially transformed as it is today), but I have never forgotten that. As it turned out we didn’t win the account; not even when it was offered to us on platter a year or two later (sadly, ego’s and creative principles got in the way, plus our MD, Abdulla Miya, who could sell anything to anyone and closed most our pitches was not involved, choosing to distance himself for his religious beliefs) and so I was always disappointed that I never got to work on a brand that had done so much for our sport. It was however due to their sponsorship that both Pops and I (and many other paddlers) became very loyal to Hansa and the brand has benefitted from our support ever since.

Pops’ diaries reported that shortly after Umko we returned to the Pungwe for Easter weekend in 1985. Neil wrapped his Javelin below the second bridge, and I sailed past him, eyeing another ‘win’. He spent time fixing his boat, but then I holed my newish Rapier downriver and withdrew. Three straight ‘Did Not Finish’ (DNF’s) in a row for me: Dusi, Umko and Pungwe all in the space of just 4 months, but it would seem that I wasn’t counting; that I wasn’t perturbed, that this was not a deterrent. Barry Dingle from JCC won that year.

The photos show that we still didn’t wear life jackets when paddling the Pungwe or the Dusi, but I do remember Neil and I going to Neville Turan’s shop in Bedfordview to buy Kayak life jackets, as they had been made compulsory for the 1985 Umkomaas. Neil had done the 1984 Umko in his Javelin and his story there was that although he lost his seat when he swam in the Approaches, he never got a sore bum from sitting on the bottom of the boat because he spent more time swimming than paddling and so he suggested that life jackets were a really good idea for that river. We chose the Kayak PFDs because they were small, believing that we didn’t want to be impeded by the bulky alternatives, and although they were ridiculously tiny, they did their job for many years; (I know this because I often swam) but today they are not compliant with the set safety standards. They cost us R26 each.

Looking at the picture of my yellow Rapier K1 above with the Mainstay branding (they were the title sponsor of Dusi in ‘85) puts a wry smile on my face; for this was when I started collecting race stickers. I first (re)stuck them onto my school trunk (from my school and varsity days), then on another trunk and later when that was full, I started to cover my trailer. In my early Dusi days they used to give us both medals and cotton badges on finishing, and over-time I covered a kitbag with all sorts of canoeing, running and even my Boy Scout badges which has made for a great conversation piece; although I still need to work out what to do with the very many metal badges I have collected – but more on this later…

Pops helped run the Pungwe Descent from 1983 to 1987 after which it was never held again. SA CANEWS shared glowing write ups on the ‘83 and ‘85 events, and as I now write about this, I can’t help thinking how fantastic it would be to go back there for a trip with a bunch of paddling mates, and I can think of many who would relish the opportunity…

Pungwe River Zimbabwe
Pungwe River Zimbabwe

Reflecting back on what we started out with; the CooNoo and our homemade wooden paddles, relative to what the SCARC and Saint David’s kids who I see starting out their paddling at Emmarentia have today, I know that less can be more; that we were truly fortunate simply to have had the window of opportunity opened for us. Thank you Pops.

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