It was at about this time when it sunk in that being good at things didn’t have to be the sole reason for doing them; that I had neither the genes nor the drive to excel in paddling, but that I was good candidate for the ‘Fish ‘n Chips’ category – where it’s not about winning but rather it’s about the fun, the adventure and the camaraderie of being out on a river. At least that was my excuse to stay in the paddling game and continue drinking and smoking, while Neil was busy training hard for glory and gold.
Drinking beer and lounging around is an important part of being a Fish ‘n Chip Tripper and I learnt to do this quite early in life, so there we were in June 1985, inspecting boats and enjoying beers in our back garden at No 12 Brechin Drive: Ernie, Me, Noo, Jonno, Swannie and an unidentified girl. Sometimes we pick-nicked with the boats out at Lake Mac’ with the likes of Glen and Inky Hildebrand, Swannie and Juliette Straatman, other times Neil and I would go there to paddle across to Dassie Island.
That June Vac we went back to Mana Pools to stay at the new Nkupe Camp with Pops – this time with Ruman, Storker and Bugs, Ant and AnO from our Bucks (Res) Rugby team. Camping with Pops who had most of the necessary (al-be-it quite basic) gear was luxury for us Zimbo’s and an eye opener for them, but it was a great weekend away in the bush.
That trip Pops had been shaving with lime scented cream, this attracted a bees and as he ran down to the river to wash it off they swarmed behind him, while all the guys howled with laughter. The next morning we saw a great big croc waiting in that exact same spot. While there Ruman and the guys gave Pops a pith helmet as a fun present to say thank you and stated calling him ‘The Bombardier’ – neither of which he was ever very fond of.
1985 was full of paddling firsts for me in that it also included my first attempt at the Fish River Marathon, then serving as the SAK1 Championships. The race entry fee was just R25. Neil was also there for his first Fish, although we were not paddling together. I got a lift in a Datsun Bakkie with someone whose name I can’t remember but he was really obliging in that my passport had expired so we couldn’t go through what was then the Transkei (who had formal border posts with South Africa) to get to Craddock and instead had to first go north and around Lesotho before going back down to Craddock, adding an extra 150km to the journey. We arrived on the Wednesday evening with a plan to trip and test ourselves before the race on the two big rapids of day 1: Keith’s Flyover and Soutpans Drift. I swam Keith’s 3 times in a row, never did get to test Soutpans’ and spent most of the afternoon repairing my boat before race day.
That year we camped in-between the thorn trees at Baroda Weir; the move to the Sulphur Springs Campsite in 1986 was luxurious by comparison. Also, back then day 1 was long; just over 50km. We started at the dam wall, paddled around an island and then back to the dam wall before getting on the river; eventually finishing at the Baroda Weir some 3km below the current overnight stop. In those days Fish was primarily a K1 race, the thinking being that all willows and fences made it too dangerous for K2’s and of the 229 finishing boats 82% were K1’s; whereas these days 70% of the field will be in a K2 or K3 to share the load, so to speak. This was only the 4th Fish River Marathon, the inaugural race was in 1982 when 52 boats started and just 37 finished.
On race day I swam Keith’s again, plus I also swam Soutpans’ from the bridge but my boat survived, so I got to paddle day 2 (without another swim) and was credited with a finish. The photos showed that were I swam, Neil didn’t but I decided not to share pictures of me swimming – sorry. Oscar Chalupsky was crowned the K1 Champion while a friend who is now a solid Fish ‘n Chip tripper, Chris Murray, won the junior section.
In 1986 I passed on attempting the Dusi again but went back to the bubbly brown waters of the Umko, then branded as the Hansa Canoe Marathon, this time with an almost new whitewater boat. After the old Foxbat I was then like a cork bobbing around on the turbulent roller coaster ride that is the Umko with good water. The truth was that as soon as I got to the flats I was alone – and in the 130kms from Hella Hella to Goodenoughs there are lots of flats – but the rapids were great fun. That year I had stopped for a smoke break somewhere near the end of day 2 only to find that my ‘bank bag’ had leaked and my cigarettes were wet. As luck would have it, a local appeared and rolled us some of his ‘tobacco’. When we lit up I instantly recognised that pungent aroma. Fortunately, unbeknown to me this happened to be very near the end. I believe that I may be the only guy to have shot Goodenoughs Weir stoned. I then ramped a rock below the weir, was spun around by the current and crossed the finish line going backwards. This was good humour for the crowds but at least I was still in my boat. Watching the TV coverage of the action at Goodenoughs (Pops recorded and kept everything canoeing) showed that this was surely the most fun finish for supporters to watch in that many boats came to grief here with lots of doubles wrapping in the hole or on the rocks below, resulting in a gala ending.
Yeehaaa! Been there, done that, got the T-shirt; plus I even got TV coverage on TopSport: 10 seconds of fame on the box! Reading Pops’ old diaries he wrote: “M&N finished second, C much later.” Waiting for me (with his umbrella and cool-bag full of Hansa) would typify his seconding career; Thanks Pops. 520 paddlers in 330 boats started, but when it was all over the next day, 129 boats had been beaten by the Umkomaas. I was the 163rd of 201 finishers. Colin Simpkins and Richard Starr of NUCC won.
That year I joined Neil and the Witsies for two whitewater weekends not too far from Maritzburg; one on the Bushman’s River for fun where we camped at Estcourt and another when we raced on the Umgeni. Whilst playing in whitewater and slalom boats we learnt a vast array of paddling skills; sweep strokes, draw strokes, back strokes, braces and sculling draws; all to help turn a boat, all vastly more useful than relying solely on a rudder; as so many paddlers seem to do today. We learnt how to use the river current to ‘break in’ going upstream and to ‘break out’ into downstream eddies. We learnt how to ‘ferry glide’ across the rapids, to lean downstream rather than upstream and we learnt how to roll kayaks. Unlike with my school maths, here I got the basics right early on and they have been very useful ever since.
In our June Vac we went back to the Zambesi, camping rough down from Chirundu where we found a young elephant bull that had been shot. The poachers were no doubt watching; waiting for us to leave.
In December of 1986, shortly after year end exams, the SA K1 Championships were held on the Bushman’s; a river I thought I knew a bit about having spent a white water weekend there so I went along. It also served as the Intervarsity Competition, not that I was part of the NUCC squad. Pops’ diaries reported that Wits won, NUCC was third.
50 Miler was a few days after this, but I didn’t paddle. Pops diary says that he, Dave Saint and I left Neil to get on with it while we went for a long pub lunch at the infamous Polo Tavern; but that we did go down into the valley for day 2 where we “Rescued Perrow” (whatever that meant) and then missed the finish were “N came a credible fourth.”
After 50 Miler Pops and I then drove from Maritzburg to the Victoria Falls. Neil and Mark had teamed up with some proper big water paddlers; Jerome Turan, Corran Addison, Marco Begni and Brian Someone for a 5 day, self-supported paddle from below the Falls to the Deka fishing camp; a very remote but beautiful spot upriver from Milibizi. This place was heaven to my varsity mates Shane (Stalker) Luke and the Herbst brothers, one being Derrick whose nickname was Deka; they couldn’t believe I had gone there without a fishing rod or returned without catching a Tiger.
Pops and I had gone along to drive 2 cars to the end for them, plus in-between I took a car to Wankie for Brian and then hitchhiked back to the Falls. For this I got to enjoy all the usual sightseeing of the Falls and a booze cruise upriver but the highlight was on the Friday 12th when they set off as I got to follow on a raft from No1 to 18 with the Shearwater crew (which cost Pops a small fortune of 96 Zim Dollars). Plus I then got to relax and drink beer at the Deka fishing camp; not many will ever get there.
Neil and Mark were never in the same big white water league as Jerome, Corran and Marco but I believe that Mark, true to who he was, shot everything. I read that Marco now lives at the Falls and still paddles, Jerome is in some remote spot in Canada and still plays in plastic boats and Coran is somewhere in California. If you want to see amazing big water stuff, do yourself a favour and check out Corran at play in plastic boats on YouTube; there is a lot of awesome armchair entertainment to be enjoyed there. Steve Fisher is another ex-South African big-white-water paddler worth YouTubing.
Watching those kind of guys playing now, it’s remarkable to see how much plastic boats have changed over the last 30 years. Then, the boat to have was a Perception Wave Dancer (above) – they were about 10 foot long, while today many of the newer plastics are half that length. The pointy tips have mostly gone and now the play boats are all quite stubby. In contrast, the boats we typically use in SA’s local river races have hardly changed at all. Yes, they have become stronger and lighter with the introduction of carbon and kevlar weaves but the basic constructs in terms of length and width have hardly changed. I guess much of this is dictated by the International Canoe Federation (ICF) rules and regulations, and thinking about it a little more, perhaps the biggest change we have seen has been the growth of the (then unheard of) K3 on rivers and the demise of the K4 on flats; while for flat water, marathon boats now look like the nose has been put on upside down. Plus paddles are now ‘winged’ instead of having flat blades and many of us have split shafts to make traveling with them a little easier. Some guys even have fancy neon coloured shafts; the reality is that almost everything changes.
Talking change, shortly after that trip, Pops received a telegram from the University reporting that I had a degree and with this my varsity days were over. Not having done very well at school I never got a Matric pass in mathematics, so I ended up doing a B Soc Sc instead of B Comm because the Commerce faculty said Matric Math was compulsory. Ironically, I did exactly the same mathematics and basic statistics courses in my Soc Sc degree – although this did prove to be very testing and I wrote Statistics (a half year course) six times before they eventually gave me a pass, so getting through was a big relief for Pops who was paying and for me who was never any good with numbers. But passing meant that in January of 1987 I needed to look for work.
Staying in Zimbabwe was not a consideration for either of us and I headed back to Pietermaritzburg; again with the intent of finding work in Durban, but ending with the same result of not getting past Pietermaritzburg. Neil went back to Jo’burg and got a job with a geological company, Rockplan.
For me, Martizburg was a known entity, my mates were still there, it was a fun to be back. At that time Swannie (then in his 5th year of a 3 year Ag Man Degree) was a popular varsity DJ and one night at a pyjama party at the Hags Residence for women, I was behind the decks with him, trying to look cool when a sexy looking girl asked me if I wanted to dance with her. I woke up the next morning in her flat and had to ask what her name was. She wasn’t very impressed with me as I had apparently lost both her wallet and her kikoi, but I stayed with her for the three days before eventually going back to my digs, much to the relief of my mates who thought I had been abducted.
By March of 1987 Dee Green and I were officially an item and we spent a lot of time together with her flat mates Cally Weltken and James Tshortner, doing very little. Actually, they worked hard at their studies, I did very little, although I did write some marketing paper for Dee. Jenny, Neil and I had each inherited a small sum of British Pounds from an aunt of our late mothers, and with this I didn’t see the urgency to join the working class. Plus I was madly in love and didn’t really want to leave Maritzburg for Durban.
With a girl-friend I now had a second; not that seconds were necessary for Umko, but I did need a driver to drop me at the start and pick me up at the end, near Umkomaas. This was to be the first of very many canoeing related trips for Dee; in those early days she enjoyed them, although this was to change. That year I stayed with my whitewater boat. I guess I chose to forget the long hard slog of the flats, preferring to remember the fun of bobbing up and down in the waves of the many rapids between Hella Hella and Goodenoughs. I still stopped for smoke breaks, but only the normal stuff. Looking at the pictures reminded me that I forgot my helmet and was lucky to borrow (a bright yellow) one at the last minute; but I know of worse. Someone from our club recently arrived at the start of a race without his boat. He is the big bean counter of a large construction and property company – but clearly that doesn’t count for much. At the sharp end Oscar Chalupsky and Greyling Viljoen won.
In those days we got medals and certificates for finishing the Umko, and it seems I was quite consistent in that I came 163rd in ’86 and 164th in ’87. Thinking about it now I am amazed that I could even finish day1 (almost 70km) let alone the whole thing given that I hardly trained. Camps Drift was not yet built and messing about in Alexandra park was not my thing, so I mostly paddled on memory. My race plan was typically the same – “to start slow and taper off”. Oh, the joys of youth. Ironically now, in 2021, I have trained more than ever before while my son arrives at the odd race, including the likes of the Umko, in much the same way I used to: undertrained, underprepared, unfazed.
Shortly after Umko of ’87 Pops came down to Pietermaritzburg for my graduation, where he first met Dee. His dairy reported that “Clive’s girlfriend doesn’t seem that ethnic, deep perhaps.” Here I am not too sure who to blame for the ethnic idea, although she did like beads, bangles, bells and kikoi’s.
Pops again helped to stage the Pungwe over Easter ’87, but neither Neil or I went. At the end of May, I first met Dee’s parents when we went with Cally and James to Kenmure, their farm near Barkly East for her 21st birthday. We had a fine party for Dee in the lounge one night and the next day her cousin Judy Green who had grown up on the farm next door married Jonathan Egner in the same lounge. Below; Jackie du Toit, John Green, Ruth Ashby, Me, Dee, James, Cally, Hayden Green, Dawn Watters and Wynne Green; then Dee’s mom and dad; then Cally and I with Dee behind us, with a little Hayden.
By June I still had not found any work, so when Dee went home to spend her June vac at their farm, I did too. As a Zimbo from north of the Tropics, that was the first time I ever realised what a really cold winter felt like; it was the first time I saw snow and the first time I made a snowman. Because this tale is supposed to be about paddling and rivers, I have to note that it was here I discovered that the snow-melts around Barkly East made for full and interesting looking rivers; but as a Fish ‘n Chips Tripper I was a warm weather warrior and in all my visits to the farm I only ever tripped the local rivers in the heat of summer.
In late August I went back to Zimbabwe to help Pops pack up 12 Brechin Drive, our home for about 18 years, before he moved ‘Down South’. Shane and Simon Luke also came and helped and shortly after that Stalker flew to London to start a new life. I do remember how sad Dion Ndoro, our ‘man servant’ was to see us leave but how happy he was with his ‘gratuity’ from Pops which included a fair sum of money and lots of stuff Pops couldn’t or didn’t want to take with him;’ including the faithful old Corsair that had carried us on so many holidays and paddling trips.
In September Pops started his travels around Natal to see where he would retire to; we liked the idea of visiting him at the sea but the humidity was too much for him so, sadly for us, that never happened. It took Pops 6 months of wandering and wondering before he settled on Howick, and he would then learn this made him a very popular base for all the races that happened in and around Maritzburg. Shortly after this I finally got a job in Pietermaritzburg with HL&H Mining Timbers as a trainee buyer for the saw mills. I bought all sorts, from tea to toilet paper and conveyor belts to industrial saws for the different mills, sometimes delivering them to Richmond, Greytown, Melmoth and as far North as Paul-Pietersburg while my boss spent a lot of time in Wartburg, building a wooden house with timber appropriated from our employee.
In December of ‘87 when our varsity mates headed home, Dee and I moved into a beautiful but dreadfully dirty old house on Prince Alfred Street. This meant I could walk across the road, put onto the newly built Camps Drift and shoot the Ernie Pierce Weir every evening. It was lots of fun and good training paddling back upstream from Commercial Road but the novelty did wear off. We thought the house was so bad it would be demolished, plus Dee was convinced it was haunted, but today it is a national heritage site. Neil and Pops came to stay with us for the 50 Miler, and I was the official driver. Neil paddled with John Edmonds; at the end of the first day they were 6th and in the end they came 3rd.
Neither Neil nor I lined up for the 1988 Dusi, but we both went back to the Umkomaas, me with my whitewater boat, Neil with Mark Perrow. The river had been in full flood for some weeks before the race; levels like this had not been seen since 1972, so the race format was changed. Day 1 was to be 58km from the Josephine Bridge to Mpompomani and then day 2 was supposed to be 54km from Mpompomani to the sea. The rains continued and when we arrived at the start many urged race organiser Allie Peter to cancel the race, but such notions were laughed off. I was very happy to have my whitewater boat; people in K1’s offered to buy it from me at the start – and although it was fantastic for the big stuff, it was hopeless on the flats, of which there are many, meaning that I paddled most of the 112kms alone. Although we did start at Josephines and finish at the sea, the roads to Mpompomani were made impassable by the rains and so Ernie Alder, the Camp Commandant had to move the overnight stop further down river. Some say that was a 75km day, others said it was more like 90km, but however long it was it made day 2 far shorter. Pops, Dee and Michael (Rufus) Dawes were all at both the start and the finish. Pops diary reported that “N&M came 2nd, C 122nd”. Colin Simpkins won that one with Sean Rice.
The ‘change’ meant that we missed all the action from Hella Hella of the Approaches and No’s 1 – 8; but although my memory is now hazy I believe that the likes of Old Buck, Mpompomani, Waterfall, Whirlpool, Gulley, No Name and Goodenoughs were all as testing as the infamous Approaches and No1 to 8. Tragically, Peter Marlin drowned at Gulley in the 1989 race; a popular East London surfski race was later named after him.
The Umko used to have 30 to 40 page annual booklets full of facts and figures, including a write-up on all the major rapids, where not a word is said about the current day 1 but much is written about the old day 2; an incredible 60km stretch of river that many of today’s racing snakes have sadly never seen. So, I thought I would share the 1985 write-up to highlight what we used to do and how we had to learn about a river when there was no GoPro footage to show one all the right lines for the rapids from the comfort of a couch. Digital technology is an amazing thing, but it was beyond imagination back then.
Umkomaas. The Major Rapids. Where and When to Shoot (Or Not to Shoot)
By Geoff Caruth
Half the battle in any canoe marathon is knowing the way. It is of course, advisable to trip the river beforehand, to set out the various options, however geography and accessibility make this problematic, especially for non Natal paddlers, so Charlie and I thought it a good idea to put together a summary of the main rapids and how to tackle them under various conditions. Charlie Mason is the father of the Umkomaas Marathon and is well qualified for this task – he has completed 17 races and won the event in 1966. He has seen the river in all its moods and knows every proverbial nook and cranny. We have only examined the major rapids, options on lesser ones, being too for numerous to discuss here. However, all of the remaining water can be successfully negotiated with common sense and using the at least good river craft that the successful Umkomaas participant will possess (without which of course you should not be paddling this event!). Okay, so zip up your lifejacket, tighten your spray deck and let us proceed!
Even in a relatively high river, the first approximate 100m of the river from the start at Hella Hella comprises two quiet pools screened from the Approaches by verdant foliage. Beware of the lull before the storm! As you drop into the approaches look sharp and follow the mainstream. This is certainly the longest if not biggest rapid on the course and can be an exciting initiation especially if the river is full. Charlie normally sneaks this on the right when there is sufficient water, but if you are unfamiliar with the river it is probably best to stay midstream. If the river is moderate you can drop into the pool at the bottom of the rapid at any point and then make your way over to the left. If the river is very full, then ease your way over to the left before you reach the pool. The whole object of the exercise being to avoid the cliff on the right hand side especially when the river is full. Drop out of the pool over the rocky section on the left and line up for rapid No 1.
Consists of one short drop at the top, a short flat section followed by an exciting shoot with half a dozen stoppers. Hang in and shoot straight down the middle for an action packed ride. If the river is flowing strongly, these stoppers become gigantic boat buriers, so sneak the whole affair on the left, where are you’ll miss the fun, but probably remain in one piece in time to do battle with No 2. If you survive No 1 your chances of finishing are considerably increased!
Less than 1km further downstream the river is split a large island. Stay right of the island and keep wide-awake. No big waves, but tight and fast.
No. 2 ½
About 1 km below the game lodge (where you are bound to see if you spectators) is a long shute; look sharp here – there are some very big rocks that look like stoppers interspersed with a gobble of foaming holes.
No problem here unless the river is very low. Keep left and you won’t even know you had passed it. Infact you probably won’t even know you passed it anyway unless you go right in which case you will definitely know you have passed it.
A big clip on the left is the landmark for this one, the river narrows and drops towards the cliff where the current split down the middle by a huge rock. Potentially nasty. Keep rightish when the river is four and paddle hard past the rock.
No 5 & 6
Recognisable by the large cliff on the left in the big rocks on the approach plus crowds on the right hand bank. To all intents and purposes this is one rapid. One of the meanest and trickiest of the marathon. Also known as Robbie is special as Springbok Rob Stewart has lost several boats here. When I came past in last year‘s marathon there were enough Springboks on the rocks to select a full Springbok team, plus reserves. Unfortunately none of them had boats, the remains of which were strewn on the bank and in the river. Seriously though the best action here is to get out and walk on the right hand dry water course. If the river is full this becomes a class 5 monster and as such is potentially life-threatening! Can also be snuck on the extreme left when the river is moderately full, but you will have to bump and scratch over some rocks and hug the bank for dear life. Can also be snuck on the right (if over 4foot at Hella Hella), follow the sneak for about 300m to below 5 and 6. An easy route. If you want to go for it, speak to experience man before as to the preferred route. If the river is very low then follow the current, but watch the big rock at the bottom of 5. Two delightful rapids are traversed after 6 – Little Island and Rollercoaster. No problem. Just whoopee stuff.
Medium river and above – sneak on left. Otherwise take the gap to get through the rocks, just right of centre and follow the current. Look sharp!
Recognisable by the first signs of civilisation, including a cameraman, bikinis, ice cream vendors etcetera plus it takes a long bend round to the right. When reasonably full there is a sneak on the right. Charlie always takes this channel. I took it for the first time last year damaging my nose. The main channel on the left is larger and more fun, although some of its sting has been tainted by an irrigation channel. When really full, huge stoppers and tricky eddies at the bottom so hang in and hold tight. There is a nasty nose breaking rock at the bottom so watch out! Well done if you have survived this far, the worst of the day is behind you, but don’t get too complacent as there are still some testing rapids ahead before you crack open a cool Hansa at the overnight stop.
Good morning, well you’ve made it this far, so you must be pretty competent, or very lucky! Just after the start you have a 4 foot drop to wake you up. It’s no big deal but it’s amazing how many guys swim this one. Just allow the current to take the nose into the drop, brace and then paddle through. The whole can be snuck on the right at a medium water level and above.
Keep right! How do you recognise it? Don’t ask me just follow the guy in front.
This one can be recognised by the road and possibly vehicles on the right and bank. Apart from that it has a certain atmosphere about it that is hard to mistake. The river breaks sharply to the left, then funnels into a very narrow gap on the left. You basically have two options here. Take the narrow gap to the super-chute and let the river do the work for you. If you survive this, then head for the right hand side of the rapid p.d.q…. The left hand side especially when the river is very full is a no-no. Option two is available from a medium level upward – take a rightward arc of the narrow gap, and follow the current.
Recognisable by the road on the left. Don’t rely on seeing spray or hearing the noise. Depending on the wind and river level, even when fullish these can be almost totally absent. Keep well left. Portage on the left. Has been shot once by mistake, both paddlers survived but don’t bank on it next time.
Unmistakable, a long flat pool, leading up to big flat rocks – water breaks right. A deceptively simple looking but very dangerous (to boat and body) rapid. Get out and walk on the left. if you want to attempt it speak to one of the larnies at the overnight stop.
Recognisable by huge rocks scattered along the river bed. Short sharp and exciting. River breaks left and then does a sharp right hand turn. Brace hard right angle at about 45° to the right and hang on. Alternatively get out and walk on the path on the right and bank. There is a sneak but it is too close for comfort to go exploring.
Starts a few hundred metres below Galley. Andre Hawarden‘s comment on this one is perhaps best up this beast. Your guess is as good as mine. And that comment comes from a man who has shot it many times. The last drop is the one to watch – always very bony even when the river is flowing very strongly. Again looks easy but very difficult to find a channel. My route is as follows: As you approach the last drop you see an island. Go left of the island and drop into the main channel at 45°. Pray. Charlie says hug the left bank for dear life. His advice is probably better than mine.
A long weir at the finish – you will see the crowds. Only shootable on the right hand sluice, generally keeping on the left hand side of the sluice although various middle and right options have their adherents. Probably the most exciting shootable weir of any long-distance course. When full the wave at the bottom is known to break a boat in half. What a way to finish! What a race! What a race!
Indeed what a race, and yes, that second day was full of fun! In fairness, the Umko wasn’t the only race to put out quality, keepsake booklets; the Fish did too, when sponsored by Isuzu. In those years no self-respecting Eastern Cape farmer would drive anything but an Isuzu, and for many years Isuzu outsold Ford and even Toyota. I know this as they were a client in my advertising years; but now they are no longer No1, nor do they sponsor us. Such are the winds of change. Below, Stanley Frieman in the red and yellow colours (of Transvaal and Wits, when he was an athlete) shooting Craddock Weir and crashing into JT Basson in the 1983 race – before lifejackets, life guards and queuing to take turns safely were deemed necessary. The Dusi also put out similar booklets when Hansa came onboard as the title sponsor, as mentioned earlier; and Neil got to grace the cover of the 1996 Dusi program, when the race was sponsored by Panasonic.
Back to the tales… While Pops was busy setting up a new home in Howick, HL&H went through a merger and I got retrenched, but this came with a handsome pay-out. Ruman was at a loose end and suggested we go and join our mates in London so we bought cheap triangular tickets; from Harare to London, to Bangkok, to Sydney and back to Harare – all of which needed to be travelled in 12 months.
In April of ’88 Pops threw me a small farewell party at his new house in Howick and then we went camping in the Pilanesberg on my way up to Harare. The wow of that weekend was that Neil had a girlfriend by the name of Lois Penaluna. I left my car and my few other worldly possessions with Dee and hitchhiked up to Harare where I joined Ruman and we then flew to London, safe in the knowledge that we could move into a digs in Chalk Farm with our mates Jono, Storker and Richie Herbst who had already been there for a year. Pops couldn’t believe that a bunch of guys who were at school in one country could then set up a digs in another country for their varsity days and then move half way across the world to live with the same people – but we were mates and that’s basically what we did.
We flew into Gatwick, which meant an hours train ride into Paddington Station, London where we met Storker, Jonno and Richie who had booked tickets to a Megadeth concert at Hammersmith Odium for that evening. Anyway, we started drinking on the train, met the guys and went to a couple of different pubs before someone told Ruman it was his round. When he looked for his money belt (that held his cash, his travellers cheques and his passport) he couldn’t find it – we all looked and eventually agreed it was lost. Our big, brash First Team Prop from Maritzburg wept openly, and then thought that he may have lost it a Paddington Station, so back we went. Incredibly, it was there in lost property, without so much as a Pound missing, so we had to celebrate. The Megadeth concert was blur – what a first day in London that was.
Blue-collar work was not difficult to find and because we ‘South Africans’ worked hard we were liked and rehired. The Paddies however didn’t like us showing them up and soon reigned us in – plus we also learnt that you could get paid for 7 days instead of 4 if you slowed the work rate down. My best job was as an electricians assistant at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, where we spent our days in the cold and damp basements replacing the archaic electrical system. Andy Stott and I worked there for 3 months until someone discovered we were not residents and despite the fact that I am a British Citizen, we were not allowed back. While we did work, it was here that we took a 90 minute breakfast, a 90 minute lunch and a 90 minute tea; in order to work 7 days a week for the pay.
Overalls were not really a thing for labourer’s in London. Instead we wore jeans with beer mats sewn onto the knees and bum for paddling against wear, tear and the cold while an old army surplus store jacket was a lifesaver in the chill of winter.
Dee came overseas to spend her June vac with me. She flew to Amsterdam and I met her at Schiphol airport. We then spent a very interesting 5 days there, living above a coffee house in a back-packers near the Red Light District. The big novelty was smoking dope in public; we even smoked on the stairs of a police station, just because we could.
While there, we bought too much dope and contemplated taking what we had left with us to England; but luckily we left it at the coffee shop for our return. We caught a bus to Calais to take the hovercraft to the UK. At the French border some officials came onto the bus and asked everyone their nationalities. Dee, as a South African was pulled off the bus with me because we were travelling together. They literally strip-searched her and went through her backpack with a tooth-comb; it was quite frightening, and I hate to think what would have happened, had we tried to take our contraband with us.
We spent a week in London doing all the touristy things and even got to watch Ivan Lendl playing on the Centre Court at Wimbledon where we enjoyed strawberries and champagne, before Edberg eventually beat Becker in the finals. Then we went to see Mud Island, travelling North to the Lake Districts, across to the Ilse of Skye and then up to Scotland, staying with family from both my mother and fathers side as much as possible. We had a great month travelling the country before we went back to Amsterdam where we stayed at the same back-packers and finished our stash before Dee flew home to finish her studies.
In August, Neil arrived in London to compete in the British National Marathon Championships. He had made Pops very proud when awarded Springbok Colours along with Mark Perrow, Bennie Reynders, Nico Viljoen and Graham Monteith, and then wanted to test himself on an international level. As it happened Rod Penaluna was also in London so Neil rented a car and the three of us drove up to Nottingham for the race. We didn’t have a place to stay, but the local club members said that we could use the club and its facilities; with the one condition being that they were going to lock us in, to ensure that none of their silverware went missing. We accepted their terms but couldn’t believe the lack of trust so we took a couple of pictures of us playing with their prized possessions and posted them back a few months later as a ‘thank you’. Neil didn’t win any of their silverware for himself.
Before flying home Neil went to visit some of our cousins, one being John Bannister, whom he had never seen before but he wouldn’t allow him in his home; wanting nothing to do with him, as by wearing Springbok Colours he was representing and promoting Apartheid. I am happy to say that the bridges there have since been fixed and we all later enjoyed some fine skiing holidays together.
After 6 months of (not so hard) labour in London, I decided that it was time to move on (in truth I was missing my girlfriend) so I booked my ticket to Bangkok for 15th October, my ticket to Sydney for 1st November and my ticket to Harare for 28th November, packed my bags and said goodbye to the Chalk Farm boys.
I flew to Bangkok knowing I only had two weeks in Thailand and had a plan to sit on some remote Island with a pristine beach, but wanted to see some of Bangkok, so I did the touristy things of the canal boats, the markets and Pat Pong Road. That in itself was the signal for me to leave the city and head for the coast.
From Bangkok I caught a rickety local bus to Phuket; it was a 14hour overnight journey and when I arrived someone told me if I was travelling cheap I should leave; an American Aircraft carrier had just arrived offshore and prices were expected to sky-rocket. I was advised to go to a small island called Koh Samui; this meant a 5 hour bus Journey and then a 4 hour boat crossing, but in the end it was well worth going. In 1988 Koh Samui was still very rural and totally undeveloped. The only way in was by boat, most places were still wood and reed, the tallest building was only a double story and there was certainly no airport. I believe this has since changed radically, but when I was there it was marvellous. My hut had a double bed with a mosquito-net and a shower over a long drop, there was no electricity and it cost R2.00 a day. The sea was incredibly clear and warm and since there were no toys in the way of boats or canoes and no real waves to play on, I swam many miles in the Gulf of Thailand before catching a boat back to the mainland and then a bus back to Bangkok to fly out to Australia.
In Sydney I moved into a backpackers in King Cross, to live the life of a young traveller, one highlight being the bridge walk. Somewhere along the line I sent Pops a telegram to say I was safely there and he was bleak that I had not contacted either of his sisters or any of my cousins – so then I stayed with them. He was also very bleak when he heard that I was only planning to be in Australia for a month; I believe he wanted me to make Aus home, but I was pining for my love and wanted to go ‘home’ although I certainly didn’t consider myself to be a South African; at that stage I was still a proud Zimbo.
Anyways, I flew back to Harare and the hitchhiked back ‘Down South’. A sense of deja-vous set in when a guy who picked me up and had said he was going through to the border post then changed his mind and decided to go visit friends near Rutenga. So there I was once again on the side of the road in the middle of no-where. Although it was not yet dark, no one picked me up and in the end I climbed through a fence and packed down for the night in the grass – this time however I was prepared and a seasoned backpacker so I had not just my smokes, but biscuits, water and even white gold; loo paper.
Christmas was spent at Kenmure, Dee’s folk’s farm and they invited my family, so Pops, Jenny, Adrian, Stacy and Neil were also there, all for Clive, recently returned from his ‘world tour’. That holiday while sitting on the stoop and looking up at the mountain peak above the Kenmure house Neil said he thought he could get to the top in under 30 minutes. No-one thought it possible, bets were made, the challenge was on, off we ran. Johnny, then young and rugby fit, bailed first, Haydn shortly after. It took me 90 minutes, but Neil got there in 29. Since then I have been up to the summit well over 30 times, but never close to 30 minutes.