4. Wits Days

Having sworn never to live in Jo’burg, but with Dee having completed her degree and me knowing it wasn’t easy to find work in either Maritzburg or Durban, we agreed that to kickstart our careers we needed to go up to the Witwatersrand. In January 1989 we moved into a small house in Orange Grove, sharing the rent with Dee’s brother, Wynne who was then in the army and wanted to be close to his girlfriend Dawn Watters who lived in Houghton. After two interviews with a retail research company called IBIS (Nielsen) they called me and told me I was to start on 1st February as a Trainee Client Service Executive.

Copying Pops, I started writing a diary. On our first day at work (I was one of several trainees including Nic Scheijde, Phillip Phaphitis, Mike Maher, Ant Doyle, Helen Synodinos and Maile Strauss) our trainer, Christel Barrett took us for a pub lunch, told us we had a test the next day and then took us for a pub lunch the following day because that was a Friday, and Friday afternoons were reserved for pub lunches; then we would go back to work at 17h00 when the office pub opened; on the proviso that we worked hard. I stayed with IBIS (Nielsen) for almost 10 years and made some good memories. Dee was a little slower; she took 3 months to find something she liked and started out with a small consumer research company called Research Surveys (which became TNS and then Kantar) and would go on to spend 27 years there.

After the people and the culture at that time (work hard, play harder), one of the best things about working at IBIS was that we were given a budget to buy a ‘company car’ and then all car expenses went straight to the company. For the next 10 years I never paid a cent for petrol, services or tyres etc, regardless of if it was for work or personal travel; and with that we travelled a lot.

Paddling wise, I now needed to join a new canoe club and I had two options; Wits, which was an open club (open to non-students) or Dabulamanzi; both who called Emmarentia Dam their home and shared the same clubhouse. I chose Wits, not because they were the better club at the time, but because Neil was there and I knew almost all the ‘Kibbutz’ guys having spent more time with them in my varsity days than with the NUCC guys. The clubhouse was literally a house across the road from the dam (almost behind the current club) and it served as a digs for a few paddlers, as the home of our boat racks, and as the bar for socialising after the Thursday night Time Trial. The digs residents included Neil, Bryan (Scatter) Slater, Mark (Tich) Kershaw and before them the likes of Liefie Schultze and Charlie Viljoen; each as different as the next.

Work life got in the way of my 1989 Umkomaas aspirations so I didn’t get there but Pops’ diary reported that “N, Martin and Stanley, Rod and Sue P, Puc, Mark and Waldi moved in for Umko.” Oscar Chalupsky and Greyling Viljoen won that year. In April, Dee and I, Neil and Lo went down to Howick for Founders Day and a paddling weekend at Albert Falls. Then we went back to Howick and Maritzburg the very next weekend for Dee’s graduation.

Dee, me, Neil, Lo and Pops in Howick.
Rocky, Dee and Di
Graduation dinner celebration

My first ‘major’ race in the yellow club colours of Wits was the Fish in 1989, the first time this race was awarded SA K2 Championship status. Prior to this the general philosophy was that the Fish was a K1 race, due to the danger of willows and fences. We were now camping at the Sulphur Springs Cradock Spa, and the camaraderie of the Wits Kibbutz was very evident – the ‘Yellows’ literally took over a whole section of the campsite and made it their own.

I paddled as a mixed double with Simone Hannel, we didn’t do particularly well but she did enjoy the river. Neil paddled with Graham (Monty) Monteith and they won the inaugural Fish SA K2 Champs. They both used Streur’s – beautiful looking hand crafted, wooden paddles with flat blades from Denmark. I now have the Streur Neil used but from a functional perspective it is dreadful compared to my relatively basic Set wing paddle from Canoe Concepts. The Streur now serves as an ornament in ‘my playroom’ – the garage.

We clearly travelled a lot, as after the race Dee and I, Neil and Lo, Pops and Simone all went to stay at Dee’s farm on the way home – which isn’t exactly on the way. Below; Simone and I at Gauging Weir, some of the Wits Kibbutz including Jack Herreveld, Noo, Tracy Glover, Rhett Kessler, Rodney Penaluna, Laurence Cooke, Robbie Herreveld, Gavin Cooke, Simone Hannel, Graham Hunt, Miya the  Israeli and Rory Attridge and then family at the farm.

WITS Paddlers
Kenmure Farm Barkly East

This was one of the few K2 races Neil won where he drove. They triumphed when they didn’t swim Keith’s while race favourites like Henk Watermeyer and Sean Rice were popping ‘epic endos’. Soon after this they started making “I shot Keith’s” stickers and these became something many were proud to earn. An ‘endo’ here made for great spectator value but was actually quite frightening as you were literally sucked back into a hole. I know this because I popped a few but I also made a some (mostly in a double with Neil) and have several stickers. Some years later when the river was low the organisers removed a few rocks below the bridge; so the hole is now not as big or naughty and one seldom sees ‘epic endos’ here anymore, but to this day the Fish logo remains that of a K1 popping an endo below Keiths Flyover.

Fish River Canoe Marathon
Fish River Canoe Marathon
Fish River Canoe Marathon

This was also the year when the overnight stop was moved to the bridge at Knutsford, plus we didn’t have to paddle around the island and this shortened Day 1 from 50.6km to 45km; a major difference for us Fish ‘n Chip Trippers, but still a long day. That was also when they started to regulate the water flow on day 1 at 17cumecs through the willows and Keith’s for race safety purposes. While it is fantastic to have a guaranteed water release this eventually created a certain amount of predictability about the race; events like the Umko remain more interesting and certainly more testing due the fact that nature, not man, determines the river level and race day conditions.

We seldom went away without boats on the roof-racks or trying to paddle somewhere, and at that time we thought we might get into plastics and tripping, so we went on holiday to the Blyde River Canyon. While we had fun there, the kayaking bug never really bit us. Celliers Kruger’s book ‘Run the Rivers’ shows that although we don’t have the likes of a Zambezi or Colorado there’s no shortage of rivers and white water to play in, yet kayaking, creeking and playboating remains very niche in South Africa.

Blyde River Canyon
Beautiful view

When we first arrived in Jo’burg, almost all the local river tripping was done on the Jukskei and Highveld Crocodile, because of their proximity. When it rained heavily, we got excited, because it meant that our ‘local’ would be full and fun.

The Jukskei is actually a tributary to the Highveld Croc so the two rivers are often considered to be one. Anyway, we used to get onto the Jukskei River at Fridays Farm and then paddle into the Croc before reaching the headwaters of Hartbeespoort Dam, and if there had been good rains on the Friday night that signalled a high river and fun to be had. Below, a pic of me taking an unusual line in Confluence rapid (where the two rivers merged); a tricky section between Friday’s farm and Winsome Valley where we used to play. Since it was only about a 30minute drive from home, we would take old boats and shoot the bigger rapids several times, trekking back upstream to try again, looking for new lines; that was our entertainment. This section was just 6km, nice and short for me. Some of the locals however were not very friendly while others viewed and treated us as trespassers.

The next section of the ‘Croc’ from Winsome to Broederstroem wasn’t too long either, at just 13km. This was packed full of fun with Constantia Rapid, Hennops Weir, Rambo’s Bridge, the two Pelindaba Weirs and a whole lot of bubblies. Rambo’s lived up to its name and was a place of much of drama. When the river was very low you could just squeeze through the pipes below the bridge, when really full you could paddle straight over the top, and when neither high nor low it had to be portaged, getting out on the left bank and putting in on the right. But half submerged bridges with half blocked pipes can be very dangerous.

In 1985 a young Ralph (Tulips) Teulings got the Rambo’s portage wrong when he tried to get out on the bridge instead of the bank. He fell in and his legs were sucked into one of the pipes. Fortunately, Rod Penaluna arrived in time and held onto him for dear life, ensuring he didn’t drown. They were there for over 2 hours before the fire brigade rescued him. “No pants, small dick” was the line of the day; after they finally pulled him out. Tulips then moved to the Cape and became a surf-ski paddler. Ralph did his first Port Elizabeth to East London (PE2EL) Challenge (an epic 4 day, 250km event widely accepted as the world’s toughest test of ocean endurance paddling) in 1988 and hasn’t missed one since. In December 2021 he lined up for his 17th PE2EL (it is typically only held every second year) and became the first paddler to achieve this amazing milestone. He also has 38 consecutive Berg River marathons behind his name, making him an atypical Fish ‘n Chip Tripper as he must like pain. I have classed him as a Fish ‘n Chipper as I don’t believe he ever won a race, although he did win a Surfski in a lucky draw. Back in the day, like me, he was one of a rare few who enjoyed a smoke break on the river bank or with a beer after a race so that’s how I got to know him. He too saw the error in smoking and eventually gave up.

Another piece of Rambo’s history was in 1986 when Graham Monteith (Dr) was seriously wounded in the face by a rubber bullet fired from a 12-bore shotgun by a local land owner; this then became known as the ‘Highveld Croc War.’ It was not the first time that this ‘man’ had discharged his shotgun at canoeists, although he claimed to have previously used blank cartridges. He also put up signs and an electrified wire across the river, believing that this stretch of water was solely his and that paddlers were trespassers who had no right to be the river. A long lawsuit ensued and in 1990 the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court found the man not guilty of attempted murder but guilty of assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm. The Magistrate sentenced him to a fine of R800 or 6 months’ imprisonment, conditionally suspended for 4 years, but he appealed this and his conviction was altered to one of common assault and the sentence was reduced to a fine of R200 or two months’ imprisonment. Monty won fame and earned a proper war story to tell his grandchildren (he was lucky not to lose an eye), but more importantly, the Transvaal Canoe Union, led by Alan Witherden, took the issue of river water rights and access to the Highveld Croc River (and by extension any river in the country), all the way up to the Appellate Court in Bloemfontein who ultimately changed the Water Act which now protects our rights to both paddle the watercourses and portage any adjacent land.

Once a gem worth going to war over, the Jukskei and Croc have since become heavily polluted, with raw, untreated sewage flowing into the river on a daily basis as it runs through Alexandra, Sandton and Diepsloot. Today, no sensible person should paddle this river if they value their health, especially after heavy rains when the stormwater drains and sewerage link systems intermingle.

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