9. Back to Fish and Dusi Day’s

After a 12year break, I went back for my 12th Fish in 2014. The organizers had introduced a new starting procedure for the ‘Coelacanth Batch,’ those who had done 10 or more and were not of racing pedigree. Typically, the start of Fish is a Le Mans type start where everyone runs to their boats, fighting to get out on the water first. However, as Coelacanths we were allowed to sit leisurely in out boats before the start and John Oliver would threaten a DQ of anyone who raced – I loved this relaxed approach. 2014 was the first year of the ‘short course;’ a great initiative to get new paddlers involved without them having to do the full 82kilometres and it was also the first ‘Pimp my Ride’ year, adding to the fun that paddling is for so many of us.

To generate some excitement and try an increase entry numbers the organisers also put together ‘lucky draws’ for race entrants, with the support of Hansa. I got lucky and won a branded cap, paddling shorts, a T-Shirt and an embroided hoodie that I thought spoke volumes about Fish ‘n Chippers like me. So yes, it is still one of my favourite tops, and yes, for those of us who can’t win races, winning a lucky draw is a fantastic incentive. Thank you to all sponsors and organisers who introduce fun awards, sub-races and short-course options to help spark the average paddlers’ interest because without mass participation everything changes.

This was a K1 year and Hank Mc Gregor narrowly edged out Andy Birkett to claim his first K1 win at the Fish. The race was also serving as the 2014 SA K3 River Championships and a K3 came third overall, beating big names like Mocke, Louw, van der Walt, Maclaren and Mbanjwa. Interestingly only 266 people finished in K1’s, while 270 people finished in K3’s (90 boats) and 476 people finished in K2’s (238 boats). Clearly the number of boats vs people finishing has been dramatically impacted by the increase in K3’s, particularly at the Fish which is more K3 ‘friendly’ than most other rivers.

Not having paddled the Lowveld Croc since 2006, I went back there too, in part for the fun of it and in part to say farewell to Paul Hay as this was his home and happy place and I hadn’t been to his funeral or service.

In November 2014 Mark (Sticks) Feather was tragically lost at sea while competing in the Pete Marlin, a surfski race from East London to Yellow Sands, popular with those at Dabulamanzi known as the Transvaal Navy. The Saturday morning Westerly was strong, this promised for an epic downwind, and then during the race it got stronger still. Several paddlers missed the point at Yellow Sands and overshot the finish including Graham (Tex) Holm, a veteran lifesaver and seasoned Texan Challenge (PE-EL) paddler who came in some 20kilometres further down the coast at Hagga Hagga. When it became apparent that Mark was missing, the NSRI was out in force, local small plane owners joined the search while others combed the beaches, but the weather worsened, the winds grew stronger still, the day grew dark and eventually the search was called off. Mark was found on the Monday morning, lying at rest on the Trennerys Beach some 40kilometres past Yellow Sands, with a smile on his face. Mark is remembered as a master of love, humility, friendship and dignity.

I have not yet done the Pete Marlin but on our annual holidays we often paddle from Yellow Sands to Cefani plus we have swum, surfed and played out at sea in the area many times more and when out there I think of you Mr. Feather, wondering just how far out you were, wondering how long it took before the fight turned to the serene calm, when that smile set in. RIP chap. Our Transvaal Navy logo now remembers Mark Feather and we sincerely hope that his tragedy remains in the minds and behaviours of all our ocean-going paddlers.

Transvaal Navy
The Transvaal Navy Logo commemorating Mark Feather (Designed by Jen Purchase in 2016)

In December we didn’t go to the farm or Cefani, instead we were busy keeping up with the Jones, or in our case with Neil and Lo, and Sue and Puc who had booked to go skiing over Christmas and New Year in Cervinia, Italy. We couldn’t afford it, but we went anyway; life needed to be lived. Also there were 3 other families from Saints, the Swarts, the Carters and the Bardenhorsts. Our first week was in a Club Med; we had never stayed at one before but were very happy with what we got. The rooms were good, the food fantastic and the bar was free; at the hotel and at several spots out on the slopes. With hungry and thirsty kids of drinking age (not to mention my penchant for cooldrinks plus Dee’s for wine and champagne) it was brilliant never having to pay for alcohol, regardless of the quantities. After a week at ‘The Club’ we moved to a normal hotel where we had to pay for everything; that was very costly. While there most of Europe had no snow, but we had a massive dump and with this, great conditions for our entire stay. Tim skied hard and broke two sets of (rental) skis while doing jumps or skiing backwards, while William Swart was the fastest racer and terror of the slopes on his snowboard. One afternoon Jordi and Megan Attridge skied down into Switzerland without watching the time and very nearly missed the last lift back up to the Klein Matterhorn station, necessary to then ski back down to Cervinia. Had had they not made it they would have had to have stayed the night in Zermatt, and that would have cost a small fortune. Apparently, the boys had preplanned a Speedo photo shoot – who else would take such a thing on a skiing holiday? That was a very happy, special and memorable holiday.

In January 2015, having missed 4 years I went back to do the Dusi. As usual money was tight (we had spent a lot of what we didn’t have in Italy), so I decided to use an old boat that I had inherited from Neil, one he had got from Mark. Here I need to say that I never was a very good customer for the local canoe shop guys. Sure, I bought Duct Tape and Delta Cast, had my boat repairs done by them and even bought the odd new paddle, but in 30 years of living in Jo’burg, I had not bought a new boat, at first because I got hand-me-downs from Neil, and then because it was cheaper to buy second hand or cheaper still to use an old boat. Anyway, there I was with an old hand-me-down Tomcat. Before the start of the first day, I put the boat down next to Mark Perrow’s who was paddling with his father-in-law, Brian. Belinda was there with them; I said hello and then told them that the boat I was using had won the Dusi in 1997. Belinda said “Wow, Neils boat from way back then” and I said: “No Mark’s” to which she replied, “Impossible, he couldn’t fit in that little thing.” Hop just smiled.  

Camps Drift Weir. Mark Perrow and Brian Kurz

So, off I went in my beautiful (Dusi winning) Kevlar Tomcat, but it was 18 years old and I soon learnt how brittle Kevlar and boats in general become with age. The rudder cable snapped below Commercial Road Weir, that took an hour to repair, then I glanced of a rock below the N3 Freeway, so I started to take water, and that was just the beginning of the leaks. It was a long and hard reintroduction to the Dusi, and I had to portage Burma on day 3 for the sake of the boat to finish in 14hrs 33mins. Using such an old thing was a disaster, but I think the Tomcat was my best river boat ever, although now-days I prefer something a little more stable for a river.

That year I paddled most of day 2 with Ilyas (Mo) Patel and just after Big Bend Rapid we came upon a group of paddlers trying to resuscitate a friend on the rocks. Heini Jordaan lost his life competing in his 19th Dusi Canoe Marathon, a sobering thought for novice and seasoned paddlers alike. It was also the year I first saw Stand Up Paddlers (SUPs) on the Dusi, and I must say I thought they were mad, madder than us paddlers. Supping the Dusi is not on my bucket list. Andy Birkett claimed his 5th Dusi title in 6 years. Hank Mc Gregor said he was “going to do something new and paddle socially” with his wife Pippa. They won the Mixed Doubles and came 25th overall. To my mind, that’s not a social paddle, that’s real racing.

In May, Dabs once again hosted the High Altitude Surf Ski Championships, that year it was dedicated to Mark Feather and the money raised from the event was donated to the NSRI. The celebs in attendance included Andy Birkett and the multiple winner of the world paddle ski series, Dawid Mocke. By now we had over 100 participants, as well as a number of SUP paddlers to enjoy the fun.

Then there was talk of a family affair at Fish. Luke was in his first year at UCT with Tim and they planned to paddle together, Julia was in Grade 11 and desperate to do the race with her dad (Neil); I was going to do my singles thing and Dee and Lo were going to join us for old times’ sake – but in the Victoria Hotel or the Tuis Huise; not in the campsite. (Jordi had wanted to do it the year before, but the training soon put her off.) However, before they could enter, Tim, Luke and Julia first needed to pass their river proficiency tests and qualify. Such things didn’t exist when we started out, we simply went and paddled the river or race of your choice (without hats or lifejackets or knowing what we were doing) but now proficiency tests and qualifiers are mandatory and although painful, they are the right thing to do.    

Neil made no secret of the fact that he didn’t really want to get back into paddling or go to the Fish; that he would rather be cycling, but Julia was super keen and off they went to the Klip for their proficiency test where they swam three times in quick succession at the Campground rapid. Neil then managed to talk Julia out of doing the Fish and that was the end of her paddling days, much to his relief. Julia also ended up at UCT where she took up the backward sport of rowing on a social level and Neil got her into the sport that he preferred when he bought her a nice bicycle, so they did later do a couple of Cape Argus Cycle Tours together.

Meanwhile Tim and Luke went off to Paarl to do a race on the Berg as a qualifier, but it was a disaster. Tim was a bad driver and took them on an unnecessary portage through a sewerage farm while Luke was a bad back seat driver and would-be-coach. That was the only race they ever did together and with that our hopes of them paddling together disappeared, as did the idea of a family affair at the Fish. Luke then focused in on his cycling, where his strong body and stronger mind took him to great places both in the mountain and road bike formats, much to his father’s delight who, as Scatter was fond of saying, had joined the likes of Monty and Puc, and “Gone to the dark-side.”

Here I have to tell some tales about Neil and his move to the ‘dark-side.’ His last competitive race was the Dusi in 1998 when he and Mark came second while his last social race was with me at the 2004 Dusi but over the years he had become increasingly besotted with cycling. Visiting him became predictable, then laughable, then tiresome. His conversations had only one theme: cycling. His TV only had one channel: cycling. He pushed his kids towards one sport: cycling. Holidays both local and overseas had one focus: cycling. He stopped working and essentially retired at the age of 50, but he had purpose in one thing: cycling. Neil had become the “Spruit Fairy” – the guy who quietly built the Spruit Trail for no kudos.

At first it was as a weekend thing where he went out onto the Braamfontein Spruit (a stream that flows through Jo’burg stretching along 37km of municipal parkland) to build mountain bike trails and paths with fancy turns and berms, putting concrete lintels down over rivers and steel grids below bridges; all to ensure the free and smooth flow of mountain bikers. With his retirement, weekend work then became a 7day a week obsession. Some people saw what was happening and made donations to his cause, their cause. Riding on the Spruit grew from strength to strength. More people appeared out on the trails. The walkers didn’t like it at first, but soon saw they had safety in the number of people out and about. Race organizers took note too and realised that while thousands of riders clamoured to get to events like the Sani2C, there was a well-sculptured, beautifully maintained trail running along the Spruit just waiting to be used, and so the Hollard JUMA was born, which gave Neil a bit more trail building work to do. He grew a dirt jump park next to the Scout Hall in River Club from a couple of bumps to many big jumps, visited on a Friday afternoon at first by a handful then by dozens of riders – some learning the ropes, others confidently doing summersaults, me watching, waiting to see an accident. He bought a house, perfectly positioned on the Spruit and with partners they set up a cycle shop, coffee spot and rendezvous, the Trail Head.  His passion was being out on the trail, building and riding.  Over the years the likes of Jozi Trails and Hollard have moved to the fore in terms of maintaining the trails, but the ‘Spruit Fairy’ still goes out to work. However, for as much as I give him credit for putting so much effort into developing the Spruit and promoting mountain biking and dirt jumping I am still saddened and bewildered by the fact that he left paddling. Julia would have loved to do Fish, he would have loved to experience the Ithala, but alas no, he just gave up something that was his life, saying there was nothing more he could achieve, still not buying into my approach of winning in play as opposed to playing to win.

As much as Neil and Lo loved Ponta, they didn’t join us in 2015, perhaps because they couldn’t cycle there, so we went with Liesl and Simon Allen; while Jordi took a friend, Shannon Henry. They were then in their final school year, but unlike Luke in 2014, they didn’t seem to be worried about any ‘be good’ oaths and enjoyed Fernando’s company and his produce. Sadly, he passed away a few months later but his legacy of RnR’s remains.

Where Fish was going to be a family affair; Neil, Julia and Luke were out and with this Dee and Lo lost interest, so I went down to Craddock with Giles and Snowy. Tim arrived for his first attempt on a luxury bus with about 50 Fish University of Cape Town (FUCT) people for the Intervarsity competition including paddlers, supporters and even physios. 

I was going in a single but ended up paddling with MJ (Swem Jay) Robb, after his cousin Ian Wilson had to pull out the last minute. This was his second Fish, but his first time driving. We didn’t shoot Keith’s (although we should have) and we had a good race together, but I saw him live up to his nickname when we shot Craddock Weir and he fell out, but I stayed in – so he had to swim to catch me up. A few years later he became a good paddler and was in the reverse order, late start on day 2, so us Fish ‘n Chippers were all finished and watching the racing snakes shoot the weir when he had a long swim, and his boat went towards the bridge and disaster without him. The whole crowd (with too much sun on them and beer in them) was chanting “Swem Jay; Swem Jay” while screaming with laughter.

Anyway, we had a good time on the river, but Tim and Jonathan Adams had more fun and stole the show when they downed beers while going over Craddock Weir without swimming. I really thought this would be a great ad for Hansa and the race, but we now live in a socially responsible world where such things are frowned upon. Actually, all the FUCT people had loads of fun and even made national TV with their antics and bad Intervarsity Mohican hairdos. Their ‘varsity gees’ was strong, a fun chapter of life now lost to Tim’s cousins – me again proposing that fun is important, especially in varsity years.

In the December holidays, still reeling from the costs of Italy, we went back to my happy place, Cefani, for more glorious beach days full of sun, surf and fun. All washed down after sunset with cooldrinks. As Pop’s would have said – “Glorious”.

I didn’t go to the Dusi in 2016, but here I would like to share an insightful article written by Lungani Zama for the Sunday Tribune on how successful the Dusi has been in terms of inclusion and transformation.

“The Dusi Canoe Marathon remains my favourite weekend on the sporting calendar. Sure, the 4am wake-up calls aren’t especially humane, but they give you the privilege of witnessing the best current example of transformation in African sport in fluid motion. These obscure, quirky, crazy adventure sports, these humble pursuits of the human spirit, they have got this transformation dilemma figured.

Stuff the concept of quotas and the convenient illusions of progress they paint, canoeing says let’s rather flood the field with genuine opportunity and provide those nuts enough to dedicate themselves to the sport with every tool necessary not just to compete but, if they are good enough, to excel. The numbers at the sharp end of the standings paint and increasingly colourful picture. Darkies and water aren’t supposed to mix, but to see the Dusi at full throttle is to witness what happens when corporate South Africa – who still hold the key to unlocking a united future – put their money where their mouth is. The likes of Computershare, EuroSteel, Red Bull, Jonsson, Game, SAB and of course First National Bank as well as many other unsung heroes in suits deserve all the plaudits and under the sun because theirs is a product with a proper story to tell.

There is little or no fanfare in sports like canoeing. Save for the crowd that gathers at Blue Lagoon for the lunchtime prize giving on the Saturday, the cheers are confined to dedicated support crew and the endless stream of children that the race passes every year as they head to school. They stop and wave and cheer. And while they are at it, they watch the changing face of the front runners realising that 65 years in, the cuckoo people tearing through their backyards at first light, carrying boats and wearing every shade of lycra possible, are no longer just white people. They have come to realise that some of their own people are cuckoo too, because they see faces who have grown up around them, and they look on at those faces who compete and then come back to build houses, feed neighbours and lick their wounds before getting up the next day to do it all again.

The sport may not provide instant millions for its elite athletes, but the key funders of the sport have taken the time to try and understand what unique challenges there are for youngsters of immense promise but who also have responsibilities at home. And so, the ingenuity of paying some of its talented newcomers in goods that make a fundamental difference at home has emancipated these youngsters from the inevitable introspection of well-meaning parents who don’t yet see the point of their growing sons choosing the path. The point often missed by quota happy window-dressers in the ‘big sports’ is that simple understanding is the key to transformation. As in every other sport, the talent is there in canoeing. No one can tear up a mountain like Sbonelo Khwela, probably because he did it for years carrying good from his mother’s weekly shop, and that is a happy coincidence.

By the same token though, there are no freebies or easy rides in the sport. Everyone is on a level playing field and the cream inevitably rises. There are life lessons up every hill and through every rapid, and the men and women emerge from these boats are more humble – more real – than your mainstream superstar.

And so this quirky cuckoo sport is moulding modern citizens of the new South Africa in a way that many other fields could learn from. It encourages participation, applauds excellence and emphasises a sense of community. But before the naysayers suggest it is all a glorified happy party, consider the first day clash of Hank Mc Gregor and Len Jenkins on Ernie Pierce Weir. To see the red mist descend over one of the world’s greatest ever paddlers (McGregor) reminds us that once you hit the water this every crazy man for himself. As it should be that early in the morning….”

Mr Zama is I believe a (scratch) golfer – so respect to him for capturing our sport and this transformation success so clearly; the reality is that had this transformation happened back in my day, I would never have made the Top 50. Here I must however note that while this ‘inclusion’ at the Dusi is great, it still has some way to go at most other river, not to mention surf ski races. Of further concern, while the sharp end competition has become tougher, the number of people paddling our river races has not increased, if anything it has declined, but more on that later.

March was once again the High Altitude Surfski Series. Local celebrities were again imported but the real highlight that year was the Fenn Sponsorship. Not only did all the entrants receive embroided lumo-orange paddling caps, there was a lucky draw of a Fenn Swordfish for all entrants. Although we like to bill this as world’s biggest inland surfski race, with only just over 100 boats and less than 200 paddlers, this makes for rather good odds. That said, I didn’t win the lucky draw.

In Easter of 2016, Dawn having scared the family but beaten her dose of cancer then married Joe Sephton at their beautiful, newly built home in the mountains, Beddgelert. Dawn, a Green, became a Sephton; it was almost scandalous, but they are very happy together and that’s what counts.

Talking mountains, I was then very busy on a mountain bike – preparing for the Sani2C, a 3day 265kilometre ride from Sani Pass traversing through farms and forests in the KZN Midlands, dropping into the Umkomaas Valley before entering nature reserves and sugar cane farms and eventually reaching the ocean at the town of Umkomaas. Neil had done several before with Luke and Puc, as this is a race where you cycle in pairs, and he convinced me that this was a must do, believing he would convert me to the ‘dark side.’ He paid my entry, lent me a bike, and tried to teach me all the technical aspects of mountain bike riding. In truth we were a ridiculous mismatch. He was properly experienced; I was a total novice. He knew the Sani trail well; I had no idea. He was technically strong; I was technically weak. He had a brand-new lightweight carbon bike; I had his heavy old down-hill bike. He wanted to race, I didn’t and couldn’t. I was fit and strong – but on the first race day my tank was empty, Neil wanted to go hard but I didn’t have it in me, we were soon at the back of our batch and then had the rest of the field overtaking us. The scenery on day 2 is spectacular, I really wanted to enjoy the views of the Umkomaas valley – but we weren’t allowed to stop. At water points I had to keep riding; he would fill our water bottles and bring potatoes and chocolates to me – we were racing. On the steep ascents he had his hand on my back pushing me up the hills – it was almost embarrassing. Day 3 is mostly downhill so I thought it would be easier, but Neil flew down faster that I could or would. We weren’t exactly last overall, and we did beat his mates, but they had done the Adventure Ride and had to contend with muddy conditions, plus they had given us 20 minutes on each day, so we really didn’t win anything.

Sani2C 2016
Sani2C 2016

The experience was truly amazing. The trail was fantastic, the campsites were comfortable, the food was fabulous. But as grateful as I was for the opportunity and the experience, all it really did was serve to show me that mountain biking wasn’t for me and I was very happy to return his bike, leave his sport and go back to paddling.

Talking cycling, a few months later Dee’s baby brother Hayden rode the Freedom Challenge. This is a 2200km ride across South Africa from Pietermaritzburg to Wellington on a route requiring proficiency in navigation but with accommodation provided to allow riders to travel light. He took 21days 14hours 30minutes to get to the end and earn his coveted race blanket – I got tired just ‘watching the dots’– the armchair way of following the race on a digital screen. That year’s winner needed only 11 days and the ‘sub 10day barrier’ has now been broken, but to my mind that’s just an exercise in sleep deprivation, for guys like Martin Dreyer. As much as I would love to take a month off work and get to see the countryside they cover, the Race Across South Africa is not on my bucket list.

In July of 2016 another Dabulamanzi legend passed after a long battle with Cancer. Dave Ferguson was a versatile sportsman who was equally at home in a big river or out on the ocean (he was one of the first Dab’s members and a founder of the Transvaal Navy) and also loved his rugby and golf. Fergie was well known for his infectious love of life, enthusiasm and sense of fairness to all, great and small. I always loved his saying, “Never ruin a good story with the truth” so as I sit here writing, I hope that this (mostly true) story is good.

For the Rio Olympics in August only Bridgette Hartley was there to represent canoeing, but the ‘backward people’ who row had done particularly well to qualify 5 boats, one of which was the heavyweight coxless four, stroked by my nephew, Jake Green. He and his crew mates Vince Breet, Jonty Smith and David Hunt had snuck in at the last minute, and of the 5 South African boats they were the youngsters in training; there for the experience, and as such the least was expected from them.

In the first round they came fourth, failing to qualify for the semis so they had to go into the repechage. One day later they were a different crew and comfortably won that and then came second in their semi-final. Beyond all expectations they had made it through to the A Final. For the final and as always, they started fast and led the 2km race for the first 500m. At the end of the 2nd 500 they were coming second, and at the end of the 3rd 500m they were third. With just meters to go the Italians put in last ditch surge and claimed Bronze. Jake and his crew, there for the experience, missed an Olympic medal by inches and had to settle for 4th place. Heart wrenching for us as supporters, tougher still for them as professional athletes who compete at the world’s greatest games and put their entire lives into a 6minute race.

South African Rowers

Getting back to paddling, September saw the revival of the Liebenbergsvlei race. Despite being the biggest canoeing club in the country, Dabulamanzi never owned a ‘major race’ in the same way that NCC has the Dusi, King Fisher has the Umkomaas or JCC has the Vaal. The Liebenbergs’ had been raced from 2004 to 2006 under the Bethlehem Club with the sponsorship of Tracker but then the race was in the middle of winter and started in Bethlehem where the river was without rapids but full of trees, and not surprisingly after a few years it simply faded away. In 2016 Dabulamanzi reinstated the race with the backing of Colin Wilson and EuroSteel and the incentive of being closer to Jo’burg with some fun rapids on the first day and a long flat stretch on the second day which billed as great training for the Fish.

That year I drove there on my own with the plan to only paddle day 1, enjoy the overnight party and drive back early the next day, so I left my car near the end of day 1 in the town of Tweeling, then ran back to the main road with my boat and hitchhiked a lift to the start. A young novice paddler from Pretoria picked me up; he was dumbfounded – how could I think that anyone would stop he asked. I enjoyed the rapids of day 1 and the overnight party and went home so I missed prize giving. Siseko Ntondini won. Actually, Soweto won; 9 of the top 10 paddlers were from SCARC/SOW – Rob Creighton was the only Dabs paddler in the mix and he came 9th. Bridgette Hartley didn’t win at the Olympics, but she did win very convincingly at the Liebensbergs’. No; they can’t be compared. 

For Fish in 2016 I bought an old Tiger, a high-volume boat made for big rivers. Halfway down Soutpans I went over but being desperate not to swim I managed to pull off a rock-roll, much to the amazement of the crowds on the banks; and myself. I was happy to be in the old Tiger. Here I must say that putting foam hip pads inside helps one right the boat much more easily when you are tightly jammed in, but an attempt at a rock roll often results in a broken paddle, so I was lucky. Tim was back with Jono Adams and the FUCT team, he didn’t have the hairdo he had in the years before, but the Intervarsity gees was still strong. Stronger still was Hank Mc Gregor who won again.

Fish River Canoe Marathon 2016
Fish River Canoe Marathon 2016
No I didn’t swim

Shortly after Fish, Dabulamanzi hosted the 4hour Enduro, something I never really attended, primarily because back in the day it used to be an 8hour Enduro which was way too long a day for me. Anyway, I did a few laps of the Enduro with Giles, and then got caught up in a gin storm of note; led by Andy Leith, Bryan Slater, Carlo Natali and Tony Purchase. After a while there were less than a dozen of us left and this then became an 8hour Enduro in itself. The club stocks ran out, but Leith had several more bottles of Tanqueray delivered, and the storm raged on. Also with us that day was Antje Manfroni, and when one of the protagonist’s wife came looking for him in the late afternoon, he levitated and scurried home without a word, much to the mirth of all who remained. I still don’t know what the real story was, but shortly after this Antje moved to Cape Town, leaving club friends, paddling and a massive part of her life. She is now back in Germany and no longer paddles, sad I think, given her quality and her passion for the sport.   

For the Christmas holidays we went back to Cefani. While unpacking the trailer I tried to cut a cable tie and instead nearly cut my thumb off. Nurse Lo had a look and sent me into town to find a doctor who then stitched me up. This was a disaster as I couldn’t get my hand wet for two weeks, and there we were, at the seaside side with all our water toys. In the end it wasn’t that bad as we went from Cefani to the farm for Christmas and then back again. Liesel and Emma Allen joined us, and we went across to Beddgelert for Christmas eve, joining some Sephton’s while leaving some Green’s behind and in doing so, creating commotion. The joys of getting caught in the crossfire of family politics. Back at Cefani, Scatter won the quiz and the poitjie competition and made sure we didn’t forget. He also had a visitor, MJ Robb who borrowed my toys as I wasn’t using them. While out at sea MJ broke my paddle; something I couldn’t do on the rocks at the Fish River; Mighty strong he must be was all I could think.  

Fun in the sun

In need of some ‘river readiness’ before Dusi I joined Boet O’Connor, Jim Davies and Giles Walkey to trip the Vaal from Parys to Hadeda Creek, one of the more testing and under used sections of the river by our paddling fraternity, although it is very popular with the plastic and play-boat boys. Dee came along as our second and driver for the first time in decades and went off explore Parys. We were worried when we couldn’t get hold of her long after we had finished, but fortunately she was just enjoying her time out and about. Boet was very fond of his Prado, but sadly for him, that was recently ‘liberated.’

Vaal River Trip

For Dusi 2017 I was part of a ‘4 ball’ of K1’s with Giles, Snowy and Jonathon (JT) Thompson, but it broke up when JT realised he could beat Colin Simpkins and win their age group, simply by running to the finish, although ‘simply’ would be a major understatement. South Africa was in the grips of a desperate drought and despite hopes of some water release, there was none – so this was known as the low and slow one. Day 3, normally a paddling dream below the dam wall became nightmare and a runner’s game. Where a river once flowed, all we saw was sand and boulders with the occasional stagnant pool of water – it was literally impossible to paddle the first 20km’s of river. Some put their boats on cars and went home, we started walking while JT jogged off. It was like being back at Comrades, only we all had boats on our shoulders. Giles almost imploded and instead of rehydrating with Hansa at the finish in Blue Lagoon he had to spend time in the medical tent on a drip. I drank for him. That year Snowy got to 30 Dusi’s, no mean feat for a man who is almost blind.

FNB Dusi 2017
FNB Dusi 2017

Andy Birkett won convincingly, albeit in a slow time of 8 hours 32. Six of the Top 10 K1’s and 32 of the Top 50 paddlers were Black, proving Dusi to be one the most transformed sporting events in the country and to me, given that all these guys were achieving of their own merit, this also indicated that the term ‘Development Paddlers’ needed to be done away with. However, despite the transformation and the increase in the quality of the competition at the sharp end, the quantity of the competition in my social fish ‘n chip world continued to decline as participation across all the major river races got smaller and smaller, while the number of new bike and running (particularly mountain and trail) races swelled. Most people, regardless of their roots learn to run or cycle at a young age, it’s an easy sporting transition, paddling down a river is somewhat different, and the number of race entrants continues to dwindle.

On the women’s front Abby Solms won and was the 30th K1 overall, equalling Abbey Miedema/Ulansky’s 2005 place record. To give this some perspective, when Marlene Boshoff/Bentel first won the ladies in 1985 she wasn’t in the top 100, nor was Antje Manfroni when she first won in 1995. Abbey Miedema was the first lady to crack the Top 50 in 2003, and ever since then girls have been depriving boys of coveted Silver medals.

Abby and Abbey showing us how to win while showing 99% of the boys up

Early March saw Dabulamanzi host another successful High Altitude Surf Ski Challenge with the lucky draw incentive for entrants again being Fenn Surf Ski. Celebrities including the likes of Hank McGregor, Andy Birkett, Jasper Mocke and Bridgette Hartley were especially imported. I even got Neil to paddle again, and then we had a proper party with friends and family afterwards. I didn’t win the lucky draw, but I did get another Fenn cap – this year it was lumo-green.

A few weeks later with Umko looming I was experiencing some FOMO and posted a good luck message on Facebook. That started a conversation where I asked Mark Perrow to take me down ‘next year’. Unfortunately, he told me I had to stand in line and wait my turn.

In 2017 Charlie Mason became the first person ever to finish 50 Ultra Canoe Marathons, and in this case, 50 Umkomaas Canoe Marathons. While this ‘feat of fifty’ would later be emulated at the Dusi and then at the Berg by two other stalwarts, finishing 50 Umko’s is incredible; as whether the river is high or low, this is unquestionably South Africa’s (if not the world’s) most challenging long-distance white-water event. Charlie paddled and won the inaugural Umkomaas Marathon with Ken (Tank) Rogers in 1966, and has competed in every race since, with only one DNF, in 1970 when he swam and lost his boat in No8. His first canoe race was actually the Dusi in 1963 where he was the last man home; he then failed to finish in 1964, but won the Dusi with Don Cobbledick in 1965 and again in 1967 with Rogers; proving that perseverance pays off.

STIHL Umkomaas Canoe Marathon
Celebrating Charlies 50th Umko in 2017. Mark Perrow, Guy Haines, Richard Starr, Mike Frizelle, Charlie Mason, Dave Gillmer, Rob Davey, Chris Watts, Colin Simpkins and Tim Platt.

Charlie didn’t stop at 50 Umko’s and is currently on 53 finishes. Although he now paddles a big fat plastic sit-on-top as opposed to a K1 or K2 and there are some who frown at this; there are also those of us who think it’s fantastic that he is still out there and that the organisers are allowing this, believing it is important that the race lives on and that we don’t ‘purist’ or ‘professional’ our paddling to death.

On Freedom Day the movie “Beyond the River” was launched. Inspired by the true story of Siseko Ntondini and Piers Cruickshanks, it’s about two men from vastly different walks of life who have one thing in common: to win Gold (Top 10) at the Dusi. Piers wrote the original story, but the movie producers, Heartlines and Quizzical Pictures spiced it up to make the screenplay more interesting. Together they created a nail-biting adventure story about the triumph of the human spirit; if you have never watched it, make the time, you won’t be disappointed. The real story can be read in the book ‘Confluence,’ but watch the movie first. Interestingly, the two main actors, Lemogang Tsipa (Duma) and Grant Swansby (Steve) had never paddled before making the movie. Sadly, as inspirational as the movie is and as good an advert as it was for paddling and the Dusi, neither have yet attempted the race.

When I saw the spiced-up movie elements of death during cable theft, I was busy working on a public safety marketing campaign for Eskom, so I thought that this represented a great opportunity for them to help take the movie to every school in South Africa, for educational and entertainment purposes, particularly in the ‘bottom end’ schools without access to Movie Houses, DStv or Netflix. Sadly, despite many hard sell meetings, the Eskom people did not buy my thinking, but I still believe that this would be a great social responsibility investment for Eskom. As we know, Eskom isn’t what it used to be.

Beyond The River Dusi movie

About a year later, as a ‘collector’ of padding things I stole one of the Adreach street pole posters (along with the poster holder) promoting the movie; not easy to do given the size and weight of the things. I was going to put it up in my garage but then guilt got the better of me, so I took it to the Dabulamanzi clubhouse; a fitting home for it I thought, given that this is where Siseko and Piers paddled. I vividly remember that while I was putting this up at the club, Dee was busy with her friends (and half the world) watching Megan marry Harry. I don’t know why I didn’t just ask the Adreach guys, Brad Fisher or Steve Jourdan for a poster and now that I no longer have one, maybe I should…

In June we bid farewell to Neil Powell. A paramedic who had purpose, drive, passion and a heart for people, Neil was the administrator and timekeeper for Dabulamanzi before moving to Durban, always assisting wherever he could, until he passed. He was roped in as a driver to just about every race in the country for half the muppets at our club, including me, and was then also the responsible one when we wanted to be irresponsible. He was always the happiest of faces at any race; helping others was his way.

In 2017 the Liebensbergs Race got new sponsors thanks to Brad Breetzke in the form of VKB Landbou and Standard Bank. VKB, the local farmers Co-op in Reitz along with the Reitz and Tweeling locals were very happy to have us in their part of the world, we were very happy to have their support and we were equally happy to get fun Funky Pants with mielie prints. Although our sport is little, towns such as Pietermaritzburg, the home of the Dusi or Craddock, the home of the Fish, love having us as we help put them on the map and we are good for their local businesses – particularly the bottle stores and the bars. Not the prettiest of pictures, but mielie race pants made a big change to the traditional race T-shirt.

I paddled that race with one of SA’s captains of industry, Llewellyn Walters and we were unlucky not to win our age group. Notably our little club has lots of successful businesspeople; from guys who own steel empires to those who manage financial empires and arrive at races around the country in their personal planes. Then there are many who are very well off and then there are people like me who work for the above. I think I only know one guy who has a worse job than me, he washes windows for a living, but even he can still afford to buy beers and new boats, so I guess, in the main, we are a crowd that should consider ourselves to be incredibly fortunate to be able to do what we do. However, beyond my Dabulamanzi mates, I am also friendly with several SCARC (Soweto) paddlers, and here the divide is profound; where I am one of ‘the have lots’, most of them are ‘the have nots’; but more on this later.

In August we went back to Mozambique with family friends, the Frewen’s. Also staying at the same place as we were was Andre Swanepoel’s older brother and his family. I had last seen them and their daughter, Candice, back at their farm near Mooi River in the mid 1980’s when she was a teeny tot; now she was an international celebrity and Victoria’s Secret model. Jordi was desperate to get a pic with her on the beach and although that never happened, there was a Lunar Eclipse at the same time, so she got a picture of us when we went for a night ride. Yes, Candice was stunning; I did feel a bit like a dirty old man checking out my mate’s daughter, but she was impossible not to see.

Back in Cape Town, Tim and Gemma Tennick went to do the Breede as a qualifier for Fish. I am not sure how they counted that as the river was almost empty, such was the drought at the time, but they qualified and were happy to have done it. There’s a river I haven’t yet paddled and probably never will.

I was going to Fish in a single but then I got press-ganged into doing it in a K3 with Carlo Natali and Nigel Harvey. I was piggy in the middle, and to my mind, you lose a lot of the fun and excitement of the river sitting there, but the upside was the company, the banter was always good, especially with those two. I thought we would smash through everything – but the big hole at the bottom of Soutspans did catch us out. Our time was 6hrs 12 minutes, exactly the same as when I paddled with MJ (Mighty) Robb two years earlier, and way faster than when alone a K1. Tim, doing the FUCT thing, shaved the sides of his head and tried to make a wave with what was left, but that failed. Dee nearly cried when she saw this, but he was unperturbed.

fish river canoe marathon 2017
Mr Flemmer. Nigel Harvey. Peter Flemmer. Brad Breetzke. Keith Flemmer. Carlo Natali. Bryan Slater. Me. John Cunningham. Graham Neate. Claude Nish. Grant Sinclair. Iain Hume.

At the back end of 2017 I lined up for my first ‘Ten in One’ – something I had often watched but never entered. As the name suggests and as the shield says: Ten Beers in One Hour. The rules are that you have to paddle time trial to work up a thirst, drink your 10 in an hour and then ‘keep them in’ for another hour to be recognised as a finisher. Like some say, totally ridiculous, but I love beer and always wondered if I could manage it. As luck would have it Scatter appeared to watch but then (not too reluctantly) joined me. Like most of my races I was back end of the field, but I was happy to finish in just under 59 minutes. For the record I don’t think that this ‘initiative’ is that ridiculous, it was a fun challenge, but I won’t be entering again. Big B had retired from the game with his record of 12 minutes 20 seconds looking safe, but the 2017 winner, Pete (Flem-Puppy) Flemmer would go on to smash that. 2017 was the largest line up we ever saw for the Ten in One, but a lot young guys who weren’t club members came for the fun of it, so I believe this has now become a members only thing.

In November I tripped the Liebensbergs with Meyer and Scatter. I think there may have been more time spent drinking than paddling – it was fun. After that I paddled the Vaal marathon in a K2 with Giles Walkey. We never did combine or go well and managed to swim twice in one rapid, after that we agreed that we could paddle together in singles, but never again in a double – we were that bad together. It was then that I first met a club member and nice guy, Seoras Graham, pronounced SureAss. Being bad with remembering names I often try to come up with something to aid my memory – so I said to him, “Sure as Shit I will not forget your name” – and so far, it’s working. But Giles girlfriend Jenny Engelbrecht who was seconding us made me go and apologise for being rude and insensitive. Sorry SureAss…

Our Christmas holiday was again split between the farm and Cefani, with Cefani involving lots of play in the surf and a downwind or two from Yellow Sands with some of the Transvaal Navy, one including Scatter, Puc and Keith Flemmer which meant having to have a few cooldrinks afterwards. Yellow Sands became my preferred surfing spot, when there was swell, so we went quite often that year.

In January 2018 Tim and I went with Giles to paddle the Elands River just down the road from Waterval Onder in Mpumalanga. The Lowveld Canoe Club run the Elands 3338 Memorial in memory of Laetitia Scheepers who sadly lost her life while on a training trip in 2009. When not in flood it is a lovely stretch of clean flowing water, great for Dusi training, and although a long drive for a 23km race it is always fun. On the way back we did some sight-seeing and went to see the memorial site of the Battle of Bergendahl that took place during the Second Anglo-Boer War in 1900, something generally deemed in my family to be a waste of time when hurrying to or from a holiday. The battle was the last ‘set piece’ in the war and the last time the Boers used their Long Tom field cannons before two years of guerilla warfare ensued and peace was only declared in May of 1902. Good to know, just in case it’s a Trivial Pursuit question.

Shortly after that my next piece of training was the Dabulamanzi Dam Busters, once a paddle around Emmarentia and then a run to the Randburg Waterfront, which had long since failed, become waterless (and then lost its name), this had become a somewhat easier run around the Delta park, but still good training.

At about the same time we also saw the departure of our “Switsa” trio who were often seen together in a K3. Anna the Swede, who thought nothing of showering naked in front of the guys when she first arrived at the club, left quietly despite having been ever present. Carlo the Italian (with a penchant for red sports cars), headed for greener pastures and Kommetjie – but not quietly and is still paddling. Nigel (Guff) Harvey the Saffa, put himself out to pasture and retirement between America and St Francis Bay, but is still involved on and in the sea near where he grew up as a lifesaver.  

The Switsa’s. Carlo, Anna and Nigel

For Dusi 2018 Giles found us a ‘second’ in the form of Dave Rawlinson; in his day he knew the river and did better on it than we ever would or could. He said he would happily drive and look after us, on the provisos that he could take his vehicle, that we would camp at the first and second day overnight stops and that he would pay for it all. We didn’t argue. His vehicle was a Mercedes Sprinter van that he had had rebuilt as an overland tourer, complete with everything from a kitchenette to a toilet and shower, so that was his sleeping space, while Giles and used an old canvas tent of Pop’s. It really did make a great change to stay in the valley as we did in the old days and the night at the dam was beautiful. With time to kill, Giles and I took advantage of the young physios in training and enjoyed cheap massages on both days; the joke being that Giles got the big strong black guy who hurt rather than healed him, much to my amusement.  My other source of amusement was to follow Giles down the river and if he went left, I went right. It didn’t work out so well at first when he shot Taxi Rapid on the right and I went down the traditional left-hand slot only to get stuck, but thereafter I got the most laughs, although I did have the most swims. We eventually finished an hour faster than the low 2017 year, but still in a very slow time of 14hrs 58 on almost no training and having walked every portage.

dusi canoe marathon 2018
dusi canoe marathon 2018

Sometime back in the day the race organizers changed the format of day 3 to have the slower boats start first and the fastest last, for live TV screening purposes (when there was little in the way of international sport and canoeing had sponsors such as Hansa) and to help increase the live spectator aspect at the finish. Anyway, this format still remains but by now they had got really organised and had drones following the leaders that sent live feeds through to a massive TV screen for all to watch in a marquee at the finish spot. That year there was a titanic battle for the podium, Andy Birkett and Hank Mc Gregor won by 1 minute but then there were literally seconds between second, third and fourth. The international pair of Carl Folscher and Adrian Boros out-sprinted local lads Siseko Ntondini and Sbonelo Khwela who narrowly beat Ant Stott and Banetse Nkhoesa. It made for great viewing and I am sure that the beer sales rocketed. In the lady’s race, the Peek sisters, Jordan and Cana won and came 38th overall, while there was another nail-biting finish for second and third with Bridgette Hartley and Christie McKenzie just beating Jenna Ward and Vanda Kiszli. When all of that and prize giving was done, Giles and I were well and truly rehydrated. I then suffered for 3 long weeks with the Dusi guts.   

March meant it was once again time for Neil’s annual paddle, the High-Altitude Surf Ski Challenge. Once again, a Fenn Surfski was the lucky draw, but again despite the good odds of about 100-1, I still didn’t win. Tony Lightfoot did win – in so far as he finished the 10km in his Borat suit.

March and April were particularly wet months and it seemed that every river I saw was calling to be paddled, from the Braamfontein Spruit all the way to the Kenmure River, reminding me of how when the rains did arrive, we used to get out and enjoy the nearby rivers – but sadly we don’t do that anymore; partly the local rivers are too dirty and partly because it takes quite a lot of effort.

At about the same time Tim, having spent 4 years studying Economics at UCT then took a gap year to go on surf trips around Morocco and Indonesia, where he got to live the surfers dream. Meanwhile Luke was still studying accounting at UCT where he spent all his spare time on bicycles. He racked up some very impressive results with Richard Damant and his other UCT mates at everything from the Absa Cape Epic and the Sani2C to road races, where they were nipping at the heels of the full time professional local and international riders. It seemed to me that Luke had inherited his father’s strong head to push through the pain of ultras in search of glory, while Tim had inherited more of mine, as he sought out the fun that was waiting to be found on the water and in glassy tubes.

2018 was the first year I paddled through winter. Pops used to call me a sybarite and the truth was that I was a pleasure lover and did paddle for fun, so because Jo’burg winters are cold I would paddle till February, then focus on Comrades till June, then go into hibernation until spring. I was after-all too thin to take on the cold and wet, which is why I hadn’t been to a Berg Marathon. Anyway, that winter I paddled.

Although Jake remained resolute in his focus on rowing and getting to the 2020 Olympics, he did occasionally join me to paddle at the club, and when Jordi was in town, we had the rare outing in a K3 and a dice with the Attridge family – testing stuff.

In August I spent a long and cold morning helping junior and river novices on a Liebenbergsvlei trip. The group was massive and there were many swimmers (Willie – or won’t he- on no Willie, not again), so it took us almost 5 hours to get everyone in, but all were very happy to have ‘conquered’ the mighty Liebensbergs. In September I did my first race with Tim on the same river. We didn’t win any prizes, but we weren’t too bad either.

At about this time we had been raising funds for a certain needy Dabs member and I happened to have been drinking at both Pirates and RAC when they were doing ‘Card Draws’ so I had seen the amount of money they attracted and suggested to our Chairman at the time, Graham (Washy) Neate that we should do one too. He then found a box, had it put up in the clubhouse and ‘launched’ the new fundraising initiative. It started well, but then selling tickets became a schlep, so the draw seldom happens now. We are yet to get through the first deck of cards or have a winner, but at the time we thought it was a good idea.

Meanwhile in my working life, sadly we closed The Strategy Department. One of our bigger clients, the Blueprint CEO, Groovin Nchabeleng decided he was paying too much for our services and got his MD Tracey Copley to ask me to join them. At the same time our biggest client, Interbrand wasn’t a great payer; our business model wasn’t really working, and I liked the idea of going back to a ‘safe salary position’ so I joined Blueprint. The not so nice management of Interbrand still owed our little company some very large sums of money, but then they folded what was an icon in our industry, never did pay us in full, nor did they do right for their founder and all-round good guy, Jeremy Sampson – such are the joys of being in small business. Fortunately, I do believe that karma catches up with all…

For Fish 2018 I was very happy to get home in a time of 6 hours 49 with no swims. For me, Craddock Weir was always a 50/50 when in a K1, sometimes I made it, sometimes I didn’t – but now with lifeguards waiting to recuse us it was worth waiting for to have some fun. Here I am looking very happy for having made the drop. Giles had been paddling with Snowy; somehow as one of the shortest paddlers in the entire field he managed to bash his head on the notoriously dangerous Toast Rack Bridge early on day 1. There was lots of blood and the paramedics put 16 stitches in his pip. That was the end of their race – so he started drinking very early in the heat of the sun – and that with the painkillers went to his head. He got very drunk and later that evening said some harsh words that seriously tested our friendship, but I eventually got over it.

Fish River Canoe Marathon 2018
Fish River Canoe Marathon 2018

That year, much to the disappointment of the race organizers (who wanted our business at their event) the Dabulamanzi guys organised our own party at the Cradock Club – to which we all wore our trendy two tone shirts. Scatter tried to entertain the crowds; but this simply reinforced the idea that white men can’t dance. That night we watched one of the more exciting South Africa vs New Zealand test matches; SA were very unlucky to lose 30-32.

Dabulamanzi Team
Team Dabulamanzi
Giles with a sore head. Mark, Kate and Brian. Scatter entertaining the crowds

Mark Perrow was again in a K3 with his youngest daughter Kate and his 76-year-old father-in-law Brian Kurz, having already done one with Kate and two with Alice; it was his way of putting back into the sport, and a fantastic way of including and introducing his family to our sport, in a social and fun way. Perrow did make the transition from a fiercely combatant athlete to a recreational paddler quite well; something I always admired. This was the year that Andy Birkett pipped Hank McGregor in a sprint for the finish line and Kiko Vega, the Spaniard that Brian Longley had introduced to South African paddling came third.

The Lowveld Croc then served up the expected fun and excitement – plus I also came home with my fair share of ‘croc tattoos’ – scratches and bruises from altercations with branches and rocks but compared to Robert Levick I got home relatively unscathed. Siseko Ntondini dominated both days. 

Instead of our making our annual trip to Cefani we broke rank and joined the Frewen family in St Francis Bay for Christmas. It was very fancy, “out of my league” as Scatter told me when he came to visit, but it was lovely and a fantastic playground. While there I got to paddle in the canals and did my first surfski race, from Cape St Francis out past the harbour and back towards the lighthouse, in an S3 with Raul Goosen and Collen Gibbs. There was a big swell running that day so we should have had fun, but with the thing being so heavy we never caught one decent run; I won’t rush to paddle in an S3 again.

While there about twenty homes burnt to the ground; where I was fearful of the massive swells out at sea I was absolutely terrified by the intensity of the fires. Raoul was back in Jo’burg but his family were still there, their house was fine, but they had to evacuate to be safe, and he sent me to check that his surf ski’s down at Granny’s Pool didn’t melt. Hearing gas bottles and cars explode in the furnace of the fire was frightening. Watching homeowners with thatch roofs watering them down with garden hoses was pathetically sad, most had little chance without real volumes or pressure; some were lucky others were not.

That year we went home via the farm and the Slater’s joined us there for New Year’s so that Dee could share her part of the world with them. Their’s was a short but happy stay, Nicola being the happiest when she was out with the horses.  

Barkly East
Traffic jam
Barkly East
Barkly East

Back in Jo’burg and ready for another year I started Dusi training and bought an old surf ski of Scatters. I paid him cash as requested, but in R5 coins, something he has never forgiven me for as his family soon used it all as pocket money.

At the end of January 2019, Dusi had less than 300 entrants, and that was after they had extended the entry date and sent out messages saying that Umgeni Water had given written confirmation of a day 3 water release. #DusiIsDying became the catch phrase, and although 554 boats would finish in what was a K1 year (meaning that the boat numbers would be slightly up on a K2 year as the racing snakes pit themselves against each other) this was a new K1 low – and the numbers would still decline further…

On our way down to the race Giles and I made the obligatory stop at the Green Lantern for lunch. If you have never been, it’s at the top of Van Reenen’s Pass and they serve a fine meal. You can phone ahead to advise your ETA and place an order so you can gobble and go. Or you could find a Wimpy. At the race registration Perrow said he wanted to go back to the paddle the Sella in 2021 but that Neil wouldn’t be any good (they had won this back in 1991) and that I should go with him, as the “Only able Evans”. I said I would rather do Umko, reminding him that I had asked in 2017, but he stuck with his story about there being a long queue, and that wasn’t going to happen but he was adamant that we were going to go do the Sella together in August 2021.

The Legend Mark Perrow

On the day before the race the Dusi was in flood – it was literally heaving and looked like a lot of fun, but sadly the levels dropped overnight, and we missed it all. However, the net result of the flood conditions was that a lot more rubbish ended up the river right before the race and it wasn’t pleasant. Giles and I were once again paddling in K1’s, but together, and counting the swims. Snowy was paddling with a Durban friend, Mark Balladon who he often paddled with for Fish, (they had done Dusi together in ’86 and again in 2000), anyway they swam at Taxi Rapid and never saw their boat again, a sad way to end after less than 10kms into the race. I had two silly swims both in the middle of nowhere, for which I would pay dearly… 

On day 2 the back of my old Sabre bent in half under the water pressure at Thombi, making for a long day. Giles helped me to patch it up – and then that night I got properly sick with the dreaded Dusi Guts, probably from my day 1 swims. I started day 3 hoping for the best, but I was not strong at all. The batch that left 10 minutes behind mine overtook me in the space of 3 kilometres – ¾ of the way to the dam wall. I absolutely love the first 20kilometre stretch below the dam so I had to give it a go, but by the time I got to uMzinyathi I knew that while I might get through the next part with the assistance of the water flow; that I would be in trouble when I hit the flat water and headwinds into Blue Lagoon. I was there for fun – and there would be none. It was like 1985, my first attempt at Dusi, quashed by a debilitating tummy bug, bought on most likely by the filthy state of the river. I was bleak as I ‘bailed’ for the second time, leaving me on 23 finishes out of 25 starts.

Dusi Canoe Marathon 2019
Dusi Canoe Marathon 2019

There was little sympathy when I got home, we all know that there are cleaner rivers to play in. Research later showed that 60% of the field had been afflicted by the dreaded Dusi Guts. On the racing front, Andy Birkett won his ninth title, ahead of Sbonelo Khwela and Thulani Mbanjwa, while in the lady’s section a young Christie Mackenzie won her first Dusi Crown from a valiant Tamika Haw.

In early March, work took me to Pietermaritzburg, and as luck would have it, that same weekend Tattam invited me to join him and a bunch of Umko veterans from KZN to trip from No1 to No8.  Apart from Rob Davey who was in his usual red tupperware boat most of us were on two-man crocs, I was with Tattam. He broke his paddle in the Approaches and we swam down No1 – it was painful. Fortunately, someone had a spare. We all stopped at 5&6 to scout a line and it was decided that right of Pinnacle was the way to go, but most swam, so I chickened out, much to Tattam’s disappointment. Other than that, it was a fun trip and a good way to see the river again. Afterwards we had lunch at the Richmond Club where I wore my old 1986 Umko shirt for fun. The back of that shirt reads “Ain’t a thing I won’t do” – but 5&6 is one thing I won’t, and another is the race itself, so perhaps I need to donate that shirt.

A week later Tim went off to his first Umkomaas Challenge. He was paddling with Jason Smuts, a friend from UCT who lived in KZN. They had not sat in a boat together before this and Tim had done fewer miles in training that the distance of the race – something I used to do at that age, unfazed. Umko 2019 was a big water year but they had a great race with just one swim at No4. Brilliant for novices, although they did nearly cause chaos. The new day 2 is Hella to St Josephine’s (a great idea to allow paddlers to warm up on the first day on a stretch not nearly as testing as No’s 1 to 8) but as usual the slower guys went off first, the racing snakes last. So it was that Hank McGregor and Wayne Jacobs came to overtake them just before the end and they almost lost the race there when they dropped into a hole in-front of Jason and Tim, who nearly crashed into them. It was a close shave, luckily no harm was done, and Hank and Wayne won. When Tim told the story, it sounded frighteningly close to the end of Hank’s 2010 Umko. Anyway, they snuck onto the front of the SA Paddler magazine (behind the winners) and even became ‘poster boys’ for the 2020 race, but sadly this would be cancelled due to Corona and the Lockdown – with Hank stuck on 8 Umko wins, still one behind Robbie Herreveld.

Umkomaas Marathon

For the 2019 High Altitude Surf Ski Challenge I once again got Neil out for his annual paddle, and the club again shipped in some celebrities, including Hank Mc Gregor and Bridgette Hartley, plus there was the Fenn lucky draw. After the race some of our Olympic hopefuls took Bridgette skiing behind a K4 – it was quite a sight to see their raw, explosive power. Sadly, no paddlers qualified to go to Tokyo.

In May, Dabulamanzi hosted the SA Marathon Championships out at Cradle Moon, a new venue in paddling terms. I had never participated in flatwater marathons, they weren’t really my thing, so when I said I wasn’t interested in paddling I was soon talked into working at the event. Not having done much in the way of helping out I couldn’t say no, but that didn’t make me popular at home as I was basically ‘wasting’ a perfectly good long weekend, although in my defence, when I signed up, I didn’t know that it was a 3day affair over a public holiday. I then ended up as a marshal for 3days – watching to see that no infringements were made at the takeout of the portage. Fortunately, no major incidences occurred as I really wasn’t qualified to be a marshal – as Lee McGregor told me.

Cradle moon

Having worked at the marathon champs I saw a lot of fancy lightweight racing boats, mostly imported Nelo’s and the like, many with price tags well over the R50 000 mark, ludicrous to my mind, but cheap compared to what people spend on bicycles. I also paddled in a few and got to realize that my boats had always been heavy, old river boats and that it was time I got myself a lightweight racer for time trials and dam paddling. As luck had it, Paul Robinson had bought a Kalypso from Nic Oldert but was wanting to upgrade to something fancier and offered it to me for a song. While it was 15 years old, it was very light and having only ever been on a dam it barely had a scratch on it, so I thought it was a steal and happily bought yet another old K1 to add to my collection of other old K1’s.

Somehow, I teamed up with Janet Bartlett for the Fish, so we did Liebensbergs as our river training. Not having paddled with a girl since my Wits days, this was quite a change. Two things stood out; I wanted her to drive, but she wouldn’t (I still think that was a mistake) and then apart from having a yellow boat, all her paddling kit was pink. Anyway, off we went to Liebensbergs where we went quite well on both days and I thought that we might even be competitive at the Fish… 

We went to the Fish feeling good – although Janet went down to Craddock with her friends; Tim White and Sheldon Baker while I went down with Giles and Snowy. She did her thing with them; while we stayed with Snowy’s Durban friends in the Tuis Huise – it was a bit strange, not travelling or staying with one’s paddling partner, but I just put it down to her not wanting to share a car or a house Giles; I did after-all have to blame someone.

While I thought we were good together, as it turned out, we swam almost everything man-made, and the Fish has several such objects. It was one of the biggest galas of my canoeing career and to make matters worse the weather was cold; the river was freezing, and our first swim was at the bottom of Double Trouble – just 2km below the dam wall. Day 2 was much the same, but Janet was fantastic, she never complained once, in fact it we made fun of it all and had a great time together. Strangely we were fine in the normal rapids, but we still ended up with a slow time of 7 hours 11 and 56 other mixed doubles beat us. We both went home as happy paddlers, but she then met a cyclist and went to the dark side and no longer graces us with her presence.

Fish Marathon
Fish Marathon

Giles and Snowy also went home happy, although they took their nose off at Gauging Weir and walked the last 10 or so kilometres to the end – but Snowy was keen for a finish after not getting past Toast Rack in the previous year and not having got past Taxi Rapid during Dusi – what we do for a finish, although Snowy does have well over 50 Dusi and Fishes to his name. That year Jasper Mocké and Stuart Maclaren who had never won the Fish before beat five-time K2 champion Hank McGregor who was with Wayne Jacobs by just 3 seconds. Hank joked that their goal was only to win the Vets category.

Although Tim had left UCT, one of his mates shared a picture of the 2019 FUCT squad of just 8. The pictures below are of the squads from 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019 – and the declines must surely paint a very worrying picture for the future of the Fish – plus all those in Craddock who benefit from the event.

In 2019, hippo activity meant that the Lowveld Croc race was shortened to just one day, which suited me perfectly; one day races have far less admin. That year I took 3 old boats out my garage roof – I used one, Tim used another and a friend of his, Tyrone Arnold used a terrible old orange thing; that he wrapped in half at the infamous No14. That boat is now a showpiece at a local shop. Meanwhile Tim finished his first ‘big name’ river race in a K1, shepherded home by another UCT friend, Jason Smuts.

Lowveld Canoe Marathon
Lowveld Canoe Marathon
Lowveld Canoe Marathon
Lowveld Canoe Marathon

In December we went to the farm for Christmas and then again broke ranks with the Cefani crew to join the Frewen family, but this year in Kenton. While at the farm a family first was when all 4 of us went up the Kenmure mountain together. Kenton was beautiful, not as fancy as St Francis Bay, which actually made it more appealing, and although there are no good surf spots right there the paddling is great. While there I got to enjoy several paddles on the sea from Kasouga and up the Bushmans and Kariega Rivers with some big names like Jim Davies, Boet O’Connor, Bruce Pender Smith and Bridgette Hartley. If I can ever afford to retire, Dee would want to make Kenton our home.

In late January 2020, Brian (Big B) Longley passed unexpectedly. He had paddled the Thursday and Sunday time trials and then on the Monday he was gone. The following Thursday we gathered at the club to paddle the time trial in his honour, but the skies opened and flung thunder, lightning, hail and rain at us. As Nic Oldert later wrote: “The storm was of biblical proportions, an assault on the senses. The hail was deafening. The thunder shook the roof. Swirls of drumming rain rushed around us like crazed spirits. Frost smoke rose off the surface of the water, shrouding everything in a Yorkshire smirr. Rivulets formed and threatened to wash away our abandoned boats. The far banks were lost to view behind shifting grey curtains of mist and rain. Half the club stood huddled under the tin roof of the motorboat shelter. Scatter danced and cursed as sharp hailstones nipped at his shins and ankles. “Darth doesn’t want us to paddle tonight.” he grinned.”

The paddle was called off and we went into the clubhouse to drink but we did eventually do a time trial in B’s honour. A moving memorial service was held at the dam led by the Minister Alan Storey; as both a paddler and family friend, he was fantastic, as was Giles who sang ‘If ever I would leave you’ from Camelot & ‘And now the end is near’ made famous by Old Blue Eyes. Among the many tributes it was said: “Big B had a big heart and a generous spirit and he opened it to many of god’s creatures – waifs, strays, dogs, goats and novice paddlers”. B was as Big in character as he was, back in the day, in size.

Having suffered badly from Dusi Guts in the previous year, I chose not to go to the Dusi, thinking I would go to my first ever Drak Challenge instead, but work and life got in the way and I never made it there. That’s a race that is definitely on my bucket list. Andy Birkett won his 7th consecutive Drak Challenge in 2020 as a warmup for Dusi.

Dusi 2020 was a K2 year where Andy Birkett won his 10th title along with first time winner Khumbulani Nzimande, who came out of Martin Dreyer’s Change a Life Academy. In the lady’s race Tamika and Bianca Haw, daughters of Mandy and Farmer Glen, a paddler and Mr. Sani2C, claimed a maiden title. 

In the end, the Dusi had great water levels, plus the Dusi Gut affliction was reduced from 60% to just 17% thanks to great work from the Dusi Umngeni Conservation Trust (DUCT) so I was really sad not to have gone, but I was not alone in not supporting what was once South Africa’s premier canoe race. Dusi 2020 had just 365 boats finish compared to an average of 1 097 between the years 2000 and 2010, after which race entries and finishers continued to steadily decline. While my reason for ‘boycotting’ Dusi was the water quality, most of the river race numbers have been on a slippery downhill slope for the last decade, Canoeing South Africa clearly needs a change in strategy if it wants river racing to grow, let alone survive.

Dusi Boat No’s: 1070 K1’s in 2001; 478 K1’s in 2021
Fish Boat No’s: 814 K’s in 2002; 428 in 2019
Drak Boat No’s: 628 K1’s in 2003; 390 K1’s in 2020
Berg Boat No’s: 225 K1’s in 2000; 98 K1’s in 2021

Here I need to touch on the importance of mass participation. For Fish ‘n Chips people, the benefits are primarily social; with more paddlers at races, we get to enjoy the company and banter of others, we get lines to follow (or not to follow) through the rapids and waves to sit on across the flats. For the Racing snakes the benefits of mass participation are of a more financial nature. The bigger the race, the more likely it is to attract sponsorship; and more paddler entry fees along with bigger sponsorship packages equates to better prize monies. In addition to this, the more paddlers a club has, the more it ‘collects’ in fees to put towards races, while the more registered paddlers Canoeing South Africa (CSA) has, the more money it ‘earns’ in annual fees which help management send our Racing Snakes overseas to represent our sport and our nation. Notably CSA represents not just canoeing but all paddling including the likes of Surfski, Wave ski and SUPs but that’s another story. Quite simply, canoeing will become healthier for all involved with increased participation, but sadly race participation is going backwards, as many recreational paddlers feel they can’t do it while many racing snakes feel they have done what they can and more and more disappear to ‘the dark side’; or where-ever it is that lost souls go to.

Talking lost; in March, my sister Jenny, took a fall and broke her hip. Not having worked or earnt an income in over 20 years she had to rely on the free medical care provided by the state hospitals and was shipped off to the Vosloorus Hospital. The doctors kept her there for a month before they operated, simply because she was too weak to survive the operation. Three square meals a day, plus being in traction meant that she couldn’t sneak out to smoke or drink and her strength returned. Anyway Dee, Tim and I were visiting Jenny there while she was waiting for the op (here I have to say that the hospital was really very impressive, and the nurses were fantastic) when my phone got really busy with multiple messages coming through…

I read the words and watched the videos in utter disbelief, shock and horror. It was all beyond comprehension. I had to leave Jenny’s ward to try and take it in. Mark Perrow had been following a race on the Umkomaas River in his plane, had crashed into a cliff in the valley below St Josephines Bridge, and in an instant, he was gone. There Mark was, busy living his best life to the full, only to have it snatched away from him. There I was with my sister Jenny, who had absolutely no will for life, in truth no life at all, but she would continue on, subsisting at best.

Having been an Olympian and won all the big local races including Berg, Fish, Dusi and Umkomaas as well the likes of the Sella Descent; Mark is considered to be “One of South Africa’s Paddling Greats.” He never missed an Umko, completing 36 (plus 33 Dusi’s and 20 Fish’s) and despite losing his athletic form he learnt the joy of relishing the river and the sea in the company of friends and family rather than hanging his boats and paddles up once his racing days were done. Respect to you Hop – for staying on and joining us mere Fish ‘n Chip people. That Thursday we paddled the ‘Hophead Memorial’ in Wits Yellow at Emmarentia. A few days later South Africa went into the COVID-19 Lockdown and with this funeral numbers were limited so Mark never did have the expected big send off, but we still celebrate his life.

Mark Perrow Memorial
Paddling in Wits Colours for Hop

The first weeks of Lockdown were surreal. In the grip of uncertainty, anxiety and fear we started out on Level 5 where no one was allowed out their homes for 35 days. We all did strange things for exercise purposes. I put a bungee cord on the back of an old boat and paddled almost daily on our pool – while watching Netflix shows. I also practiced my rolling skills for fun (with the help of a belt and old flat blades).

Brushing up on my rolling skills in a K1 – not that I have ever rolled a K1 in a river

Initially many thought or hoped that the pandemic would soon blow over, however the Coronavirus and lockdown protocols then changed everything as we knew it. The first casualty was the Umkomaas, but all sports came to an abrupt and extended halt. There was no rugby or cricket to be seen at all, it became almost pointless having DStv as there was no live sport to watch at all, either local or international. And for us weekend warriors, all our mass participation runs, cycles and paddles were also banned. I had nostalgically entered what was to be the 95th Comrades, and because it had been 10years since last run I thought that it would be interesting to see if I could still go the distance but by March, I knew it was a bridge too far and then Comrades too was cancelled. We were all bleak, but not as sad as the professional athletes like Jake who had literally spent 4years training specifically for the 2020 Olympics only to have them postponed.

On May 1st we were allowed to exercise within a 5km radius of our homes between the hours of 06h00 and 09h00. The first few days were farcical as everyone poured out onto the suburban streets to escape their ‘prisons’. As someone who has run for years, I marvelled at how many people we had in our neighbourhood and how many were runners. While we were grateful for this, alcohol sales remained banned and having thought that bottle stores would only be closed for 21 days I had long since run out of beer and it would be several weeks before my fridge was replenished with my other love, Hansa. Many of the laws were absurd and although I am now vehemently anti-smoking, the cigarette ban was one of the worst, but equally incomprehensible was the idea that sports like surfing and paddling were dangerous. That said, thanks must go to Canoeing South Africa, Kim Pople, Copper and Janet Simpkins who did a huge amount of work and lobbying to get paddling going again; long before many other sporting codes and although races were not immediately allowed, we were permitted to train between 09h00 and 17h00.

With this the organisers of the cancelled Berg Marathon arranged a virtual race called the ‘Ultra Paddle’ that allowed canoeists from around the world to ‘share’ the event while raising money to support the Canoeing South Africa (CSA) food relief programme. Ordinarily, the race is a four-day event over 240km, but the Virtual Berg race aimed to make the event more accessible to a far wider audience than normal by asking paddlers to cover the 240km before the end of July, allowing us to take on the challenge in more manageable distances. Some paddlers remained true to the standard format and completed the 240kms in 4 consecutive days, but most who accepted the challenge chose to do the distance over the allocated 24 days. Because like most people I was then working from home I joined a group called ‘The Noon Paddlers’ and we would meet at midday to do 10km a day to complete our Virtual Berg’s. The weather was often miserable, but the banter was always good. That was the closest I had got to doing a Berg and by Spring I was more paddling fit than I had been in decades. 

Standing: Lloyd Hanson. Pete O’Connor. Sarah Evans. Tony Purchase. Me. Joe Torlage. Cally Henderson. Willie Burger. Jason Brown. Raoul Goosen. Graham Holme. Michelle Haskins. Mike Hanekom, Henning Wentzel. Dave Browne. Tony Lightfoot. Jim Davies. Dillan Browne

The Noon Paddlers posing on completion of the challenge. Somehow, I often ended up standing next to Joe or Tony in paddling photos and I always stood on my tippy toes to try and look a little taller – as was the case here – but clearly it didn’t help, a source of much amusement for Joe.

One of our squad who conquered the Virtual Berg was a ‘spritely young athlete’ by the name of Tony (Lightening) Lightfoot who has been a Dabulamanzi member for almost 40 years. What made Tony’s accomplishment special was the fact that he turned 80 during the challenge, completing the distance while many other younger, stronger paddlers stayed home and avoided the winter chill plus the fact that he paddled half of it on his own in his ‘yellow submarine’ – a large and heavy old double canoe that ordinarily requires two paddlers to get it up to speed. Tony and I have a special little thing where every time he sees me, he says “Good heavens, it’s Evans” to which I respond, “Frightning it’s Lightning.”

One of my biggest frustrations during the early lockdown was the lack of sports to watch on TV, sports in the news, interesting sporting stuff. As there was no new paddling news, I started to share old paddling pics on our Dabulamanzi WhatsApp group, each with the questions: “Who, Where, When.” Some people enjoyed it and responded with people’s names, rivers and years, others felt I was creating unnecessary clutter on the group and got grumpy. After about 10 days I stopped. A few people asked me to carry on – most notably Dave Hamilton Brown and Moolies Moolman. Moolies is not small and must have been scary in his youth (actually he still is); while Ham is a monster – they asked me for the names of those who were grumpy with my spam so they could go and sort them out. That made me feel good – and spurred me on into continuing writing these tales.

I say ‘continuing’ because I actually started writing my paddling memoirs and anecdotes in 2010 after I got to 20 Dusi’s and I then wrote more in 2015 when the Umko organisers wanted stories for the commemorative ‘Umko 50 Years’ book. It was through this that I ‘met’ Pete (Whirlpool) Swanepoel who compiled the Umko book. He sent me a mail to say: “Do the WordPress thing. Your great grandkids will be chuffed one day. Don’t let your Dad’s diaries die!” So, I really owe many thanks to Pete for his persuasion and more for his enthusiasm after I shared a ‘work in progress’ draft of these tales with him; he took the time to read it and responded saying it was “a wonderful story that really should get published” and then gave me a long lists of things to do – including adding the lengthly ‘Who Zoo’. Here I have to mention that apart from the Umko book, he only has one other book behind his name, another paddling orientated one (‘Bakgat. The Odyssey of an Adventurous Beancounter’ which is the life story of Charles Mason of Umko fame) so he is biased; but all I needed was the affirmation of just one person. Thank you Pete.

Anyway, after the Virtual Berg I continued to take advantage of working long and strange hours from home during lockdown by paddling at noon and came through winter very paddling fit by my standards. So, when CSA got approval to run the National Surfski and Marathon events in October of 2020, I entered. I had never done a national marathon champs before, flat water races were not my thing, plus I had only ever done one surfski race, but this was the first year in over 40 that I had not earnt a medal for my shoebox, a sticker for my trailer or more importantly a new T-Shirt for my wardrobe – my casual wear being almost only T-Shirts from races – so I entered both. 

Over the years I kept various running and paddling race shirts. Sadly, some got lost, others fell to pieces, Jordi turned some into her PJ’s but many survived having been mothballed in an old school trunk that I plastered with race stickers starting with my first 50Miler in 1984 before going on to plaster more old stickers on Dees school trunk and then our trailer. Then there’s what I call my brag bag which always sparks conversation when people see the old badges and then there’s a tin full of literally hundreds of medals, representing hundreds of weekends spent out and about earning my cooldrinks.

The trunks and the trailer with the old race stickers, some of my old race shirts (I guess I should give them to people in need), my brag bag which I love, and my more prized medals (that I don’t know what to do with); all part of a near 50year paddling affair. No trophies or colours, but that’s Fish n Chipping. 

I also kept all my life jackets. We didn’t wear them in the early 1980’s at river races like the Dusi, Fish and Pungwe, but Neil and I bought the Kayak brand for Umko in 1985; they were ridiculously small. The Zero life jackets offered much more buoyancy but had a tendency to ride up over one’s head, so they were actually worse. CSA recently started regulating the minimum standards of all Personal Flotations Devices (PFDs), and I understood my old green Xtreme with a side zip was not compliant, so I bought a fancy Mocke lifejacket only to learn that the Xtreme life jackets were fine – and they are still both in use by Tim and his mates at events like the Umko and Croc where they are very necessary.

Canoeing lifejackets
Kayak. Zero. Xtreme. Xtreme. Mocke

On collecting and keeping paddling paraphernalia, back in the day, (before email and social media) if you were a Dabulamanzi paddler you got a monthly newsletter and if you were a registered paddler, you were posted a copy of SA CANEWS, the official mouthpiece of the South African Canoe Federation. This was a monthly ‘magazine’ (mostly black and white and seldom more than 20 pages) crammed with paddling news, articles about races, race entry forms, race results and adverts from the various paddling shops. Launched in 1977, Pops started subscribing to SA CANEWS when still living in Zimbabwe in 1981, and collected 145 editions through to April 1992, when I presume it ceased to exist.

Dabulamanzi Newsletters
Dabs newsletters that often promoted inter-club rivalry between Dabs and Wits. Chief editor and scribe was Tony Lightfoot
SA CANEWS circa 1977 to 1992

In 2003 a new look glossy South African Paddler magazine was launched by Media 24; a leading local magazine publisher. They grew this from a 68-page magazine directly distributed to 5,000 paddlers into a 100-page magazine with a public distribution of 10,000; retailing at the likes of Exclusive Books and CnA. The latest copy I have is dated 2012, so I presume they lasted for about 10 years, enjoying the ‘glory days’ when river racing was at its peak, but even then the circulation numbers were not big enough to justify its existence.

SA Paddler circa 2003 to 2012

The Paddle Mag launched in January 2016 as an online magazine published by issuu.com; doing much what South African Paddler and SA CANEWS did, serving up content on canoeing for those interested – just in a digital format and on a bi-monthly basis. They last published in October/November 2020, so I can only assume that they became COVID victims.

The Paddle Mag circa 2016 to 2020

Beyond magazines, I also have several books that almost all paddlers should have, or should read. ‘Canoeing in South Africa’ by Rory Pennefather is somewhat dated but still worth reading. It is full of pictures by the likes of John Oliver, Alick Rennie and a certain Val Adamson who was then the unofficial photographer of Wits and Canoeing, so many of the pics are of Mark and Neil. ‘Run the Rivers of Southern Africa’ by Celliers Kruger provides a very informative read on almost every river in Southern Africa. (He even included the Pungwe – but with little information.) The Dusi history books, ‘Paddling and Portaging’ and ‘Adventures on an African River’ by Steve Camp, Tim Whitfield and Brad Morgan, the beautiful picture book entitled ‘Reflections on Padding in South Africa’, edited by Marc Cloete (who also worked on the Paddler Magazines) and the ‘Umko 50 Years’ book. Ian Players ‘Men, Rivers and Canoes’ is real eye opener of what life was like for the proper paddling pioneers while Piers’ book entitled ‘Confluence’ which was made into the movie ‘Beyond the River’ tells a new South Africa story.

Coffee Table Books

Now I am considering printing a copy or two of my tales for myself. And if you have come this far in reading all of this, and would you want one?

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