10. Marathon and Surfski Days

Back to 2020. Dee and I made a holiday of the Surfski and Marathon events at St Francis Bay by going via the farm, and then East London where we picked Jordi up and then went on to Kenton where we stayed with Val and Jim (we respect the boss) Davies who spoilt us rotten at their lovely home with the most beautiful views, over the Bushmans River and the sea. On our last day there I paddled out the Bushman’s mouth with Lloyd Hanson at low tide, hit rocks and broke my rudder housing. I soon realised I couldn’t steer and was taking water, so I went back in while Lloyd raced off to Boknesstrand. Fortunately for me, the day before we had visited an old paddling friend, Mark Jamieson (once the Canoe Sport guy) who now makes fine fishing boats in Kenton and he got his boat builders to fix my ski. If you are ever in the market for a quality boat, look him up.

Gale force winds and scary storm conditions welcomed us to St Francis. The sea dogs were all excited, I was terrified, and some of the Transvaal Navy withdrew from the race. At the last minute the organisers scrapped the planned ocean leg and sent us up the Krom River, with a tiny bit of surf paddling on the way home that resulted in some swimming. With that my first SA Surfski Champs was not really Surfski as we didn’t go to sea; many complained, but it was the right decision. The next day was Marathon K1’s on an almost breathless day where I had a leisurely paddle around the beautiful canals with Anton Fouche. Tony Lightfoot had the honour of being the oldest competitor and came in last.

The surfski race that wasn’t a sea race and the marathon that was really a race either – at least not for me

While we remained in lockdown but had the opportunity to get out and paddle river races (running and cycling events remained virtual or cancelled) we went to what we could, which included Tim and I joining Boet O’Connor to go paddle the Lowveld Croc.

I broke my paddle 6km into the race and then did lots of swimming but was very lucky to be lent a spare one at 9km after which I then had a clean run; this was a stern reminder that on rivers like the Croc, carrying a spare paddle is a good idea. Tim was in an old boat of mine and the pedals sheared off at 2km, so he had no steering until he got them wired up at the 10km weir; had he had wire or a tie-down with him he would have been able to fix much earlier, so he saw the importance of a good repair kit. He was the last man home, paddling most of the race alone, but he finished where others didn’t and was happy. I was proud that he didn’t bail. Sadly, many don’t support this race as they believe it to be too technical, the other and better reason being a very sensible fear of Hippos. We had to do a portage to avoid them (which made Boet very grumpy as he (understandably) hates portaging) and as much as I love the river and the Lowveld guys who put on the event, and as much as I hate to say this; I believe it’s only a matter of time before we have an incident; although I will most likely go back there. I know Boet will.

Me entering – Boet and Tim at the first weir
Lowveld Canoe Marathon
Lowveld Canoe Marathon

While at the Croc I got to meet a young Olivia Woodburn (who won the lady’s race) and her dad Mike shared some stories and footage of Perrow showing her the different lines on 5 & 6 on the Umkomaas. This is her driving with Mark in the back, when she was just 14 – like I said to her then she was a lucky girl to learn from one of Umko’s very best. The Woodburn’s live and farm at Josephine’s Bridge so she grew up with the Umko in her back garden and spent much time on the river with her father and Mark. For fun Olivia paddles upstream from the Bridge to Devils Toilet and then bombs back down the river, or simply surfs the last rapid below the Bridge in a Vantage. Watch out for her name in river paddling.

Back home Tim had an old school mate, Justin Suzor who wanted to get into canoeing and given that our little sport needs as many newbies as we can get, I was very happy when Tim suggested that they do the Liebensbergs Vlei race together. This however meant that we had to get Justin ‘river proficient’ and they had to go and paddle the Klip River with our official Safety Officer, Grant Thiel. Not having seen the Klip in over 20 years I went along for fun and we were joined by a local who lives on the riverbanks, Uwe Scmidthaus and his son Kelby. As Grant likes to say, “A trip on a river is better than a day on a dam.” 

Out on the river we soon saw that we were not the only trippers or novices looking for river proficiencies. Here I have to commend the amount of work that Jennie Dallas and Bertie Baardt not only in their PR and media coverage of the various races but also for getting ‘newbies’ out onto our rivers and ‘proficient’.

A Full Klip River
Tim and Justin with terrible timing – showing how not to do it. A K3 having fun. Me, Kelby, Uwe, Grant, Justin, Tim

While the Fish Marathon was cancelled due to the lockdown, the Liebensbergs took place in late November as a one-day race. Not realising how competitive he was, I paddled or rather raced with Graham Neate and we came 4th in the doubles ahead of some of the ‘flat water bullies’ who typically beat us at every time trial. Tim was with Justin plus he also imported 3 of his UCT paddling mates; Mike Barry, Matt Barry and Mike Lavarack who all had a great time out on the river, and then enjoyed the party at Skip Skop even more, as did we. The Dabulamanzi organisers had changed protocol, instead of serving up the entry fee purse to the victors, they put it all into the party for everyone. To my mind more race organisers need to think about also ‘incentivising’ ordinary participants, not just the winners.

The Skip Skop is now a household name for most Dabulamanzi paddlers. Firstly because it is a fine and perfectly located watering hole where many have had a great party, secondly because at one such party, Ryan Rodda became a father there, and thirdly because it became the first ‘away gig’ for the Dabblers; Dabulamanzi’s very own band. Led by Mark Garden on the drums, with Peter (Puppy) Flemmer, Schalk Mouton and Nic Oldert on guitars, and at times with Holly Spencer singing, they would go on to entertain us at birthday bashes at the club and even bigger away races.

In 2020 just 3 guys and 1 girl lined up for the Ten in One. We all knew there would only be one winner, but we didn’t know what his time would be. In 2019 Peter (Puppy) Flemmer stopped the clock at 11minutes 41seconds, breaking Brian Longley’s long-standing record of 12 minutes. Then in 2020, we didn’t have to wait long at all, as the Puppy downed his 10 beers in just 6minutes 15 seconds leaving us all dumbstruck. Abbi Bohnsack, the teenage daughter of Sonja (Son Skyn) wrote her name into club history when she became the first lady finisher. Such is the nonsense of Dabulamanzi’s Fish ‘n Chips people. Fantastic stuff!

In mid-December Dee and I flew to Cape Town for Jordi’s Red & Yellow graduation, her UCT one having been cancelled due to lockdown. Tim was there and joined us, only to discover he was COVID positive. With that we couldn’t stay where we were, nor could we fly home, so we had to leave both Tim and Jordi in quarantine, organize a car and drive back to Jo’burg, and for a while it looked like we might not get to go on holiday, but eventually Dee, Jordi and I tested negative. Fortunately, we had booked to go back to Cefani for Christmas which as it turned out was a brilliant place to be given the incomprehensible lockdown rules, which included the closure of beaches in the Eastern Cape, but not KwaZulu Natal. I say fortunately, because although Cefani is in the Eastern Cape, it’s a tiny resort, and the owners, the Cairns family simply removed a cattle grid and put a lock on the gate – with that we happily disregarded the beach ruling and enjoyed holiday life at the sea as we had done in every previous year.

January 2021 saw the arrival of good rains. In late 2020 the Vaal Dam was at just 30%, Inanda was 72% and Gariep was 76% but by mid-February all were over 100% full; great news for paddlers wanting to enjoy rivers and so I started tripping to get some river readiness for the up-coming Dusi, which I entered despite the cynics believing that it like Comrades and Argus would be cancelled due to Corona concerns. First, I joined Giles Walkey and Chris Englebrecht to paddle on a full and fast flowing Vaal River from Goose Bay Canyon to just above Parys. The river was running at 700 cumecs and we thought that all the rapids would be flattened out but there were still 2 or 3 very testing spots. Without pushing hard, we did 25km in 1hour 45 minutes – very fast by our standards, simply due to the water flow.  

Fiull Vaal River

The next weekend, while the real men went off to do the Hop-Non-Stop on the Umkomaas to celebrate Mark Perrow’s life and plant a memorial tree for him in the valley, I joined John Barrow, Mick Joyce and Kevin Middleton to trip the Liebensbergs on a Friday afternoon and then again on the Saturday morning. This river was also full, but the flow was not nearly as strong as the Vaal was and although I worked way harder on both days than at the Vaal, the same sort of distance took about 20 minutes longer – but there was some swimming to boot.

Liebensbergvlei River

Then more rain came, and the rivers got fuller still, including the Klip. Regarded and treated as a great river for novices, several appeared for the two-day race. Work got in the way of fun, so I only paddled on the Sunday, but the river was then even higher so not really knowing it well I followed local Uwe Scmidthaus until he ran away from Peter Geach and I at a portage, but then we were very grateful to follow local river dogs Daryn Koertzen and John Greef who knew where they were going; the right lines making all the difference between great fun and disappointment. Thanks guys. However, it was clear that we still underestimate how dangerous a river becomes when in flood. Despite great organising and marshalling by the hosts JCC, several boats were lost, and we were all thankful that nothing worse happened to any of the paddlers. As Richard Tandy from Ekurhuleni Kayak Club likes to say, “A river is like a test with 1000 questions, but if you get one properly wrong you fail.”

There was much excitement around Dusi – it was to be the first major river race that organizers would or could host after almost a year of lockdown (the Drak organisers having pulled the plug a month earlier on their multi-sport weekend) plus it looked like we were going to have big water conditions. Dusi 2021 was a red-letter year for me in that it was the first time I ever took a brand-new boat to the race; and it was the first new boat I had bought since 1984. I travelled down with Giles and we were looking forward to having brunch at the Green Lantern when we heard that there had been an accident on Van Reenen’s Pass. The road was backed up well before the Green Lantern, so we did a u-turn and headed back to Harrismith. Giles then decided he wanted to go over Geluk Pass, something apparently far more scenic than the Bergville detour route, but we never got that far as he lost traction in some mud on the way there and slewed across the road into a ditch. We were very lucky that the bakkie didn’t roll (Giles has done that before at a Liebensbergs race) and that a local farmer soon rescued us.

After much hype about having lots of water, the river levels for both day 1 and 2 were only a medium to low level, but quite forgiving in a K1. I paddled the first hour of day 1 with Giles, but he wasn’t strong, so I left him to do my own race. He hurt his back and had to do the 15km of portaging dragging his boat both up and down hills, not easy at all, but he was on a mission to get to 20 Dusi’s – nothing was going to stop him. On day 3 the officials organised a 30cumec release from Inanda Dam and this made for a fantastic trip into Durban. The infamous Burma Portage had been banned for security reasons and I believe this would have shown many who would have otherwise slogged over the mountain what a lot of fun there is to be had between Little John and Five Fingers. I was very pleased to have my nice new boat and even more happy to take it home still looking new. More pleased was Giles who despite his ailments made it to Durban and claimed his 20th finish. Notably, I paddled the last 5km’s with Nic Warren who had a big “Going For 10” sticker on his boat so all the guys around us were full of congratulations but the commentators didn’t mention this when we finished, nor did they mention that Giles had got to 20; to my mind they are still missing a trick in not better recognising faithful Dusi Rats.

Dusi
Dusi Marathon
Dusi Canoe Marathon 2021

2021 marked 20 Dusi’s in a K1 for me. I had failed at my first attempt in 1985, stayed away till 1991, then done 20 Dusi’s in a row (including 4 in a K2 with Neil), then stayed away for another 5 years, then returned to try again, and I am now at 36 years with 26 starts and 24 finishes – yes I am counting; and wondering how I will ever make it to 30 for a Super Dusi Rat badge.

Talking Dusi Rats, we stayed with Snowy and Debs Doig; between the 4 of us we then had 95 finishes. The heroes of the race were Andy Birkett who claimed his 11th win in 12 years after yet another battle with Hank Mc Gregor, and Christie Mackenzie who secured her 2nd Dusi K1 title in 3 years coming 40th overall – we then tried to claim her as ‘ours’ as she was training at Emmarentia with Dabulamanzi guys. Rats who were recognised included Hugh Raw who at 80years became Dusi’s oldest finisher while Lyle Wheeler became the first person to complete 50 Dusi’s (in a straight 50 years) a fantastic achievement; although had the Pope not passed, he surely would have had competition. My heroes were the race organizers and the new title sponsors, My Life, for making the Dusi happen in such strange times.

Dusi People
Lyle Wheeler completes 50th Dusi

Umkomaas 2021 was to have been a big water year, but day 1 was medium to low – and then the race organizers deemed day 2 to be too big. Tim had moved back to Cape Town to surf and study his Masters, but the lure of the Umko was too much and just days before the race he entered with an old varsity friend Jonathan Adams, neither having done any training. Day 1 (with the new start at Nyala Pans some 11km above Josephines Bridge) was 45km, so they blew at the 25km mark but were happy to get home in a fairly good time of 3hours 50. Then the river spiked overnight to rise to 2.3meters and the organisers decided that the section from Mbanjwa’s Kraal involving the Approaches and No’s 1 – 8 would be too dangerous. Unlike in 2005 where they gave paddlers the option to start lower down, here they changed the day to be just 11km, from Nyala Pans to Josephines Bridge. Many were upset, they had spent good money to get there and when the big water they dreamed of arrived, they couldn’t enjoy it. A handful of paddlers including Jim Davies with Jason Callister were ‘naughty’ and did go test themselves in the top section, (and then continued paddling on into the shortened race section below this) but the majority did as the organisers said. Tim and Jono did the stretch in 42minutes, the fastest they have ever been over 11km, so clearly the river was heaving. There would no doubt have been lost boats and perhaps worse had this top section been raced (as it was Jen and Jacques Theron had a scary swim when they set off with the ‘naughties’), so I guess the organizers decision was the sensible one, but there would surely be a post-mortem over the ruling, and we await the way forward.

Umkomaas Canoe Marathon

One day I might go back to Umko – perhaps as a father son combo with Tim now that he has done a couple, but then again perhaps not. Puc went back (and paddled with Nic Warren) after not having paddled a river for over a decade, so who knows. Talking family paddling, Michael and Liam Stewart had a great race to finish 6th, Jacques and Jen Theron were 13th while Colin and Joshua Simpkins were 14th. The first ladies’ home were Oliva Woodburn and Hillary Bruss in 29th place.

Fastest on day 2 were a trio from Dabulamanzi. Michael Arthur, Riccardo Talevi and Grant Ahlschlager finished in a time of just 28minutes and 54 seconds – some 28 seconds faster than Hank Mc Gregor and Wayne Jacobs, which meant that they were actually the fastest boat over the 2 days and the first K3 to ever win the Umkomaas Challenge. At least that is what I thought until I read the rules which clearly state that K3’s are permitted but are not considered to be a Racing Class and are therefore not eligible for prizes. Hank and Wayne had notched up another Umko win closely followed by Clint Cook and Brandon van der Walt (who literally grew up at Emmarentia) meaning that 6 of the first 7 paddlers home were from our fine little dam – go Dabs!

Kudos to Hank who is now level with Robbie Herreveld on 9 Umkomaas wins (2009 – 2021) to go alongside his 11 Gold medals from the ICF Marathon World Championships (2003 – 2018), 11 Berg wins (2000 – 2016), 8 Cape Point Challenge wins (2008 – 2018), 7 Fish wins (2006 – 2016), 3 Molokai Challenge wins (2009 – 2016), 3 Dusi wins (2005 – 2018), 3 Drak Challenge wins (2010 – 2012), a PE-EL win in 2008, the SA K1 title at Orange Descent 2020 and who knows what else or what next, nor how many Bronze and Silver podiums. As I have previously said he truly is the GOAT on the flats in rivers and on the sea, but I still think that a 10th win at the Umkomaas will be one of his best crowns, because the Umko is a race in a league of its own. Age isn’t hindering him, he just keeps winning (or narrowly coming second), so it’s only a matter of time.

Hank McGregor Winning Ways

For the Easter weekend Dee and I went down to the farm to see Di and Nev and given the recent rains, I thought it would be good to do the Bridge-to-Bridge trip on the Kraai River again. In the end the river was lower and the trip slower than expected; the 39km took me 3hours 50, but it was a beautiful morning. While out I saw otters, likkewan, cormorant, sheep, cows and just one person. While there, we also spent a morning looking at San rock art with Dee’s cousin, Alan Isted after which we devoured world class pizzas made by his fine wife, Jules Hirner at Bidstone. It’s in the middle of nowhere, but if you like getting away from your everyday ordinary, then look them up, and go on one of their Bidstone Slack Packing Tours.

A week later Dee and I flew to Durban for the Fenn SA Surf Ski Championships. Saturday was to be an S1 race from DUC to Amanzimtoti and Sunday was an S2 race to Umdloti that I was to do with Washy. Where the last surfski race that I had been to (in Cape St Francis) hadn’t really happened in that we didn’t go out to sea due to gale force winds, Durban delivered fairly benign conditions – perfect I thought for me. Unfortunately, Dee had multiple seizures on the Saturday morning, so I never did get to paddle the S1 race. It seems that I am not supposed to do one just yet. Anyway, Dee was kept in ICU overnight so with no visitors allowed and Johnny waiting to pick her up I went to do the doubles race on the Sunday. We had a light south westerly behind us and caught a few good runs, so it was a good morning to be out, then Dee was let out of hospital and it all ended well. The joke was it was my first ever doubles race at sea and we made the podium for our age group. When I first started paddling it was an achievement simply to get to the end of a race. Now that they recognise the different age groups, and because there are so few people paddling in our elderly class, my chances of ‘achieving’ have increased considerably, but that’s not why I paddle. 

On the other-hand, people like Hank McGregor paddle to win. After coming 2nd at Dusi and winning at Umkomaas Hank then won both the SA Surfski Champion titles, first in singles and then in doubles with Josh Fenn. Incredible, but that’s enough about him. Actually, I think that’s enough about all of this so it’s about time to wrap up my tales, but first I have to share a story or two on marathon champs, the Olympics and the dreaded Berg River Canoe marathon; that I had always said I would never do.

Having combined quite well at Liebensbergs and in a surfski, Washy asked me to do marathon champs with him at Zandvlei in Cape Town. Actually, I think he was just looking for company for the drive to Cape Town as he was towing the boat trailer; but both Dee and I like the idea of going to Cape Town to See Tim and Jords, so Dee flew down and I rode shotgun for Washy.

Sadly, not many people support marathon champs anymore, at least it’s mostly the racing snakes who attend, in the hope of making the national team and getting to race overseas. So, looking at the small field, Washy and I always knew we would have little company out on the water and would be well towards the back. Missing the start of the K1 race by a minute didn’t help me, so I paddled the first lap of the Vlei (about 3kilometres) on my own before I was caught by an older age group who pulled me up towards the back-markers in my group and Washy, then he and I paddled together to bring our age group home. We weren’t much better in the double’s category, but it was a very enjoyable paddling and family weekend. At about the same time I started thinking that I really should attempt to do a Berg, perhaps because the Cape paddlers were very fond of saying ‘You are not a real paddler if you haven’t done the Berg’. So, I carried on training into winter with the Berg in mind although (as with the Dusi) many of the cynics didn’t think it would happen due to the threats of increased lock-down regulations.

Family tragedy then hit us. In mid-June, 30years to the day after Di lost Rocky, Neville suffered a cerebella stroke at Kenmure. The local doctors arrived from town and an ambulance took Nev to ICU in Bloemfontein, but Di wasn’t able to go with as COVID regulations forbade visitors. With this, Dee then drove down to farm to be with her mom. Nev never recovered; 10 days later the doctors allowed Di and Dee to say goodbye and he slipped away. COVID levels had got worse and lockdown was increased to Level 4, meaning we ended up having just family from the district at the service, but being small and intimate, it really was a lovely afternoon as we remembered and celebrated the life of Neville Cretchley. All who spoke recognised his love for biltong washed down with beer whilst watching rugby or cricket, his love for a braai or sharing a meal and a drink with family and friends and his love for Di.

A week later Dee got a bad swollen rash, so the local doctors filled her up with cortisone and anti-inflammatory’s, which didn’t appear to help. I never thought it was overly serious, and having spent two weeks at the farm, I was keen to get back to my life – and to continue training for the Berg which due to the new lockdown had been moved out to August. Dee, Josh Green and I drove to Bloemfontein to take me back to my car that I had left there when Nev passed, to collect supplies for the farm and to pick up Jords who had flown in from Cape Town and then Jords drove them back to Kenmure to spend more time with Di, while I went home to Jo’burg.

One day later, Dee suffered a seizure, fell and bashed her head. Jordi and Josh Green took her to the local doctors who stitched her up, called for an ambulance and hospitalisation in Bloemfontein. Dee spent 3 nights in ICU while she was stabilised. She had fractured her skull in the fall, but and there was no need, or no way to fix the ‘crack’ and the scans all came back positive, so they then moved her into a general ward for another 2 days of observation before she was released. The cortisone and anti-inflammatories had not mixed well with her epilepsy meds and bought on the seizures, but we were told that all was now normal, and Dee should be fine. Jords drove through from the farm, I flew to Bloem, and we drove Dee home on the Friday, against her will because she really wanted to be with her mom, but Di and I agreed she needed to be back in Jo’burg. All was fine until the Monday morning, when we woke up to find Dee had had silent seizures and had ‘brain fog’ – she literally didn’t know where she was or what she was doing, and although Jords and I tried to put her to bed to rest she wouldn’t and roamed the house like zombie; it was scary, so we took her to the Emergency Room at Sandton Clinic, where she stayed for a few more nights of observation while her med-levels came properly back into balance.

While all this was happening Jake was in Japan, acclimatising for the heat of the Olympic Games in Tokyo after 5 years of high-altitude training in Pretoria and Lesotho. Jake was in a pair with Luc Daffarn, and they were there as ‘outside threats’ much like Jake had been when they went to Rio, while South Africa had also qualified a four which included the 2012 London gold medalist John Smith, 2016 silver medalist Lawrence Brittain, Kyle Schoonbee and Sandro Torrente; whom many saw as certain medalists. Watching the rowing live on TV at home was tough – it meant waking up at 2AM. But it was way tougher for our boys. Jake and Luc struggled to advance in their heat where they finished last and then they struggled again in their repechage race, while our four only managed to make the B final. On paper they should all have been A finalists, but they had all over-cooked themselves. Jake was devastated – but not defeated and promised to come back stronger. He now has his sights firmly set on the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

Meantime, lockdown was reduced from level 4 to level 3, travel outside of Gauteng was allowed again, and the Berg River Marathon was back on. Dee and I had been planning a road trip together, but with her recent spate of seizures she wouldn’t be able to drive and decided against coming on the journey. I was taking a trailer with a dozen boats to help defray expenses and then offered to give Siseko Ntondini a lift to the race (who had been intending to catch a bus and camp), not realising that I would end up half sponsoring him for the week away; the likes of EuroSteel, AdReach, FirstRand and Chris Erwee being his primary benefactors, as Siseko I then learnt doesn’t have work or an income. My plan was to paddle with Hardi Wilkins whom I had been training with (we had done many miles on the Vaal river and around various dams to be ready for the 4 long days), but again I didn’t know what I was in for, as at the last minute the organisers said he wasn’t qualified to do the race; but he flew to Cape Town bringing with him Loveday Zondi (a former Dusi hero) to drive and second for us. 

Hardi it turned out, had done a couple of river races in a K2, but none in a K1, so quite how the system allowed him to enter I didn’t know, but I was incensed, he had done many months and miles of training and spent good money on travel and accommodation, and he had entered way back in February, then the night before the race he was told he shouldn’t be entered or paddling. He was amped to go, he was Hardi, a hard man and ‘Mad-Swimmer’ who had exposed himself to glacial waters around the world from Mt Kenya to the Bering Strait; so what could go wrong? In the end I sent the organisers an email saying I was the club’s temporary safety officer, I had trained with him, that he was fit and competent, and that I would paddle the race with him. With that he was then allowed to paddle, but they put him in batch C and me in batch D, so I then had to ask them to put us together in his batch.

Day one’s weather was almost warm. Hardi and I sat on the tale of locals and all went well for the first 28km; but then Hardi had his first swim. After that he had another 5 swims in the most innocuous of places and I began to understand that he wasn’t as proficient as I had thought. Anyway, we finished the 52km day in 5hours 9 and I was happy, I hadn’t worked too hard and had had several rests along the way while waiting for Hardi. That night I watched the men’s Olympic K2 1000m sprint where there was an incredible performance by an ex Saffa and a Green from Australia, a nation who put serious money behind their paddlers.

Day two, a 56km stage, is renowned for its tree blocks. Hardi had 4 swims before we got to the notorious train bridge section and just after thinking it was going to be a long day, but I was good, I took a swim and lost my paddle in the palmiet. As I emptied my boat and wondered where I would find another paddle, I heard much cursing and swearing just down from me. Hardi had also swum and wrapped his boat, we couldn’t get it out, so his race was over. With that I borrowed his paddle (thanks Hardi) and got to the end in 5hours 46. Hardi got a lift to the finish and his mate from Paarl, Prieur (Buks) van der Merwe, organised a boat for him to trip the rest of the race, so Loveday drove to Paarl and back to get Hardi a ‘new’ boat.

Day three is the long one, 75kilometres long. As the slow batch we started first in dark thick mist at 07h30, paddled across Misverstand Dam and then the race leaders caught us just as we started the portage. Hardi wasn’t feeling well and bailed there, as had Moolies. Five minutes later, slower racing snakes came through when we were in the trees below the dam and someone knocked me out my boat. Chop. I was then frozen cold as the sun still hadn’t come out plus I had lost my ‘bunch’. An hour later I pulled over, took out a dry-bag and put on a dry Helly Hansen and booties, slowly warmed up, rediscovered my mojo and eventually got home, in 7hours 36. That night the Springboks were playing the British and Irish Lions, but I was too tired to join Hardi, Buks, Loveday and Siseko for the game where they were staying at Misverstand, so I went back to my place in Moreesburg and watched the Boks win, while lying in bed, without any beer, because of the silly lockdown rules that forbade the sale of alcohol.

Day four, a 57km stage, also started in the dark and the mist at 07h30. I got on last but was soon at the front of the bunch with an attractive import from Denmark, Susan Lutzner who was doing her first, and local legends Ralph (Tulips) Teulings along with Mark Torrington who between them now have 66 Berg’s. Tulips and I were feeling strong, so we dropped Mark and when the South Easter set in, we dropped Susan. As the headwind got stronger, so the waves got bigger; then there were literally white horses rolling towards us. It was insane. We needed splash covers more on that day than for any of the (few) rapids or weirs in the 3 previous days and I was soaked, so I again changed my kit when we got to a portage with about 10kms to go. I was literally shivering, and very grateful when Loveday put his beanie on my pip at that portage. Tulips and I finished in the rain, paddling against the wind and incoming tide – it wasn’t fun or easy but it was great sharing some banter and tales of our old days. When a mate of mine (Snowy) saw the finish pic he chirped on social media: “If you can’t be a legend, be like Clive and make sure you pose with one.”

Berg River Canoe Marathon 2021
With Ralph Teulips Berg Legend

The heroes of the race were the Birkett’s; Andy and Nix, who won the race. Andy had yet another titanic battle with Hank McGregor to claim the win while Nix somehow did a whole extra 6km in that awful weather and wind, so she passed Ralph and I twice. Another hero was Giel van Deventer who completed his 50th Berg. At the age of 71 he considers this to be his annual check up as doing the Berg tells him his body is still OK. Then there was a proper hero, the teenager Luke Swinney, who saved Siseko’s life, early on the last day.

Siseko had wanted a top 10 but was lying in 15th place on day 4 when he didn’t feel well, moved to back of his bunch, then blacked out and fell, unconscious, into the water. Luke Swinney, a lifesaver with East London Surf was in the following group and when he saw Siseko floating face down, he dived out of his boat to save Siseko and pushed him on to the nose of fellow paddler Jermaine Pietersen’s kayak. With the help of others (Christian Callebaut, Gert van Deventer, and Nicky de Villiers) they managed to stabilise Siseko, get him breathing again and took him to the bank, while another paddler, Bryden Armstrong had a cell phone and was able alert the race medics. Neurosurgeon Crispin Thompson also stopped to help.

The Medics then took Siseko to the Berg River Station where ambulance personnel were waiting to take him to Velddrif for observation. Rob Hart, the WCCU chairperson who saw the whole rescue happen said “It was remarkable to see how Swinney went in to get Ntondini and then every single paddler in that group grasped that this was a potential drowning and did what they could to help. Every single one of them is hero.”

Berg River Canoe Marathon 2021
Loveday, me and Siseko in Paarl. Siseko on Day1 and 3.

It was only while driving back the following day when Siseko actually grasped the magnitude of what had happened, how fortunate he was to be alive and how serious his condition is, particularly as a would-be professional paddler. We called the likes of Luke and Crispin to thank them and get their side of the story as Siseko, like Dee after her episodes, remembered nothing of the event itself. He also had a few calls from East London and Cape Town reporters who wanted to share his story. When I told them that he was of ‘Beyond the River’ fame, they didn’t know what I was talking about, so I suggested they should watch more local content and get some real context as to Siseko’s story. On that trip I learnt more about how much Brad Fisher cares and does for his SCARC paddlers and I learnt more about those who I call the ‘have nots;’ people like Siseko who didn’t arrive into the world with the privileges that I did but still want to pursue paddling, yet I was confused about how having the security of a job was not important to him, and so I resigned myself to accept our differences.

Berg was never on my ‘must do’ list, indeed I had always said I would never do it; and who knows, if fate hadn’t intervened (and had I had the money), I might have been at the Sella Descent which was on that same weekend, but Mark was gone, such is life. Anyways, I can now tick the Berg off; and according to the Capies, I can now claim to be “a real paddler” but best of all, I now know I don’t need to, nor want to go back. As Charlie Mason of 53 Umko’s finishes fame said, “Anyone who does more than 1 Berg is certifiable”, and I agree with him; although I must say I did spend a lot of time with many certifiable yet good people while there. In truth there are river races like the Drak Challenge and surfski races like Pete Marlin that I still haven’t done, and really do want to do because they offer far more fun and excitement, along with the prospect of far more affordable entry fees and travel costs, warm weather and far less training pain; and so, to the Capies I say, if you haven’t been to the Dusi, Umko, Ithala, Lowveld Croc, or even the Vaal; you need to get out and see some more rivers.

If all goes well, I hope to get to Cradock for another Fish and then East London for my first S1 ocean race, but I won’t be racing, I will simply be there for the experience of it all, to get out and about, to feel alive, to earn another cooldrink. Big on my bucket list is to do what the Mocke brothers call the 5 Capes Trip: Cape Recife, Cape St. Francis, Cape Seal (Robberg Peninsula), Cape Agulhas and Cape Point, plus to go back to the Pungwe and the Zambesi. More road trips and adventures await, meaning more stories to share, but I think it’s time to wrap up my tales for now…

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