A gathering of a flock of du Plessis is always a very special occasion. Not an orderly occasion. Not a quiet occasion. Just very special. Mignon, Jean-Prieur and Jacques-Herman celebrated their Mom Mona’s wonderful ninety years of Mom, Music and Magic at a wonderful venue outside Harrismith – where I forgot to take any pictures! If anyone has any, please share a few – especially one of that magnificent pub of Rob’s! – but also of the people, of course!
People poured out of the woodwork from far and wide. Austin, Texas; Vancouver, Canada – even Marquard, Free State!
We almost didn’t get there:
. . but we did.
Later we found out we – me, sister Sheila and old Harrismith friend Zelda Grobbelaar – were stuck there – the Ford needed big repairs – so Bess put us up in her lovely home:
When we didn’t show up at the du Plessis gathering that evening, I texted them:
My car got locked up in a ballet studio among the tutus.
– that part was true, check it out:
. . and I got plied with strong liquor by three gorgeous chicks and clean forgot about any other friends I might have.
Oh, that part was partly true as well.
Thank goodness the Ford went vrot. It was diagnosed with terminal head gasket, whatever that means. I thought it was premature after only 300 000kms, but the upside was this meant we got an extra twenty four hours in the dorp the metropolis. We visited all and sundry, had supper with Bess; had breakfast and bought rusks at Something Lekker owned by a local lass; and then we lunched with the du Plessis clan while they ran around organising that Mona be laid to rest next to her husband and their Dad Pollie, who has been waiting patiently in the Harrismith cemetery for Mona to join him for decades. Patiently? Maybe.
I can just hear Oom Pollie. After he’d got over his joy he would comment on the very smart coffin, worried about the price. He’d relax when he heard it was made by Oom Jan, gratis and for niet. Then he’d harumph that it took Mona joining him for the grass to be mowed round his grave. Then he’d sing Hello Dolly!
To get back to KwaZulu Natal, we hired a brand new Toyota Corolla at Harrismith Avis – of course our dorp has an Avis! Not only that, look at this: They’re the reigning champions!
We visited Georgie Russell; and Mariette Mandy at The Harrismith Chronicle where she had already written about the gathering for her wonderful hundred-and-plenty-year-old local newspaper. I’ll post that when I get it. I’ll also link to any other reports of the day I can find. And add pictures.
. . . after a suitably polite interval I think Oom Pollie would also murmur hopefully, ‘Did you bring any cigarettes?’
Late Monday afternoon, after we’d left, the family carried out Mona’s wishes
Driving home in a brand new car where all the knobs work was a novel experience – and hey! it had six forward gears! That brought back memories of another Toyota thirty two years earlier . .
Two weeks later I was joined by good friend Allister Peter to drive back to the dorp in the rental to go and fetch my Ford Ranger from Riaan who had fixed it up like new! We bumped into John Venning at the coffee shop – and it turns out these two old bullets are fishing n drinking chinas from way back – apparently there’s a thing called The Grunter Hunt down in the Eastern Cape and they have indulged.
It was advice from my chairman and as a new, fairly young member, I trusted him implicitly. You add sherry to your beer, said Allie Peter with a knowing nod. When we got to the bottle store in Cradock he spotted me at the till with a dozen Black Labels and a bottle of Old Brown Sherry.
‘No, Swanie,’ he came with more advice, ‘Get Ship Sherry. You can get TWO bottles for the price of one Old Brown.’ As a new, fairly young member, I trusted my chairman of the Kingfisher Canoe Club implicitly, so I dutifully swopped my bottle for two Ship Sherries. This decision was going to reverberate . .
At Gattie’s townhouse (that’s Malcolm Phillips Esq. to you) we stood around with cans of beer in our hands, topping them up with sherry every so often. It worked a treat and was a marvelous idea. I could see my chairman had been around and knew a thing or two. The mix seemed to enhance my paddling knowledge and experience vastly.
Much later that night I was busy expounding on some finer point of competitive paddling – probably on how one could win the race the next day – when I realised in mid-sentence, with my one finger held high to emphasise that important point I was making, that I was completely alone in Gattie’s lounge. Everyone had buggered off to bed and I had no-one to drink with. I looked around and found a corner, downed the rest of my berry mix and lay down to sleep. It was carpeted, I think.
Later I remember through a slight haze seeing Gattie asking if his prize bull was being slaughtered, but when he saw it was only me kneeling and hugging the porcelain bowl, he said ‘Oh’ and went back to bed. The porcelain bowl had amplified my sounds of slight distress like a large white telephone, waking him up in his bedroom far down the other end of the house.
It must have been a good clearing out as I felt fine when we left for the Grassridge Dam and the start of the marathon in Bruce Gillmer’s kombi a few hours later. Dave and Michelle were there and I spose some other hooligan paddlers and I’m sure my boat was on the roofrack. After a few km’s there was an ominous rumble and I knew I had a little lower intestinal challenge; which would have been fine – and some fun – if there hadn’t been a lady – and a real lady she is, too – in the bus.
I had to warn them. It was soon after a famous nuclear disaster, so I announced ‘We need to stop the bus or there will be a Chernobyl-like disaster on board.’ Bruce was a bit slow to respond, so it was only when the waft hit his own personal nostrils that he pulled over smartly and let me release the rest of the vapour at the roadside. Ah, that was better. With the pressure off I was fine again. I did notice I wasn’t talking so much about winning the race though.
The grumbling re-occurred on the dam, making that start the roughest I have ever endured. The wind and the waves on Grassridge Dam were worse than any rapids I have ever paddled. I was very glad to carry my boat down to the Fish River – leaving the dam stone last, I’m sure.
The river was plain sailing and the rest of the day a pleasure.
That night I sipped daintily at plain beer. I was beginning the long slow process of learning to think carefully when considering advice freely given by sundry Chairmen of Kingfisher Canoe Club.
My dates don’t tally. I thought I did the 1983 Fish, but Chernobyl was in 1986. I must have done the 1986 Fish. All I know is, the rinderpest was still a thing . .
The first race in 1982 attracted 77 paddlers in 52 boats. 37 boats finished the race, as the thick willows and many fences on the upper stretches of the river took their toll. It was won by Sunley Uys from Chris Greeff, the first person to shoot Cradock weir in the race.
In those days, the race was held on a much lower river, 13 cumecs (roughly half of the current level!) and it started with a very long – over 50km – first day. The paddlers left the Grassridge Dam wall and paddled back around the island on the dam before hitting the river, eventually finishing at the Baroda weir, 2,5km below the current overnight stop. The paddlers all camped at Baroda overnight, before racing the shorter 33km second stage into Cradock.
Stanford Slabbert says of the first race “In those days the paddlers had to lift the fences – yussis! remember the fences! – and the river mats (fences weighed down by reeds and flotsam and jetsam) took out quite a few paddlers. Getting under (or over) them was quite an art”.
“I recall one double crew”, says Slabbert. “The front paddler bent forward to get under the fence and flicked the fence hoping to get it over his partners head as well. It didn’t. The fence caught his hair and pulled him right out of the boat and they swam!”
Legends were already being born. Herve ‘Caveman’ de Rauville stunned spectators by pioneering a way to shoot Marlow weir. He managed to reverse his boat into the chute on the extreme left, and took the massive slide back into the river going forward, and made it!
The field doubled in 1983, as the word of this great race spread. 145 paddlers in 110 boats. It was won on debut by Joburg paddler Niels Verkerk, who recalls, ‘It was a very long first day, especially as the river was not as full as it is now (it was running at 17 cumecs in 1983). Less than half the guys shot Keiths, which was not that bad as the hole at the bottom wasn’t that big.’
At a medium level, the lines at Soutpansdrift were also different. The weir above Soutpans was always a problem, as there was no chute, no pipes. At the bottom of the rapid, the only line was extreme left, underneath the willow tree – yussis! remember the low-hanging willow trees! – and then a sharp turn at the bottom to avoid hitting the rocks, where the spectators gather like vultures.
That’s what Jacques de Rauville told my business partner when he heard I was going to do the 1983 Berg River Canoe Marathon. He had come across me one evening on the Bay and I’d asked which way to go, it being my first time out there and the lights and the reflections were confusing. “Follow me” said Jacques, and off he went, but within 50m I was 49m behind him. He waited and told me “Left at the third green buoy” or whatever he said. When he passed me again on his way back and I obviously hadn’t made enough headway, he thought whatever he thought that made him tell his optometrist Mike Lello “tell him not to attempt the Berg.”
Jacques was right, but luckily for me Chris Logan got hold of me and took me for a marathon training session on the ‘Toti lagoon one day which got my mind around sitting on a hard seat for hours on end, numbing both my bum and my mind. Chris was a great taskmaster. We stopped only once – for lunch (chocolate and a coke, it was early Noakes, not Banting Noakes). Before Chris, my training method entailed using the first half of a race for training, then hanging in grimly in the second half till the finish. Between races, I would focus on recovery, mainly using the tried-and-tested cold beer and couch methodology.
We set off for Cape Town in my white 2,0l GL Cortina, me and Bernie Garcin the paddlers and sister Sheila and mom Mary to drive the car while we paddled.
The night before the first day of the race, in Paarl the race organisers pointed out a shed where we could sleep. Cold hard concrete floor. Winter in the Cape. Luckily I had brought along a brand-new inflatable mattress and an electric tyre pump that plugged into my white 2,0l GL Cortina’s cigarette lighter socket. So I plugged in and went for a beer.
*BANG* I heard in the background as we stood around talking shit and comparing paddling styles and training methods. I wondered vaguely what that was. A few more beers later we retired to sleep and I thought “So that ‘s what that bang was” – a huge rip in my now-useless brand-new no-longer-inflatable mattress, and the little pump still purring and pumping air uselessly into the atmosphere. So I slept on the concrete, good practice for a chill that was going to enter my bones and then my marrow over the next four days.
The first day was cold, windy and miserable, but the second day on the ’83 Berg made it seem like a balmy breeze. That second day was one of the longest days of my life! As the vrou cries it was the shortest day – those Cape nutters call 49km a short day – but a howling gale and horizontal freezing rain driving right into your teeth made it last forever. Icy waves continuously sloshing over the cockpit rim onto your splashcover. It was the day Gerrie died – Gerrie Rossouw, the first paddler ever to drown on an official race day. I saw him, right near the back of the field where I was and looking even colder than me. He wasn’t wearing a life jacket. It wasn’t macho to wear a life jacket and I admit that I wore my T-shirt over mine to make it less conspicuous and I told myself I was wearing it mainly as a windbreaker. Fools that we were. Kids: Never paddle without a life jacket.
Later in amongst a grove of flooded trees I saw Gerrie’s boat nose-down with the rudder waving in the wind, caught in one of the trees, and I wondered where he was, as both banks were far away and not easy to reach being tree-lined and the trees underwater. Very worrying, but no way I could do anything heroic in that freezing strong current, so I paddled on to hear that night that he was missing. His body was only found two days later.
That night a bunch of paddlers pulled out. Fuck this, they said with infinite good sense. Standing in the rain with water pouring down his impressive moustache my mate Greg Jamfomf Bennett made a pact with the elements: He would paddle the next day IF – and only if – the day dawned bright, sunny and windless. He was actually saying Fuck this I’m going home to Durban where ‘winter’ is just an amusing joke not a serious thing like it is here. He and Allie were then rescued and taken out of the rain to a farmer’s luxury home where about six of them were each given their own room and bathroom! Bloody unfair luxury! This then gave them an advantage and allowed them to narrowly beat me in the race! By just a few hours.
After devouring a whole chicken each, washed down with KWV wine and sherry supplied by the sponsors, us poor nogschleppers climbed up into the loft on the riverbank and slept on the hard floor. Here I have to confess Greyling Viljoen also slept in the loft and he won the race – which weakens my tale of hardship somewhat.
We braced ourselves for the third – and longest – day . . . which turned into the easiest day as the wind had died and the sun shone brightly on us, making for a really pleasant day which seemed half as long under blue skies – even though it was 70km compared to that LO-ONG second day. Before the start Capies were seen writhing on the ground, gasping, unable to breathe. They usually breathe by simply facing into the wind and don’t have diaphragm muscles. So a windless day is an unknown phenomenon to those weirdos. At the start about ten Kingfisher paddlers bunched together in our black T-shirts: Allie Peter, Jacques de Rauville, Herve de Rauville, Bernie Garcin, Dave Gillmer, who else? Greg Bennett was also there, to his own amazement. I hopped on to their wave and within 50m I was 49m behind. I watched the flock of black T-shirts disappear into the distance. I was used to that.
By the fourth day I was getting fit. I was building up a head of steam and could have become a threat to the leaders. Or at least to the black T-shirt armada. I could now paddle for quite a while without resting on my paddle and admiring the scenery. I paddled with – OK, behind, on her wave – a lady paddler for a while, focused for once. Busting for a leak, I didn’t want to lose the tug, so eventually let go and relieved myself in my boat. Aah! Bliss! But never again! I had to stop to empty the boat before the finish anyway (the smell! Must be the sherry), so no point in not stopping to have a leak.
Not that there will be a next time! Charlie’s Rule of Certifiability states quite clearly “Doing the Berg More Than Once Is Certifiable.” And while Charles Mason may have done fifty Umkos he has done only one Berg.
Greyling Viljoen won the race in 16hrs 7mins; I took 24hrs 24mins and probably 24 seconds; 225 maniacs finished the race; I was cold deep into my marrow.
The freezing finish at Velddrif at last!
The Velddrift Hotel bed that night was bliss with all my clothes on and the bedclothes from both beds piled on top of me. In Cape Town the next day I bought clothes I couldn’t wear again until I went skiing in Austria years later. Brrrr!! Yussis! Nooit! The Berg joins quite high up on my list of ‘Stupid Things I’ve Done’. Top of which is the Comrades Marathon as it’s the only ‘Stupid Thing I’ve Done and Not Even Finished.’
Some interesting stats and numbers for the Berg River Canoe Marathon.
241km from Paarl to Velddrif. Four days of approx 62, 46, 74 and 60km.
46 300 – The estimated number of paddle strokes required to complete the Berg
I thought ours was a really high-water Berg. At 19cumecs it was the 7th highest of the 21 Bergs up to then. But since then the river has often been higher and 1983 is now only the 21st highest of 55 races. The very first race in 1962 was a staggering 342 cumecs! Liewe bliksem! The lowest in 1978 was a mere 1.44 cumecs.
Only twice – in 1965 and 1967 – was the overall winning time more than 21 hours (I took 24hrs, but its OK, I didn’t win). The fastest overall time: 13hrs 20mins.
Five paddlers have completed 40 or more Bergs. Giel van Deventer – Berg Historian, who compiled these facts – has finished the race 45 times! In the book on the Umko canoe marathon I wrote in a draft which I sent to him “the Berg, over 200km long” and he hastened to write to me saying “Pete, it’s 241km long, don’t get it wrong”. I changed it to 241km.
One of the toughest years was 1971, only 49% of starters finished – the lowest percentage so far. The oldest finisher of the Berg, Jannie Malherbe was 74 when he did that crazy thing in 2014. He made Ian Myers seem like a spring chicken.
1 401 – The number of paddlers who have completed one Berg only.
2 939 – The number of paddlers who came back for at least one more – maniacs!
Andy Birkett won the Berg in 2016. He makes no bones about the fact that the gruelling race takes its toll, even on well conditioned paddlers. “Flip, it was tough!” he recalls. “It was cold, putting on beanies and two or three hallies and long pants when you are busy paddling. But that is all part of it”. He speaks of how one needs to discreetly tuck in behind the experienced local elite racers, particularly on the earlier sections of the course where local knowledge through the tree blocks and small channels is important.
1984 was one of the
very few years since 1960 that Colorado river water from the Grand
Canyon actually reached the sea. High snow melt pushed it past the
point where golf courses and old-age homes drain it of all its water
and so – at last! – the waters of the Colorado reached the beautiful
estuary at Baja California and flowed into the Sea of Cortez again!
Unknown to many, 1984
was also the ONLY year Mexicans would have been able to taste
Mainstay cane spirits, distilled from South African sugar cane, mixed
into that Colorado river water. Well, recycled Mainstay and river
water, as the Mainstay that reached the sea had first passed through
the kidneys of a mad bunch of South Africans that Chris Greeff had
assembled to paddle through the famous American Canyon.
That’s because we were on the river sponsored by Mainstay Cane Spirits and South African Airways. The ‘Mainstay’ we drank was actually an SAA Boeing 747’s supply of tot bottles of whisky, brandy, gin, vodka, rum – and Mainstay cane spirits. We decanted all the little bottles we could find into two two-litre plastic bottles to help the stewardesses on board with their end-of-Atlantic-crossing stock-take. We had resolved to drink the plane dry but man, they carry a lot of hooch on those big babies. Maybe in case they end up with all 350 passengers happening to be as thirsty as paddlers are? Here we are in Atlanta with the loot. Note the Mainstay sticker on one bottle held by our host Dave Jones, a paddler himself. Paddled for the USA in K1, C1 and C2 wildwater, US national champ and also coached the USA team. So we were saddled with not one but TWO national paddling champs who are dentists and military men! Myself I personally reckon mixing guns, boats and teeth with beer can only bring trouble . .
From Atlanta we jetted on to Phoenix Arizona. There we hired another lang slap car and took a slow drive to Flagstaff where we got ‘outfitted’ with kit for the trip. Fifteen canoeists from South Africa joined our guide Cully Erdman and his delightful partner JoJo on a trip down the Grand Canyon from Lee’s Ferry to the take-out on Lake Mead three hundred miles downstream. We were accompanied by one other paddler, an Argentine José who was ticking off his bucket list, having climbed Everest. Five rubber inflatable rafts carried the food and the ‘Mainstay’ and hundreds of beers, plus a motley assortment of tag-along raft passengers from America and South Africa. Talking of motley: Us paddlers ranged from capable rough water paddlers to flatwater sprinters to happy trippers to complete novices. Some had Springbok colours, others had a lot of cheek.
Outfitting was also needed for supplies and Greeff put himself in charge of catering for the liquid refreshments. He was good at maths back in Parys se hoerskool so he did some sums: Seventeen kayakers plus some rafters times 12 days times 10 beers each is, lessee . . . OK, and then after breakfast we’ll need . . .
Apparently the yanks thought he’d grossly over-catered and they were worried about how they were going to carry the left-over beer out of the canyon at the end. That’s if the rafts stayed afloat. Well, ons sal sien . .
Some twists in the tale: My boyhood kayaking heroes had been the van Riet brothers, Willem and Roelof, who won the Dusi three times just as I was first learning about the race ca 1970. As I started to participate in the race in 1972 Graeme Pope-Ellis won the first of his eventual fifteen Dusi wins. Both Willem and Graeme were with us on this trip, along with other paddling legends I had met in my recent entry into the world of canoeing. Having ‘paddled lonely‘ from 1970 to 1982, I was now rubbing shoulders with legends!
Me & Willem
Pope, Herve, Wendy, Chris
Another twist: In the year I first saw the Colorado river after walking/running down the Bright Angel trail from the South Rim to the Colorado’s swiftly-flowing clear green water, 1973, Willem had launched a boat at Lee’s Ferry, done an eskimo roll and come up with ice in his hair, causing him to postpone his trip. Now he was back, eleven years later – in the summer! And so was I.
The trip was put together by yet another iconic paddler Chris Greeff, winner of more kayak races than I’d had breakfasts. One of the craziest races he won was the Arctic Canoe Race on the border between Finland and Sweden. About 500km of good pool and drop rapids in cold water. When he arrived at the start with his sleek flatwater racing kayak the other paddlers and the officials looked at their wider, slower, more stable canoes and thought ‘Ha! he intends portaging around all the rapids!’ They had heard of the Dusi and how mad South Africans run with kayaks on their heads, so they amended the rules: Every rapid avoided would incur a stiff time penalty. You portage, you pay! Chris grinned and agreed enthusiastically with their ruling: He was no Dusi runner and he had no intention of getting out of his boat!
Later: On the trip, our American kayak and raft guides kept asking us about the sponsors stickers we had attached to kayaks and rafts. SAA they understood, South African Airways; but what was this “Mainstay” stuff? Ooh! You’ll see! was all we’d say. At ___ rapid on Day __ around the camp fire we hauled out our two-litre bottles filled with a suspicious amber liquid. THIS we said, was that famous stuff!
The first thing about Mainstay, we told them, was its medicinal properties. Toekoe had turned blue from too much swimming, but after a slug of Mainstay he got his colour back as the before and after pictures clearly show:
As more Mainstay was swallowed, hilarity and a bit of insanity ensued. I have a picture frozen in my mind of Willem sprinting past me, running nimbly across the pontoons of a raft and launching himself in the darkness into the swift current of the Colorado running at 50 000 cfs shouting Yee-ha!! – A bit like this, but at night:
Besides this fortified and fortifying SAA loot, Greeff had also arranged for beers on the trip. John Lee tells the story:
I recall how our Yankee rafting crew were somewhat taken aback at the rather large drinks order they received prior to the departure from Lees Ferry! Despite the huge stocks, somewhere downstream in the depths of the Grand Canyon, to their utter disbelief, the only liquid left was the raging Colorado River. Stocks had run dry .
There were some thirsty, desperate river runners in camp. We were way upstream from the next available beer at Phantom Ranch’s shop on the high rim.
Desperate times call for desperate measures …….
Some of us (hello Felix!) resorted to performing like trained seals, executing dashing eskimo rolls for passing J-Rigs, and being rewarded with frosties for our efforts!
One Captain (PF) Christiaan Lodewikus Greeff called quietly for volunteers, and assembled a raiding party – could also call them ‘SEALs’, one was a parabat – to address the situation. This unbeknown to our unsuspecting, law-abiding river crew.
In the dead of night, wearing beanies, faces blackened, they slid silently into the icy waters of the flooded Colorado River and headed into an upstream eddy towards the distant sounds of happy laughter from a neighbouring campsite.
Reaching tethered rafts, they found the holy Grand Canyon grail . . . multiple nets strung from the rafts, laden with tins of sunset amber liquid.
Their return to our camp was triumphant.
I cannot recall the composition of that courageous group. Suffice it to say, that I am certain that it included one Lieutenant-Colonel A Gordon-Peter (SAB with bar).
The reaction of our guides, later, was somewhat different!
Mules heavily laden with liquor were later cajoled down the treacherous track from Phantom Ranch, and our evenings were once again fueled with fun, laughter and Willie’s moerse yarns!
In closing, who will ever forget that wonderful mirage in the middle of the shimmering Lake Mead – a very naked, very tall and statuesque blonde River Goddess on a drifting raft … … or was it ?
Well, I dunno – but there was one naked lady that I do know of: JoJo posed butt naked for a stealthily-taken pic on George’s camera. What a sport, she removed her bikini top and bottom for the gentlemen doing research on just how much trouble George would get into with his wife back home.
Lee plans his arguments for the court cases sure to follow: YaRonna! These were just Merry Pranksters, M’Lord . . .
At the confluence of the Colorado and the Little Colorado the Little was flooding and massively silt-laden. We stopped on a skinny sandbank and had mud fights and mud rolls. The muddy water from the flooding Little Colorado was so thick that the trout Felix Unite caught thanked him for rescuing them!
It merged here with the clear water coming out of Lake Powell – seen behind Felix – and from here on we had traditionally red-coloured water – ‘colorado.’
Somewhere downstream from here I got sucked under by a big whirlpool that formed under my boat that I couldn’t escape. As I went down I set up to roll but stayed down until I thought ‘I’m outa here’ and bailed. Up on the surface the guys told a more dramatic tale: ‘Swanie! You disappeared for AGES! Then your boat popped up; Then your paddle popped up; And still there was no you! Then at last you popped up!’ So then they started calling me Pete Whirlpool. Lots of that muddy water stayed up my snout and I had a few bad sinus headaches but Wendy – Dave Walker’s connection – very kindly stepped in and saved my butt with strong painkillers. Back in Durban a month later I was rushed into theatre for an emergency sinus washout! As Saffeffricans say ‘Ah neely dahd!’ Some Little Colorado River mud was washed down Durban’s St Augustine Hospital’s outlet pipes into the Indian Ocean that day. Probly also had a smattering of Mainstay in it.
Hikes up the side-canyons:
Map reading: I had a lovely large-scale map of the river through the canyon showing all the rapids. We would pore over it, going over the day and plotting our tomorrow. Here Jannie Claassens stands left, Swys du Plessis is prominent in red shorts, I am just visible behind him, Dave Walker wears a cap, Willem van Riet sports a ducktail probly cos of his last swim, Herve de Rauville kneels like a good Catholic, Allie Peter lying down in the background cursing his shoulder, Chris Greeff in the Mainstay cap ponders his next move, Bernie The Jet Garcin has a beer in his hand and a sock in his speedo, Wendy Walwyn is planning her first eskimo roll soon, and Cully Erdman in blue shorts thinks ‘Wwho ARE these okes? and where was that huge rapid Willem is talking about!?’
Happy daze drifting in the current, lying back gazing up at the cliffs and watching the waterline as century after millenium of geological lines rose up out of the water and each day rose higher and higher above us. Willem the geologist would explain some of it to us. The latest view seems to be that the river is around six million years old, and it has exposed rocks up to two billion years old as it carves downwards, aided also by wind erosion.
Then every so often you would sit up and listen intently. Then peer ahead with a stretched neck and drift in a quickening current as the roar of the next rapid grew in the canyon air. The river was running at an estimated high of 50 000cfs – that’s about 1650 cumecs, big water. 1984 was a high year. Once you could see where the rapid was, you pulled over and got out to scout it and plot your way through it. It was no use asking Greeff. His stock answer was ‘Down The Middle!’
For days before Lava, the bullshit build-up built up: ‘Rain? That’s not rain! That’s the mist from LAVA FALLS!’
Arriving at Lava we hopped out and checked it out, butterflies no longer flying in formation. After scouting carefully most of us went left; a few went right. One – Ryan – went snorkeling straight into the big hole and got chomped, rinsed and spat out. His blue helmet can be seen in the picture if you have a magnifying glass.
And then typical ladies: As we strutted and boasted of derring-do, they quietly commandeered one of the rafts and rowed it ladies-only down Lava! They took one yank with them, just to show him they could . .
At the usual take-out at Diamond Creek before Lake Mead, we stopped for a rest and some team photos. The high water had washed away the road. We had to keep going. Some miles later we hit the dead waters of Lake Mead. The river ran out of push, tamed by a damn dam. Paddling was over for most of us! We piled our kayaks onto the rafts and lay on them – there were still a few beers that needed polishing. Our five-raft flotilla was tugged out by a motorboat to another take-out point, Pearce Ferry on Lake Mead miles downstream.
Downstream? Except of course there was now no longer any ‘stream’ – we were on flat water. Greeff and a few other crazies – including Wendy Walwyn – you know, the types who weren’t issued with handbrakes, brains or limits, paddled the whole flat water way! Holy shit! I drank beer lying on a raft, gazing at the blue Arizona sky.
Too soon, it was over.
Drifting downstream, Dave Walker had led the singing:
The canyon burro is a mournful bloke He very seldom gets a poke But when he DOES . . . He . LETS . it soak As he revels in the joys of forni- CA-TION!
and (to the tune of He Ain’t Heavy):
Hy’s nie Swaar nie
Hy’s my Swaer . a . a . aer
We went down the Canyon twice
I always say we did the Canyon twice. Once we would bomb down in our kayaks, crashing through the exhilarating big water; The second time was much hairier, with bigger rapids, higher water and far more danger: That was around the campfire at night when Willem would regale us with tales of his day on the water. ‘Raconteur’ is too mild a word! The word ‘MOERSE’ featured prominently in his epic tales and his long arm would be held high to show you where the crest of the wave sat. And this from a man who bombed ‘blind’ down the Cunene River in 1963.
When? I wanted to knwo when exactly we were on the water to look up the flow on those days, but no-one knew. Now! Aha! I found an old letter (or Sheila did) written just before we flew to Arizona). I think we paddled – near as dammit – from 18 to 30 July 1984.
Postscript: While we were paddling Chris spoke of attempting to beat the record for the fastest non-stop descent of the Canyon – the 277 mile stretch we had just done from Lee’s Ferry to our eventual take-out at Pearce Ferry.
a handful of boaters have been crazy enough to undertake such a
mission. After all, doing it non-stop means having to shoot Lava
Falls at night! The Riggs brothers made what could be considered the
first speed run in 1951 when they rowed a cataract-style wooden boat
through the canyon in 53 hours; Fletcher Anderson, a pioneering
Southwestern boater, made a 49-hour solo kayak descent in the late
1970s; and then in 1983, just a year before our leisure trip, Kenton
Grua, Rudi Petschek, and Steve Reynolds completed a now-legendary run
on a flood of 70,000 cfs in a wooden dory named the Emerald Mile.
Their record of 36 hours and 38 minutes was the time to beat.
Nothing came of it – it would have been a very expensive undertaking from South Africa for an obscure record only the small expedition kayaking fraternity would have known of and anyway, why do it? But the record is ever-present in some people’s minds. In January 2016 the record was beaten twice. First by ‘Team Beer’: Ben Luck, Matt and Nate Klemas and Ryan Casey in three Pyranha Speeders and a Perception Wavehopper, boats much like the ones we used. Then three days later by Ben Orkin, paddling solo in a composite Epic 18X sea kayak, a boat much lighter than the models Team Beer had used and with a metre longer waterline. He reduced the time to 34 hours and 2 minutes. The Emerald Mile’s record, which had stood for over three decades, had been broken twice in three days.
I do (sort of) understand the quest for records (sort of), humans always will go for fastest; but for me, floating down in awesome wonder is really the way to do it.
Before the river became crowded and the park service slapped restrictions on trip lengths, private boatmen in the ’70s vied at ‘slow-boating’, or making a trip last as long as possible. The crowning glory of slow-boating has gone down in river history as the Hundred Day Trip. Legendary boatman Regan Dale and his extended family floated away from Lees Ferry and spent a whopping 103 days in the canyon. They hiked every side canyon, spent as long as a week in favorite camps like Nankoweap and Granite Park, baked their own bread and wallowed in the vast silence of stone cathedrals broken only by the rustle of the river. The moon waxed and waned three times while they were there. It was roughly as long as the very first trip down the canyon led by John Wesley Powell in 1869, over a hundred years earlier – and 150 years ago now; I wonder if there will ever be trips like that again.