“Please tell him not to. He’ll never make it.”
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 Pete Swanie not to attempt the Berg.”
Jacques was right, but luckily for me friend and all-round good bugger 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 brain. Chris was a great taskmaster. We stopped only once – for lunch (chocolate and a coke, it was early Noakes, not Banting Noakes). He sacrificed a day of his training intensity to stay with and encourage this mud-paddler. Before Chris, my training method entailed using the first half of a race for training, then hanging on grimly for 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 beers.
*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. The bang, as well as ‘training methods.’ 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 long, 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 the underwater branches, 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. I needed to stay afloat, 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. ‘The clouds dissolved and the sky turned blue’ – making for a really pleasant day which seemed half as long under blue skies – even though it was 70km compared to that LO-ONG 49km 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 KWV sherry), so no point in not stopping to have a leak. I caught up to her again and finished with her, as can be seen in the pic.
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. Being a lot more sensible, I have done only one of each.
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 spinal bone 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. You could almost say fokol.
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. Giel doesn’t make mistakes, so I must have the 1983 time wrong.
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. (note: Giel went on to do 50 Bergs, then sadly drowned in the Breede river race).
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 our Ian Myers in 1983 seem like a spring chicken.
1 401 – The number of paddlers who have completed one Berg only. Us sensible ous.
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 grueling 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.
Photo albums are history, so here’s a digital copy of my now discarded hard copy. Thanks to sister Sheila for the pics.